Drinking the Knights Away: DiS meets James Mercer from The Shins
- The Shins »
You may have read part one already, but if not here's the skinny. Last year DiS went to a pub. We do that quite a lot, and probably talk about it even more than we do it. This time though we were answering the call of duty, to meet James Mercer from The Shins. DiS founder Sean Adams sat in a pub, in Shepherd’s Bush, with beer circles on some scribbled notes and a shaky Dictaphone in a sweaty palm to meet one of his heroes.
Turned out James was one of the loveliest men to ever chew the fat (we're not talking pork scratchings!) with DiS, and in part two you will hopefully be teased further ahead of the release of their wondrous new album Wincing the Night Away. In this part, James talks more about the context that makes up the album’s backdrop, which in turn inspires some of the social commentary within it.
I’ve heard too many people recently stand on a stage and say obvious things about war and George Bush, but it’s stuff that everyone there already knows. Do you sometimes feel when musicians are being outspoken they’re more often preaching to the converted? Could it possibly be better for artists to create something which threads itself into a larger world and creates more of an impact?
Yeah, I know right. I agree. I guess maybe in a way that’s how it always is.
Do you think, with this record, there’s an element of you needing to deal with the indie-elitist – Pitchforkist – idea of selling out, now that your music has been used in major movies and on some advertisements?
I don’t think about trying to help other humans when I’m writing. Most of the things I give a shit about are, in a way, the kinda things which make the world suck for people. You know, things like wanting to have healthy forests doesn’t help logging companies or the towns they live in and investors, or people wanting to build houses. In the long run it doesn’t benefit humanity. For me, I prefer beautiful forests than big ugly pre-fabricated buildings and schools filled with stupid kids. I’m not a supremely empathetic person. So for me I don’t worry about preaching to the converted, so much as not preaching to the completely oblivious.
Do you feel this record is possibly more a commentary than a vision of the future, especially as a lot of your lyrics arch back to a simpler time, and that this record is weakening the arguments for our complicated globalised world by using the contrast of the beauty of the past?
Er, maybe. I think that sometimes I just feel sentimental about things in my past. Do you feel there’s less of that on this record?
Not really. I just feel this record is a bit more like social commentary than anything you’ve done previously.
I definitely need to look at my lyrics some more at some point and think about it. Sorry.
Do lyrics come naturally or do you spend a lot of time on them, and are they the most important thing to you?
Yeah, definitely – I don’t want to sing anything I will not feel comfortable with, either doing this live now or 200 dates into the tour. I need to be able to feel it when I’m singing it, and feel confident about it. I think the thing which would really suffer is our live performance if I wrote shitty lyrics. I do my best to do something I can stand by and feel proud of.
Who are your favourite writers, those who inspire you?
I remembered recently one of the best novels I’d read, or more one of the best-written novels I’ve ever read, was White Noise by Don Delillo.
Are there things you think people could maybe have as a reading list to go alongside this record?
I really wouldn’t want anyone to feel the way I did when I was writing this record. God, it would almost start with Michel Houellebecq or something. I don’t think anyone should ever read his books – I don’t think I’ve ever been so hurt by literature.
Do you feel that you have quite obsessive fans, those that you make music to escape to for, and that’s what it does for other people?
Yeah I hope so, as there were bands that did that for me. If I’m one of those bands for people who are similar to me, I’m like yeah, let’s join forces and combat the oblivious.
In the album’s press release there are many mentions of British acts, like Morrissey, The Beta Band and My Bloody Valentine. Do you consider yourself an anglophile?
Fuck yeah, all of them are English. It sounds like it… Jesus, it’s pretty scary. That’s my high school, what’re you gonna do? I grew up listening to that. I think if you were there with me, in my bedroom in Suffolk, coming back from the record store, looking at the art and listening to those records, you’d totally know why. Those moments, those experiences and the crap that you go through in high school and the refuge that music is… y’know... Those bands were that refuge: those bands keep you sane, and keep you confident that you’re not alone.
In much the same way religion used to give people hope and understanding?
Yeah, kind of.
At the start of the album you sing about “Old Gods”: is that something you were getting at?
It’s actually “Old Guards”, but maybe I liked it because it kind of sounded like “Gods” and it’s pretty much the same thing, in a way. I guess I’m talking about the old morality, maybe the things in someone’s life that prevent them from living as they should. So it’s less of a spiritual thing; I wouldn’t have said “Gods” because I don’t believe in them, but then again I’m almost considering now having a forward-slash “Gods” [in the lyrics], cause that’s kinda cool. I will try to have the lyrics available to everyone, ‘cause I think that’s important.
