You might say, paraphrasing one of James Mercer’s own lyrics, that in 10 years time, his entire world has been inverted.
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But you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking him in the eye. I meet him in the lobby of a modernistic New York City hotel (like the set of A Clockwork Orange), and he looks and sounds like a tired father who’s just spent the entire night up with his crying child-beard scraggly, voice just above a whisper.
You might say, paraphrasing one of James Mercer’s own lyrics, that in 10 years time, his entire world has been inverted.
But you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking him in the eye. I meet him in the lobby of a modernistic New York City hotel (like the set of A Clockwork Orange), and he looks and sounds like a tired father who’s just spent the entire night up with his crying child-beard scraggly, voice just above a whisper. But he’s humble…cheerful even. He exudes stability, something not normally equated with the term “rock star.”
Just to put things in perspective, since the 2003 release of the band’s second album-Chutes Too Narrow-Mercer has seen his band re-explode after the tremendous underground success of Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004), in which Mercer’s song “New Slang” was prominently featured; The Shins went on to do a lengthy re-touring stint on the post-Garden buzz. Mercer weathered the “untidy” breakup of a long-term relationship (and met his future wife). He had fallings out with friends. And, he has dealt with the creeping pressure-from his record label and himself-to conceive a worthy follow-up to his band’s first two critically-acclaimed records. Add to that sleepless nights, sold-out crowds of screaming fans and scads of interviews, and you have all the ingredients to a serious nervous breakdown.
But instead of falling to pieces, Mercer welcomed the changes. He sat down in his home studio and started over. As The Shins’ third album, Wincing the Night Away, began to take form, so did he begin to shed some of the layers. Mercer’s mother might have said, “Know your onion, James,” or as he translates her, “Get your shit together, kid.” And then everything pretty much fell into place.
This past April, Mercer married his then-new girlfriend, a music journalist whom he met while doing an interview for Spin magazine, and the couple moved into the sprawling Portland, Or. estate once owned by folk-rocker Elliott Smith-the same house where Smith recorded his haunting acoustic debut, Roman Candle. And to top it all off, Mercer and his wife are expecting their first child in May.
Thinking back on the origins of this interview, I had literally two years to think about what I was going to ask Mercer. I was less interested in what his songs meant or why it took so long for his band to record the third album than I was about Mercer’s background and how that trademark “Shins Sound” came to be. In a way, he is the perfect American Songwriter interviewee; he is that rare breed in today’s songwriting community that not only is a true master of the language of song, but also writes such melodic masterpieces of sound.
The Past and Pending
James Mercer is as much the product of his upbringing as he is of his current status as one of indie rock’s premiere songwriters. He is the son of a biologist and military man who was in the Foreign Service and served in the Air Force-and somewhat surprisingly-owes his love of music to his father. The elder Mercer was a fan of country & western music and played his 1965 Martin J-50 acoustic guitar and sang around the house. Country has become a dominant influence in Mercer’s songwriting; take “Gone for Good” from Chutes Too Narrow, which Mercer told an ‘05 NYC crowd was the closest he’d ever come to writing a straight country song. It is one of his best songs to date.
Possibly in an effort to rebel, Mercer believes, at the age of 14 or 15 he took up piano lessons, which likely account for his well-trained ear for melody. Those who have studied and played it know that the piano becomes somewhat of a musical Rosetta Stone. As my piano teacher used to say, its sound is the entire orchestra. Not surprisingly, Mercer arranged basic guitar, bass and (computerized) drum tracks for the band’s third release, before bringing the songs to the band (producers Phil Eck and Joe Chiccarelli came into the process later). Mercer also plays keyboards on a handful of Wincing’s tracks, including the haunting “Mr. Sandman”-like opening to “Sleeping Lessons.”
But tickling the ivories was only a temporary gig for Mercer. He switched over to guitar (he received his first one, a black Fender Squire Stratocaster, for Christmas at the age of 17) after falling hard for late-‘80s punk and new wave. At this period in his life, he was living in England-a hotbed for the two scenes-and his leanings were toward the intelligent pop of The Smiths, The Cure and Echo and The Bunnymen. His other true love was for the Canadian and American punk bands of the time like SNFU, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and The Ramones. His well-trained ear must have picked up on the fact that punk songs are simple, melodic four-chord structures. Many a young songwriter and guitarist can thank his lucky stars that there was a Steve Jones and a Johnny Ramone; punk rock guitar is like an unlimited hall pass to being and sounding cool.
By the time he was out of high school, Mercer and his family had moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where he joined his first working band, Subculture.
