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On 'Port Of Morrow,' The Shins Sail Back To The 1970s

Mar 17, 2012
Originally published on March 19, 2012 7:06 am

James Mercer's distinctive voice and earnest songwriting have always been at the heart of The Shins, but these days they are the band's only constant. Port of Morrow, the group's new album and its first in five years, finds Mercer leading a completely new set of musicians.

"I think I needed to shake up my surroundings in order to get back to a state of mind where I was enthusiastic about recording, and fleshing out these songs that I had developing," Mercer says of changing The Shins' lineup. "I needed to have some new mode before I was prepared to start it up again."

Port Of Morrow incorporates a palette of vintage-inspired sounds that is new for the band. Mercer says those decisions arose in conversation with the record's producer, Greg Kurstin — who, like Mercer, spent part of his upbringing in Germany.

"We talked a lot about German bands from the '70s — Faust and Can, and some of the production work that Brian Eno did in Berlin at that time — that sort of aesthetic," Mercer says. "Greg spent time in Germany around the same time as I did, coincidentally. For me it was my favorite part of my childhood. ... Certainly in my mind it is conflated with the sounds of the records that came out then."

One such vintage element: a standout trumpet solo in the song "Fall Of '82," which could have been plucked straight from a classic Herb Alpert record.

"I really wanted a horn part there," Mercer says. "We were thinking about bands like Steely Dan and Chicago, the sort of classic pop of the '70s. I thought that'd be the perfect surprise instrumental break."

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And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


ZACH BRAFF: (as Andrew) What are you listening to?

NATALIE PORTMAN: (as Sam) The Shins. You know them?

BRAFF: (as Andrew) No.

PORTMAN: (as Sam) You got to hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear.


RAZ: Not everyone can say Natalie Portman changed their life, but James Mercer can. That clip from the 2004 film "Garden State" started the buzz about Mercer's band, the Shins. Since then, they've become one of the biggest bands in indie rock. But James Mercer took a break five years ago to work on other projects and to start a family. In fact, he's had two children since he last released a Shins record. Well, that drought ends on Tuesday when the Shins release their eagerly awaited "Port of Morrow."


THE SHINS: (Singing) Dead land's collided. You pour your life down the rifle's spiral and show us you've earned it.

RAZ: This new version of the Shins bears almost no resemblance to the old Shins. Mercer is the only original member left, and lyrically, the man is taking on much weightier topics.

JAMES MERCER: I was thinking about religious violence and what it must be like to be in a situation where it seems that your fate has brought you to battle.

RAZ: Like it's been determined for you.

MERCER: Right.


SHINS: (Singing) So long before you were born you were always to be a dagger floating straight to their heart.

RAZ: A song like this one, "Rifle's Spiral," makes sense when you learn more about James Mercer's upbringing. He grew up as an Air Force brat moving from Hawaii to England to Germany and eventually New Mexico, following a father with a very sensitive job.

MERCER: He was in charge of the Interservice Nuclear Weapons School. You would go there, any member of NATO, who needed to know how to handle nuclear weapons...

RAZ: Went to him.

MERCER: ...would go to that school, yeah. And he was like the principal.

RAZ: But you grew up traveling every couple of years, moving every few years.

MERCER: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. Born in Hawaii and then moved all over after that.

RAZ: I mean, did that sort of create this - the sense of constant change and need for constant change? I'm getting to somewhere with this, which is...


RAZ: ...the band. I mean, you have new members in the band, and you've been working with new artists every couple of years. And it seems like this trajectory you've been on has been one of constant change.

MERCER: Yes. I see what you're saying. Yeah, possibly. I do know that there's something refreshing to me about working with different people. And it probably is because I'm accustomed to that. I have to go to a therapist (unintelligible).

RAZ: Yeah, right. Yeah. Right. Yeah. Yeah, maybe this is a little bit too probing. But the title track on this record, "Port of Morrow," that's a place, right?

MERCER: Yeah, it is. A sort of a - innocuous place along the Colombia River. I think it's an industrial port.

RAZ: Why are you singing about it?


MERCER: Well, when we would return from tour, you know, we would pass this sign that said: Port of Morrow, that way. And I just - it's so evocative, and I had it written down in my notebook. And I just thought the Port of Morrow, it sounded like maybe the place you go to finally depart, you know, like maybe on the river sticks. So I ended up using that line in a list of dark, ominous things.

