The Shins’ James Mercer on facing death and the familiarity of nostalgia | Q&A

[The following Q&A previews The Shins concert Saturday, May 20 at Stir Cove with Tennis. RSVP here.]

For nearly everything James Mercer has touched, there is some element of the fantastical. It’s nearly ubiquitous throughout his metaphor-laden Shins catalogue, with tangled kites and clever sprights, sailing ships and bloodied buns. But the instrumental arrangements, growing increasingly lush throughout the years, often yield transportative glimpses into other worlds both cheer-filled and dark.

With Heartworms, Mercer’s five-year return to his long-time indie rock project, the now-solo artist injects a shot of nostalgia into the mix. It has been quite some time since Natalie Portman uttered the words that would spark his band’s career. With age, he says, there’s a lot on his mind, and thus the album’s contents span the emotional spectrum. In upbeat fashion, Mercer hops from stories of innocent, boozy flings to his own battle with anxiety to formative memories of his time on Mildenhall RAF base in England.

There’s significantly less brood these days in Mercer, who comes to Council Bluffs this Saturday with a new Shins lineup in tow. While the imagery and imagination in Oh, Inverted World and breakout album Chutes Too Narrow once colored teenage romances and other plights seemingly too overwhelming in youth, the wizened songwriter has turned that lively, at times cartoon-ey musical sensibility on his daughters’ future and his own imminent demise. Heartworms faces such heaviness while spilling with joy, snapping from dancey to folky to classic Shins-patented indie rock that feels like it was simply fun to create. The charm in Mercer’s work has always been framing even the darkest thoughts as both palpable and palatable.

“Maybe it’s me trying to alleviate the pain of it in myself,” Mercer tells me over the phone one recent afternoon. “I wanna drive this dagger into the listener but I want to do it gently. I want it to be something they can enjoy.”

HN caught Mercer on a brief break touring in support of Heartworms to chat about its explorational recording process, his latest wave of nostalgia and mastering one’s own aesthetic in a changing world. Read on for the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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Hear Nebraska: The new record is out. It feels like there’s a pretty significant energetic move toward danceability, in a way. A lot of The Shins catalogue is catchy, but it sounds like this record was really fun to make. What was the process like?

James Mercer: It was! I really took my time on it. I didn’t pressure myself very hard in the beginning. I allowed myself some time to have fun and not necessarily force myself into certain hours or anything. I had to eventually do that (laughs). But I think a lot of that fun you hear is kinda me giving myself a break and allowing myself to experiment a lot. Early on, I would come out to the studio and shop for gear, looking for cool vintage compressors and weird stuff like that. And then of course you have to figure out how to use them (laughs) which is where Richard Swift comes in handy, because he knows a lot about that stuff.

HN: Everything seems sonically connected throughout the album, and I specifically mean song to song, which over the years feels more common on a Shins record. I think of Wincing The Night Away as the first time when you were crafting these whole, cohesive records. Was that a specific intent here and how does that set-up for an album appeal to you?

JM: I like that, conceptually. I like the idea that an album is sort of a moment that you spare yourself to get into a whole piece of art. On this record, I think Yuuki Matthews had a lot to do with making that cohesive. He mixed to tape and kind of really worked hard at pushing the tape to a certain extent, but also trying to maintain a certain fidelity. That’s really a lot of Yuuki’s voice that you’re hearing.

HN: There’s always been some kind of fantastical element in a Shins song or record, whether it’s lyrically or the imagery that the music creates. I like “Cherry Hearts” for that here, the kissing while drunk and escapism of fantasy island. They are mixed with elements of nostalgia. Why, on this record, such a concerted look backward?

JM: Oh, interesting. It might just be my age. It might just be me being 42 years old and having kids of my own and so-on. This is not an unfamiliar question to me. I know that in the past I have written these sort of semi-nostalgic songs. Like “Pink Bullets.” I remember people asking me about that a lot, and it’s sort of looking back at a relationship that happened and what to me seemed like a deep dark past, but was really only when I was like 17 or 18 years old. I don’t know. Maybe what it is is that I know people who are much younger than me. I think the world that I grew up in is sort of exotic to them now. It has changed a lot. Maybe it just feels appropriate. It is something that is interesting to me now, to look back to that situation. “Mildenhall” is a very nostalgic song, it’s very straightforward and everything. And it’s just about a very different time. My dad was an Air Force officer during the Cold War. We lived on an air base in England where there were nuclear weapons. It was a different world in a lot of ways. He was assigned to a base called Mildenhall, but we lived on a nearby RAF base called Lakenheath. And I went to high school there. When we moved there, the kids were wearing shirts that said “L.I.B.Y.A.” and it was an acronym. It said “Lakenheath Is Bombing Your Ass.” That’s how different the fucking world was: how politically incorrect was that? And it’s true … Mildenhall was an SR 71 Base and they were bombing Qaddafi.

HN: Which, you say a different time, and that sort of environment, aside from the brash political incorrectness, doesn’t feel so different, at least in the present.

