After five years without an album, some time with new band Broken Bells and producer Danger Mouse, leaving and then changing his band's lineup, James Mercer is back with more simple indie rock songs from The Shins.
Well, actually, one terrific tune called “Simple Song” and nine more songs on the well-received new album “Port of Morrow.”
Tonight, the band kicks off another summer season of concerts at Stir Cove.
Mercer called from his home in Portland, Ore., before the band's tour to talk about his new label, The Shins' new album, having a family and more.
Q. How have tour preparations gone?
A. Good. We keep getting tighter. You know, we're kind of at the early stages and stuff, but I'm kinda happy to see that's winding up. We're gonna do Kimmel and that's the last big TV thing we have. That's the more stressful side of this process.
Q. Do those still make you nervous?
A. For me, they do still a little bit. You go out cold. You're playing a show and you have to sit in a cold dressing room and go out and do it in front of a camera and audience. And you know it's permanent and you can't screw up.
Q. The Shins' “New Slang” was a big song for me and introduced me to music I hadn't been into before. What music did that for you?
A. I'm 41, so these things would have been happening for me in the late '80s — really getting sucked into new types of music. U2 was a band that was still big then. I was living in England at the time and they were kind of a big band even before “Joshua Tree” and stuff. And then Echo & the Bunnymen was a band I heard and really flipped out about. The Smiths, too — a lot of British and U.K. things.
Q. Before “Port of Morrow,” you worked with Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) in the band Broken Bells. Did that work rub off on what you did on “Port of Morrow?”
A. I think it did. Working with Brian, I learned a lot about certain styles of music. He introduced to me a lot of old psych bands that I hadn't really heard before. And his approach to recording and writing is really kind of laid back and interesting and very casual, which was refreshing.
It was kind of a different attitude about it. We'd record, play around with it and then listen back to it. Brian would say, “Don't judge until until you hear it back.”
Q. So, more experimenting? Did anything come out a lot differently than you had anticipated?
A. Yes, definitely. There's a lot of songs that I'm really enthusiastic about when I'm playing the acoustic guitar and I picture them as something powerful once they're recorded and that they're going to be a pop thing or something. Then you start to record it and it's difficult to tell.
You have to completely reapproach the song. Strip it down to where it's just a guitar and voice. Maybe it's not a pop song and it's a slow ballad. You have to figure out what it is you like about the song and reassess the context.
Sometimes you forget what you like about the song. Sometimes you play the song so much you get numb to it. ... You have to put it away for awhile to find out sometimes.
Q. How did (songwriter and producer Greg) Kurstin affect “Port of Morrow?” Sounds like he was more comfortable with experimenting a bit.
A. Yeah, a lot of that is Greg. He loves to experiment and come up with great sounds. (laughs) I sort of encouraged it. I was egging him on, but he'd say, “Let's break out this old Moog synth.” He's really happy to do that. I think he's happy to use equipment that he doesn't often get to use.
Q. The Shins has a new lineup, but you used former member Dave Hernandez on some stuff, right?
A. There were particular songs where I knew Dave had that certain style that I knew would work. His precision and stuff would be necesary for it.
Q. How did you assemble the new group?
A. I had worked with Richard Swift before. I had played a show with him and knew his music and loved it. He brought Yuuki (Matthews) in who's an amazing bass player. Joe (Plummer), I had been working with for years, and then Jessica (Dobson), I had seen her play with Beck. I saw her play a couple times with Beck and thought she was really great. She has a nice presence on stage and stuff. We just asked and she was available.
Q. Why go with the new members?
A. It feels fresh. It feels different to me. I wanted to sort of branch out and alter the sound of it. The band is based on these songs. The songs are such a strong part of what's happening there that it still ends up being quite similar in a lot of ways.
Q. Even the old stuff sounds slightly different with new people.
A. Right, right. I hear you. I encourage that. I definitely want the guys to sort of interpret the songs.
Q. With a wife and kids, how does that affect your songwriting?
A. You don't have a lot of free time. You have to find your time and find your space in the house where you can be alone maybe. You suddenly have a very different emotional construct. It alters your emotional state drastically having kids. At least for me, it has. I think about almost everything differently, the world at large particularly. I see in a different context. You see parents out there in the world in a different context and children, too. You see that the parents are children themselves. You see these relationships that you didn't fully realize they existed. You see it everywhere.
Q. What's next? Another Broken Bells record? Another Shins record?
A. We are gonna do another Broken Bells record. We do have songs. Brian and I will get to that when The Shins are cooled off from touring.
Q. Do you think you'll put out anyone else's music on your label, Aural Apothecary?
A. The first thing we want to do is old Flake Music stuff. There's a bunch of weird stuff that we did on compilations and splits and the favorite tracks off of the (singles). Then we'll re-release the record that we did. Of course, I'm having to manage all of this while I'm touring.
Q. In Broken Bells, you played with Nate Walcott who's an Omaha guy and a member of Bright Eyes. How did he end up in the band?
A. It was probably Josh Klinghoffer, who helped us put the band together. He must have suggested Nate. Josh kind of knows everybody. He's the new guitar player in Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Nate is just super-awesome. He's one of my favorite people and super-talented. He's the guy who held everything together for Broken Bells. He's the dude that was sort of able to comprehend everything that was going on all at once.
Q. He's one of those guys that makes you jealous because he can play anything at any time.
A. Oh my god, yes. But he practices a lot, too. He rehearses hours before you're even thinking about it.
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