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SHINS TO THE BONE WITH HEARTWORMS

March 9, 2017

 

Short, slim, dressed down and friendly, James Mercer is so relaxed this morning, in the quiet bar of an inner-city hotel, he must imagine he's back in Portland about to order an artisinal chai frappe.


 

Not that there's anything painfully hip, Portlandia-style, about the founder/singer/songwriter of The Shins who has lived in the on-trend mountain city for 15 years making songs with '60s roots and '90s edginess.


 

Yes, that is despite the band once being the epitome of utterly hip when a shout-out about one of his songs in the 2004 film Garden State ("New Slang will change your life," Natalie Portman's character gushed) turned them from underground favourites to must-have pop accessory.


 

While not a hipster, Mercer is not a some recalcitrant when it comes to modern ways either. He was an early adopter of Instagram, heavily using it with creative photography, eventually compiling his posts for a book he sold from his site.


 

More recently he's developed an "organic collage" app for Instagram called Pasted, working on the basis "you can use social media in a way that you curate it and you can do it with your personality".


 

The Shins, like his Instagram, reflects Mercer's personality: from the designs of their t-shirts and images on the album sleeve to the direction of the band's songs and the production of the new record, Heartworms.


 

Having shed previous members of the band along the way, he is The Shins. So there's no one else to "blame" for the long wait for a new Shins album.


 

Though to be fair, in the five years between the last Shins album, 2012s Port Of Morrow and Heartworms, Mercer was hardly idle.


 

Apart from developing his Pasted app he made an album with producer Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, toured it, and with his partner the designer Marisa Kula has become a father for the third time, all of them girls.

And it's those girls – the eldest nine, the youngest two-years-old - whose influence can be seen on Heartworms, most particularly in the first single, Name For You. The song takes a hard view of the language and the attitudes we apply to young women and the dangers that entails.


 

"I would like to see femininity respected the way that masculinity is respected," says Mercer. "We seem to worship masculinity and men in music and the things they say, the attitudes they have and the things they sing about."


 

If he sounds like a father on that song, is Mercer the kind of father who wants to protect or let free? Is he a background parent or a helicopter one?


 

"Oh my god the struggle in your mind about that, how much do I let my little daughter have?" he says ruefully. "You want your daughters to be streetwise too, to a certain extent, so what stage do you introduce that and what does that mean?


 

The world has changed some in the five years – or four years and ten months as Mercer likes to clarify – between albums, so where do the Shins fit in it now? Do they fit in? Should they even try to?


 

"Since the beginning, I've wondered that," the 46-year-old Mercer says. "I know that we have a lot of fans who are quite young. We have teenagers who approach me on Instagram or post things saying they've just bought a Shins record, and a lot of college kids still.


 

"I like that that we seem to be a band that's passed down."


 

The albums these teens and college students, as well as the ones who have been on board since before Garden State, are getting has a series of tensions in play.


 

Tension between clarity and distortion; between stepping forward and holding back; between confidence and insecurity; between been part of the moment and one step aside observing it.


 

"I feel like getting a bit more brave but there's a certain reserve there too," Mercer says. "There is tension and it's tension in the process too: the fear of taking something too far and maybe regretting not doing enough."


 

Not that there's something inherently wrong about tension he argues; it can actually be the best thing in the creative process.


 

"I have a tendency to see both sides of an argument," he says, acknowledging that they can sometimes drive the other party batty.


 

"But I think that's good because otherwise you consign yourself to never growing."


 

Spoken like a proper parent.


 

"I like to play devil's advocate when I'm properly liquored up," he adds.


 

Maybe not so parental.

 

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