“I started hanging out with these kids who were actually playing at clubs-most of them were in high school,” says Mercer. “And they asked me to join their band, I guess because we’d be having a party or drinking, and we’d have a sing-along, and I’d grab a guitar and sing a song. So I sort of auditioned by accident.” By no means was it the type of music he is playing now though. “It was super college-rock-y, kind of folk-y, with a girl singing, who had a really nice voice…it was real straight.” And like any young band, they had aspirations. “We actually had gigs and did local college radio and shit,” he says.
Around this time, Mercer had also enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where he was pursuing a degree in chemistry. But it was “too ambitious” a field, and he eventually dropped out. However, he did take a Spanish guitar class there, which might account for the flamenco influences that appear in Shins songs from time to time (see the staccato-plucked interlude on Inverted World’s “Weird Divide”).
But Subculture wouldn’t be his final tour stop before Shins fame. The band broke up, and out of its ashes, Mercer formed his own rock-and-roll outfit-a band that got its name from a restaurant menu-Blue Roof Dinner. The band featured friend and future Flake Music/Shins member, Neal Langford, and a pair of brothers, a guitarist and drummer whom Mercer can only describe as “crazy.”
“When I got into Blue Roof Dinner, that’s probably when I really started writing my first honest-to-goodness songs. At that point, I was really into Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. Isn’t Anything…that record, that era. So I was trying to write these psych-noise things. It’s a real strange way to start learning how to write songs, actually, and for the longest time, I didn’t really understand the concept of a bridge or the traditional song structure.”
Considering how tightly and “classically” structured most of the pop songs on the Shins’ first two albums are-verses, choruses and bridges-Mercer’s songwriting has come almost full circle since his Blue Roof Dinner days. Something happened, leading to that unmistakable “Shins sound-accessible melodies, vocab-heavy lyrics, twinkling keyboards, barebones drumming, lots of Younger Than Yesterday-era Byrds jangle (and also Sweetheart of the Rodeo country/rock) and punk-strummed acoustic guitars. Maybe it was years’ worth of music listening and writing that made things click. Or maybe it was all the lineup changes…
Mercer began to really come into his own after meeting two New Mexico locals, keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval in 1992 (Mercer met guitarist/bassist Dave Hernandez the following year, but it wouldn’t be until the Chutes sessions that Hernandez would join the Shins for good). With Neal Langford carried over from Blue Roof Dinner on bass, the four became known as Flake-later renamed Flake Music. If you listen to Flake, you’ll hear the genesis of that signature Mercer/Shins sound: roller-coastering vocals, crystal clear major chord melodies and witty-cum-poetic lyrics (interestingly, a track on their debut album, When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return, is entitled “The Shins”). The main difference between Flake’s music and The Shins’, though, is output; Flake’s songwriting has a harder, rawer edge and longer, jammier breaks.
But Flake was a live, working band more than anything, and Mercer (like many songwriters) needed an outlet, or-as he notes in a 2002 interview with Bill Wolfgram-“a vehicle for some of my more poppy writing.” And so began the side-project that never ended, The Shins.
“Well, I think when I first got into songwriting, I began to become obsessed with the whole enjoyment of it,” Mercer explains. “I was working with chords and trying to put chords together in an interesting way; I was concentrating more on the guitar and learning how to play the instrument at the same time. So I would say that when I first started, I was really working with the instrument and concentrating on the guitar itself to come up with ideas…whereas now, I think more chord-wise, maybe just because I have a more intuitive sense about chords.”
Mercer says he just sits for hours at a time, jamming away in front of the TV, with the sound turned down. “Often, I’m just kind of spacing out and playing chords, messing around, you know, and something will start to loop.” Once the looped idea solidifies in his head, he then begins to marry the most basic melody to the chords.
Do you have lyrics at this point? I ask him. “No,” he replies. “Just maybe humming and putting a melody together slowly, with chords, and just experimenting…and doing that until something grabs my attention. I’m like, ‘That could be kinda cool. That could be a verse-or, it’s just a neat part,’ and then I immediately grab a micro-cassette and record it. I’ll usually mess around with it a little more and then, often, that’s it. I’m done. I move on to something else and start inventing a new thing.”
Mercer’s lyric writing process, on the other hand, is more or less a free-write or search for the proper subject or perspective to take. In an October ‘06 Rolling Stone interview, Mercer notes that Wincing the Night Away is a departure from his deeply personal lyric writing. While there are songs on the new album that do have personal subjects (“Sea Legs,” for instance, is about his wife), songs like “Phantom Limb” take on short-story-like subject. (It is about two lesbians in a relationship during high school.)
