Q&A: James Mercer

The Shins frontman on the band's new lineup, battling writer's block and hating televangelists

James Mercer of Broken Bells (and The Shins) performs on stage during the final day of The Big Chill festival at Eastnor Castle Deer Park on August 8th, 2010 in Ledbury, UK. Credit: Tommy Jackson/Redferns/Getty

Ever since their 2001 debut, the Shins have been governed by singer-songwriter James Mercer. It came as a shock to many fans, though, when Mercer began replacing his bandmates with various touring lineups after 2007's Wincing the Night Away. "I want to work with other musi­cians — and I want to be able to work with the same guys, too," says Mercer, who recorded the Shins' new LP, Port of Morrow, with both old and new collaborators. "It's less dramatic than people would imagine." Mercer checks in from his Portland, Oregon, home before kicking off a spring tour that will take him to Coachella, Bonnaroo and his home state, Hawaii. "Everyone loves Hawaii," says Mercer. "Maybe not — some­body was telling me they were disappointed by Hawaii. But I love it."

Why did you decide to shuffle the band's lineup?
I don't know how much there is to talk about. For a long time, I wanted to make sure the Shins were perceived as a band — even more than we were. Maybe my im­portance in the band was something I didn't care to exaggerate, and now I'm pay­ing the price. The Shins is the ve­hicle for what I write is how I look at it.

What gets you in the mood to write?
I'm constantly picking up the gui­tar and trying to think of parts and concepts. It's what I enjoy most, fiddling around, hum­ming, seeking that weird little endorphin rush you get when you come up with something new. The rest of it — writing lyrics — is homework.

You lived in England for a few years growing up. Did that shape your taste in music?
Hugely. I was going to Woolworths and buying the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead and Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain. Those were such pop records over there — you could discover them on accident at the supermarket.

Your dad was a musician, right?
He was a singer and a guitar player, into country-and-western stuff. He was born on a cattle ranch in Montana — he's a real-deal country guy who was calling out square dances as a teenager.

"New Slang" really blew you up when it was in Garden State in 2004. Where did you record it?
In a little studio apartment in Albuquerque. I was being honest about this melancholy that I felt at the end of my twenties. I had to say goodbye to being a kid, but I didn't know where I was headed — and I was fucking in debt.

How much did you owe?
Between $5,000 and $8,000. Not good. I was using credit cards to buy equipment and pay rent, and working part-time in a factory that made sconces. Then we got a little chunk of money for signing with Sub Pop, and got licensing deals and stuff. That really helped.

Right, when "New Slang" was in a McDonald's ad. How much did that pay?
I'm not going to tell you. It was enough to get me out of debt, and enough for me to make what was a very hard decision.

Port of Morrow is an actual port in Or­egon. Why'd you name the album for it?
I'd never been there, but the name is so poetic, like some de­parture point on the River Styx. In the song "Port of Morrow," I'm talking about what it is to be an athe­ist or agnostic — whatever I am. There's a line in that song about a preacher who cries out a "warning of phony sorrow." When I was writing the lyrics, I had the TV on in my hotel room and Jimmy Swaggart was talk­ing about how children will go to hell if you don't give them the bullshit. Because I have chil­dren, I felt an anger that's hard to describe — like I was watch­ing a fucking Nazi. I wanted to reach into his chest and rip his heart out.

Do you often write with the TV on?
Yeah, it's to keep my­self from getting bored or something. I grew up with the TV on. I'm a very American kid in that way.