A Conversation with James Mercer of The Shins

“Structure is really important to me,” the Shins’ James Mercer said about his approach to writing and recording. “I certainly work hard at it. Even attempts to branch out, it’s still always about songs and melody.

“I’m a modern person; I really like pop songs,” he continued. “By that I mean the Beatles, the Stones, the fucking Bee Gees.”

He laughed at the Bee Gees line, but as he described how the song “Cherry Hearts” on this year’s Heartworms was influenced by the Beatles, or how the title track is still what he called a “Shinsesque song,” there’s a strong undercurrent of the Who within its melody, the classic pop influences were clear. Mercer is glib about his classicist tendencies, but it’s those tendencies at the core of the songcraft that’s driven the Shins for nearly two decades.

Describing a well-done song as a “nice circle,” Mercer discussed his hope to nail that concept each time.

“It’s the most un-commercial goal you can have,” he said. “The form was dying (when the Shins first hit the scene); now it’s totally gone.

“There’s a lot of times where it’s like, ‘What the fuck am I hoping for here?,’” he remarked. “’Maybe Lovin’ Spoonful would fuckin’ think that’s a cool thing to do.’”

All 11 tracks on Heartworms were written and produced by Mercer. There’s an ebullience to the album that’s evocative of the feeling you get from hearing the Beatles’ “Getting Better” or the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “She’s Building a Mystery” without sounding like a pastiche of those types of tunes. The lightness to the album belies the amount of work that went into its tasteful construction.

“The process I went through on this album was a strain on me,” Mercer reflected. “I don’t know how to balance that. It’d be nice not to feel so stressed out about it.

“I just want it, so, it’s just the ups and downs of it,” he added. “It’s pretty intense to produce your own stuff.”

The biggest part of that strain wasn’t the writing and recording of the material. For Mercer, that’s the fun part. It was managing the expectations of others and what people think the Shins should sound like versus the need to push his music in the direction he wanted it to go in.

“Sometimes they’re like ‘Oh this is cool or I don’t get or this isn’t the Shins; it’s too electronic,’” he lamented. “But those people are producers and think about a project more commercially, so you learn to take it with a grain of salt.

“There’s the creative moments and really discovering things, I enjoyed that,” Mercer said. “I’d smoke a little weed, drink a little beer and do a lot of the vocals, and hang out with Yuuki (Matthews, the current Shins bassist) and work on production ideas. I’d just have a good time, just let it flow. It was a pleasure to make as a whole, just in the final stages, you have to convince some people.”

With the release of Heartworms comes the obligatory summer promotional tour, which includes a June 17 stop at Brewery Ommegang. Between the band’s close-knit friendship (Mercer happily commented that the group hangs out together a lot between gigs) and his own changing role on-stage, Mercer is enthusiastic about this year’s batch of shows.

“I made a decision to back off on guitar playing,” Mercer said. “I can sing a lot better when I’m not forced to be multi-tasking. I’m not really a proper musician, so it’s nice to back off and concentrate on what I need to do.”

Noting that everyone in the Shins except drummer Jon Sortland is a parent, the band tours in bursts in order to spend time with family, even though the group would “probably do a lot better commercially to stay on tour longer.”

Mercer is the father of 3 daughters and aside from its effect on tour plans, parenthood is a subject that arises on Heartworms. And while in some ways being a dad informs his creative process, it hasn’t turned him into someone that wants to make milquetoast dad rock.

“I think it’s hard to be away, I missed my oldest and youngest’s birthdays this past week,” he said.
My dad was in the Air Force, so I remember how tough that was and I really remember how hard it was for my mom.

“In a way it makes you work harder because you want them to have a good life and be secure, but there’s this pull on you,” added Mercer. “As far as the creative process, I’ve certainly gained empathy and certain perspective. But part of me still wants to rebel and be a kid.”