Incendiary interview James Mercer of The Shins

I met Johnny Marr (guitarist of The Smiths) recently, in Portland. He has joined a Portland band, so I met him at a BBQ, fucking Johnny Marr!

I met James Mercer of The Shins at Tolhuis in Amsterdam Noord on a beautiful warm mid October day.  A week before my boyfriend and I had just moved to Amsterdam Noord, the green land mass just across the IJ River from the back of Central Station.  It is always refreshing talking to musicians which is more. To top that off, chatting with interesting and down to earth sorts really makes the whole experience even more worthwhile for me. And James Mercer seemed very relaxed, I believe feeling right at home in Amsterdam, surrounded by all this water.  We discuss the similarities between Portland and Amsterdam weather wise, buying and decorating houses, movies, the ocean, and of course their third and newest album Wincing The Night Away which comes out on the 23rd of January 2007.


IN: Firstly I am not sure if my mic is going to work!  So I might take notes as well.


JM: Okay? Why, what happened?


IN: I found some dried poppies by the side of the walkway, I put them in my bag and now... (I shake my ipod around and my microphone attachment rattles with the sound of hundreds of poppy seeds trapped inside.)


JM: No way!  They all went in?  (He grabs the ipod to inspect it and gives it a shake.)


After that intro we start talking about buying housing.  In one of the bios I found on the internet was humorously written by a band members new age spacey ex-girlfriend Elise.


JM: Yeah, the house I use to live in was a sort of old speakeasy.  It was kind of in the ghetto and it had been an after hours club.  The house was built in 1926 and there was a big bar downstairs.  It was more an illegal bar, not specifically because of prohibition.  Just a place where you could do drugs and drink in the ghetto in the 1960's. But I moved to the other side of town now. Moved on up, out of the ghetto.


IN: It's probably not the ghetto anymore anyways.


JM: Yeah, it is changing everywhere, it's gentrifying.


IN: It's definitely happening here; the city seems to be expanding.


JM: David Bowie apparently bought a house in Amsterdam.


IN:  On the Shin's myspace there was music video competition for Current TV?


JM: Basically, film us while we are playing this song, and Current TV will edit it and they will show it on their show.  It is a cool channel.  It's mostly amateur documentaries made by kids. Nowadays everybody's got a video camera, on his or her digital camera or phone.  Current TV helps to edit the footage and gets aired on cable TV.


IN:  Let's talk about the film Garden State.  When the two main characters first meet, the character played by Natalie Portman actually makes Largeman, played by writer and director Zach Braff listen to a Shins song. Was that written into the script? How did that come about?


JM:  Yeah, it was (written into the script).  Earlier on, even before Zach Braff had the funding, we received the treatment for the film and specifically that he wanted to use our song.  At that time Natalie Portman wasn't involved, I mean it was just going to be this little indie film, the girl walks in and plays him (Largeman) this song. We've allowed other filmmakers to use our music just to see what they'll do with it. It was almost like getting a free video out of it. Then it, (Garden State) just became this phenomena and it was almost two years later. It was a really big commercial for the album! (Smiles) It was great for our band.  It did wonders for our career.



IN: After something like that... does the phone just never stop ringing?


JM: We had a lot of licensing offers and we also started selling a lot more records, as well as sold out shows, especially colleges.  It was big. We were exposed to a whole new audience. Before that it was really just word of mouth, and that was particularly why it took so long for the second record to come out. The exposure had doubled our audience and we toured the first album twice.


IN: This was the first advance CD that I received that really came with a warning, (reading torn sticker on CD) "If this sticker is broken, return it to the person who gave this to you immediately!"  I was really afraid to put it on my computer or play it at work.


JM: Yeah, they are really worried about it leaking early. The official advance copies won't be watermarked like this one is. The worldwide release for WINCING THE NIGHT AWAY is January 23, 2007.


IN: Through out there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland theme.


JM: Yeah, that fantasy stuff. 


IN: Yeah, musically and lyrically as well, one song you actually say," Off with her head"!


JM: I wanted the feeling of the overall album to have some sort of mystery to it, an atmosphere of some magical situation. The dreamy nature of sleepiness, with spooky sounds at times.


IN: One of my really good friends described once to me the music of the Animal Collective as music made by children if you locked them in a studio and made them drink Absinthe. A magical, mythical wondrous adventure of sound and the new album defiantly also embodies these same senses/emotions.


JM: Right. Cool.


IN: In your other albums I never really felt such a direct collection to The Smiths. Especially the song Sea Legs.


JM: Like melodically?


IN: Yeah, rhythmically, a bit dark, but the music is still always light.  There is some Morrissey in your voice too!


