“You get a glimpse into my psyche and into my fears…” - The Shins’ James Mercer opens up about new album Heartworms
While he’d always been the key songwriter and decision makers behind indie darlings The Shins, James Mercer took things to extremes in 2011 when the band disintegrated to such an extent that he was the only one in it. After putting together a new line-up for 2012’s Port Of Morrow, Mercer put the group on hiatus again as he made a second album with producer Danger Mouse as part of their Broken Bells project and there was no whisper about whether we’d ever get to hear a fifth album from The Shins.
Fortunately, we do, it’s called Heartworms, it’s out today (you can preview and purchase it on the right-hand side of the page) and we called up Mercer to find out all about how he made it...
It’s been five years since your last album Port Of Morrow, can you talk us through what you’ve been up to across that time?
“After the touring cycle for Port Of Morrow ended I started working with Brian (who you'll know better as Brian ‘Dangermouse’ Burton) on Broken Bells and we did After The Disco. That was a year of back and forth and then we toured for that for a year. Then I had a kid.”
Well, they can be time-consuming...
“It’s distracting for sure. So as well as parenting, I worked with a friend on this app that we’re relaunching and lots of other crazy projects. It wasn’t until after Broken Bells that I started focusing again on songs for The Shins, wrote a lot of songs and then I whittled it down to the 11 songs that are on the record.”
How did you want to move on from what you did on Port Of Morrow?
“With that record, I’d basically let go of my whole band so I knew I needed some help, I needed a partner and I needed to get a record done fairly soon. I tapped Greg Kurstin, who’s just won a lot of Grammys for the Adele record, he’s a friend of mine and I knew he’d be great for me. We partnered up, had a few guest musicians come in and that lead to a record that, although it’s very me and it’s my voice, the production weirdness you’d expect from The Shins, we didn’t have time for that and to mess around too much. This time I wanted to go old school and to get busy reading the manuals again.”
How did you go about finding a new line-up for the record?
“It’s the people I met touring Port Of Morrow. Richard Swift, who is all over this record, he’s a great producer and it was an easy decision to have him around. He helped with a lot of the technical stuff. Yuuki Matthews, he’s been our bass player for a while now and it was great to use him. We got on really well, we’re all older now and it was just easier this time to work together.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is it a more personal record?
“I’d say this record is more personal than ever, but some of is cloaked away in caricature, songs like ‘Fantasy Island’, they aren’t exactly about me, but you get a glimpse into my psyche and into my fears. There’s a lot about the loneliness of the road, imagining if my life is going to be hotel rooms and not my family.”
How do lyrics come to you? Are you writing things down all the time?
“No, I wait until the end and then I buckle down. I let the music manifest itself and then work out what sentiment suits it. I let that happen and then I just procrastinate until they’re just right. Lyrics are so important to me, every time I hear a song that’s really catchy and the lyrics are bad it always really bums me out!”
When did the title Heartworms come to you?
“Pretty late in the process. I had a song that I’d decided to call ‘Heartworms’ and I really like the word. There was a band back in the 90’s called Heartworms and I’d also really envied them for having that name, it’s grotesque, but it sounds beautiful. So I contacted Archie Moore, who was the head guy for that band, he was in a few bands then, he was in Velocity Girl, and he let me use it. He gave me s**t at first about wanting to use it, but then he let me.”
How is your live set coming together for the touring cycle for this album?
“Like every band we’re in love with our new material, but you don’t want to add too many of them to the set and force the audience to listen to them, I hate when bands do that when I go to shows, but it means we can only pick about four new ones and we’re really stoked on all of them. It’s a good problem to have.”
You could always play longer sets...
“No way. We can’t do that to people!”