Life as a rock-star dad, years of lineup changes, and a never-ending obsession with pop music: The Shins’ James Mercer, 46, opens up to EW about the making of his band’s boldest album yet. “Modern pop is very avant-garde, the structure of builds and choruses and solos…I keep coming across new ideas in that language,” he says of the inspirations behind Heartworms, their fifth studio LP, out now. Read on to find out how the songwriting process begins for Mercer, the meaning behind the album title, and what inspired the country-tinged “Mildenhall.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Heartworms is the Shins’ fifth album and the first to be released in five years. Where does the making of a record start for you?
JAMES MERCER: With [one of] those composition notebooks you get at the grocery store. I especially like the college-ruled ones. Then it evolves from those blank pages. There’s everything from journal entries from when I was on tour to stickers that people give me. Each one is this little collection from that era. I number them, and when the project is done, I put them away and get a new one.
What does the album title mean?
I was trying to rhyme infection with affection [on the song “Heartworms”], and that was grossing me out. [Laughs] But I wanted something that felt like that. Heartworms came to mind, and I remembered this band called Heartworms and how much I loved that name. When I started thinking it could be the title of the record, I didn’t feel comfortable doing it [without permission]. I emailed Archie Moore [from the band], and he gave me s— and told me, “That’s not cool, man!” Then he was like, “I’m totally kidding. I’m a Shins fan. You guys are welcome to it.”
The album is your most diverse-sounding yet. There’s psychedelia, lush harmonies — the track “Mildenhall” even has a country vibe. Where’d that come from?
My dad was a country-western singer. After work, there were many nights where he would head to a nightclub and [sing]. And there were often times where we couldn’t find a babysitter, so I’d just be in the pub, inhaling secondhand smoke. [Laughs]
Lyrically, you look back on your life growing up in Mildenhall, England, where your father was stationed as an officer in the Air Force. You also lived in Hawaii and New Mexico. Did moving around so much shape your songwriting?
It certainly gave me a lot of time to sit alone in my room and listen to records and create my own mythology. [Laughs] I did a lot of that. I wasn’t like my sister. We would move to a new town and she would meet the kid next door and start dating him and have a friend structure immediately.
What music do you have in heavy rotation now?
I really love Ariel Pink. He sounds so free and open. And the Angel Olsen record I adore. Grimes is a real inspiration; she’s so free and crazy with her compositions and production. There’s just so much cool s— going on in music right now. It’s cool to be a part of it all.
There have been numerous lineup changes with the band over the years, and you wrote and recorded this album alone. Have you considered dropping the band name?
When I was in that transitional period before [2012’s] Port of Morrow, it was contemplated for a moment, [but] there’s something that doesn’t suit me about that. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, even if it is just a moniker. And there was a precedent set in the ’90s with bands like the Lilys: There was a cast of characters but really one dude. I was like, “I can do that!”
You have three daughters. Do they have any interest in music?
Our middle child is [interested], and it’s all her doing. She takes piano lessons. I just want to support them and feed their curiosity. My parents had an apprehension when I dropped out of university and started playing and working odd jobs. [Laughs] I might have that same concern, but we’re just going to follow their lead on it. We’re Montessori kids. We’re into that.