It might be unsurprising to learn The Shins' frontman James Mercer, author of the song "Caring is Creepy," is somewhat socially maladjusted. Shrouded in a cloud of swirling, mid-tempo, psych-tinged pop evoking the Zombies, Pavement and the shuffling charm of Guided By Voices, Mercer's anxiety cuts against the buoyant current of the music.
"I don't want to show you my feelings/ I don't want to force you to deal/ I just want to crash through the ceiling before it gets too real," Mercer sings on "Fantasy Island," a song off The Shins' new album Heartworms (Columbia, March 2017), which is the No. 1 selling album at The Record Exchange this week. Mercer speaks for many who struggle to connect through onion-like layers of self protection and doubt. Like it does for country artist Mel Tillis—who stutters but not when he sings—music offers escape from this kind of social-emotional blockage.
"Some people just don't have a hard time," Mercer said, calling from his home in Portland, Ore. "My sister is someone who is naturally gifted socially. Even if it's a business thing when she's dealing with people, it's a pleasure to her and it goes well.
"But I think there are a lot of people who are songwriters who have always sort of struggled with social relations, and I'm certainly one of those people," he added. "I can manage to have sort of a good time with people and I love people and being around people but it's kind of really specific people. Maybe that's why we end up being in bands: We find some sort of dread we can share with the people we're with."
Mercer came of age in mid-'90s Albuquerque, N.M., where his first band, Flake Music, struggled to fit into a snotty/aggressive underground. The scene grew a snarky sneer of indifference that cut off sincerity at the knees—and probably helped seed the subsequent earnest Americana movement. Steeped in sarcasm, the Albequerque scenesters didn't have to betray what they really felt, which Mercer said he hated. While Flake Music tried to play along, The Shins were a stand against the prevailing attitude, with songs like "New Slang" and "Mine's Not a High Horse," which eviscerated Mercer's emotionally remote peers.
"It was sort of a special case growing up in Albuquerque," Mercer said. "The music scene was basically macho. [Everything] had to have some sort of machismo to it. Even if it was a girl band, it had to be punk. You could never actually say something about a feeling that you had unless it was angst. When I was in Flake we tried to fit into that world, and it always felt a little bit fake to me, even listening back to some of those things, you can tell that I was affecting some sort of attitude that was not really natural.
"I was really frustrated with this attitude that everything had to be tongue-in-cheek and half a joke," he added. "I mean a lot of great music came out of that era, like Pavement, who I think are a really smart band. But they were the king and I was the knave, rebelling against them."
The Shins' debut studio album, Oh, Inverted World, was released in 2001 on Sub Pop to great indie rock acclaim. In 2004, The Shins became the band that could change your life, when "Caring Is Creepy" was used in Zach Braff's indie sleeper hit Garden State. The band had just finished supporting its 2003 follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop), when the film blew up, forcing The Shins back out on the road. While most music fans can relate to the experience of a band changing its world, being that band can be difficult.
"It was really weird, and honestly it made me feel pretty self-conscious, because that's a strange kind of pressure right there," Mercer said. "We just kind of ran with it, though. In a weird way it sort of jumped the shark for us, so when we went out, it wasn't just hipster kids with stripey shirts, it was people like my sister: just college-going kids who were kind of into music, but they were into sports and stuff, too. It was a broader audience for us."
Heartworms is The Shins' fifth album and only the second of the past 10 years, which is due, in part, to Mercer's intense musical monk-dom. He likes to retreat to the studio like Superman to his Fortress of Solitude, only more gets accomplished. Mercer's biggest complaint about The Shins' last album, Port of Morrow (Columbia Records, 2012) was that working with producer Greg Kurstin (Pink, Sia, Adele), he felt constrained by trying not to burden others with his obsessive aesthetic.
"I've never done anything as good as Port of Morrow in a lot of ways, but there were also frustrations with wanting to sit there and noodle with it forever," Mercer said.
Ironically, after spending his youth railing against the sardonic, Mercer now seethes at the hirsute, keenly coiffed and sanctimonious hipsters that plague Portland(ia) like locusts.
"I'm really really sick of it, and I think that's part of the attitude that's on this album," Mercer said. "I was having a lot of fun making it. It's strange; I think that's partly just me. It's the way I end up writing—there might be these moments where you hear that little bit of angst in there but really, I'm a pretty sanguine kind of dude."