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The Weekly interview: Shins frontman James Mercer

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In addition to leading the Shins, James Mercer continues to work on the Broken Bells project with Danger Mouse.
Chris Bitonti

I feel like there’s a definite “Shins” sound running through all four records, but each one has its own specific DNA. Do you agree? I think so. Each one sort of had a different production approach. The first record I did on my own, and I took a lot of time doing it. I was sort of learning how to record and kind of learning how to write songs, too. And then for the second one, I incorporated a little bit more professional help. I had Phil Ek help me mix the record, and he sort of went through and tidied up a bunch of the engineering stuff.

For the third one I got even more help. I had Phil record the drums, and I had Joe Chiccarelli help me produce the record and mix it. And this latest one, it was really a traditional relationship with a producer, where he was there early on and we got a lot of the initial sounds together.

Did that traditional producer relationship affect your songwriting approach on Port of Morrow? I think the approach was still the same. [But] you know, there is one instance where he actually suggested a certain chord in a song that worked really well. Which had never really happened to me before (laughs), Usually I have thought it out pretty well and tried every option, but he suggested this one change and it really helped a lot. So, he demonstrated just how versed he is in both songwriting and the engineering, production stuff.

The Details

THE SHINS with Awolnation, Passion Pit, Youngblood Hawke.
December 6, 7 p.m., $39.
The Joint, 693-5222.

It sounds like when you go to start recording the songs are pretty well-formed. It depends. Often times, songwriting is facilitated by recording. If you only have two parts, and you know you need a bridge or something, you can just record it and begin messing with it and the bridge sometimes will reveal itself, because you’re sitting there listening to the song. You get to have a little bit more of that objective, third-person perspective.

Your songs seem so tied in your emotions, your current state. As your life has evolved and you’ve gotten married and had two daughters, how has your songwriting changed? I think as you get older, you experience new things in life and you have new perspectives on old issues. So lyrically, probably, is where you could see some changes in what it is I’m interested in observing. But, the songwriting, the process of sitting there and trying to come up with something interesting melodically, seems to be [similar] … you’re still sitting there with a guitar, or whatever instrument you prefer, playing chords and trying to come up with some rhythmic and melodic interaction that’s engaging.

I know what you mean about new perspectives on old issues. I’ll look back on songs I thought were cliché when I was younger and think, “Oh, I get this now.” Yeah, totally. I mean, we start listening to music when we’re really pretty young, and we get into it pretty heavily. I was really into music at, I don’t know, maybe 11 is when I really started buying stuff. And at 11 (laughs), you just really don’t know what they’re talking about. Whether its a rock ’n’ roll song and they’re singing about sex (laughs). Or it’s just singing about heartbreak that you just can’t relate to. And then, sometimes there’s things like listening to a Bob Dylan song. Now I’m 41, and I’ll listen to stuff he did when he was 20, and I’m shocked at how sophisticated it was and how deeply he was thinking about things that I don’t know if he even actually had yet experienced.

What’s the state of Broken Bells [Mercer’s project with Danger Mouse]? We did about 10 days just recently. I got back from Mexico the other day and before that I had been in LA with Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse], and it was going really well. Just during that 10 days we had a couple things that we felt were really, really strong songs. And then we had a couple other really interesting things that we were stoked about. And before that, we had probably six songs as well, and some of them pretty much done. So we’re pretty close to another record. I’m gonna go down and work some more in February, and we’re hoping to actually finish up the bulk of the recording of the record then.

Do you approach writing for Broken Bells differently than for The Shins? It’s similar … [except] that we do it together. We sit there, and maybe Brian is playing something on the keyboard and I’m sitting there with a guitar and we’re trying to come up with any cool set of chords together. The thing that’s kind of cool about working with Brian is, he’s got a lot of vintage, strange old synthesizer instruments, like a lot of old drum machines and things. You can start out by messing around with just a drum beat and an interesting sound and think “Oh, where can this go?” which I usually don’t end up doing at home.

How did The Shins wind up on the new Holidays Rule compilation? Chris Funk [of The Decemberists], who is a good friend of mine, put that together. I had always wanted to do a Christmas song. I love Christmas songs, and that particular one [“Wonderful Christmastime”] has grown on me over the years. I thought it was a song that was so sparsely recorded, we could elaborate on it and make it more of a traditional-sounding pop song, which I think is what we did. The Paul McCartney version is very arty and very synthesizer-y. So we kind of turned it into more of a Paul McCartney song than it was originally.

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