Talking anxiety, fear, and redemption with James Mercer

With a career that has spanned over twenty years it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that The Shins’ James Mercer felt complacent within his music. Having become one of the most respected figures in indie rock Mercer has continually pleased fans and critics alike with his honest and timeless songs. His knack for songwriting would appear to be something that comes naturally, but it’s clear that Mercer is a hard working and ambitious musician, one who isn’t satisfied with just sticking to what has worked in the past.

It’s been five years since the release of Port of Morrow, the band teasing the release of their new album back in 2014 with ‘So Now What’ followed by ‘Name For You’ and ‘Mildenhall’ earlier this year. In the time between albums Mercer had a revelation that has seen him strive towards creating music in new and exciting ways. Mercer is now anxious for fans of The Shins to hear Heartworms, the result of his sonic explorations that has given him a new lease on The Shins’ iconic sound.

Back in the producer’s seat for the first time in 10 years, Heartworms has Mercer reflecting on his own relevance and writing songs designed to inspire his two daughters to persevere in the face of adversity. The self-awareness that has made each Shins release both memorable and relatable is still there, along with the band’s earnest compositions that have won them generations of fans.

While Mercer was in the country on a promotional tour we sat down and had an in-depth conversation with him about the new album. Mercer is open about his longevity and what spurs him to continue writing music, emphasizing the importance of taking his time when it comes to writing and producing.

FL: How does it feel to finally be releasing Heartworms given that the first taste was ‘So Now What’ which was released back in 2014?

It’s very exciting! I was hoping to get the record out in 2016 so I’ve been kind of sitting on it. But I’m sure delaying it a little bit was a wise thing to do. I’ve definitely taken advantage of the extra time by going back and tweaking things I thought were finished. The record’s gotten better as a result.

You self-produced Heartworms as well. You’ve had a hand in producing prior to this but it’s the first time you’ve done it all on your own since the first album.

‘Producing’ is a weird word. I’m credited as the producer on Chutes Too Narrow and on Wincing The Night Away I gave co-production credit to Joe Chiccarelli. I’ve produced everything basically except for Port of Morrow, which was Greg Kurstin.

When I’m alone in the studio my imagination can just go wild. I think I come up with better stuff if nobody’s over my shoulder. There’s a lot of little things that you don’t have to worry about if you’re just working alone. I find that I come up with weirder ideas and I’m definitely more adventurous.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that there’s some different elements to The Shins’ sound on Heartworms which might surprise long time fans of the band. What are some of the elements that are different?

I started having fun with an arpeggiator, which is a machine that basically plays a synthesizer for you so you can create these really fast notes that are perfectly laid out. I started using that on the songs here and there and it’s really convenient nowadays because you can tell it exactly the beats per minute that you want and so on. There’s a few songs on Heartworms that have an electronic influence to them, more so than I think we’ve done in the past.

“There’s a lot of little things that you don’t have to worry about if you’re just working alone.”

You’ve also said that your songwriting is the strongest it’s ever been. What do you think has changed?

I allowed myself the time. I think what happens for a lot of bands is that you get into a situation where you just don’t have the time and you’re told “This needs to be done by the end of the week”. And that’s for like the second album! You have your whole life to write the first one and then you tour for a year and they’re like “Gotta strike while the iron’s hot!” Then you go into the studio for three months and come out with an new awesome album. I mean, that’s when it starts to suck.

I wanted to ask you about the artwork for Heartworms and whether it’s connected to the album’s themes at all?

Isn’t it good? Jacob Escobedo who did Port of Morrow did it. I don’t even know much about what his process was! I feel like I just wasted his time for a few months, giving him my ideas and sending him photos saying “What if it was like this? What if we did this?” When I told him the title of the record was Heartworms it just took him a few days and he came back with that. I was like “Ok, done!”. I think it’s maybe the coolest cover ever.

What have been some major influences on the recording and writing of the album? I read that ‘Name for You’ was namely inspired by your daughters and is a song about self empowerment. What have been some other things you’ve drawn inspiration from?

I can run you through a few songs and what inspired me to write them. ‘The Fear’ is about anxiety. It’s about a guy who regrets that he spent so much time allowing anxiety to limit his experience. ‘Half a Million Things’ is about the feeling that you get when there’s so many expectations of you. I think with modern life there’s so many things that you’re supposed to be and it’s really hard to manage all of that. ‘Fantasy Island’ is kind of a semi-fictional account of a guy who feels like he’s at the end of his career and he doesn’t have that much to show for it. He’s looking back on his childhood and feels like he’s wasted his youth. Each song is kind about a different thing.

You have been playing in this band for so long, how do you remain energised?

It’s funny because I only just started realising that I’ve been doing this for a long time. A lot of bands had more success than me and then disappeared. But I don’t have anything else that I’m really very good at! Song ideas still keep popping up and it’s hard for me to imagine just letting them lie there. I still definitely have more to say.

Do you prefer to write a song that’s fictional or do you find it more cathartic to write from an autobiographical perspective?

I think when I’ve written for the sake of catharsis it’s generally to get out a negative feeling that I’ve had about a relationship. It doesn’t take too long and then you’re perspective changes and then you don’t have that feeling anymore. But then youhave to sing the damn song! I think I’ve started to shy away from that sort of thing so if there are things that are kind of personal or autobiographical they’re more mild. For example ‘Mildenhall’ on the new record is sort of a memoir about moving to England when I was a teenager.

You’ve announced a run of dates leading into June. How do you feel about going out on the road?

I’m excited about the new songs and performing them. We have three violinists in the band now – what rock band do you know that has three really great violinists? I’m thinking that the set will be kind of dynamic because we’ll be able to change mode. We’ve even decided to go back through older songs, such as ‘Saint Simon’, and rework them into a new arrangement too. We’re really excited to have that ability. It’s going to be easier for me to concentrate a lot more on singing as well. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

Heartworms is out this Friday March 10 via Sony Music