James Mercer Says The Shins' New Songs Reflect Changes In Rock — And Himself

Mar 11, 2017
Originally published on March 11, 2017 7:44 pm

The Shins released their first critically acclaimed album, Oh, Inverted World, way back in 2001 — and were catapulted into the public ear when a song from that album appeared as a plot line in the 2004 movie Garden State. The world has changed in the years since the group rose to be recognized as one of the biggest indie rock acts of the 21st century.

The band's latest album, Heartworms, is its first in five years. Singer and songwriter James Mercer tells weekends on All Things Considered that his latest songs reflect how both he he and the culture around music have evolved.

"I think when The Shins started out we were pretty different: There weren't a lot of American bands, at least, who were going for the type of stuff we were doing, which was maybe a little bit retro and folky," he says. "I was trying to break away from what had become the norm in the '90s, which was like a tongue-in-cheek attitude — sort of a half-joking, never taking yourself too seriously, a lack of romantic drama in music. I was trying to bust away from that. Now I feel like I'm sort of doing the opposite: I'm rebelling against what I feel like might be a little bit too much self-importance and drama and preciousness in the music scene now."

Mercer spoke with NPR's Lakshmi Singh. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Alexi Horowitz produced the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Finally today, we're going to check in with an indie rock band that has been on the scene for two decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL INFORM ME")

THE SHINS: (Singing) Girl, inform me, all my senses warn me your clever eyes could easily disguise some backwards purpose. It's enough to make me nervous. Do you harbor sighs or spit in my eye?

SINGH: The Shins released their first critically acclaimed album, "Oh, Inverted World," back in 2001. They hit it big when their music was featured in the 2004 movie "Garden State." With a melodious blend of rock, pop and folk, the group has gone on to become one of the biggest indie rock acts of the century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL INFORM ME")

THE SHINS: (Singing) The paint away.

SINGH: The Shins' latest album is called "Heartworms." It's their first in five years and it's out this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTWORMS")

THE SHINS: (Singing) So what can I do? Everything you get's slowing your affection. What can I do? And maybe impress you with a song. What can I do? I'm trying to minimize the damage done cause there ain't no one like you.

SINGH: I spoke with James Mercer, the singer-songwriter behind the group, about the new album. And I began by asking him about the song called "Mildenhall." It looks back on Mercer's time as a teenager living abroad in Suffolk, England, where his father was stationed on an Air Force Base.

JAMES MERCER: I mean, I suppose I was in love with music before that. But that was when I began to see music as some unique part of my identity, you know, that high school period. So my dad, you know, was assigned overseas in the U.K. and we moved there. That was '86. And there was an interesting music scene going on there, and so I got to be exposed to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILDENHALL")

THE SHINS: (Singing) At 15 we had to leave the States again. Dad was stationed at an RAF base they called Mildenhall. Black moss on a busted wall, the cobblestones...

SINGH: There's a bit of a twang, a country twang, to this...

MERCER: Oh, yeah. It's a country song. I mean, that's the way I thought of it. I was thinking of Merle Haggard, who I love. And I just had this lick. I had to figure out what to actually say. And what do you say in a country song like that but the truth? You know, you have to kind of - I felt like it needed to be some earnest, very honest, straightforward story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILDENHALL")

THE SHINS: (Singing) Started messing with my dad's guitar. Taught me some chords just to start me off, whittling away on those rainy days. And that's how we get to where we are now.

SINGH: Tell me about the story that you tell in "Mildenhall."

MERCER: Basically, you know, we moved to the U.K. And I was a pretty shy kid. I'd say I was very shy. So I had a hard time meeting friends. But I literally had this situation in class where somebody handed me a tape, you know, kind of just looked at me - and we hadn't really had a conversation before. They gave me a tape and it was The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Psychocandy" when it was a fresh record. And it meant a lot to me, actually, and helped kind of pull me out of that funk of not knowing anybody. And it was that moment that I think a lot of us have where somebody just kind of turns you on to the cool stuff.

SINGH: The first song on the album, "Name For You," wanted to talk about that. But first I wanted to hear a cut of it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAME FOR YOU")

THE SHINS: (Singing) My girl, if you're lucky one day rolling down the ancient high street you'll find in the mirror reflects a woman in her prime. Can you make your way out in a world dearly won? Well, it's yours, love. You can move it around.

SINGH: James, I've read that this song is addressed to your daughters. You have three. Is that right?

MERCER: Yes, I have three daughters. You know, I think it's addressed to the feminine world is how I kind of think of it. And, you know, I was certainly inspired by my daughters. You know, they just surprise you all the time. I think we grow up with our own stereotypes and the weird little expectations. And they're just three individuals who have their own tastes and their own attitudes and their own desires. And I think it's that. It's just cheerleading my daughters, I guess, on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAME FOR YOU")

THE SHINS: (Singing) What's in a name?

SINGH: You were in your early 30s when The Shins' music became popular. How have years changed the way that you approach your music now?

MERCER: I mean, I think when The Shins started out we were pretty different. There weren't a lot of American bands, at least, who were going for the type of stuff we were doing, which was maybe a little bit retro, active and folky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SLANG")

THE SHINS: (Singing) Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth. Only I don't know how...

MERCER: I was trying to break away from what had become the norm in the '90s, which was, like, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, sort of a half-joking, never taking yourself too seriously, a lack of romantic drama in music. And so I was trying to bust away from that. Now I feel like I'm sort of doing the opposite. I'm rebelling against what I feel like might be a little bit too much self-importance and drama and preciousness in the music scene now.

SINGH: Is there a song on this album that sort of touches on that?

MERCER: Well, yeah. I mean, the song - like, "The Fear" is a very earnest song. It's a bit of a caricature. That person is a little bit me, but also maybe, I think, maybe the person I might have become and I'm lucky I didn't. You know, somebody looking back on their life and has maybe wasted it because of anxieties and fear of intimacy and so on. So yeah, there's still that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FEAR")

THE SHINS: (Singing) Of all the stupid things a man could feel. While his freedom rings, he squanders the deal.

SINGH: I read that this was about your ongoing struggle with anxiety, which tons of people experience every day of their lives. Would you mind talking to me a little bit about that back and forth?

MERCER: You know, it's something that I don't really have much of an understanding of. You know, it's just something I experience. And it's something I've just faced my whole life, but not terribly, you know? I mean, I've managed to get through it. And - but I certainly feel for people who struggle with it more than me because it is a misery, you know?

SINGH: How does writing music help with that?

MERCER: Music does something really interesting where you can actually turn it into something beautiful. And I think there's something really healing about that. I mean, rock 'n' roll itself is sort of a process of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, you know? You can take everything that's bumming you out and sort of tie a little bow on it (laughter) and set it aside for a second and look at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD ALIVE")

THE SHINS: (Singing) On a walk in a fragile state, weird angles coming over the wire. Back home we got girls in braids, and they're on roller skates and they roll any way they like.

SINGH: James Mercer is the singer-songwriter behind the indie rock band The Shins. Their new album, "Heartworms," was released this week. And James Mercer joined us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. James Mercer, thank you so much for speaking with me.

MERCER: What a pleasure. Thank you, Lakshmi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD ALIVE")

THE SHINS: (Singing) Monuments for awful events. I float by in a daze on the freeway. He can whine about different times, but me, I'm fine with the mirrors far away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.