He also seems not to enjoy lyric writing as much as the evolution of the melody or chords of the song. In fact, Mercer’s quite blunt about his disdain for the process. “It’s kind of a pain in the ass…writing lyrics.”
I also wondered whether Mercer self-edits; many songwriters have a hard time revisiting things that come out quickly-in a stream-of-consciousness type way. “Yes! And I re-draft things,” he tells me. “Sometimes I’ll feel that whatever I’m writing to communicate is just too cliché, so then I will turn the characters or the relationship into a metaphor,” he says. Sometimes words just rush out, too, as in the case of Chutes Too Narrow‘s “Kissing the Lipless.” “The beginning, the opening words happened really quick, like that whole verse,” Mercer continues, “…and then it took me forever to get something logical to say after that.”
So, it’s a process; songs don’t just appear to him in dreams and happen in five minutes. It’s hard work. Mercer has also been known to ditch songs halfway through the writing/recording process, if he feels they are going in the wrong direction. “Young Pilgrims” was a last-minute replacement for one such song on Chutes. He recounts this:
“I had this chord structure that I had invented in the weeks before we started working on the record, and I just decided, ‘You know what? It’s really cool, and I’ll just turn it into a song. I’m just gonna fucking force myself to do it.’ So I would wake up at 4 or 5 in morning, because I was stressing out and couldn’t sleep, and I would go out to the tour van-I didn’t want to wake anyone up-and I would sit there and play that song, and sit there and write, and in that crazed state I came up with this thing and finally finished it.”
Songs to Come
When you read this piece, the release of Wincing the Night Away will have occurred and the band will be in the middle of its supporting tour. Some will have added Wincing to their iPod favorites, while others will have sold their copy to the local used record store.
At the time of this interview, though, Mercer seemed slightly anxious about how some fans might take the new record. “Listen to it a few times and let it sink in,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I guess I did, melodically, do some new things-some of them were conscious but some were just what happened [to the songs]. I feel very confident that this is the best stuff I’ve ever done.” Considering Mercer has been professionally writing songs now for 10 years, that’s saying a lot.
On this record, more than any other to date, Mercer has returned to his roots. He has chewed up all that punk, psychedelic pop and layered noise and spit it out through fancy production work-somehow still uniting it all with his acoustic guitar.
It turns out that there were some 40 songs written going into the Wincing sessions, and 15 made the final cut. Those were whittled down to the 10 (not counting the short “Pam Berry”) that made it onto the album. (The other four, including the Springsteen-meets-Radiohead, “Nothing At All,” have become b-sides.) What you get is an eclectic mix of songs that challenge the listener, especially the diehard Shins fan that has become so used to accessible acoustic ballads and Mercer’s power-pop flare.
Some of the influences Mercer says made their way onto Wincing may surprise the average fan. He mentions Motown, which he tells me came not from listening to Sam Cook or James Brown, but from a white girl named Amy Linton, who leads an indie band called The Aislers Set. Of Linton, Mercer says “she’s like an icon among all of us.” You hear this Motown influence in the backbeat of the wonderful “Turn On Me” (one track that has that signature Shins sound), and on “Australia” and “Girl Sailor,” which Mercer says gets a lot of its heart from Hernandez’s “classic style.” In fact, if you listen close enough, all of Mercer’s major influences over the years manifest themselves on this record. This is still your favorite college-radio indie band; it’s just gone back to school and gotten a more advanced degree.
Caring Isn’t Creepy
The Shins are a kind and gentle autocracy; Mercer owns the majority of the publishing and mechanical rights to the songs and makes the most money in the band. But he has undeniably sacrificed the most to make the Shins happen. Of the earlier days, Mercer tells me, “I was recording everything, I was producing everything, I had bought all the equipment and I was in debt up to my fucking ears trying to make these records.” But he genuinely feels that Marty, Dave and Jesse make contributions to the band that equal generous pay-not only in terms of the publishing but also the mechanical rights. “And that’s unusual,” says Mercer. “I mean, the person who’s writing the songs [usually] just gets all the publishing royalties and tells everyone to fuck off; I don’t think that that’s fair.”
With all that’s happened to The Shins since their inception in 1997, Mercer still seems, at least in the several hours I spent with him and his band, to be a genuinely humble individual. He enjoys the company of friends, joking around and talking about good music (and he certainly doesn’t detest journalists-he’s married to one, after all). Almost ironically, he says, “I wish I could speak more articulately about songwriting, because I really don’t have a lot of musical training…so I don’t have the vocabulary.”
But he then goes on to say something that, I think, perfectly describes how his fans feel about his music. “When songwriting is done right, it’s the thing that I most appreciate in music. When it works, that’s when I’m the most proud of it.”