Photo by Josh Groom
Ahead of the release of their fifth album Heartworms, I sat down with The Shins mastermind James Mercer. We spoke about Heartworms, his writing process and how the band are actually releasing two new albums this year! I guess that makes up for the whole 5 year wait…
When did you start working on Heartworms?
It’s sort of a nebulous thing. I was messing around with songs here and there since basically right after Broken Bells [side project with Danger Mouse] stopped touring. Although I was just realising that ‘The Fear’ is something I’d been messing around with for a while, maybe 10 years I’ve been trying to get that song to come to fruition!
Is that something that’ll happen very often? Where you’ll have an idea bouncing around for a bit before it finally gets recorded?
Yes, it does happen quite a bit. I kind of go through stages and spurts of creativity where I’m coming up with a lot of cool ideas for songs but not really finishing them. I’ll just log the idea and build up a library of more interesting ideas. And then at some point I’ll be like, that thing’s really cool, I’ve gotta figure this out, I’ve gotta make this into a proper song! Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
With ‘The Fear’, the final arrangement also includes string orchestrations. Was that one of those missing elements that suddenly clicked?
Yes, I’d say. I mean, at the same time I wasn’t 100% sure about it, because it really was so different. And even Yuuki [bassist], my partner making this record, felt the same way. We were hesitant to accept this new mode for the song, but it didn’t take long before we couldn’t live without it. If you took it out, you’d miss it. We played it live actually with the strings, and it was really touching, I started to tear up when I was singing it. I think we’re keeping the strings!
With strings on that track and more synth work on some others, is Heartworms a bit more complex, or are you exploring more alternate directions?
I think there was a lot more experimentation on this record than any of the others. I kind of set aside the time to make sure that I could goof off alone with it. I ended up just accidentally finding a bunch of weird sounds that worked!
Have you got a solid writing process when you’re coming up with an album or does it differ from track to track?
It’s pretty consistent, I mean it’s usually me sitting with the acoustic guitar at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee. Either I’m trying to take an idea I already have and elaborate on it or I’m just sitting there attempting to come up with something new. But I find that’s the best time for me to do that, like maybe I’m still in the alpha wave zone, or something from sleep [laughs] and so that’s when I seem to come up with the basic ideas.
Then at what stage in that process do you bring lyrics in?
The lyrics are postponed for as long as possible. I like to procrastinate on them, because it’s kind of a pain in the ass. It’s like blood from a stone type of thing [laughs]. So I just put if off. Finally I have the record fully recorded and start to realise it’d be easier to know how to mix this if there were fucking vocals [laughs]. So that’s when I do it.
Do you draw inspiration from lots of different places, or is there somewhere you consistently go to?
I think there’s themes…I think ‘Painting a Hole’ is a bit about people holding convictions and how that can become dangerous. I think I’ve written about that before. There’s human condition and mortality stuff in ‘Dead Alive’ that I’d written about before, Port of Morrow was sort of about that. So those are a couple of themes I think that I’ve repeated. I do like the songs about unrequited love for some reason [laughs]. I think I just like melancholy basically!
Well, I mean, they obviously work excellently so…
[laughs] stick with it!
The album also includes ‘So Now What’, the track that you wrote for Zach Braff’s film Wish I Was Here. Was there always a plan to include that on a future album?
Yeah, I mean that was the original intent. I was writing for Heartworms when Zach approached me about contributing something for his movie, so I wrote the song about the lead characters. It was written for the film for sure, but the thing was it didn’t really go anywhere unfortunately. Most people didn’t really hear it. Eventually what happened was that we were rehearsing for some shows, me and the new band, and we started messing around with that song, and they were like, “What is this song? This isn’t on the record!” So we just kind of realised this needs to get the attention it deserves I guess.
Okay, so is it a reworked version on the album or the same recording?
It’s remixed. Yuuki mixed it as well…so it would kind of fit in sonically with everything else.
On that tangent, I have to ask, Zach’s got another film coming out later this year. Did he approach you for any music for that one?
Damn it Zach!
No, he didn’t. I think I was a little bit of a pain in the ass with it last time [laughs].
To go more specifically to the latest single ‘Name For You’, could you take me through the track’s origins and what it’s about?
It was the verses that came first. I had that line “Rolling down the ancient high street you’ll find/In the mirror reflects a woman in her prime” and from there I just started elaborating. It was just me thinking about my kids. It was this wish and hope that they would have a happy, healthy life filled with confidence and strength and so on. That was the basic beginning of it. And the idea, ‘Name for You’, was just thinking about the whole idea of slut shaming and the sort of weaponised vocabulary that we use to put people in their place and just how frustrating that is. And as a father I guess I want my daughters to own their sexuality, not have society own it…I wanted it to be positive and upbeat. I wanted it to be like ‘don’t let them bring you down, you don’t have to listen to their bullshit. Be who you are and be proud of it; and walk on.’
I’ve heard that you actually recorded the whole album with alternate versions with the band?
Yeah we did! The whole thing has been re-recorded, and there’s little tweaks being made to it right now. So like everything [has been redone]. ‘Name For You’ is a goth sort of electronic song, it’s super cool though. We actually considered replacing the single with this version of ‘Name For You’. We did that with every song.
‘Mildenhall’ which is an acoustic sort of country western song is now a garage rock type thing, like The Sonics. It’s so fun man, it’s crazy. I recommend it to every band. Every time you do a record you should just give yourself two weeks to re-do the whole damn thing the opposite way. So we’re gonna come out with that. I think it’ll be called The Worm’s Heart. For real.
Ah awesome! Any release date on that one yet?
We were hoping to get it out for Record Store Day, but we missed the deadline. So just kind of as soon as possible.
I’m sure you’re sick of this question, but I have to ask, have you got any plans to tour Australia with this album?
We certainly are planning on it. There’s nothing but a sketch in the calendar. But we’re looking at later in 2017.
So, we’ve got a closing question that we ask every band. You’re onstage and you’ve just found out the world is about to end, but, you have time to play one more song! What do you play us out to? It can be an original or a cover.
[laughs]. What should you do? Do you wanna party or like lament? I’d play ‘The Fear’, fuck it. At least I know it! [laughs].
Would we get the strings in?
We’d do strings and everything! It’d be like the sinking of the Titanic!
I reckon that’d be a pretty damn good way to go out. As much as I wouldn’t like to, I reckon that’d be a pretty cool way.
I’m with you!
Heartworms will be released on March 10th via Aural Apothecary/Columbia Records through Sony Music Australia. Grab a copy here.