The Shins' James Mercer Talks About Broken Bells And Vietnamese Food In L.A.
The Shins play The Greek Theatre on Friday in support of its fifth studio album, Heartworms. It’s been 16 years since the band’s first major release, Oh, Inverted World (yes, the one with the song “New Slang” that may or may not have changed your life). Through the years, The Shins cornered the market on tightly crafted pop tunes like “Caring is Creepy,” “Phantom Limb,” “Simple Song” and from the latest album, “Name for You.”
But a lot has changed for the band since that debut. For one, longtime members—Dave Hernandez, Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval—are no longer in the lineup. James Mercer, the band’s founder, vocalist, lead singer and songwriter and the sole remaining original member, called the parting "an aesthetic decision," but most Shins’ fans knew that Mercer has always been The Shins anyway. He’s just stepping into that leading role now.
Earlier this week, we caught up with the Portland, Oregon-based Mercer, who called in during a tour stop in Eugene, Oregon. We chatted with him about the current tour, how the music industry has changed since his first album, his non-Shins music, and one of his favorite places to hit up while in L.A.
We caught your show at the El Rey in March when Heartworms was released that week. Is the show at The Greek part of the same tour?
Mercer: The album’s been out for a bit now. I suppose we started out doing smaller undersells. And as the album sort of picks up speed, and now that people have absorbed it now, we’re ready to shoot for The Greek, I guess.
Heartworms is your first album in five years with The Shins. Did you feel that the time was right to do a new album? Or have you been working on music for the album for the past five years?
There’s a big chunk of time taken up by a Broken Bells release and touring for Broken Bells, so I don’t really work on Shins stuff when I’m working with Brian [Burton, a.k.a. Dangermouse]. I just kind of jump around between the two [projects]. Probably about two years of that time was Broken Bells stuff, and it’s just funny how life just takes up a lot of time. I’ve got three kids, I’ve got a family. There’s probably about a year's worth of time there where it was me just being...But all the while I was ruminating about song ideas, saving little ideas on my phone, so everything turns into work.
You mention saving song ideas on your phone. How do you know if a song will be for The Shins, Broken Bells or another project?
When it comes to Broken Bells, it’s pretty easy for me to delineate because I generally just write with Brian together in the studio, and we generally come up with things together. And everything else probably is going to be for The Shins, except sometimes I write songs that are a little too far afield for The Shins. So I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with those things. I have this idea in my head for some other strange project. That’ll be down the line, I guess.
What’s something that’s too far afield for The Shins?
I write in these genres...and I wonder sometimes if my audience would be as entertained by a punk rock song or something. There’s just also experiments that I do with the computer that end up pretty strange, and they’re not really pop. So I have things like that. One day it might be cool to put something together.
How has the music landscape changed since you got into this business?
So much has changed. Record sales have plummeted for everybody. So there’s that, but at the same time, I feel that the consumption of music has increased. I have more access to music now than I ever did, with things like iTunes Radio, Pandora and Spotify. I guess the aesthetics have changed quite a bit, too. In some ways, that hasn’t changed. I’m just thinking about that band Alvvays—I don’t know if they like it said 'always' or 'allvays'—but they’re a really great indie pop band. And that’s stuff that could have come out in 1994, and it would have been received in the same way. It would have been loved purely by pop lovers.
As a little band, if you’re just coming up, you have the ability to spread the word and people out there have the ability to access your work so much better now, so there’s that. That wasn’t available at all when I was coming up. It’s funny, one of the things that helped us early on was Napster. That's the first time that kind of stuff could happen. Before we were signed, Napster was an up-and-coming weird phenomenon. I remember having this conversation with Stuart Meyer at Sub Pop [records] and he listed the fact that we were on so many hard drives on Napster as a factor as to why Sub Pop was interested in us. So it helped us get signed. And that spread organically, there was no marketing there. It was just kids turning each other onto something that was cool.
Besides Alvvays, what else are you listening to currently?
I’m still loving the last Parquet Courts record [Human Performance]. These sorts of questions are always better when the band is around because they’re always introducing new stuff. I really love Parquet Courts, though, I really think they have terrific songs. I’m really excited about whatever Ariel Pink will be doing next...Courtney Barnett...also Angel Olsen, that last record [My Woman]—still listening to that.
The 2012 album Port of Morrow was a collaborative effort with writer-producer Greg Kurstin and others. Any other collaborations coming up?
I haven't been thinking about any of that singing wise, but I would like to write. I’m kind of interested in writing with other people. I guess instead of going straight into doing another record, my own, I think it would just be fun to write with somebody, other people, material that someone else can sing.
Let's talk a little about L.A. What are your go-to spots while you’re here?
One that I always love to go to—there’s a Vietnamese restaurant called Viet in Atwater Village. They serve this incredible dish, a bun dish. This one is like battered catfish with dill. [We suspect he's talking about the tumeric fish noodleon the menu.] It’s so much better than it sounds. That’s the one place that stands out for me right now. That I crave. And it’s funny, you know, Pok Pok is a famous Thai restaurant that we have in Portland. And they have a dish, that to me seems like—their Thai is supposed to be Thai street food—and they’re doing a dish that really is very similar to that bun, that Vietnamese dish they sell at Viet. It’s not as good as the one at Viet. But I love Pok Pok, too, so I’m not throwing them under the bus. It’s just something about the way they do it at that restaurant is crazy.
Anything special planned for Friday's show in L.A.?
I think we’re going to add this little rock block, we’re putting together this short medley for L.A. It’s a mix.
This interview has been edited.
The Shins play the Greek Theatrewith Foxygen and Day Wave tonight. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $39.50-$49.50.