It was Jimmy Swaggart, actually, that I had seen on a TV show, and he was preaching about how even little children are going to be sent to hell if you don't get them to do whatever - you know, I don't want to cuss on the mike. But I was - I got my ire up about this Jimmy Swaggart guy. And so in the song, I say, preacher on the stage, like a buzzard, cries out this warning of phony sorrow.


SHINS: (Singing) He's trying to get a rise. Sign of life of an almot. Let him look at your hands, get the angles right. Ace of spades, Port of Morrow, life is death is life.

MERCER: So that's where it came from. It just became in my mind this mysterious, dark thing.

RAZ: I'm speaking with James Mercer of the band the Shins. Their new record comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Port of Morrow." I want to ask you about a song on this record. It's called "September."


SHINS: (Singing) Her shining face in a million reflections on tiny raindrops that fall in a veil. Over our city like notes from above it overwhelms me, just ain't that tough. It's not that the darkness can't touch our lives. I know it will in time. But she's no ordinary valentine.

RAZ: I understand this is a love song to your wife, and there's a lyric in that song: It's not that the darkness can't touch our lives. I know it will in time.

MERCER: Yes. I know what you're getting at. I think that one of the things about having children is that you are really exposed to how fragile they are, and you see them changing so quickly. It's almost like stop-motion photography, especially with me going away for a few weeks at a time and then coming back and suddenly they're, oh, my gosh, you know, she's using sentences now. And you can't help but see that this change, you sort of mourn the loss of the infant.

There's this sense that all of this beauty is developing and changing and in a certain way slipping away. You know, that darkness is, you know, I guess, the eventual thing. I mean, the darkness finds you, it will, all of us, you know? And I guess you might ask, why would you remind somebody of that in a love song? But I feel like there's something beautiful about recognizing that, that things are all transient and all the more beautiful for it.


SHINS: (Singing) Under our softly burning lamp she takes her time telling stories of our possible lives and love is the ink in the well when her body writes. I've been selfish and full of pride. She knows deep down there's a little child. I've got a good side to me as well and it's that she loves in spite of everything else.

RAZ: You mention the kids. And you've got a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, right?

MERCER: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: So obviously, you have been busy since the last Shins record came out.

MERCER: Yeah. Right.

RAZ: How does it change your approach to being a musician, or does it at all?

MERCER: Yeah. Well, I don't like being away from the house as much. I mean, I - you know, I like to be home, and touring, therefore, is kind of a pain. But on the other side, I mean, I think it has added that new dimension to my perspective on the world, even. I'm more sensitive to what's going on in other countries because I know that when they say, you know, children were hurt in this bombing or whatnot, it's just, you know, you just feel it this early, you know. So that, I think, has maybe made my lyrics a little bit more elaborate about those sorts of issues.


SHINS: (Singing) Out beyond the Western squalls, in avian land. They work for nothing at all. They don't know the mall or the layaway plan. Dig yourself a beautiful grave, everything you could want. Maybe those invisible slaves are too far away for a ghost to haunt. What do we charge? Letting go of a claim so large. Oh, all of our working days are done but a tiny few are having all of the fun. Get used to the dust in your lungs.

RAZ: Now, you're going to tour this record, and it's already getting a lot of great critical acclaim. I mean, how do you feel? Do you sort of just throw everything you've got into this thing for the next five or six months and then take a break?

MERCER: Yeah. It'll be a year, probably, of working pretty hard, touring for this. And that is how my wife and I are looking at it. You know, we're - we just feel like we've, you know, we've worked this hard to get this record right. It'll be hard for the next year, but let's do it. And we kind of just take each project with that idea in mind, you know, that we're lucky to have a lifestyle like this. When I'm home, I'm home. I'm not, you know, 9:00 to 5:00 in an office, so I get to spend a lot of time with the kids when I'm there. And we just try and make those moments count.

RAZ: That's James Mercer. He fronts the band the Shins. Their new record comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Port of Morrow." James Mercer, thanks so much.

MERCER: Thank you.

RAZ: And congratulations on the record.

MERCER: Aw, thanks.


SHINS: (Singing) I finally had all my ducks in a row, peace and quiet the means of subtraction. And how she got in, shouldn't I know. Two weeks on and my spine was in traction, my eyes in a basket.

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or We post a new episode Sunday nights. Tomorrow on the program, moneyball politics and foxes who fetch, but are they housebroken? Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.