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Shins leader James Mercer talks violins, ‘Stranger Things’ and his parents’ Vegas wedding

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Mercer leads The Shins into the Cosmo on June 23.
Photo: Marisa Kula / Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

The Shins’ James Mercer is a busy man these days. Not only did he self-produce the band’s latest record, March’s Heartworms—a kaleidoscopic, summery indie-pop throwback to early albums like Chutes Too Narrow—he and friend Zeke Howard have partnered on a creativity-encouraging collage app, Pasted. Mercer has already used the app for various art projects—including a last-minute Shins T-shirt design the band sold on its U.K. tour.

Mercer checked in from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, before heading out on the road.

What is the current Shins touring configuration? I see you’ve had a string section for recent dates. The funny thing is, those are just our band members. Patti King, our keyboardist, also plays violin wonderfully, as well as being a great singer. Mark Watrous, our guitarist, also plays violin really beautifully. And Casey Foubert, our new guitarist, is a violinist. We did not intend this; it just happened. We’ve got these three really strong violin players, and we’re trying to exploit that as much as we can (laughs).

Heartworms feels so bright, and there’s so much going on. Were there any particular artists or other inspirations that were hovering over you as you wrote for it? I really got inspired by Ariel Pink. I felt emboldened to be more experimental and, at the same time, more pop in a classic sense, because he writes some really great and blatant pop songs. I also felt really inspired about the idea of engineering a lot myself, getting back into that hands-on mode of recording. Which I had done basically on every record, with maybe the exception of [2012’s] Port of Morrow, which was really a partnership between me and Greg Kurstin. [With] Port of Morrow, I felt a little bit like maybe we had gone into a production territory that was a little less indie rock, and I wanted to get back into that.

Did focusing on your side project with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells, over the past couple of years influence the way you looked at this music? On this record, if you were to compare it to the way I recorded the first record … on the first record, I wrote songs out and had them really completed. [It was] the sort of thing you could play at a coffee shop, a one-man-band type thing. And then I would I begin recording it and adding stuff on to that.

On this record, as soon as I had a cool idea, I would throw it up and loop it and listen back and try and imagine where it could go. There were a lot of songs written that way. And that’s very much a Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] way of recording and writing. So I think that’s a Broken Bells influence.

As you were writing Heartworms, you found inspiration by looking back at your childhood. Was there any particular impetus for why and how your writing brought you in that direction? It’s just getting older. It’s that space and perspective that I have looking back on it. And I also think my childhood in the ’70s and ’80s is long enough ago that the audience is ready to hear [about it]. There’s something exotic about the ’80s, I think, even to my mind.

I remember watching Stranger Things and really being stoked about that intro—the sound and the look of it—and feeling that sort of nostalgia sentiment about the ’80s. That was sort of an inspiration. There’s also a really terrific episode of Black Mirror that takes place in the ’80s, one called “San Junipero,” that I really loved. Something about the zeitgeist right now is working for me. (Laughs.) Finally, it’s working for me!

As you were looking to finish the record, were there any particular challenges or obstacles you found yourself having to overcome? Just learning how to be an engineer again was a major challenge, honestly. And I took my time with it. I zenned out about it, and didn’t allow myself to feel that pressure, that time constraint. [I decided] I’m going to do this, and do it on my own. Brian Burton had an encouraging role in that. He really thought it would be good for me to produce myself again. And Nigel Godrich also was encouraging about that. I kind of just went for it.

It’s interesting that those two guys in particular told you that you need to do that yourself, since they’re such totemic producers. What was your response? I didn’t know how to take it. I was kind of disappointed, honestly. In a weird way, I thought that there was this future for me where I would just have a relationship with a producer … If you do have a good relationship with a producer—and I had a great relationship with Greg Kurstin making Port of Morrow—it can go really fast, and you can get a lot done, because you have a real partner who’s there helping stuff flow.

But I wanted to make a different kind of record this time, and in speaking to Brian about it, it became apparent. “You’re going to have to do it on your own.” The stuff that I was wanting, the stuff I was talking about, was stuff that existed on my earlier records. It’s stuff that’s maybe a little bit unique to the way I approach music, or the way my brain works, or something. And it was a pain in the ass. Relearning how to be a producer, how to engineer, how to mic things and all that, was a process.

And then I just embraced it and went for it. I’m very happy I did, because I enjoy that process. It was really why [2001 Shins debut] Oh, Inverted World happened. I got new equipment, and I realized I could do okay fidelity on my own for the first time.

Chutes Too Narrow was an album that was made … the way I described it back then was, it was made under duress. You know, I had kind of a deadline, and I needed to finish the damn record. It was getting expensive, and I ended up getting Phil Ek involved to make that happen.

Wincing the Night Away came out 10 years ago this year. Looking back, does anything that stand out to you about that one? I remember being in England when it ended up on the pop charts—it was No. 2 on the regular pop charts. It was pretty spectacular. I think a lot of people were suddenly like, “Who in the hell is this band?” There were lots of people who were more industry writers, saying like, “I’ve never heard of this band, and it’s No. 2?” That was kind of a crazy moment for us, and really fun.

Record labels treat you very differently when you actually sell records (laughs).

When your band charted like that, it felt like, “The underdogs are taking over. I remember thinking that it may just have been a perfect-storm moment. And I think it was; the movie Garden State was still out there in people’s minds—kids were still watching it on cable—and then we came out with a strong record.

The video for one of your new singles involves Las Vegas. “Name for You.” We’re doing a whole record of alternate takes from the record—alternate versions. They’re completely different production concepts that we went for. “Name for You” we did, and it turned out really great. I think a lot of us in the band feel like it’s better than the album version. So we did a video for that; we have Trace Lysette, the famous transgender actress, in it, and it just ended up in being freaking killer. A really good video, really homemade and fun and different. We filmed a lot of it in Vegas.

Do you have any other interesting Vegas tales or memories? I remember opening up for a band at a record store in Vegas [Balcony Lights]. My parents were married in Las Vegas, at the Chapel of the Flowers over by the Stratosphere; they were married in 1969.

They came [back] out and saw the show, and took us out to eat at the Outback. It was an early-stages tour for us. We were signed, and it was just the beginning of those heady years, those early years that we had in the old van.

The Shins with Pure Bathing Culture. June 23, 8 p.m., $20-$98. The Chelsea, 702-698-7778.

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