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Interview: The Shins' James Mercer Talks Horror And Nostalgia

Interview: The Shins' James Mercer Talks Horror And Nostalgia

Tuesday 14th November, 2017 1:58PM

It’s been a long time between visits from US alt-pop sensations The Shins, but they are finally returning to Aotearoa after ten years with a swag of new tunes in tow. The group will be touring off the back of latest album Heartworms, a collection of catchy and baroque guitar pop five years in the making, which followed 2012’s Port Of Morrow. The last time they hit town the band was still buzzing from their recent Garden State soundtrack success, and performed a very memorable show at Auckland’s Powerstation alongside the Ruby Suns. They’ll be returning again for a sold out show at the Powerstation later this month, we caught up with The Shins' prime force James Mercer who kindly took time out for a chat…

I love the cover artwork for your latest album Heartworms by Jacob Escobedo, how did that come together?

He just comes up with something really interesting and surprising on his own. I wanted it to be beautiful but also sort of grotesque (laughs). I think he nailed that.

It reminded me of the line from the title track “wriggling in my blood.”

Yeah exactly. That was the whole beginning of Heartworms, as 'a phrase' for me, being used in that song. The funny thing was there was a band from the 90s I really loved called Heartworms, the lead guy in that band was a guy named Archie Moore.


What ideas were you exploring with the album?

I really kind of take everything song by song. But in my conversations with Jacob – black light art, horror film stuff, sort of campy old horror stuff has been fascinating to me lately, like Dead Alive, sort of like macabre subject matter, almost like gothic horror. Things like that I guess.

It's been five years since Port Of Morrow, it seems to me like the world's changed quite a bit since 2012…

Yeah it really has.

Has your approach to songwriting changed in any way over that time?

I think the one thing that I've noticed is I've been using the computer more as a writing tool. And I think that's from hanging out with Brian Burton and getting more accustomed to that. I think also I think it's having my bandmates helping me with the record and everybody is proficient at recording and using the computer as well. I've just been learning more of how to use the computer. Otherwise pretty much the same, the songs start out the same it's like sitting with an acoustic guitar, trying to come up with something interesting. And then I kind of just save those little chunks, and when I start recording that stuff is where I think “oh things are a little bit different now.” But not much really. (laughs)

Does using digital technology change the way you compose your songs? Or not really?

I'm sure in some ways. I was just thinking one of the things you hear a lot in modern pop is, instead of having a proper bridge, there will just be sort of a break down, y'know. So I guess that's in the back of your head, that it doesn't have to be totally traditional, you can do some pretty interesting things just messing around with sounds now. But I don't know how good I am at implementing any of that, it's still very much like how it was when I started writing back in the nineties as far as what's going on in my head.

Your upcoming show in New Zealand will be in Auckland, and it'll be your first show in Auckland in ten years. I remember how excited everyone was the last time you were here. What can your fans expect from the upcoming show?

Our show since then has gained a lot I think. I think we've got a much more diverse bunch of songs now. The energy's kind of more dynamic, there's a lot of different things we're doing. Probably a higher energy but at certain points a bit more chill at certain points too. Just more dynamic I guess.

I liked the song 'Mildenhall' from your new album, which tells the story of a young optimistic musician starting out. Is that mirroring your own experiences as a young feller?

Yes 100%. That's the only song I've written probably that's just like an autobiographical piece. That's my family moving to the UK in '86 and me being pretty disappointed with that. And then a year into it really making some good friends and turned on to some cool music and stuff, and just kind of adapting. I think it ended up being a pretty important thing for me to live in Britain at that time. I guess it could have been anywhere and I could have been influenced by whatever other thing was around, but for me there was something I think about the English pop scene at that moment that really resonated with me. And you can still hear it in my music.


The song was about what inspired you to get started, do you feel you carry that same inspiration today?

That's interesting. I would say that those early bands... I still love things like the Jesus and Mary Chain for instance. It's a funny thing, I think there were bands that really touched me and made me want to do music, want to be a part of it somehow. I'm thinking of the Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen. And there were bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain where the simplicity of them made you think like you actually could do it (laughs). Like it was actually feasible. All of that stuff, is sort of the vernacular of my musical understanding of those bands still.

And a lot of other stuff. A lot of the music from my early childhood, my Dad playing in country western bands, that stuff's pretty important to me too. It's funny that song Mildenhall, I though of it and still think of it as a country western song. But when we were in Manchester recently, the DJs were saying it sounded to them to be very English, a very English sounding song. And I was very surprised by that, but I guess it makes sense.

In an English folk tradition kind of way?

I suppose, yeah that's the only thing I could imagine. But I was thinking Merle Haggard or something. (laughs)

Do you still skate?

Just with my daughters. Yeah we skate around in the driveway and stuff. We've been lucky enough to make friends with Tony Hawk. He's been really generous and given us skateboards and stuff. We've got plenty of them around the house. I have a dream of building a little mini-ramp in the backyard. (laughs)

You go out on these extensive worldwide tours, where are you looking forward to returning to?

Obviously New Zealand is going to be cool, it's been too long, that was a really fun trip. We played with Connan Mockasin back then which was really great. We're going to go to Tokyo, and I'm excited to play in Austalia again. Any of these places are really exotic to us, it's been a while. 

Thank you for taking time out to chat with us today.

Thank you very much Chris, a pleasure talking to you.


Miss out on tickets to their upcoming show? Fear not! We have a double pass up for grabs over here.  Be sure you're signed up for our fortnightly newsletter for more great prizes (join up or login and go to My UTR - Subscriptions to sign up). 

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Thu 30th Nov
The Powerstation, Auckland





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