You also mention “sprites” in the lyrics: is that referring to a computerised reality where war has become a game kids can play at home?
I think yeah, like there’s medieval sprites and computerised sprites. I’m trying to remember what led me to that word, I think I was feeling at least partly, along with this idea of these mindless drones, I guess it was the intentions… sorry I’m being distracted by Bright Eyes in the background. He’s_ so passionate_! (Laughs) It’s like he’s whispering in my ear. Sorry, where were we?
It doesn’t matter. Are there any key records that you were listening to while writing Wincing The Nights Away? Like, there’s a moment where a song sounds like something off Kid A?
Yeah, that’s a cool thing to say because I love Radiohead. I was listening to them a lot when we were writing Oh, Inverted World, and I know it doesn’t come across at all. I knew that they were using a computer to record and I had just bought this computer, and I was listening to them constantly when I was making that record. It inspired me to add lots of extra stuff, which is why it’s so generously produced. They have this very organic side to them all the time, and they combine it [with their computerised side]. Maybe that’s kind of the modern aesthetic. It’s funny, ‘cause I was just talking about architecture with my wife and the idea of creating a completely synthetic and cold sort of modern environment is kinda passé now. It seems the things now are a combination of things which are much organic, with things like wood being much more present.
There are quite a lot of records around now which do sound like something from an older age…
Yeah, but they don’t try and act like it’s something that’s not modern world though, so it’s some sort of fusion of taste.
Talk of Radiohead aside, were there certain albums or artists that inspired this record?
It’s probably different for each song. In the production especially, I guess. Working with Joe Chiccarelli [was an influence]: he’s worked with Beck and mixed stuff, but if you look at who he’s worked with it is just ridiculous. He’s an absolute genius. The influences came from all over the place, I remember at one time I heard The Who’s ‘Magic Bus’ on the radio when I was driving to the studio and I was like, we’ve gotta have claves on ‘Sleeping Lessons’, the first song on the album. So moments like that happened, and they’re all over the record.
The gigantic opening is something like Arcade Fire or Interpol…
Yeah, I love those records. It’s sort of connected but it wasn’t something as blatant as that; none of it was that blatant. It would have been some subconscious connection, yeah.
Do you feel really proud of this record?
Yeah, I feel good about it, and I feel really proud. I exhausted myself. I keep getting ideas of things I could do, maybe, but it’s more to add, not change really.
What’s the plan with this album?
The album comes out at the end of January and then we tour the States. Then Europe, so we should be back in the UK around April, or in the summer at least to play festivals. We’d love to play Glastonbury, especially because last time there was a mix up and we were on the bill and none of us knew about it and we had all these other things and we had to cancel.
What are your hopes for the record?
We really wanna have a good video, as we’ve just finished the record and we really want to have one of those great videos which really takes everything to another level, and I really want to nail the video. It’d be really cool to have that, but we still don’t have a lot of money and good videos are real expensive – good directors are expensive, but we’re trying to figure that out.
Do you feel with videos online in low-quality streams, and the way in which iTunes compression lowers the quality of the production, that all the expense and attention to detail is belittled somewhat?
Maybe that’s something we should try to let people know about. Then again, there’s the positive aspect of just being able to download something from anywhere. But I still want to be able to go into a record shop in 20 years; I don’t want the tiny boutique record shop disappear, and I don’t think it will. People will always still be buying those great vinyl records that I grew up with.
Do you think that’s something this generation doesn’t have affection for?
Maybe that’s something we need to change, but maybe we don’t; maybe people like me and you, we are just old fashioned. Maybe it’s bullshit and we’re just being ridiculous, and next year there will be a new format that’s beautiful in its own way and next year we’ll be like, “Remember when we downloaded mp3s?”
It does feel like maybe there’s a change coming… like DVD albums, but probably something more inventive than that?
It’s expensive and costing lots to do. Somehow it means the people with a shit load of money begin to control that process and that’s what makes it suck, as usual. So unless we can get videos made for an extremely low cost, it won’t change.
And then the tape stops and more beers are bought. Talk turns to random subjects ranging from The Sea And Cake to ‘was Robin Hood the first communist?’.
The new Shins album, Wincing The Night Away, is released on January 29 via Sub Pop/Transgressive; DiS's review is to follow. The album's first single 'Phantom Limb' is released physically on January 22.
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