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Interview
The Shins

The Shins

date
Tuesday 10th April, 2012 10:05AM

James Mercer has re-ignited his project The Shins with an entirely new line-up and brand new album, Port of Morrow. UTR caught up with Mercer to talk about what he's been up to since he released critically acclaimed album Wincing the Night Away in 2007, and what he's imbued this latest effort with.

Hey James, how are you?

I'm good thanks, how are you?

Good thanks. Are you just getting ready to tour and promote the new album, Port of Morrow?

We are preparing to do that pretty soon. I just got back from a promo tour doing interviews and such in the East Coast of the United States.

How does it feel to be The Shins again and be talking about a new release? How does it feel to be back in this place?

Ah yeah it’s nice to be talking to people who have heard the songs because I spent a lot of time working on them, and I’m proud of them and stuff. Yeah it is enjoyable to back out there again and The Shins is my thing I guess so yeah I’m excited to get it out.

Have you been writing this album for the five years you've been Shins sabbatical?

As far as the writing goes I’m always working on little bits and pieces of songs so these tracks are those things that have been happening over the last five years.

Tell us a little bit about the last five years: why you went on a sabbatical and the other creative projects you decided to undertake.

Ok, well at the end of touring for Wincing the Night Away - which was pretty long year and a half of touring - I really felt exhausted. I didn’t want to get back into the studio and do another Shins record - I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do but it wasn’t Shins. Maybe I wanted to start a new band that had a whole new direction and aesthetic or maybe I wanted to collaborate with somebody else. In the middle of trying to figure all of this out Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) who is an acquaintance of mine approached me and I met with him and he proposed we start a band together because he was also in this mode of wanting to start something new. So we went in that direction – we started working together and it went really well right off the bat. That takes about a year of us working off and on - he’s really busy still producing other things and I’m coming down and we’re writing and recording together - and the record comes out and we get signed and we go on tour for a year. So that’s two years gone. Along with that I had a family – I’ve got two daughters now – so that’s a whole bunch of time. I did a movie with a guy named Matt McCormick. I acted in a film for the first time in my life which was quite a trip for me.

What made you want to do that?

Matt asked me to do it; he asked me to audition. He said come and see if you can do it and I was curious about it and I really enjoyed it in that it was a learning experience. I think everybody is kind of curious – what is it like when you’ve got to say these lines and do the whole thing. It’s not a huge part in the movie so it was out of curiosity I think. Movies are just such a huge part of our culture and I do think I really learned a lot about movie making.

From a creative perspective it must be nice to experience creativity in a different medium?

Yeah right because it’s still this creative process and it’s very similar to making a record in a lot of ways you know. You’re performing and then you watch it play back; did we get that right, what do we need to change, how do we do this next time . It’s similar in a lot of ways.

So you took five years out and now you've released a new Shins record. Tell us about deciding to return to The Shins.

I think that basically while Broken Bells were touring and stuff I had been working on stuff. All of the writing for Broken Bells I did in the studio with Brian so I had all this other stuff when I was playing guitar at home - which I do constantly because I can’t avoid it – that was all just building up and kept on building. So at the end of the touring cycle for Broken Bells I knew that what I wanted to do in the next few months was get my head around what I was going to do for another Shins record. Negotiations had begun about who to sign with and so it didn’t take long. The Broken Bells thing was such a terrific new experience and way of writing and such a shared creative effort between Brian and I that it filled all of those desires that I had as a creative on the side. And so I was ready to do Shins stuff again.

When you returned to The Shins was there anything sonically or creatively that you wanted to achieve that you were going into The Shins with?

Yes I wanted to avoid sounding too modern. I felt like there were moments on Chutes... and Wincing the Night Away that just sounded like modern recording. I wanted to avoid that, that was a major thing. I wanted to incorporate the sonic palette of the seventies, so especially the synthesizers and so on from that era.

In terms of musicians you collaborated with a whole group of musicians through the recording process right? Tell me about getting these musicians on board.

