Shins in the attic
Image: Annie Beedy

The king of quirky pop-rock James Mercer returns to Hawai‘i with a newly reformed the Shins

In the last decade, Portland-based rockers the Shins gave us three albums’ worth of irresistibly catchy songs with jangly guitars and melodies reminiscent of the Beach Boys. After a five-year hiatus, James Mercer resurrected the Shins with a new album, a new band, and a new artistic outlook. The Weekly spoke with Mercer about his most recent Shins release Port of Morrow, his pop-collabo with Danger Mouse, and being a dad.

I understand you grew up here. Do you come back to Hawaii a lot?

Yeah, I do. I didn’t really grow up there as much as I was born there. I was there till I was three or four. But my wife is really from Hawaii so we go back often so the kids can see great-grandma and -grandpa and stuff like that.

Any favorite spots?

Umm, [asking his wife] we like Keneke’s. That’s probably our favorite plate lunch place. We eat a lot of plate lunch [laughs].

So it’s going to be a pretty busy week for you. You’re playing a Hawaii show sandwiched between the two Coachella weekends …

Yeah, exactly. My wife and kids are coming out too so we’re gonna rent a place, you know, and make it a mini-vacation. I’m going on tour after that for quite a while.

Can I just say it’s great to have you back! It’s been a few years since we’ve seen a Shins release. Were you consistently writing since Wincing The Night Away, or was Port of Morrow a more recent conception?

I’m not like a frantic writer so much. It was about May or so that I really started to get serious about the record and finishing things up. But I’m always coming up with ideas.Every day I’m working on some little aspect of something.

What dynamic do your new band members bring to the table?

It’s kind of hard to express. Everybody has a different way of thinking about music, I think. It’s really kind of fascinating that people’s personalities are sort of strangely interpreted through the way that they perform and so on. So it’s all new people, it’s a slightly different aesthetic. But it’s still me sort of putting the basic song together, so I think it’s just a progression from the past records. There are a lot of different people on this record.

Has your last collaboration with Danger Mouse [Broken Bells] changed the way you approach Shins music?

It’s sort of an attitude about songwriting. He’s very open and experimental with things and doesn’t worry too much. I think that was sort of a nice breath of fresh air for me, because when you’re just sitting in your room, constructing a song and not really recording, everything just feels like you’ve got to make these big decisions and stick with them or something. I think the cool thing about Brian is that everything is fluid when you’re working with him in the studio.

Any new bands that you’re really into at the moment?

I really like that Real Estate song that they’ve been playing on the radio. The new Cass McCombs thing is rad.

When I think of Shins music I think of art that’s very introspective and to me, Port of Morrow seems to be moving in a different direction, it seems more outwardly critical. What inspired these changes?

I think that I have been pulled outside of myself by having kids. If my other records seem to be more introspective and I guess singing about emotional experiences, this is maybe a little bit more cognitive stuff and it is me observing things around me more–and I think that’s definitely having kids. You just can’t think about yourself [laughs] in that sort of selfish way as much when you have kids.

It sounds more confident. You hear it in your voice, even.

Yeah definitely, I do. I think that’s also maybe in Broken Bells there. And it’s partly the experiences I’ve had over the last five years … you know, working in Broken Bells, having children, and realizing you can’t really sweat the small stuff. In that, I did nothing but sweat the small stuff. Wincing the Night Away, that whole title of the record [laughs] is sweating the small stuff. It was about being neurotic about things. And I’m definitely still neurotic in a lot of ways, but you have to pick and choose what you devote your brain power to.