When I talk to James Mercer ahead of the release of ‘Port Of Morrow’, we barely mention The Shins.
We don't go into detail about the new album, and we barely touch on the end of their deal with Sub Pop. What we talk about, for the most part, is the gap between 2007's ‘Wincing The Night Away’, and the new record. Two important things happened in the intervening years: Heath Ledger died, and Mercer founded Broken Bells with producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). As he explains it, one thing is inextricably linked to the other, and those things together took him away from his acclaimed indie rock group — and eventually back to it. But the story starts a bit earlier, in high school.
“I am somebody who is a fucking late bloomer. Like, fucking late,” Mercer laughs. “I was very shy in high school, then in my twenties I really locked down with a few very close friends. I held on tight to that small social group, which was my original band Flake, and the few people around us who I was able to relate to. In my thirties, I got signed — and suddenly I had to do things like this, have interviews like this, and it was terrifying. It's social anxiety — I don't know why some people have it and some don't.”
Mercer got used to his crippling fear of interviews, but he never got over it. At first, he says, he couldn't feel his fingers. But after ‘Oh, Inverted World’ was released in 2001, and he was forced to stare down music journalists in every corner of the globe, the numb terror subsided to an intense discomfort; he figured he was doing fine. Then, in 2008, Heath Ledger overdosed on pain medication and left a sea of bewildered friends to mourn him. Mercer wasn't one of them.
“I was asked to go and sing at [Heath's] memorial service in LA,” he explains. “I went down and they had me sing a Neil Young song. Sitting in the audience and watching these people who were very close to Heath, what was revealed to me was that this person had lived so full-on, and really emotionally engaged a lot of people around him. He was very present, and they were very affected by his passing. I realised at that moment that my memorial service, if I was to have one, would not have felt that way, because I was so closed off. It was really disturbing. I was upset being there.
“When I started playing in the band and we were signed, I became challenged by new social engagements — and that was good for me,” Mercer continues. “Some people look at life and they kind of see it as a wonderful, fascinating thing to explore, almost as if they were in a video game or something: 'This is your avatar, this is the world we've created for you; go, explore, and enjoy yourself.' I realised it was much more than a game to me — way too much. I realised I really needed to figure this thing out and learn to open up.”
When Mercer got home from LA, a friend called and invited him to go to Chile, hike through the wilderness of Patagonia and maybe make some music. He would have said no before Ledger's funeral, but he decided to say yes — and that made all the difference.
“It was almost like setting a match to a bunch of dry grass where each blade sets light to the next,” he muses. “It was like a prod to me — don't live your life [so] filled with fear and inside of yourself that you forget to actually experience life; you've got to break out of that … I wanted to connect with people, and you see people around you that do — they're comfortable with other people and they have a charismatic way about them, like Heath — and you want that; but for whatever reason it doesn't come naturally to you, and you have to practice.
“Honestly, it's something that I wish someone had told me in my past. You feel that fear, you feel that push to introvert, but the thing you need to understand is that… it is unhealthy to close yourself off from other human beings; you are a social creature and that's in your genetics … Saying yes to things and going and doing things… It's uncomfortable at first, but you just get better.”
When Mercer got back from Chile, Burton asked him to start a band, and he said yes again. He wasn't sure if he wanted to make another Shins record, and this was an opportunity to step outside that world, and see if he coped. Touring the world with Broken Bells, off the back of their self-titled 2010 album, Mercer found he did just fine. More than that, he realised that the world is filled with kind, talented people who are worth getting to know.
“I feel like there was a dependence that I had on the social side of [having] my bandmates, you know, and it wasn't healthy — not on my side … I relied on them too much … Once I realised that I could engage other people in this [creative] pursuit, it really was a strong draw. I explained this to them, and they've been supportive, which I really appreciate,” he says.
The Shins have always been a James Mercer project, from the minute he holed up in his bedroom and committed the first demos to four-track tape; he writes the songs, he sets the creative direction. The cast of players that records with him and tours with him has shifted over the years, so there wasn't much of a demand to go back to the band and start working again. In the end, ‘Port Of Morrow’ came about because Mercer had drifted far enough away to feel like The Shins was less of a prison and more of a home — something he could change to reflect his newfound openness and the sense of opportunity he had found in the wider music community. As Mercer tells it, the album was born out of a much “happier and healthier” time of his life.
“It's always been about me trying to realise these songs with the people around me, but now the circle of people around me has grown,” he explains. “I have a lot of people around me now who are friendly and talented and I want to engage all of them as a collective to work on and contribute to The Shins' music.
“I'm guessing that me writing all the songs alone is going to change in future; with all the people that I know now and the skill level and taste level that a lot of them have, I could see myself writing songs with a lot of these people — including the guys from The Shins. I'm in a more comfortable world now and I don't want to hold it all to my chest anymore.”
The Shins play Splendour In The Grass at Belongil Fields in Byron Bay, July 27-29. ‘Port Of Morrow’ is out now.