Well, you know it’s sort of a thing like Nick the guitarist was a Broken Bells guy and sometimes it’s kind of not a very creative decision at all, it’s just that I like hanging out with Nick because he’s really cool. Not only that but he’s good at what he does. So we asked him to come and do some guitar stuff; there’s a bunch of songs where if he could come up with a couple cool licks that would be awesome and he just plowed through song after song with awesome stuff. He’s got this terrific rural California vibe to his melodic sense which is perfect for a bunch of the songs.

Lyrically and thematically was there anything in particular that you wanted to talk about or get across on the album?

I didn’t have a concept but looking back I feel like for the first time there are some pretty straight love songs – I don’t know if 'September' would be considered straight - it’s kind of weird chord-wise - but it’s a love song and if you read the lyrics it’s like ‘oh he loves this lady’. 'Simple Song' is like that as well so there’s a lot of love. There’s love for a friend of mine who I’m talking to in the third song ‘It’s Only life’, I’m saying ‘you’re down, you’re depressed, get the fuck out of it, hold on’ you know. And then there's the flipside to the coin. There are songs about death. 'Rightful Spirals' is about murder and death, ‘Port of Morrow’ is a metaphor for death so there's a lot of love and a lot of death. There are some bleak messages.

It seems like the metaphors are a lot more honest and bare than on previous albums?

I think it is a fair statement. There was a concerted effort to do that and that’s partly working with Brian, too, just us talking together about things and his theories about how songs should be written and stuff. I think I was influenced by that. I mean I’ve always been trying to do that; I’ve always been impressed with those songs where they’re not coy and sweet but they are just singing it. It’s like a Bob Dylan song, he’s obviously talking about a girl he thinks is great and he’s just saying it, but he does it in such a way that I donno, it doesn’t sound contrived.

Does that say something about your experience as a songwriter; there's a confidence there now that allows you to be super honest?

I think it is confidence to speak the truth and just say it and not try and dance around it, definitely.

Overall, reflecting back on this album versus earlier work what would you say you’re most proud of on Port of Morrow?

OK, yeah. I think that on the song ‘Port of Morrow’ I’ve done my best writing as far as lyrics and music. It’s not a song that necessarily is really catchy but I think it’s really baroque and dramatic musically and I was challenged with how do you fill that up with lyrics that are going to match that. Because you know it’s going to be awkward if the music is magical but there’s nothing being said that really fits it and I think I did do that.

The first lines in that song are about walking under this bridge in Portland and witnessing this pigeon grappling for its life and a falcon coming down and capturing and dragging it to the ground and ripping its throat out. Seeing that moment I remember for the first time really understanding death. The falcon is an agent of death and he uses death to live; the death is his life, without the death he does not live. He’s a species of incredible beauty, and that dichotomy - the grotesque and beautiful combined - is what that song is about and it’s something I’ve tried to articulate many times and I think I do it in that song.

I refer to my daughters and how it’s a secret you want to keep from them - that there is darkness. You’re in this situation where as a Father you know having the children and the love that you have for them it pulls the veil on all the darkness because you’re so concerned about them and you worry about them and then all of a sudden you’re hearing news stories about stuff that’s going on in the Middle East and you know those neighbourhoods being bombed have children in them. Suddenly you have this connection that you didn’t have to that world before and the darkness is revealed because of the children, which is a really strange thing. And so then you’re trying to protect them from the darkness; you want them to just live in a world where there is no darkness.

That darkness/light dichotomy is an appropriate explanation for the whole album, too right?

Definitely, because it's how I experience beauty all the time now. When I experience something beautiful there’s a tinge of sadness because I know it’s transient and I know it’s a moment. Everything from a flower which is obviously very momentary to Yosemite National Park which is a park in California. I fly over when I’m commuting down to LA and it’s this gorgeous place and you can see it and there are these beautiful cliffs – it’s the thing that Ansell Adams’ photographs recall – and you see the waterfall falling across it and I can see that the waterfall is actually destroying the rock and so geologically it’s a temporary thing.



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