James Mercer is the sonic auteur behind indie-rock band the Shins. When the band formed in the mid-’90s, Mercer was rebelling against the “tongue-in-cheek” attitude of ’90s music by writing with vulnerability. Now, with the release of the Shins’ fifth album, Heartworms, he’s kept up his defiant nature, but this time he’s countering self-indulgent rock ’n’ roll by writing playful songs with embellished stories.
“People, in general, do this,” Mercer says in an interview with Vegas Seven, ahead of the Shins’ June 23 show at The Chelsea inside The Cosmopolitan. “It’s sort of the way fashion works: Something becomes ubiquitous, and then part of you gets tired of it and you want to rebel against it and find something new.”
Rather than writing mostly about personal experiences as he did in the past, Mercer has found a new place to draw inspiration from: his friends and family. The veteran musician called in from his home in Portland, Oregon, to talk about the band’s “Name for You” music video and how the feminist track was written for his young daughters.
A brunette bombshell fends off meatheads and dances with businessmen wearing heels in the music video for “Name for You,” which was filmed at Downtown Las Vegas’ Atomic Liquors. What was the idea behind that narrative?
We loved the idea of using [Transparent actress] Trace Lysette as the lead. Actually, it was my wife who came up with the idea that we should [feature] a transgender person, because that says so much about femininity in general—if we’re addressing anyone who considers themselves a girl. We liked the idea of that.
As a woman, that song is one of my favorites on the record. I can relate to it so much. I’m only 27 and I’m already feeling the pressures of age and looking a certain way.
Which is so crazy.
I know, it’s bullshit. But even though I recognize these things, I still act a certain way because these social expectations exist, I suppose.
Yeah. I vaguely feel like I can relate because I’m old for being in a band. When we go to the festivals, it’s like I’m a grandpa. There are kids who are in their teens playing these shows. It’s a very strange sight.
If your family weren’t full of women, do you think you’d be writing songs with a feminist message like this?
I’m not sure that I would. As a young man, I didn’t have a lot of empathy toward women, in a way, because I felt like one of those loser dudes who was always trying to get attention and never could. There’s that sort of angst that you develop as a young man. It was important for me to have [daughters] and to have a strong relationship with my wife. Over time, when you start to have proper relationships and real friendships with the opposite sex, you develop more empathy. But I think why young dudes generally [have] less respect [is] because they feel like it’s just an adversarial relationship, unfortunately. I kind of understand why, and it’s not something I’m proud of but it’s something that my wife helped reveal [to] me. That’s kind of where sexism evolves. It comes out of this angst that we have.
It’s funny how we separate. I was just thinking about [how], when you’re little, boys and girls are just buddies. You’re in elementary [school] and all of a sudden it’s like each sex chooses another side of the room in PE [class]. Then we only find each other again through sex and romance, [and] you have to fucking deal with that into your 20s. It’s such a weird transition that we have to go through. So in a way, it’s not surprising that it’s as difficult to navigate as it is, that we do have so many fucking issues. Teenagers are writing most of the pop music out there, and they’re just writing about bitches and stuff. That whole attitude, of course, is dysfunctional and immature. I’m doing my part.
A lot of the songs on Heartworms tell stories about caricature versions of your friends. Could you tell me about one of those friends and what song they inspired you to write?
“Rubber Ballz” is about a guy who falls in love with a girl who does not have his best interest in mind and is taking advantage of him. That’s an exaggeration of an old buddy of mine who had this relationship with a girl who wasn’t necessarily irresponsible with his feelings, but he was just kind of following her around and trying to keep some sort of bit of her attention. She was amazing. She was this really cool girl and very intelligent, very talented. She ended up moving to Paris and becoming a jazz singer. [She was] kind of out of his league, but also not really. He was a really cool dude. I thought that was fascinating, so I pushed it even further.
Do you find it easier to write songs inspired by someone else’s experience versus your own?
I don’t necessarily find it easier to do that, but I do find it easier to listen to after the fact. … There are songs that I’ve written in the past that are a little too near the bone that I don’t even enjoy performing anymore, because I don’t feel that way about that person anymore. I regret feeling that way about that person, maybe. Essentially, if you sing songs that have a certain angst to them because you felt slighted by somebody, and then you express it in a song, I’ve found that’s not that smart to do because then you just have to live with that forever.
That’s weird. You’re like, “I don’t want to keep reliving this. I don’t even feel this way.”
Yeah, totally. I don’t want to go back to who I was. Sometimes it’s not the person you’re with, but who you are, and how you behave when you’re with them—who you become—in order to try to navigate your relationship with them. Sometimes you look back and you regret that. If you have to sing [those types of songs] every night, it just really sucks.
The other thing is [that] now I’m married, happily married, and I’ve got kids. I don’t really have a lot of angst about relationships, so when I do find something novel to write about, I use my friends.