Last time I met James Mercer was on the eve of the release of Wincing The Night Away. Today’s meeting is a little different. I’m in Sony Records’ London offices, the British home to Columbia Records who look after Mercer's new label Aural Apothecary.
I’m told “you’ve got 25 mins”, and the door swings shut, leaving the pair of us sat in a sound proof room with gold and platinum discs for pop records sparkling on the walls.
It’s a far cry from our previous meeting, which took place in a pub. You couldn't have wished for a better drinking partner. Mr Mercer was one of the most considerate and thoughtful gentleman I’d met, let alone interviewed, and forced me to question many of those ‘never meet your heroes’ theories. Back then, we talked over pints for an hour or two about everything from televised war to literature so bleak that it should come with a suicide warning. Dictaphone switched off, interview over, we went for a steak and he told the folks from his previous label Sub Pop some good news.
But that was then and this is five years later, and a lot has changed (although James is still as polite and thoughtful as I remember). Armed with a pad full of theories and questions from the DiS community, this is what happened when I met James Mercer for a second time, having spent a week or two with his/their new record Port of Morrow (which is out now).
Sean, DiS: The day we last met, you’d just started telling people you were just about to have your first child, so I’m guessing that’s had an impact on…
James Mercer: My life?
On your life, yeah, but I imagine its also possibly trickled into the songs, too…
Yeah, y’know I think having kids just changes your perspective about things. Discovering things that I probably didn’t find that interesting to ponder, suddenly become moving or important…
I think I noticed a few lines about “creation”, rather than what’s happening right now [which he seemed pre-occupied by on Wincing... and in some of the Broken Bells lyrics]. It seems like the themes of this record stretch back in time, perhaps to a simpler era, seemingly in search of some understanding about now based on history but I don’t know if that’s me projecting and hearing something in the record that I want to hear?
I’m not sure, it’s maybe at this point difficult for me to have a lot of perspective on it [the new album] because it’s so fresh, but I know that having kids has made me think and care more about people in general. And it’s made me more concerned with violence and stuff like that. I’m a bit more of a bleeding heart than I was. I wasn’t one of those kids who really cared about issues in the wider world, I felt like it was beyond anything that I could do anything about. But now, I think I take things more to heart.
More to heart? It has always sounded to me like you’ve always taken things quite to heart?
But I guess in the past it was more direct, and there were things that were more closely related to me and more closely affecting me, but now it’s like things seem to have an impact on me that are more global concerns.
When did this record start for you? Because previously you’ve been busy with a film, Broken Bells and it’s been five years since the last record…
Pretty much as soon as I was done with the Broken Bells touring I began going through my old micro-cassette tapes and sorting through ideas and everything. I think it was by about May of last year that I was starting to record ideas and get my idea about how the songs might be structured.
Was there a song where it started feeling like it might be the start of the new record?
The first one that I really felt pretty positive about, and felt that was going to be pretty cool was ‘Bait and Switch’ and that was partly because we had went and played it live, as a band.
For you, are you writing constantly? Is this a collection of a few years of songwriting?
In a very casual - maybe even lazy - way, I’m always writing. I enjoy picking up the guitar and playing and whenever I’m doing that, a certain amount of that time I spend just trying to make something up. It’s just a fun habit for me. Maybe I mess around with trying to do some cover song just for fun, to make my wife laugh or something.
Were you sitting down with a notebook full of a few years’ worth of half-thought lyrics?
Yeah, but most of my lyrics come together after the song is pretty well written, and I use that as inspiration for the lyrics…I mean, I don’t know if this is true but it’s the way I’ve always done it…I feel like the music is somehow going to give you a mood and you can then at least get some sort of a clue as to what needs to be put down there. I just remember kinda struggling with ‘Port of Morrow’ because it’s kinda dark, the chords are minor and it sounds dramatic…and thinking “what’s dramatic?” So it took a while to figure out what that song was about, but I used the music to guide me.
Obviously it’s the title track of the album but it’s sort of unclear why you’ve chosen Port of Morrow as the title…
Really it’s just that phrase. There’s a sign by the side of the road that says “Port of Morrow” and I always just wondered about it, I guess. When writing that song it popped into my head and I was thinking of it as death, like what’s beyond the exit point, the “port of morrow”, the port into tomorrow?
Whereas I was thinking you might be thinking about the future…
Right, exactly, everyone’s future is death… that’s a very dark way to look at it, but in the song it just happened to fit in with that thing. Like the ace of spades, port of morrow, life is death, death is life.
