James Mercer of the Shins talks about 'The Great Divide'

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Jill Riley interviews James Mercer of the Shins. (MPR Video)
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Jill Riley of The Current's Morning Show interviews James Mercer of the Shins. Checking in from his home in Portland, Ore., Mercer talks about the new single from the Shins, titled "The Great Divide." Mercer talks about the process of making and releasing that single. He also describes the process of creating the "Heartworms" album (2017) and its flipped version, "The Worm's Heart" (2018).

In addition, Mercer describes how else he's been spending his time during the pandemic, and he shares details of the Shins' efforts with respect to the Save Our Stages movement. Watch the entire interview above and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

JILL RILEY: Hey, it's Jill Riley from The Current, from The Current's Morning Show, and I have a special guest on the line, and I'm very excited about this, because we are playing a brand-new song from The Shins, called "The Great Divide," and I've got James Mercer with me right now to check in. James, how are you doing?

JAMES MERCER: I'm doing great. How are you guys?

We're decent here in the Twin Cities. How are things in Portland?

Things are pretty chill, you know? I don't know. There's not too much going on; everybody's in lockdown, as everywhere. You know, there's been the protests and so on, and that's been sort of the one bit of interesting news, but those seem to have slowed down a little bit. So yeah, we're kind of chill.

That's kind of the way that it's felt around here, in Minneapolis in St. Paul.

Yeah. Sure. You guys were having the same sort of activity, yeah.

Yeah, and so right now, we're just kind of at that point where time is passing by in a very strange way, but then something big will be coming and it's like, "Wait a minute! Where did all the time go?"

But like, Election Day; I mean, we're so close to Election Day that it's almost unbelievable.

Yeah.

Have you been talking to your fans or talking to folks about getting out and making sure that they vote?

I haven't, really. I haven't been very active on social media at all lately, you know? So… sorry.

No, it's OK! And actually, I think that's a pretty healthy way to be, to tell you the truth right now.

Yeah. There's, I think, a lack of excitement about this election, I feel, in my life. So maybe if I had this real feeling of absolute dedication, you know, I would be doing that. But it's like, I would feel hypocritical if I were to tell people, "You gotta get out there and do this!" You know?

Yeah. And we'll see how it turns out, because we probably won't know the results right away.

Yeah.

So it will be kind of interesting to see how this pans out. I mean, I have never voted in a Presidential election during a pandemic before, so again, it's—

Oh, really? Because, you know… (laughs)

Yes! I mean, phew, I wasn't around for that — gosh, what year was it? — of the flu.

1917 or so.

Right, yeah, I'm not that old! But yeah, it's just between the pandemic and election season and people really just being, you know, holed up and not able to get out to see their favorite bands, and you know, for you, it was really cool to see you've got a new song with the Shins. I was doing my show one morning, and I was just kind of looking down the new songs I had coming up, and it was like, "Oh! A new song from the Shins — that's a surprise."

OK, so, that new song is called "The Great Divide."

Mm-hm.

Can you just tell us about the new song, and when did you write it? When did it get recorded?

Yeah. Well, I think one thing that's interesting about it is it's not the first time I've ever collaborated with somebody on a Shins song, but it's the first time we're having one released. So that was kind of a big deal; you know, I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've always written the basic song — the coffeeshop version of the song, pre-production and everything — just by myself.

So in this situation, Jon Sortland, who is our drummer, he had this really cool thing that he had done on his iPhone, and he was playing it in the bus, on tour, and I just kind of started humming and singing to it, and it was just really fertile ground for me to riff on, and quickly, I was just like, "I gotta have that, man; let's do this — let's get together after the tour and work on this thing."

The Shins' drummer Jon Sortland
The Shins' drummer Jon Sortland. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

So that was the beginning.

Yeah, so it's a song that's been kind of bouncing around for a while.

Yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah.

And did you kind of get the extra push to get into the studio to record it just because of, you know, the touring industry being shut down and having some time to do it?

Yeah, there's all of those factors, I think.

Yeah.

And you start to get this itch that you want to be creative, you want to work. It's also a social thing; I love hanging out with Yuuki Matthews and Jon Sortland and Mark Watrous and Patti King, these guys in my band.