JM: I know!  Somehow that happens in a couple of the songs, Girl Sailor and Sea Legs. I really felt those songs could be produced in the way that The Smiths did stuff. It's funny actually; I met Johnny Marr (guitarist of The Smiths) recently, in Portland. He has joined a Portland band, so I met him at a BBQ, fucking Johnny Marr!  I didn't know who he was it first. I was just talking to him, and he was like, yeah, I'm Johnny... then I recognized him. He was staying in Portland for a while, working on the record. I think he has some big fancy house outside of London.


IN: Who produced this album?


JM: I produced it with Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, U2). He is an amazing guy, I actually knew him through a good friend and we had drinks and I knew he worked in the music business, but I didn't know what exactly he did, turn out he's this great producer and mixing engineer. He's phenomenally talented and has been doing this since the late 70's.  He worked with Frank Zappa and... everybody basically.


IN: Sea Legs is a real departure musically... it is more like AIR.  Is that the single?


JM: Well there is talk of that one being the single here.  And having Phantom Limbs the single in the States. I leave that up to the people that do our marketing.


IN: Yeah, I felt like Phantom Limbs represents The Shins typical sound more, but Sea Legs is just a fantastic song!


JM: Thanks! Cool. It is very different. Yeah, Jonathan Poneman, the guy who owns and runs Sub Pop loves that song. That was his pick.


IN: Do you think, foresee what you'll be experimenting with that sort of musical progression further?  It borders a bit more on electronic.


JM: I would like to. It's modern, it's really fun to do that type of stuff too, and it goes quickly because once you get the programming set up it is basically done and you can tweak it more easily. It is cool.


IN: Yeah. This is how I feel that Radiohead has progressed.


JM: Oh Yeah, now there's a band that has really went that direction, and THANK GOD they did. It is really cool. Also Stereolab's stuff, as it gets more and more complex!  I love electrronica. My secret fantasy is to enter a gay disco and hear Sea Legs being played! Maybe it is too slow, I am sure someone will do a remix!


IN: So, on song writing, it this like your diary/photo album for this last period of your life?


JM: It sort of is. I was going through a time were I wasn't sleeping well; night-time becomes a theme, staying up in the twilight hours and the quietness of being left alone to ponder. I was going to the ocean, going to the water and surfing and things like that.


IN: Seems like there are two main places in your life, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. Basically dry desert and rocky watery coast.


JM: I moved to Albuquerque the first time after elementary school. I spent elementary school in Germany, and then moved to New Mexico, my dad was in the Air Force. Went to middle school there, it's a strange place. It's a fairly hostile place, the geographical location is pretty but it is rough town. For me it is kind of home. After going to high school in England I came back and went to college there and started playing in bands.


IN: That was also in the bio it said that you were in a Dinosaur Jr. cover band.  Was that true?


JM: I was in a band that covered a few Dinosaur Jr. songs yeah! We liked those guys.  We actually played recently with J. Mascis opening up for us doing his solo thing. It was really cool!


IN:  Hey, have you seen The Inconvenient Truth or do you have any thoughts?


JM: I would definitely go see it, simply because it's your vote, putting your money down to support awareness. I think it is scary and there are elements that seem positive, there seems to be solutions.  he biggest thing that was striking for me with this film was this relationship with carbon dioxide because we can go back 300 years and see the CO2 levels and the temperature and see how perfectly they correlate. In the last 30 years the CO2 levels have gone off the chart and the temperature are now starting to show. More trees, less cars, LESS OIL!  LESS BURNING OIL! If we were just burning anything other then petroleum that has been locked away under the ground forever it would be BETTER!


IN: You don't have a hybrid car yet do you?


JM: We have a bio diesel!  It is a 2002 VW Golf and we buy bio diesel, it is less expensive and better. 


IN: I always liked your cover of the We Become Silhouettes by The Postal Service that you guys do... which has a similar theme. Great lyrics.  I love TPS, but don't connect at all to Death Cab For Cutie.


JM: Yeah, me neither. Again it is that modern electronic thing.


IN: When and where did you get the news you guys were going to get signed to Sub Pop?


JM: That was like a dream. We were living in New Mexico.  Huge deal. 


IN: Hey I brought you some wallpaper. We just wallpapered a wall in our apartment, and I was listening to the album and staring at our new wallpaper and thinking about Alice In Wonderland. (Pulls out sample of wallpaper


JM:  Of my goodness!  This is great! 


IN: We use to live next to this great wallpaper store in Den Haag, owned and run by the same family for 6 generations. (We start pointing out things we see) This is like the Cheshire cat, and...


JM: even this is like a moustache of some sort, wow.


IN: This is like a ram... and these falling leaves... and this like sliced open tulip.


JM: I'm totally going to show my wife, we are looking for wallpaper for our entry hall.


IN: I think it is called Dutch Wallpaper or Dutch Wall Covering. It's a trip.


Words: Zoe E. Gottehrer