A Seminal Collective – The Shins

James Mercer reveals how Broken Bells saved The Shins

It’s funny how life can turn out. The Shins’ new album, ‘Port Of Morrow’, nearly wasn’t made at all but now its creator James Mercer is joking with Clash about going head-to-head with the new Bruce Springsteen record.

Four years ago The Shins’ third long-player, ‘Wincing The Night Away’, bagged a Grammy nomination and several truckloads of sales. However, a gruelling promotional schedule left Mercer emotionally shattered. “What I was feeling when I stopped touring was that I didn’t want to do another Shins record,” James tells us from his base in Portland, Oregon. “The pressure of being at the centre and all the apparatus of touring and the writing and recording had got a bit much. I felt under the weight of it and I wanted out from under it.”

In order to steer a future for The Shins, Mercer needed some major reinvigoration. His saviour would be a collaboration with “an acquaintance I had hung out with,” going by the name of Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse. For James, it was the rediscovery of his music mojo. “I was in the right moment and he was in the right moment – he wanted to do something new too – and so it just worked. It was the perfect outlet for a new experience and sharing the weight of all those decisions with someone who was so competent.” The pair’s self-titled Broken Bells album was released in 2009 and James Mercer was “excited about music” all over again. While Broken Bells would be a huge success in itself, the project would have a deep and lasting impact on The Shins. “What I learned from Brian was just how enjoyable it was to work with many different musicians,” James reveals. “I got turned on to the idea that The Shins could be more of a collective. Also, I learned to just make it fun and not get bogged down
with the weight of it.”

The resultant ‘Port Of Morrow’ is the biggest, boldest Shins album to date. A stellar cast of musicians feature (including Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer and former Crystal Skulls bassist Yuuki Matthews), while big-hitting producer Greg Kurstin (“he was the Brian Burton character – an objective listener and influencer”) adds sheen to Mercer’s intricate pop soundscapes. From the opening punch of ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’ to the overtly political ‘No Way Down’, ‘Port Of Morrow’ surges with confidence and the sure-footing of experience.

As well as the Broken Bells-inspired epiphany, there have been two other significant changes in Mercer’s world since the release of ‘Wincing…’. He is now a father of two young girls, and while this has brought him the “immense joy of being a parent”, it also provided the most intense moments on ‘Port Of Morrow’. “You realise that you love somebody so dearly and that life is a fragile thing,” James says by way of explanation. “I didn’t expect that – feeling like peril is around every corner. The really dark stuff on the record is where having children has influenced my writing, which is odd in a way because I am happier now than I ever have been.”

Words by John Freeman
Photo by Jesse Jenkins

This is an excerpt from a feature in the April 2012 issue of Clash magazine, out 8th March. Find out more about the issue HERE.

Read Clash’s review of The Shins’ ‘Port Of Morrow’.

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