The recent evolution of The Shins has encouraged puristic/heretical discussion about what makes a band. Who gets to carry the title mantle, especially when we're talking new music, not just a reunion tour? After shedding several bandmates James Mercer is creating new music under The Shins moniker. But the truth is it was always his own. “In the late ‘90s there were certain bands that weren’t really bands, it was just a guy in his bedroom,” Mercer explains. “There was just a revolving cast of characters and then the main dude. I guess I felt there was licence there for me to just create a band, and it would be a recording project. It’s funny because it became really difficult to let those guys go – the perception was that we were The Shins, and in reality it was actually that I was The Shins. You can’t fight perception, you know.”
When the dynamism of these songs seems to hint at other participants (or alter-egos, at least) it is hard to shake the perception, as a listener. On Heartworms’ stand-out Rubber Ballz there’s a background voice that shouts mockauthoritatively at the end of phrases, kind of like the hollers in Yellow Submarine (“Sky of blue! Sea of green!”). “I remember when I first met my wife, she said she thought that there was a bunch of singers in the band,” Mercer smiles. The musician’s family – and more specifically, his two daughters – were the inspiration for one of the new album's cuts in particular. It’s not So Now What, the single written for Zach Braff’s similarly-themed film Wish I Was Here (arguably though unofficially the sequel to the filmmaker's 2004 effort Garden State, whose soundtrack pushed The Shins into mainstream renown).
It's the empowering and ever so sweetly delivered Name For You, which really is an anthem of reassurance and support for all girls and young women. Mercer doesn’t think he’s in a special position of understanding sexism having had daughters instead of sons, but explains his feelings like this: “I think that, looking back [on myself] as a young man, there’s a certain – what is the word? – enmity, that you feel towards the opposite sex. You get really frustrated, and it’s always such a problem in life. The culture out there is feeding you all this bullsh-t. So I think men can very easily slip into this sort of misogyny and they don’t realise it. They think of themselves as somebody who’s maybe open-minded and so on. I mean, I’ve seen it in myself. I think it’s really revealing when you actually recognise it in yourself. That’s when you get sh-t done, I think.”
Track two is the Beck-esque Painting A Hole, which really begins Heartworms' kooky sonic journey. “That is a Korg synthesiser from the ‘70s and it’s called the Micro Preset, and the setting I put it to was something that sounded kind of like an oboe," Mercer says of the mysterious woodwind melody that entwines slow syncopated beats and a bass synth zooming low to high. "I wanted to have this weird, exotic – I don’t even remember what. I remember the moment of doing it, and I remember I could hear it in my head. It was sort of like a snake charmer sound. I don’t know. That’s that type of stuff at three in the morning, when you’re half-lit," he chuckles.
Levity is never far away, and nor is the fam. It comes up again when we talk about the brilliant clip for Dead Alive – this cyclical, goofy, creepy ‘mare which features weird black landscapes with rippling lo-fi effects, the protagonist shrinking to a pea and growing to a monster in size, and lots of skeletons. In a scene where Giant-Mercer’s Vans sneaker steps on Mini- Mercer’s head and splits it clean open, the musician reveals the goop effects are courtesy of his wife’s green thumb. “We have a big garden and my wife cans the strawberries,” he smiles. “I put a whole lot in my mouth and we went for it."
Heartworms is out now via Sony.