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- Posted on Mar 19th 2012 3:30PM by Aaron Brophy
For Shins' main man James Mercer "awhile" meant five years of side-projects like Broken Bells, amusing diversions like a 'Portlandia' appearance, and an almost time-travelling look back into his own past to gather inspiration for the fourth Shins album.
Whether intentional or not, 'Port of Morrow' comes across as a series of diary-like snapshots from Mercer's past. There are stories about German prostitutes ('40 Mark Strasse') and songs with musical nods to Mercer's Hawaiian birth ('Bait and Switch'). Looming largest, though, might just be the fact that thanks to his time off in Broken Bells, the Shins have become something bigger, brighter and more technicolour musically. Mercer figures that's no accident.
"You can credit Brian ['Danger Mouse' Burton] with a lot of that," Mercer tells Spinner, discussing the more headphone-rich sound of 'Port of Morrow.'
"Because working with Brian gave me a lot of confidence to do something like that and not be so nervous about being adventurous to, y'know, bust a move."
Where past Shins albums (2001's 'Oh, Inverted World,' 2003's 'Chutes Too Narrow' and 2007's 'Wincing the Night Away') had a kind of monochromatic vibe to them, there's a different energy to 'Port of Morrow.' This is largely because of Broken Bells, who will make a return someday, Mercer says.
"I had gotten stagnant and started to feel we worked really hard for 'Wincing the Night Away,'" he explains. "I was really exhausted by it and I didn't really like the idea of just going straight in and working on another Shins record. I was looking for something to do and Brian, totally separately, was in the same mode, wanting to be in a band. In a different band. So it kind of coincided perfectly for me and it worked out very well. And we'll do another record, too. We have another one that we're already started on."
The birds and the bees helped, as well. More specifically, Grammy-nominated producer and the Bird and the Bee member Greg Kurstin, who worked on 'Port of Morrow,' prodded Mercer to experiment with new sounds.
"Definitely a lot of the credit needs to go to Greg Kurstin," says Mercer. "He's definitely very adventurous when it comes to a lot of that -- and I encouraged that. We spoke a lot about the things we had been really listening to and loving, like Can and Faust and these old German bands. We talked a lot about the Berlin music scene in the '70s and Iggy Pop and stuff, and we talked a lot about bands like Broadcast and Clinic, the newer bands that had an interesting aesthetic and were also pushing that sonic boundary.
"And he has all this incredible gear, too. So the sounds you hear, like an early, early synthesizer maybe from the '60s, it is that actual thing. He's got them all."
Also interesting is the dip into the political for Mercer. Granted, it's not full-on Billy Bragg territory, but the song 'No Way Down' has a pointed pro-We Are the 99 Percent sensibility, despite the song actually predating the whole Occupy movement.
"It's funny because that song was written well before any of that stuff started to happen," says Mercer.
"I had read an article about how there's been this long relationship between corporate business and labour and union power, and this article was about this sort of crazy move that happened where basically, the business world altered that relationship, they created legislation, lobbied it into existence that allowed them to go overseas, and do -- what I consider, and I'm not super knowledgeable -- but working with a country that has no respect for civil rights or worker rights or anything like that. You basically get to have slave labour without being a slave owner, and you basically kill the relationships you have with the labour force you have here. I don't know. I don't have a solution for it. But it's a fascinating thing to think about and it was good fodder for that song.
"And I was reading how back in the 1800s if somebody owned something -- and I don't know when corporate law changed -- but there was a time when if you were a business owner you were completely held accountable to everything that happened. You didn't have that separation. And you had to give a s--- because your ass was on the line when you sold things and you made your millions, and how you made them, and how it affected other people. And that just doesn't happen anymore."
More prevalent than potential Occupy anthems are those world-spanning tales that fill the various songs on 'Port of Morrow.' A born army brat, Mercer traveled to England and Germany with his family in his youth. The song '40 Mark Strasse' is about a particularly infamous stretch near the U.S.-run Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
"I spent three years living in Germany as a kid," starts Mercer. "And it was right near Ramstein Air Force Base, which was a massive American military complex. And near there was a town called Kaiserslautern. And heading back to Ramstein there was a stretch the Americans called '40 Mark Strasse,' which is where young prostitutes would solicit. And I, as a kid, was told about this, and I asked, because these kids looked like the kids at the high school that was very near the elementary school that I went to, and I guess that that was the basis of that song, just my confusion about it and my curiosity, and when you're young and you just love girls and you don't exactly know why and all that. It was just a strange thing to learn about these kids. I mean, some of these girls I remember looking very young."
Mercer says there wasn't an actual plan to mine his old diaries for songs.
"It wasn't intention to sort of catalogue the places that I lived or anything like that," he says. "I think it just happened accidentally. But maybe there was some sort of nostalgia going on when I was writing. I'm not sure."
While Mercer may be less certain about it, songs like the title track confirm that he was on some sort of musical journey in the last five years.
"Port of Morrow, you know, I don't know too much about what the actual place is," he says, talking about the album's titular port of call. "I know it's an industrial port over here in Portland, Oregon. What I do know is at the end of every tour when we return home to Portland, in eastern Oregon you pass this little sign and it says 'Port of Morrow' and it's something about the mood that you're in at the end of the tour and just the strange evocative nature of that phrase.
"It ended up being a line in the song 'Port of Morrow' that, to me, ended up symbolizing the exit point of everyone's life... which is death. So that's what 'Port of Morrow' is about: death and mortality and understanding that's what awaits you and the strange dichotomy of life being beautiful and engaging and fascinating and wonderful, but also dark.
"I think that's something in the last few years that I've come to realize -- that strong artistic experiences are always coupled. There's always a moment of beauty with its fragile and transient nature."