There are quite a few idioms on the album; I don’t know whether you’ve got a few favourites or whether you’ve been collecting them over some time?
Can you remind me of any?
Not off the top of my head…
I try and take an idiom and turn it a bit, there’s something about that I enjoy I guess.
This is something that maybe I’m over-noticing but you seem to have got into rhyming a lot more, I was wondering whether you consciously delved into one of those rhyming dictionaries?
I remember about three of four years ago, there was a Bob Dylan song I heard and he was just really using rhyme effectively and blatantly, almost like “this is about rhyme” this whole experiment…I had a new take on that from that moment.
I think it’s on ‘It’s Only Life’ or 'No Way Down' where it almost sounds like you might be slightly chuckling to yourself about how many rhymes you can fit in…
Yeah, and that was the Dylan thing that was just like “bam bam bam” and you’re like “What?”
Have you been to Port of Morrow?
No, I haven’t. I looked it up online the other night because people are asking me now over here, so I looked it up. It’s this industrial port and very boring.
Did Greg Kurstin produce the record, because a couple of places say he did and a couple say he just played on it…
Yes, he did and he plays on it.
It’s an interesting choice. I saw a full list of records he has produced and it doesn’t seem that unobvious a choice but when you look at the headline names, with the likes of Kylie and…
He gets those sorts of gigs and I’m not sure how he manages to do that, but he’s done really well. He’ll work with a small little thing and then he’ll do Lily Allen and he can kinda do anything. He can do all this big pop stuff and then, when we were working, what he really brought to this was an avant-garde synth edge to things.
Was it just the two of you in the studio?
Yeah, I’m like co-producer and he was producer.
What was the process like, had you worked together on anything before?
No, he was a friend of mine and it was similar to the way the Joe Chiccarelli thing happened though I knew Greg a little bit better than I knew Joe when we started [working on Wincing the Night Away]. He is my friend Rachel’s husband, so I met him through her and we’d go out and have dinner when I was in LA. He’s a really cool guy and I liked him a lot…then I learned he was producing records and then I listened to some of the stuff he did like The Bird and the Bee which I really liked. I just was like, he’s totally cool and I know I can communicate with him – and that for me is a big thing. I knew that his personality would fit with mine and he’s a considerate person and it wouldn’t be a situation where somebody was trying to railroad you, which I don’t respond very well to.
I had a feeling it’d work great. I went down and we loaded up a song and we hadn’t committed to anything. He just started fiddling with an old 70s synthesiser and transformed the whole feel of the song really quickly in a positive, interesting way. By the end of the hour I was like “let’s do it, let’s work together, you’re hired!”
Was there anything you learned from this process that you’ve not really done before? I guess with Broken Bells there were a few things you hadn’t done on previous Shins albums...?
On this record, I would say that there are things I think I learned about myself with the Broken Bells thing. I sing in different ways on the Broken Bells record than I had ever recorded and I’d never been serious about doing it that way. So I learned “oh I can do falsetto”…I think I got a little more adventurous because of Broken Bells and on this record I just sort of expanded a little bit and had more fun experimenting. But so much of it is Greg, too, the stuff that we talked about when we started working on the record were pretty avant-garde bands from the 70s and stuff, like Faust and Can…as far as to get a vibe sound-wise.
Perhaps I can use that as the lead quote for the interview just to confuse everyone with what the record sounds like…
Ha. I know, but you hear sonically some of the sounds but it’s not like we do these long droning, drum things.
Was there anything in particular that you were listening to? When I first heard ‘Simple Song’ the first thing that came to mind was ‘Time After Time’ I don’t know whether it’s the phrasing or the pace of it. I was curious as to whether there was anything in particular…
I’m trying to remember that song…that’s interesting! The Cyndi Lauper song? Melodically?
I think it’s the pace at the start and the shift as well. I looked on Twitter and there were four or five other people who said the same thing, so I wasn’t completely alone in my madness.
I’m gonna have to listen to it again, you’re scaring me!
I was curious with ‘Simple Song’, here’s an element of universality to the song, especially in lyrics so I was curious if that’s the concept of the song…
I remember it was after Wincing The Night Away was done…maybe it was before we really started touring for Wincing The Night Away and I was sitting on the living room floor and Marissa was there, my wife, and I was playing guitar just messing around and all of a sudden that marching sound and rhythm came in [James then goes dum-dum-dum-dah, tish]. Then I started singing and came up with the first two verses really quick, and then it just sat there in that state up until about May of last year.