JM: True! (laughs) I mean yeah. What I think now, it’s more polarizing. Then … it’s a weird dark humor I think maybe you have to have if your livelihood comes from working in that field. There is a weird darkness to military life. And I think maybe that’s partly just a survival method, you know?

HN: While we’re talking about the fantastical, in the “Dead Alive” video, a skeletal version of you rises from the grave, and that’s the first look at new music coming, so it plays as like an “I’m back” sort of thing. But it plays out as a “seize the day while you can” sort of thing, which is a theme that appears on the record. Where was your headspace with the concept for that?

That video concept, a lot of that came from Johnny Sortland, our drummer, who made the video. As far as the lyrics go, I was trying to talk about what it is to be a human that knows they will die and maybe how that creates context with which you receive all this information that is fed to you daily. At that time, ISIS was rising in the Middle East and these horrific stories were coming out and I was really just thinking about death a lot and the randomness and the lack of any sense of justice or anything like that can happen to a human. You can just get caught up in shit and that’s it, your life is over. You’re just erased. There’s this one moment where I talk about driving on the freeway in a daze and monuments to awesome events. In our daily life, you see these memorials to these old wars that you know very little about. It’s that understanding that you live in this duality. We can imagine death in any number of ways while we’re alive. We know it’s coming, it will happen to people we know. It’s a strange situation to be in.

HN: In videos you’ve done before, the idea of death and the circumstances around it, you work with those. I think of the “Simple Song” video, which has more fun with it.

JM: I want it to be kinda fun! In a weird way … maybe it’s me trying to alleviate the pain of it in myself. I wanna drive this dagger into the listener but I want to do it gently. I want it to be something they can enjoy. I love the way this certain artists do this. There’s a darkness and beauty at the same time. There’s this ancient Japanese concept that things are always imperfect and you just have to accept that.

HN: You told SPIN in 2012, after Port of Morrow came out, in reference to working as the Shins on your own, you said “I always loved the auteurs that presented themselves as bands.” At the time you referenced Neutral Milk Hotel. How does that idea ring with you now, five years later?

JM: It was funny because just yesterday, I was in the car, and this old ‘80s song (singing) “I’m a homosapien too.” Pete Shelley is his name. I remember watching that video as a kid and being disappointed when i found out it was just some dude. I was thinking my whole life about this: why is it so annoying to me? I accept David Bowie as an artist. But somehow, this just dude coming out … it’s a weird thing. I love the Beatles and this concept. Maybe it’s me personally and the way I perceive myself. I don’t feel comfortable taking the credit for everything. And probably that’s because the people I work with do so much of the goddamn work. I write the coffeeshop version of the song and they really flesh it out and have a ton of great ideas. I want to share the credit with them, or at least not take it all on my stupid name (laughs).

HN: And then there’s this recent interview with NPR, there was an idea that you started on and then veered away from, but you mention that in a way now on the new record, you’re rebelling against what you feel like might be too much self-importance or drama or preciousness in the music scene. And I was wondering what exactly you meant by that?

JM: Kinfolk Magazine basically represents everything I don’t wanna be. (laughs) I’ll put that out as an example of the aesthetic I want to avoid. Do you know what that is?

HN: No, you might explain!

JM: If you look it up you’ll see. It’s the idea that everything is curated, this pretense that your life can be beautiful in everyway, this wholesome sort of artistic approach to just existence itself. I reject that, I never want to be part of that. And in a weird way, I had early success with songs like “New Slang” and it lumped me into this sort of world and i just didn’t grow up listening to that, I don’t feel accepted by  …. If we’re gonna get into it, I’m not somebody who feels very part of a scene or anything. I just kinda have an inherent aversion to these sort of large trend in society. I think over the last 10 years, there’s this whole …. In a way I’m also part of it. It might be me hating on myself. It’s hard to explain, but if you go look up Kinfolk magazine, you’ll see basically a perfect example of everything I don’t wanna be, and you’ll also realize that’s kind me. (laughs)

HN: I’m on there now and there’s these pseudo-glamorous photos of people cooking and there’s this living room scene and it looks really …

JM: … perfectly curated into a beautiful moment. (mocking) Moments. Sharing. Gathering. Healthy, beautiful people. I guess what I want right now is like, I want this acceptance of the darkness of existence and fucking violent nature of reality and to somehow encapsulate that and not try and dress it up like it’s all just fucking wonderful, you know? And it is all wonderful if you can afford it. … I don’t know them, they’re probably beautiful people. It’s just something about it is jumping the fucking shark, right there.

HN: With the Shins moniker in-tow, it seems like Oh, Inverted World and its connection to … I almost dare not utter the name of the movie … are not very far behind, and I wonder what you feel about that being something people still namecheck.

JM: I mean, it’s just been part of this whole career you know, since the movie came out. It is what it is. I just feel lucky to have that happen, you know? Certainly there were thoughts in my mind like ‘Goddamnit, did it have to be such a big fucking thing? Did it have to be Natalie Portman?’ And she’s awesome but she’s so big that it overshadows the whole thing. But I really can’t bitch about it too much. It brought people to the show. It’s how I make my living and how I can afford a studio of my own. And I enjoyed the movie, honestly.

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.