So, you know, its just a lot of fun working, you know, and this was just a great song; right off the bat, it just was a lot of fun.

Yeah. So again, the song is called "The Great Divide" from the Shins. It's the brand-new song, you guys also released a music video for it.

Yeah!

Who did you work with on the video?

You know, Jon Sortland was sort of the captain of that whole thing, and he used a digital-engineering firm to do it — I can't remember the name right now — but a really nice guy who was at the helm there.

Yeah, it's a really neat video. It's very large, very grand; it's almost like you're being taken for this, like, this ride through the universe, or like time and space in some way.

Yeah, we kind of felt the song was pretty epic, you know, so that was the goal was to match it with a video that really gave you the feeling that you were traveling somewhere.

Well, James Mercer with me from the Shins; we're talking about the new song, "The Great Divide." I guess, you know, Shins fans, they'll probably want to know: Is this new single an indication of a new record coming, or is this kind of a standalone right now?

Right. For the time being, it's a standalone thing. We've got, I've got backlogs of songs; some are actually recorded, and I've got a bunch of ideas. Yuuki Matthews has a really cool song idea that's another one of these things that I've riffed on and I'm real excited about. So, if we were able to get together in the studio, you know, we could really hammer something out.

But I think for now, we're pretty happy with this song, and maybe the next thing we work on is Yuuki's deal.

The Shins' bassist Yuuki Matthews
The Shins' bassist Yuuki Matthews. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Mm-hm, yeah. It's really a great song; it's very catchy. "The Great Divide" from the Shins. And I know that you were kind of playing around with this song in the way that you did with the last record, Heartworms. So Heartworms came out in 2017, and then you did what you called "a flipped version."

Yeah!

So what did you mean by that, "flipped version," for anyone who doesn't know about The Worm's Heart?

Right, well, the idea there is we take the song and just re-approach the production with the idea being, "Let's just do it very differently; let's find new angles on the song" in a hope of finding something that sounds just as good, even, you might debate which one you like best. You know? So we put a lot of work into the flipped versions, but sometimes they're real live sounding, and it's just whatever the songs feels, you know? But yeah, I think it's an interesting idea, and I think it reveals the value of a song, you know, regardless of the production aesthetic.

And James, is that something that you've done, I mean, in the past, I mean, you even talked about, you know, being the principal songwriter and you kind of come up with that coffeeshop version, but that version, I mean, a song can really develop into something else from there.

Yes, it's amazing. I mean, there are a lot of songs that you hear on the radio, and the production is really high-end and very elaborate and sophisticated, and then you can hear somebody play it with just an acoustic guitar, and you really realize, "That's a bloody good song!" Just on its own. And that's kind of what we're trying to do.

Yeah, it's incredible when, like a box set will come out, and then you hear demo versions of songs that you know really well, and it's like, "Oh my gosh, how did it start?"

It's so hard for me to think about a song being so bare bones and becoming this big production, but it's a really interesting concept to kind of flip that around, to take, maybe a more upbeat or faster or, you know, hookier song, and then kind of make a ballad out of it. Have you been in a situation where you've done that, and then kind of wished that you had gone with the flipped song?

Oh, yes, totally. I mean, the Heartworms flipped, I think there's a couple songs on there that I prefer the flipped version. It's just hard to know, you know? You do what you can, you're in a certain mood and you have pre-conceived notions because of the way you wrote the song. You just kind of go with it. I mean, I've said, after the flipped version of Heartworms came out, I was like, "We should do the flipped version of all the songs before we decide on the list, the song order," because we might want to pick and choose from each pile.

The Shins Heartworms (2017) and its flipped version, The Worms Heart (2018).
The Shins' Heartworms (2017) and its flipped version, The Worm's Heart (2018). Columbia Records/Aural Apothecary)

Mm-hm.

Yeah, I think it's a really cool thing to do. It's a great study in production work and songwriting.

You know, James, at the beginning of really, going back to last March and April, I was checking in with a bunch of musicians and just kind of asking people, you know, "How are you doing?" You know, "What's this time been like?"

And there are a couple of people that I've followed up with, but I mean, I didn't have that initial conversation with you back in March. But how are you doing right now? I mean, you know, I know that you've got a family. You've got plenty to keep you busy. You're being creative. But what's kind of your go-to kind of coping mechanism?