Was there anything in particular that you were trying to accomplish with this record? It feels like you found, on the last record, a kind of electronic and acoustic guitar sound that worked together. It feels like you found your palate, almost..
There’s a lead taken from things like ‘Sea Legs’, from the last record and a little bit probably from Broken Bells. So what did I want to accomplish? Actually when you asked that I realised that what would be really cool…because I think we did a good record, I think it’s artistically pretty interesting, it’s not super avant-garde or whatnot but I think it is interesting . So what would be really cool if it’s successful, that’s the coolest thing. Like a band like Radiohead, they do this artful stuff but it’s successful and what a dream that is, you get to be cool and popular at the same time. It’s not like we’re aspiring to sound like a band like that because that’s probably too difficult…
But it seems like you’ve got quite an obsession with great songwriting…but you’ve managed to allow other ways of texturing it that gives an enhancement to it. But that’s not really a question...
Yes, that’s good to hear.
So I guess that feeds in to that we’re sat in Sony’s office and with Broken Bells that wasn’t a big step or a surprise to anyone. I was curious for you if there was a move from an independent? I’m guessing having two children probably makes part of the…
Well, that’s an interesting question…
Is it your own label, it seems a little unclear…
Yeah, I mean I get to have my imprint on the thing, it’s not like I have another office, or Apothecary offices like this. Obviously Columbia is in charge of marketing this thing and it’s their infrastructure and their team that’s going to make this thing happen. I don’t know anything about that stuff, really. My management does, though, so really it’s my management that helped me decide where to go for this record. I really took their advice, I really trust Ian and Monotone, y’know?
Sorry, that isn’t really a selling out accusation or anything…
Yeah, I know…yeah. So I just took their lead on it.
You’ve played a couple of shows with the new line-up, and I was reading some of the stuff Greg who’d produced the album had done with Gwen Stefani – he’d worked her live show with her and I don’t know whether that was in terms of the show or the sound. I was curious as to whether you’d seen those Gaga shows and if there’s a new Shins stage show we can expect?
Yeah, we’re doing a whole Gaga thing! That’d be awesome. We ought to though, man, figure something out, put some spice into this mix. The thing about Greg is he’s a terrific musician so he’ll do gigs for big names and he’s just there to play piano, because he’s just one of those guys who can nail it first time, which was another great appealing thing about working with him. It was that I would have this real partner who would play all this stuff and would help out that way as well.
You obviously write a lot of the record sitting down with an acoustic guitar and some of the record sounds a lot more like a “one dude and an acoustic guitar” a lot of the rest of it sounds like you’ve written it because it’s going to work really big and live. I’m just curious as to whether there’s sometimes a frustration with you that have to write stuff that might be bigger and be more radio and be more of a live show kind of thing.
Like I’d prefer to do more quiet acoustic things?
No, no I’m not saying that it sounds like you prefer it but that it sounds like this record has more of an even balance than some of the other records.
Well, I don’t know…it seems to be that I just end up writing. Half the time the songs seem to need that treatment of something quiet. I don’t know how that works. Why don’t I just write one kind of song, because some people seem to do album after album of quiet acoustic songs and I don’t know why I’m not like that and how it works.
I was trying to find if there was something that held the record together and I was curious of there was anything for you that you think…
...that was a thread?
Because I imagine there’s stuff that didn’t make the record…
Right. Y’know maybe it’s just sonically Greg engineering in the way he did and we certainly talked about that, how to make these songs fit together and fit on this album together. We did end up dropping two songs because they didn’t fit it seemed to us. So maybe if those songs were on there you wouldn’t be saying that or that “this record’s all over the place!”
Is there anything that lyrically holds the record together?
It’s funny because ‘Simple Song’ is a very almost jubilant song, it’s very happy and I’m being very positive about some things in my life. And then there’s some real dark songs, like ‘Port of Morrow’, that song is just dark, it’s about how strange it is to be a human being and see human beings dying and human beings killing – that’s heavy dark stuff. There’s songs about love, there’s songs about death, there’s songs about…
Foxes in fairtyales…
...I’ve been thinking that love and death are the two themes. Maybe there’s a theme in this dichotomy to mean that life has this two-sided coin thing, one dark, one light so that beauty and the grotesque are always mingled together. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the last five years or so.
You’ve not been sitting down reading situationist manifestos about the power of death to influence life?
