May 8th, 2009 | Interviews

christopher nelson

Download: The Shins “Australia”


(from Wincing The Night Away on Sub Pop)

The Shins right now are no longer the Shins they used to be—founder James Mercer debuted a new line-up (with members of Modest Mouse and Fruit Bats) last week and will be taking the band from Sub Pop to their own label Aural Apothecary for their next releases. He speaks now about this and Bob Dylan, Heath Ledger and Kermit the Frog, too. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

What was it like being interviewed by a Muppet at the Grammies?

James Mercer (vocals/guitar): It was crazy. You remember seeing children being interviewed by Kermit. It’s funny how quickly you look at the Muppet as a living being. It was fun being nominated for a Grammy and then getting interviewed by Kermit was such a silly and awesome little highlight of the night. I don’t think I ever dreamed I would have talked to a Muppet. But I definitely loved the Muppets growing up. I used to get so bummed whenever the show would end. I loved it.
Did you like the Muppet Babies?
That was the cartoon version? I was already a teenager at that point, so I couldn’t really get away with watching that. I was about six years old when the original Muppets came out. So I was at the perfect age to get into that. Now, for my kid, we got Yo Gabba Gabba. My baby girl loves that. The Shins performed on that show. She’s also into tricycles.
What’s the greatest thing your child said to you this week?
Oh, she’s going to be two, and she says some awesome stuff. [Consults wife] Oh, ‘Papa, change my poo poo diaper.’ Yep, and I’ve got the second baby on the way.
How has having a family affected how you do music?
I think there are some changes—related to how children affect your connection that you have with other people. I see other people around me as the children that they were, more so. It’s something that you can imagine and get there without having a kid. But having a child connects you with other people in a way that’s scary. It’s kind of scary to care about the human race. As a young man, I always thought the way to be happy was to not care, to be apathetic about the human race. Which is a weird, dark, place to be. That’s just over. That’s done. I’m not able to be ambivalent about the whole thing anymore. Now I have a huge part of me invested in the future of this planet and these people.
Having made an artistic contribution over the last decade that appears to have some major staying power, is there any parallel there that also makes you care for the world?
I actually don’t think so. There’s some separation there that I feel with the stuff that I produce. I have a personal connection to it and understand that when it leaves me it’s up to the strange factors of pop culture and how that’s going to ingest it. You lose control of it once it leaves you in a way—how it’s perceived. You do your work up front and then everything else is out of your control.
If you could show your top five Shins songs to one person, who would you want to hear them?
Oh boy, I would be really happy if the greats got what I was doing and appreciated it. Bob Dylan would be somebody that I would enjoy his appreciation. Brian Wilson would be a neat person to talk to. David Bowie, if he gave a shit about what I was doing, I would be impressed. Fats Domino is popping into my head.
If you had to pair each of your band members with a mentor from rock and roll history for a day, who would they be?
Joe should hang out with Tito Puente for a day. Ron Lewis our bass player should hang out with Jack Cassidy. Eric Johnson should hang out with Crosby from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Who would be perfect for Dave? I’ve got it: Robert Fripp from King Crimson. And I don’t know who they would match me with. Some old songwriter. Maybe one of the Beatles? Paul McCartney.
You have thirty songs ready to record with the new lineup—how much of it is open to their input?
The way I’ve always done it is I come up with a song that’s kind of the coffeeshop version with the acoustic guitar. And then the guys, we start fleshing it out, and we’ll talk about ‘how many times do we do that part?’ and structure it. The two songs we’re doing right now—‘Double Bubble’ and ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’—I showed up with two parts and they took them and we arranged it together.
What song are you most excited about right now?
I’m really excited about the one we’re calling ‘Double Bubble,’ I don’t know if that’s what it will be called in the end but that’s the working title. It’s really fun to play and the audience really likes it. It’s got a good energy to it. It’s fun to dance to, actually, which is really cool.
Is ‘Double Bubble’ a reference to gum?
Is there something called Double Bubble? Maybe it does. It actually just popped into my head as fitting the feel of the song. Maybe they’ll give us a year supply of Double Bubble.
Will the next album be the first release on your label since splitting with Sub Pop?
It looks like my old band, Flake—we’re going to reissue the record that we did and that might be the first release on Aural Apothecary. The first Shins thing that we ever did was on Aural Apothecary but we’re starting the label again to release Shins things on it but have more control—make more money. I know a fair amount about record labels, and my manager knows more. In a way, it’s kind of simple. You call up a vinyl pressing plant and get prices—they’ll tell you what they need. Then you send off a master, they press it into records and send it to your house, then you send it to record stores yourself. That’s the stripped-down version of what a company like Sub Pop does for you. Maybe they’ve got someone who does marketing and writes press releases but you can do a lot of stuff from your bedroom really. What we’ll be doing with my manager—and he did this for White Stripes, so he’s got that example to work with—we’ll get a distribution deal with a proper label and we’ll strike up a deal where we pay them a certain amount of money and they loan us their distribution infrastructure. Yes.
Now you can be a stay-at-home dad.
I’m already that for the last year, it seems like.
Do you see yourself dedicating the rest of your life to music?
Hmm. I never thought of it that way. Really, I don’t think I could say that. It’s something that’s been lucrative for me and it’s something I enjoy doing. But, other than that, I’d say,’Gee, I don’t know.’ I’m not sure if I’m the type of person who dedicates his life to anything. I’m dedicated to my wife, Marisa, right now, I think. She’s the one I hang out with when I need to forget I’m a musician for a while.
Who would you like to make a hip-hop song with?
If I really wanted to do a hip-hop song, I’d go for Jay-Z. He seems to pull it off pretty well. I’d rap about bitches and hoes. And I’d have an all-black Bentley in the music video.
Does it feel different to carry the same name but have a different band?
It’s something to get used to. But it’s been going pretty well. I’ve known the guys for a while, except for Ron, but he is a really good guy. I collaborate often with different people. Like the Modest Mouse guys. You end up working with the people you hang out with. It’s a local thing. We have easy access to each other.
How did you end up performing at Heath Ledger’s funeral?
The main person who set that up was his assistant, who felt that it would be something he would have wanted. He had done a video for Modest Mouse and was a music fan. I knew him through my old tour manager. I met him because they were friends. He was a real rock fan. I sang a Neil Young cover at the funeral. It was ‘Heart of Gold.’ That was a strange day.