Activity?

Yeah, and I mean, and coping mechanism, even, for this time?

Right. It is staying busy. You know? I try and help out as much as I can with the kids' school — schooling — as they sit there in front of the computer. We've got a six-year-old, and that's just—

OK.

It's like herding cats trying to keep her in line.

And then just different projects around the house. I mean, really domestic things; I'm building a treehouse, you know, stuff like that.

Yeah!

So I just, when I get into a situation when I don't know exactly what I'm doing with the treehouse, then I come over and I work on songs and do that for a bit until I'm bored of it, and go help out with the kids. Stuff like that. I'm just trying to keep busy, because you do get stir crazy, you know?

Yeah. I would never with another global pandemic on this earth, but my gosh, if it hasn't been one thing, my one thing that I've taken away is just learning how to be more present, and just trying to spend more time at home, and I've been doing the distance learning; my son is doing pre-K distance learning!

Whoa. Dang.

And it's like, "How are we going to do this?" You know? But it's really taught me a lot about patience and, you know, appreciating spending more time at home, but I really do look forward to the day when I can go out at night and see bands that are touring through town.

And hug your friends!

Yeah, and hugging my friends! Seeing my friends, you know, being able to talk to people face to face, you know. I really miss that. And I think something I know that, when I've talked to listeners during my show, is that people are so hungry for live music again. And the whole, you know, awareness of, like, Save Our Stages going on right now.

Yes! We've been doing work with them. What a terrific—

Yeah! I'm wondering if you want to talk about that a little bit.

Well, I mean, I don't know much about the dynamics of the organization, but we've just really been motivated to try to help them. We've been selling masks to send all the money to those guys.

I mean, these venues are such a huge part of my life. I grew up in this places. And … I'm like, getting actually a little emotional.

Understandable. Yeah.

It's just important. And they are really struggling. And I think that there are national treasures out there that people, so many people actually do know the value of it, but we've got to do our best to try to help them through this. Give us a year, you know? And man, they're going to go gangbusters when we can get back to normal.

Yeah, I just think about a building and a venue as iconic as First Avenue.

It is!

And I'm so proud when I'm able to leave the Twin Cities and tell people about shows I've seen at First Avenue, and it's one of the things that I love talking up to people that aren't from the Twin Cities, and I think of, you know, "What if First Avenue wouldn't survive?" And First Avenue has been through its troubles, you know, in the decades. It really feels… I have this real fear right now. And I wonder, I mean, are there venues in Portland right now that, you know, people are kind of getting nervous about at this point?

Sure. Yeah, at least on my side of the thing, I'm worried about a lot of the places that we've played here; the Doug Fir is a great little venue that would be really disastrous if it couldn't survive this. There are so many. So yeah, I think it's an important thing to be concerned about.

Yeah, for sure. And it could be a year from now; we just don't know, and that's the thing.

Right.

I can be a bit of a control freak, so I always want to know the plan, but we just don't know the plan yet. And so, you know, we've just got to wait it out. And that's great to hear that you guys said you're selling masks and giving the proceeds—

Yeah, we're selling masks. I've got a guitar that I'm going to donate to the thing and get some people to sign it, and just do what we can to help them out.

That's all you can do. That's all you can do.

Yeah.

James Mercer of the Shins. Well, thank you for taking the time to check in with The Current, and you know, we'll just keep on keeping on, and, you know, thanks.

That's the thing: anybody releasing music right now, believe me, your fans are so grateful for that. And we're really grateful here at The Current that we can continue to share new music with the audience, so thank you for doing that. I think it's just really important for people right now.

I feel very grateful and thankful, too. Thank you very much for doing this interview with me, Jill.

Of course. All right, James. We'll check in hopefully down the line. So take care, OK?

Sounds good!

External Links

The Shins - official site

First Avenue - official site

Doug Fir Lounge - Portland, Ore.; official site

2 Photos

  • The Shins, 'The Great Divide' single
    The Shins, 'The Great Divide' single (Aural Apothecary/Monotone Records)
  • James Mercer of The Shins onstage
    Musician James Mercer of the musical group The Shins performs on the Sycamore stage during Arroyo Seco Weekend at the Brookside Golf Course at on June 25, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)