The Shins’ mastermind James Mercer, 51, reflects on his band’s 2001 debut album: ‘I get the chills’
The indie-rock favorites, who perform in San Diego Saturday, are now embarked on 21st anniversary tour
You can take the young American out of England. But, even after four decades, you can’t take England out of the now not-so-young American.
That is very specifically the case for James Mercer, the mastermind and sole original member of indie-rock favorite The Shins.
He is now leading the latest iteration of the band on a national tour to celebrate the 21st anniversary of its debut album, the deceptively gentle “Oh, Inverted World.” The album’s standout song, “New Slang,” became belatedly popular after it was featured in a pivotal scene in the 2004 Zach Braff/Natalie Portman film “Garden State.”
The Hawaii-born son of a U.S. Air Force officer, Mercer spent a chunk of his teen years growing up at RAF Lakenheath, the largest U.S. air base in England. Being uprooted to gray, cold, rainy Lakenheath from New Mexico — where has father was stationed after Hawaii — was not an easy transition.
“Going into middle school, I went into a shell and stayed there until my sophomore year,” recalled Mercer, 51, who performs with The Shins Saturday at San Diego Civic Theatre.
It was about a year after arriving in England that the then-16-year-old introvert began learning to play his father’s Gibson J-50 acoustic guitar. Mercer’s other passion was skateboarding, which he had taken up in Albuquerque before his family moved to England.
What brought him out of his shell in Lakenheath?
“Skateboarding. And meeting friends and having something I loved doing and was good at,” said the bearded singer-songwriter, speaking last week from San Francisco.
The Smiths, The Cure
By his own admission, Mercer has long favored writing opaque song lyrics that are cloaked in an air of ambiguity and mystery.
But the years he spent as a teen in England in the mid-1980s helped to inextricably shape him as a fledgling musician — and as an ardent fan of such then-fresh U.K. bands as The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure and The Jesus & Mary Chain. Those years also inspired the only overtly autobiographical song Mercer has recorded, “Mildenhall,” named for a town near Lakenheath that also housed a military air base.
The song, which first appeared on the 2017 Shins’ album “Heartworms,” also pays tribute to his father, an avocational singer and guitarist. His father taught Mercer — a failed piano student — his first chords and introduced him to the music of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Paul Simon and other greats. And it was his dad’s guitar that he used to write the country-tinged “Mildenhall.”
Its lyrics get right to the point, in a way that none of Mercer’s other songs do, as he sings: A kid in class passed me a tape of a band called The Jesus and Mary Chain / I started messing with my dad’s guitar / He taught me some chords just to start me off / Whittling away on all of those rainy days / And that’s how we get to where we are now.
“That song felt like it needed an earnest, real story to it,” said Mercer, who recorded a different version of “Mildenhall” for The Shins’ 2018 album, “The Worms Heart.”
“I don’t know how early I figured out I could write about my experience moving to England, but it fit the vibe and is demure enough. It was always one of my favorite songs on ‘Heartworms,’ even though some of the younger people who heard it would say: ‘I like that album. I just don’t like that country song!’
“It totally reflects my dad’s influence. He would sing the songs of the day in nightclubs on the side when he was in the Air Force.
“I grew up in a home with a lot of music and it made it seem natural and normal to sing and play an instrument. It didn’t seem weird. A lot of people grew up in households that are quiet, and nobody is performing. So, it’s a bigger step for them than it was for me.”
In a full circle of life moment, Mercer returned to England to film the unabashedly nostalgic black-and-white video for “Mildenhall.” It provided him with a step-back-in-time moment to revisit some of his teen haunts 30 years later.
“We went back to South Bank, which wasn’t a skate park when I lived there but is now. It was a place where skaters would congregate,” Mercer said.
“There weren’t a lot of us in England at the time, so we hung out. We were a rare breed, mostly English kids. We used to love to do the ‘Judo air’.”
‘He loves it!’
And how does Mercer’s presumably not impartial father like “Mildenhall?”
“He loves it! And he’s not very impartial!” Mercer, a married father of three daughters, replied.
“He’s a big fan and really loves that song. I have found a lot of people really like that one ...”
Mercer is not the only notable American musician who grew up in a military family that regularly moved while they grew up from base to base, port to port, or city to city.
Others range from blues dynamo Robert Cray and Talking Heads bassist-singer Tina Weymouth, who is a Coronado native, to Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, whose father was stationed at Camp Pendleton several times during their youth.
But it’s difficult to think of another musician who — after growing up in a military family — earned acclaim for writing melodically inviting songs with such proudly impressionistic and oblique lyrics as Mercer’s. His ability to do so was evident on “Oh, Inverted World,” The Shins’ 2001 debut album, which the band is playing live in its entirety to open the concerts on its current tour.
“It’s funny because the lyrics can be sort of cryptic,” Mercer said. “But to me, it’s really obvious what I’m saying. If somebody knew me quite well back then, they would have known who and what I was talking about (in those songs). But I’m glad I decided to be a little cagey.”
By his own admission, Mercer is not the type to let many people know him really well. Witness this line from “Half a Million,” his musically upbeat 2017 song: I use my brains to make a fence.
“My ability to bond tightly with new people takes a long time,” Mercer said, “I’m not very easy to get to know; this I’ve been told.”
Might this be attributable in part to his having grown up as a U.S. military dependent in Hawaii, New Mexico and England? And is the flip side of becoming introverted as a result that you also become more self-reliant?
“I guess you do become a bit more self-reliant,” Mercer said. “But you still need people in your life. I’d be happier to befriend people and it’s something I still work on. I try and be open, and try and give a relationship the attention it’s due.
“It’s just when you’re growing up (with a parent) in the Air Force, everyone is moving about every three years, but not all on the same schedule. So, a friend you’ve made is gone after one year ...”
The Shins’ current tour is the group’s first since 2017, after a planned tour for last year fell through because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercer is happy to be back on the road. And he is excited about the new album he has completed with Danger Mouse, his periodic musical partner, with whom he records under the name Broken Bells.
But Mercer is circumspect about traveling and performing at a time when concerts are still being canceled on a near-daily basis because of pandemic-related issues.
“We’re all waiting and hoping we can avoid getting sick, and we’re questioning if the tour can go on if one of us does,” he said. “But it’s great that people are willing to come out and see us play. It feels pretty special at the moment.”
It’s also special for Mercer to be performing — 21 years later — all of the songs he wrote as a young man for what became The Shins’ 2001 debut album.
“I get the chills because some of the songs still have a fresh impact,” he said. “It’s also nostalgic because it puts you in a strange, melancholic mood, where you’re remembering what your life used to be like 21 years ago. There are some insights in those songs that still hold up.”
The Shins, with Joseph
When: 8 pm. Saturday
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
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