The Shins frontman James Mercer’s lonely teenage years set him on the path to music, writes Iain Shedden
There’s a song at the heart of the Shins’ new album, Heartworms, that says a lot about how the American group’s main man, singer and songwriter James Mercer, came to be a musician. The track Mildenhall, a country stroll and a departure from Mercer’s usual angular melodic pop, is a reference to the Royal Air Force base in Suffolk, England, where he spent some of his formative years from the age of 15, owing to his father’s service in the US Air Force.
It was an isolating experience for the teenager, separated from his friends back in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he grew up, and at the mercy of the cold weather. His saviour, as the song explains, was music: “Then a kid in class passed me a tape / an invitation not the hand of fate.”
“I was really terrible at meeting people,” says Mercer, in Sydney to talk about his latest work, the Shins’ fifth album in 16 years and the first since 2012’s Port of Morrow. “The first year in England I didn’t have any hangouts after school,” he says. “I just stayed in my room trying to figure out songs. It was an escape.”
Mercer, 46, who has lived in Portland, Oregon, for the past 15 years, was based at Mildenhall and the nearby Lakenheath air base for five years in the late 1980s. That tape and encouragement from his father, a country singer in his spare time, saw Mercer take his first tentative steps towards a music career.
“That period when my dad let me play his guitar, then the kid giving me the tape … the loneliness of not having my friends, having the time and the rainy days to mess with the guitar and trying to play songs … that became my whole life,” he says. “Any one of those things could have been changed and I don’t know what I would be doing right now.”
Although it’s five years since Port of Morrow, which featured the memorable single Simple Song, Mercer has been far from idle in the interim. With his long-time friend Brian Burton, better known as producer and musician Danger Mouse, he released the second album by their outfit Broken Bells, with which they toured extensively. He and his wife had another daughter, their third. Mercer also found time, working with another friend, to develop a collage app called Pasted; all the while he was working in the old carriage house at the back of his home, piecing together the songs for Heartworms.
It’s an impressive collection of songs with a fitting title, since the 11 tracks, including Name for You, Painting a Hole, Rubber Ballz, The Fear and the title song, represent a marriage of delicious hooks and melodies to lyrics that have relationships, failed and successful, real and imaginary, at their centre. The name of the album he acquired from a friend, Archie Moore, from 90s band Velocity Girl, who had another band called Heartworms in the 90s.
“It had to be somewhere in the back of my mind when it popped into my head as a lyric for that song,” says Mercer. “I loved it so much. I got a hold of him and he was very cool about it.”
The Mildenhall song sits apart from the others due to its country lilt, but Mercer says country music has always been an influence on him, even if it doesn’t manifest itself obviously.
“I’ve hinted at country stuff before,” he says. “My dream would be for a country artist to cover one of my songs. I’ve tried to get my manager to get this to happen and he has failed miserably. I love classic country music. My father was a country singer so it’s always been an influence on me.”
For the Shins’ previous album, Mercer worked closely with producer Greg Kurstin, the man at the controls of Sia’s Chandelier and Adele’s hit single Hello and her album 25, to name just a few of his recent credits. For Heartworms, however, Mercer wanted to work at his own pace, wander down to the shed when the mood took him, rather than on the clock.
“It probably was two years’ worth of messing around … a year and a half of really solid work- ing on it,” he says. “The one thing I wanted more of with Port of Morrow was more time just noodling around. That’s where the goofy things happen, when you’re just dancing around in the studio, having fun and some weird ideas happen. If you want something like that with a producer like Greg … you know … he has clients waiting. If you want two more weeks you can’t really do that kind of stuff.”
This time around he had a routine of “getting up with the kids, cooking them breakfast and getting them off to school. Then I’d play guitar, searching for something cool, a progression that was novel.”
James Mercer: ‘My dream would be for a country artist to cover one of my songs’