Catching up with the reigning “king of the eyesores,” The Shins and Broken Bells visionary James Mercer

In the fall of 2003, I met a cute, shy boy, a fellow freshman at the University of South Carolina, during DJ training for the college radio station. Possibly one of the first things he ever said to me was, “Do you like The Shins?” When I mumbled a confession of my ignorance, the boy promised to burn me a copy of their album Oh, Inverted World. Before devouring the band’s then-newest release, Chutes Too Narrow, come October, and upgrading to an iPod over Christmas, I listened to Oh, Inverted World on a CD-R in my Sony Discman, strolling across campus, wondering how these lo-fi songs could be, at once, so pretty, smart and kind of spooky.

Even before the cult classic coming-of-age movie Garden State iconized the opening chords and falsetto “ooohs” of “New Slang” for genteel hipsters everywhere — “You’ve gotta hear this song, it’ll change your life,” said Natalie Portman’s character offering up headphones to Zach Braff — the New Mexico band won a devoted following for their literate and melodic music, often imitated, but never replicated.

James Mercer’s signature vocal style is recognizable as singer for The Shins – whose U.S. tour, which stops in Nashville on August 17, is celebrating the 21st birthday of the band’s breakthrough, Oh, Inverted World – as well as the spacier, beat-forward duo called Broken Bells, a collaboration with producer Danger Mouse.

On a short, mid-summer phone call before the tour began, the prolific, never idle Mercer told me about preparing for these Shins shows and simultaneously wrapping up the new Broken Bells record, the project’s first new tunes since acclaimed 2014 LP After The Disco.

On the Record: Q&A with James Mercer of The Shins and Broken Bells

Celia Gregory: James, hey, I’m Celia at the NPR music station in Nashville called WNXP. How’s it going?

James Mercer: It’s going great. Good to talk to you.

CG: Likewise. I’m very excited that you’re about to commence the 21st birthday tour for Oh, Inverted World. And you’ll be super warmed up by the time you’re out east here in Nashville, returning to the Ryman. Are you pretty excited about this summer development and finally getting to celebrate this record after this many years?

JM: Yeah, it should be fun. We’ve got some cool vocal arrangements and we’re kind of fleshing out songs that we’ve never played live, so it’s going to be a cool experience, I think.

CG: Oh wow, I guess I hadn’t considered that there are some in that catalog of songs that you’ve never been in front of people playing.

JM: Yeah, there are a few of them that were just recording projects and they were never intended as something to do live. But now with my newer band members — and we’re going to have Joseph the band that’s opening up for us — those girls are going to join us on stage and really do some cool choral arrangements.

[Here is the sister trio Joseph’s NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert from 2016.]

CG: I got this record 19 years ago, a little bit of a late bloomer being from the suburbs, when I went to college radio. So it’s super special to be able to play these songs still and forever on independent radio, but also play new music as it comes out.

You have new music out with the Broken Bells, the first in eight years. Can you share how that relationship with Brian Burton [Danger Mouse] has evolved and maybe getting back together to make this project Into the Blue?

JM: We met a long time ago in Denmark and he was a Shins fan. I guess we just hit it off. I really liked him right off the bat. And we always shared moments. We’d be out on tour and we’d see each other and it was just kind of having a laugh and everything. And then I started wanting to try some new projects. I didn’t know what I wanted, and he happened to be in the same zone. And so we met up and decided to partner on a record, and that was the first Broken Bells record, and we’ve just been working together ever since. We just love getting together.

CG: How did you have to adjust? I feel like so much has happened since After The Disco, but especially in our country and related to public health. So how were you able to collaborate in the last few years to bring these new songs to fruition?

JM: There was really only one trip out to Connecticut that I canceled because of the pandemic. And then after that, I just braved it. I just wore my mask, washed my hands, and we did pretty well.

CG: That’s awesome. Yeah, well, we have “We’re Not In Orbit Yet” now. I don’t know if you can tell me any more about the rest of the project or what’s proprietary at this point in time.

JM: Well, you might hear this all the time, but Brian and I both agree this is our best record. [Laughs] So we’re at least on that same page. We’re both really stoked about it. So I’m not exactly sure when it’s coming out, but in the next few months.

CG: Did you did you channel new sentiments into this record because of what was swirling around in the world? I mean, does it sound different thematically or musically that you can speak to your yet?

JM: Well, we did a lot more work with samples and loops, you know, which is really Brian’s strong suit. We wanted to just produce things in the same way that any normal band would. But this time we really jumped into the sampling and stuff like that. So it’s very different in some ways. You get a lot of strange textures when you allow yourself to just dig through the entire catalog of music out there and pull little snippets.

CG: You’ve been performing and writing a lot for, I would say, probably the whole time I’ve been listening to independent music. But what did the last few years do for you creatively, in a forced slow-down? It sounds like you did, of course, collaborate with Brian. How has it been for you personally as a creative, as a songwriter?

JM: I spent a lot of time out in my studio and writing and recording and that stuff for The Shins. So I got a few things in the can still for The Shins. I’m wondering exactly when I’ll be able to finish those songs and release them, but it will be down the road a little ways.

CG: OK, we’re on the collective edge of our seats for that. I was trying to remember the last time I saw you at The Ryman, and it’s probably been almost ten years ago. Are you returning to some theaters and clubs that you haven’t played, at least with this new group forming The Shins, in the sense that it’s been a while since you’ve been to them. What’s the approach to touring energetically?

JM: Yeah, well, I’d say it’s similar to the size of venues we were playing last time we toured. That was in late 2017. We are doing Red Rocks, which is always a thrill.

CG: Getting to come back to some of these places you haven’t been in years, and with all of the changes.

JM: Oh yeah, it’s going to be great. I think we’re all chomping at the bit to get out on the road. We enjoy each other’s company. We have a lot of fun touring. It’s bittersweet because we all miss our families. But once we get into the swing of things, we manage to really enjoy ourselves out on the road.

CG: Back to the album that’s celebrating its 21st birthday, Oh, Inverted World. Is there anything you can recall that’s maybe held up for you like this record has for so many people after 21 years?

JM: One thing that stands out for me right now is the first Strokes record. We wore that thing out when we first started touring, they were really hitting right as we just started up. So there’s still a lot of nostalgia with that record.

CG: Here, here. I’ll have to play this interview and that something from that back-to-back — that’s a logical pairing. Well, thank you so much for sharing time with WNXP. We’ll be really excited to see you swing through town and to play the new Broken Bells music, and the new Shins music you alluded to in the future.

JM: Wonderful. Thanks so much for the interview. Bye bye.