No, I haven’t, but I’ve heard of situationism recently but I’m not quite sure of what it is…
It was a movement in France in the 50s and 60s…
A philosophical movement?
Yeah. Lots of the things seem to be quite scattered…I helped to set-up a website called The Quietus and that means ‘speak every word as if it’s your last’, it’s a situationist idea. Chuck Palahniuk touches upon it quite a lot, like Fight Club is based on this idea…the scene where that guy’s got the gun to the back of his head to inspire him to do the things he always wanted to do... Was there anything you were reading that fed into the record? Last time you told me that the books you were reading were too depressing to mention, that you wouldn’t want anyone to read them…
Yeah…I was probably talking about Blood Meridian, that had a huge effect on me, messed me up – in some ways in a very good way. That would be something that would be up there. You know what I’ve been reading that I really like? The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman, it’s a historical thing, non-fiction, in quite a good and interesting period at the time. I’ve been more interested recently in historical stuff.
You said you’ve been caring a lot more about bigger things happening in the world, is it different events in the world that may have trickled in there unconsciously?
‘No Way Down’ is something I wrote after... in fact, somebody asked me if it was about the Occupy Wall Street stuff. It was something I wrote a while ago, but after the economic decline of 2008. It was after reading this article about how American corporate lobbyists had changed the political situation in the States so that American corporations could hire overseas and manufacture overseas so that it would avoid the union relationships that they had in the States. Which was just such an incredible…like a…I don’t know, I want to say the word “coup”, but that’s not appropriate. Like an incredible chess move, to annihilate the opposition and at the same time annihilate a huge part of the country’s economic base…
We’re just gonna add a load of extras to the chessboard…
Right, exactly. Just kind of [James makes a flinging gesture] toss the chess board…we’re not even playing the game anymore, there you go! It’s funny because when you’re like me and I’m always interested in music equipment and things like that and microphones and it’s hard to buy anything that’s made in the United States, and you end up buying vintage things because we just don’t manufacture things in the States. You can’t have a skilled labour job hardly at all in the States.
There’s a great book called A Whole New Mind, which is about the ways in which Western society needs to adapt to what its skills are which is designing and creating. These are the services which we can provide…
That probably helps us for the next 50 years or something…
It was one of those “on the government reading lists”; I think everyone around the White House read it at some point…
Oh right. I don’t know, I kind of feel like there are some people who aren’t going to be able to design things or be creative in that abstract way. If you have five kids you’re going to have some who are talented in that direction and some who are really terrific at working with their hands, it’s just inherent that personality types and the way our minds work vary. It’s unfortunate that you can’t just be someone who is really good at some more physical thing and be able to make an honest living at it. I don’t know the solution, I know that the unions haven’t always done wonderful things for America but to completely end the relationship seems nihilistic. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever written a song that was so directly about something…and I don’t know if it even comes across.
But it must have affected you enough that you wrote the song in the first place so at least you get an opportunity at times like this to talk about it and people might go look it up…
Yeah, and it’s not like I have a solution to it, but it’s fodder and fuel for my writing process.
I guess if you put the ideas out there’s a hope that amongst tour crowd of fans, there could/should be the people out there helping find solutions... Ok, last few questions. A bunch of people on our messagesboards were wondering if there anything else was going to happen with Broken Bells or if it was just a one-off project?
Yeah, there will. We’ve got a number of songs for the next record already sketched out and some even done, so we will do another record. I’m excited to get back in and Brian is as well, so we’re planning on it.
There’s also been the Portlandia stuff, which you were in one episode of, and I was curious as to whether that was a parallel world in or near Portland?
You do see them filming once in a while…I’ve driven by and it’s there, at it again.
You were in Some Days Are Better Than Others, a film with Carrie [Brownstein] which was out at film festivals; do you know what’s happening with that?
I don’t know what’s happening with that. Matt McCormick directed it and I’m not exactly sure.
People were also asking about the Flake re-issues…
I was just e-mailing with Neil about that, we need to get on that so now that I’ve done this I can put a little bit of time to that but not much because I’m gonna be touring a lot. What I need to do is delegate more and try and get that sorted out because we’d love to release a compilation of the songs we did back then.
I did have one final question… a lot of your lyrics mention drowning and waves…the idea appears in this record again, but you don’t ever mention pitchforks, is there a reason for that?
Ha, you see my reason, my blatant bias. A huge Drowned in Sound fan!
Port of Morrow is out now.
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