For a guy having to endure the repetitive rigmarole of talking to the press, James Mercer seems rather at ease.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that anticipation for The Shins’ fifth album, Heartworms, is running high, and the prospect of catching the New Mexican rockers live as they ramble about their world tour has got plenty of folks excited. But he also just seems like a laid-back kind of guy – comfortably reclining on a couch, enjoying unhurried conversation as he drops quips and one-liners like you’re old pals… Mercer is a man who has found a great deal of insight into writing over the years, and he ain’t afraid to share it.
“The craft side [of writing] is important to me,” he says. “I want to be a well-respected writer and arranger of chords, a respected lyricist. I think that is the thing I’d be most proud of. I do my best, you know, in terms of musicianship and singing, to get the songs to be realised. I do feel like on this record, I’ve gotten better at writing. I feel braver.
“I think working with Brian [Burton] in Broken Bells helped me to test the waters in different styles, and now I feel pretty open about doing almost anything I want. I look at some of the lyrics for this record, and my standards have risen. As you keep going, you have those moments when you feel you’ve done something really good, and the bar gets raised that little bit higher. I think I used to rely too much on allowing something to be extremely obscure. Like, ‘Whatever, man, it’s pop music.’ But I find the songs that really impress me are songs that are poetic and interesting, and use great metaphors, but they’re vivid and accessible, too.”
To that end, Heartworms is something of a throwback for The Shins. The songs remain vibrant and cohesive as ever – and once again, Mercer is the sole writer – but this time around, he is also the principal producer, a role he hasn’t played since 2001. While he has tried to serve each song as it comes – to treat them as succinct, complete entities – having an overseer’s perspective allowed Mercer to tease out a sense of story he has long hoped to achieve.
“I wish sometimes I’d been a bit more strategic in trying to give some kind of narrative. I do pay attention when I’m working on a record where you do get into a certain mode, when you have an understanding of all the songs in your head. There are decisions you make like, ‘Well, I’ve already talked about something like that on the record, let’s look for something new.’ Try and keep it engaging.
“And that’s a great stage to get into, when suddenly everything in your life relates to the record. You get a lot done in that period of time, when you start to get your head around all the songs. I mean,” he laughs, “it takes a while to get to that stage, but I think that’s where you get to be the overseer.”
A curious example of this comes across in lead single, ‘Name For You’. The song found its inspiration in Mercer’s daughters, and is a wonderful ode for feminine empowerment. The day we are chatting, though, is three days prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, which in turn will see millions of women across the world take to the streets in protest of a figure who seems to thrive on misogyny and petulance. The rise of Trump came after the song was written, but it is the cultural climate of today that makes it seem all the more urgent.
“It’s a song that’s in praise of femininity, and femininity in all ways that it arises – feminine men I want to feel comfortable and respected,” Mercer says. “I’m realising that one of the things I like about that song is, I think we worship masculinity right now. We’re getting more macho, it seems to me, with the culture and maybe the leadership in our country. We love macho, manly dudes, and that’s all well and good – I don’t mean to disrespect masculinity – but femininity is a critically important thing. It’s our mothers and our sisters, and sometimes our brothers and co-workers.
“[Trump] seems like a douchebag sort of guy, who wouldn’t fucking give me or anyone in my family the time of day. But I wrote this when such a thing was impossible. You know what I think? Sometimes I think culture changes of its own accord, and its own pace. And thinking about politics, it’s almost like we’re talking about the curtains in here, and how we want the chairs arranged. But other things, like cultural shifts, technological and scientific changes, that stuff is like the actual building is being moved. You don’t realise how much is actually shifting.
“One thing I feel I do always want to express is that convictions of any kind can be pretty dangerous. I think it’s easy for people to become convicted about certain ideas, and I’m wary of that, on any side. And it can be anything. It’s so fluid and strange, and there’s so much deception it seems. It’s just so hard to get any convictions to settle.”