The Shins: Take heart
With a healthy dose of introspection, ‘Heartworms’ sees The Shins' frontman James Mercer reflecting on what he holds dear.
Published: 1:32 pm, March 21, 2017
"I‘m a little bit hungover today,” apologises James Mercer. It’s early morning, and he’s a bit groggy. “I went out and saw The Lemon Twigs and Savoy Motel last night, and it was a great show. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was an incredible show actually – I had a little too much fun, maybe.”
Despite his sore head, The Shins frontman and founder sounds excited to be discussing the band’s new LP. Their first full-length in five years, ‘Heartworms’ also marks their fifth album. “It feels like a completion to me, in a weird way,” he says of the milestone. “In a strange way, it seems like a completion of a circle; I don’t mean anything permanent by that, it’s just the way it feels to me – it feels good. It was another long stretch of writing and recording, and it’s crazy to have completed it now.”
The band first debuted songs from ‘Heartworms’ at last year’s End of the Road – ‘Dead or Alive’ and ‘Rubber Ballz’ – with the appearance also marking the first time The Shins had headlined a night at a festival. It was the first performance with the new lineup, and James says that jumping in at the deep end was probably the best way to introduce the LP. “I remember being super nervous because there had been a couple of lineup changes, so we were a new band really, y’know? And that was our very first show, so it was kind of crazy to have your first show be a big festival like that,” he explains. “But it worked out great, and we really got into it, and I think the crowd got into it too. I remember coming away and feeling pretty high on life.”
Although ‘Heartworms’ has the typical, lovely tones of just about every album from The Shins, these new members have also injected a certain pizzazz. “Jon [Sortland], our new drummer, brings a sort of swing to his playing,” James explains. “So some of the older songs have a new life to them.” In the past, he’s described The Shins as having a ‘palette’ – “there are chordal structures and movements that I enjoy” – but more notably, The Shins have always had a sort of confessional, nostalgic aspect that many seem to relate to.
‘Heartworms’ feels closer to the core than ever before, as James speaks of his fears – “Where are they now? The money and the crowd?” on ‘Fantasy Island’ – or the frightening reality of the world today – “Monuments for awful events, I float by in a daze on the freeway” on ‘Dead Alive’ – which he still ascribes to being nervous about The Shins’ output. “On ‘Fantasy Island’ I was honestly feeling like, ‘Is anyone going to like this shit? Is this it? Is it going to be any good?’ There are moments, of course, you have doubts,” he says. “I capitalised on that self-doubt and elaborated on it and created this character who’s some sort of performer – I guess I thought he was a stunt pilot or something. I’ve always had this romantic vision of a person who has to travel the world and can never really settle down because that’s how they’re making their living; it’s like people who work in show business as roadies. You see them ten years later, and you’re like, ‘Man, you’re still out here doing it, fuck.’”
“And you’re alone in the hotel – just that loneliness of being out on the road and stuff I guess, I laid it all on one song.” Despite the sombre tone of its inspirations, James is eager to express how much he likes the song. “It is a sad song; he’s a sad guy. He’s at the end of his rope, he’s admitting that it’s over, and he’s longing for something that once was, but he knows that it’s not going to come back and he regrets; he’s filled with regret. He regrets being caught up in himself and his ego and not living in the moment with the people who mattered.”
Although James often creates characters through his songwriting, there must be something of himself in each persona. Regarding ‘Fantasy Island’, he says the character was a person that he’s avoided becoming – of which, he’s glad. “I can see how it’d be easy to make those mistakes. It’s a strange thing, going out; I can see why some of my friends seem to be addicted to playing shows and travelling… don’t really have a home, keep going, keep doing shows. For me, I do have a home, and I have a family, and I think it helps to ground me,” he explains.
As well as grounding him, James’s family also inspired a track on ‘Heartworms’. ‘Name For You’ acts as a call for female empowerment and with three daughters, has it allowed him to see the world in a different way, through their eyes? “I think being a Dad and being a father of daughters makes you see women in a different way. My wife is a very intelligent person, and she is versed on these issues,” he says. “I don’t come from a family that talks about these kinds of things. My wife minored in Women’s Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, and so she’s read the fucking material. She kind of revealed my own fear and anger that has been in me towards women because of feeling alienated by them, or wanting them and not being able to have them and so on; this thing that arises at some point during puberty. The difference between the sexes and how certain cultures can allow it to become unhealthy, it becomes part of the culture that these differences are enforced I guess. It concerns me. I guess what that song was was an attempt to say ‘Don’t let it get you down’, y’know?”
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This growth through fatherhood and well, life in general, has caused James to reflect on his songwriting. “I always feel like I’m improving; I don’t know if I’m biased in saying that. I don’t know if I can be very objective about it; it does feel to me that I’ve gotten better lyrically. I feel like I can say what I need to say more efficiently now, I think I allow myself to have the freedom to do that,” he says. Is this to do with his age – the societal pressures in never allowing young men to talk about their emotions? “God, it might be,” he says. “It might just be something that you learn how to communicate, and you don’t feel ashamed for feeling things. When I was a younger person, I’d have thoughts or feelings and would somehow think that it was bad to think or feel that way,” he continues. “You’re just not confident and comfortable in your own skin, so there would be that aspect of it. I also think, though, it’s about learning technique; just in the doing of it, you get better at it.”
With the “completion of a circle” on ‘Heartworms’ and 16 years since debut ‘Oh, Inverted World’, James says that may be the reason for the album’s nostalgic and retrospective tendencies. “I am older, and I’ve looped around and made friends with my old bandmates again - Neil Langford, who was in the very earlier stages of Flake and The Shins, I’m back in with him. There’s been a lot of nostalgic thoughts.”
James’s continued work with The Shins has also allowed him to learn that artistic expression is just an elaborate way of doing what people want to do. “We have an instinct for language and communication, and we enjoy it – that process of expressing our thoughts and ideas and emotions – it’s just something innately enjoyable to most humans, it’s why we developed culture! I guess what I feel is that art has very serious meaning and it has serious importance in life, and I’m proud to be a part of that world. I’m very honoured that I’ve been received as well as I have for as long as I have. What I feel right now is gratitude.”
The Shins’ album ‘Heartworms’ is out now.