“You feel like an ocean being warmed by the sun,” –The Shins.
Hotel rooms, like hospital corridors and ice rinks, are the kind of place where time stands still. Where hundreds, thousands, mill through the doors to run their hands across printed wallpapers; push their legs into plain white sheets. It’s from a Detroit hotel room that James Mercer speaks to me. The Shins' front man is on tour across the USA with the come-back album Port of Morrow – next stop Cleveland and Rock and Roll's Hall of Fame. “I’ve never been before,” Mercer admits, and it seems that it’s just the right time. He’s embracing things more than he used to – and at 41 years, things are looking bright.
It's been five years since The Shins last album; eight since they first exploded into mainstream consciousness, when a wide-eyed Natalie Portman swore to Zach Braff that New Slang would change his life. It might have been a scripted line, but it sure changed things for Mercer. Before his band was signed to Sub Pop, he had spent what felt like forever churning through dead-end jobs. In his 20s he worked at Carnival in New Mexico; then took up work at a screen printing factory. He drove a truck between restaurants and bars, collecting and servicing air cleaners, served fried chicken across fast-food counters, worked in glass and lamp factories. “I had about twenty jobs,” says Mercer, “Just shit like that you know? Never really knowing what I could do to make money. Like proper money. Get-married-and-have-kids kind of money … I was playing in a band and having a lot of fun, while trying to figure out what I was going to do that would give me a life.” Though he’d never considered music “a viable option”, the cosmos, or fate, or whatever it was, had forged other plans for him.
Port of Morrow has proved a different undertaking to other Shins records. For starters, the contributors list reads like a hear-filled page of doodles from some alt pop-rock aficionado: Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer, Fruit Bats’ Eric D Johnson, and Greg Kurstin (co-producer). Mercer’s usual stable-mates are there as sometimes-collaborators but no longer serve as full-time band members. It’s something that many reviewers have picked apart but a choice that Mercer believed necessary. “It (was) hard to break to them,” he explains of the decision. “At the same time I said, I don’t want to stop working with you permanently. I’m going to open this up to other people and have new experiences, and if I should do it ever, I should do it now. They were remarkably understanding.”
Ornate and multi-layered, jumping from synth-filled pop to psychedelic soul, the much awaited Port of Morrow sounds like Mercer meant it to – like he’d handpicked the very best to perform each sheet of sound. The confidence to do it stemmed from working with Danger Mouse’s Brian Burton on their joint project Broken Bells. “He pushed me to do things that were out of my comfort zone … Things like singing in a falsetto and giving myself over to an R&B flourish in my singing. Also, sound wise, he really legitimised my love for old psychedelic music.” Most importantly though, a once reticent Mercer got the chance to work with new people in Broken Bells, strangers, to go on tour with them and put old anxieties to bed. “It was really as simple as that,” he explains, “A young kid going off to summer camp or something. In my life I had always been quite shy, and so I just avoided shit like that. It takes me a while to make good friends with people ... This opened those doors for me.”
When he’s on the road between shows and the tar ahead is unending, there’s certain artists Mercer always comes back to. He digs older Depeche Mode and Gary Bonds – “an old R&B guy I’ve loved for twelve years or so” and tells me I must get my hands on Gary U.S. Bonds. As Mercer has developed, swapping rental flats for an actual house (with a mortgage), getting married, having children, he’s found unexpected domestic pleasures now consume his off-tour schedule. He likes to think of himself as a handyman. He fixes things. He changes diapers. “I spend a lot of time in the garden, working with my wife.”
The Shins has brought Mercer a career largely unexpected – but one that he tends to with a great deal of seriousness. I ask him what he’d tell a young version of himself, how he’d explain what was to come. There’s talk of warning about future regrets, and the things that went all wrong. Then he really thinks about it.
“I’d say you’re going to play on Saturday Night Live. You’re going to play on Letterman … You’ll play to thousands of people in Australia.” Mercer takes a breath as it all pours out, those hazy teenage dreams no teen is quite brave enough to believe could be theirs. “I would have been totally dismissive of someone telling me they’d seen the future and that’s what they saw. That’s just fucking ridiculous you know … I mean, I met and know Johnny Marr, the person. That would have been an incredible, impossible thing then. That is too much of a leap for someone: to go from the fictional worlds of the records that I loved to the moment when you’re shaking hands with that person.” He might be in his 40s, but as Mercer shares excitedly, he’s almost a kid again.
The Shins are touring Melbourne and Sydney from 23 – 25 July. You can also catch them at Splendour in the Grass. We have FOUR double passes to give away for Sydney and Melbourne fans. Stay tuned on the RUSSH Facebook for more information on how to WIN.