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The Shins are back! Last month, to celebrate their return, we captured a set of songs in front of a live audience at Apogee's Berkeley Street Studios. You'll hear it today, on Morning Becomes Eclectic in the 11 o'clock hour.
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Jason Bentley in a serious moment with The Shins
Photos by Larry Hirshowitz
Jason Bentley: It's The Shins for KCRW. Nice job, right? Hey, so first of all thank you for playing for us here at KCRW at Apogee's Berkeley Street Studios.
James Mercer: Cool, yeah. It's fun so far. Thank you.
Jason: Wow. It's James Mercer everyone. Say hi James. So, I love that you're mixing it up. A couple of songs from Wincing the Night Away. Sometimes bands come through and they just play their new album from start to finish.
James: I guess, I don't know, we care about the audience. We know you're just getting your heads around the new stuff. I go to see shows, too. Sometimes it's like "Come on, really?" Only "In Rainbows?"
Jason: Nicely played, nicely played. Well speaking of getting your heads around songs, how has the reaction been and are any songs emerging as fan favorites from the new album?
James: Man, "Simple Song" has done pretty well it seems like as far as a live song.
That's certainly the one people recognize most, but we are starting to see "Port of Morrow," which is the title tack and kind of one of the stranger songs on the record, seems to be recognizable to a lot of people now. And "It's Only Life."
Jason: Of course, yeah. That one is a jam.
James: Cool. (To the crowd) Are we doing it? Yeah, we're doing it later.
Jason: Do you kind of map out a different set for each show before you go on stage?
James: We do, yeah. Richard helps a lot with that. We try and make it interesting for us and change it up a little bit, but also there is sort of a thing to doing the right set list and giving breaks with softer songs, but not too long and all that. Yeah, we think about it.
Jason: I have to ask, how was Coachella weekend one?
James: It was great. It was really cool. Yeah. I had never been and I had never played, certainly, so we didn't know what to expect exactly. All of the people we know who live here in L.A. were like "It's a BIG deal. This is serious." We were like what about Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds and all these big festivals we play? I get it. It is a big deal. Coachella is its own thing. It is sort of different.
Jason: Do you enjoy festivals as a format?
James: I've answered this question in many different ways. There's things that are great about festivals. One of the things that's cool obviously is it's hectic and crazy and you can go see other bands. It also creates sort of a casual environment because most of the bands don't get to sound check. You just have to run out there. We just go out plug in and play and that creates sort of a casual situation. You don't feel an enormous amount of pressure as you might think. On the other side, they're hectic and crazy and that also drives you nuts if you're in the middle of a tour; I want peace.
Jason: I saw you on Jimmy Kimmel. You did a little feature: how to survive Coachella. Did anyone see that on Kimmel? One of your recommendations was do not bring David Hasselhoff with you. Did he show up? Because he was there last weekend? I'm thinking Hasselhoff hologram.
James: You can bring Michael Knight, just not Hasselhoff.
Jason: So you are a dad now, which is a pretty big deal in anyone's life.
James: For me it is. I'm sure you guys have gone on with your lives without even noticing.
Jason: How are you doing balancing the family life with the demands of being on the road?
James: We're doing pretty well. We sort of capped it at about three weeks as the most I can be away, that I can stand being away. That's helped a lot. We try and have my wife and kids come out and visit for a little bit if we're going to be gone any longer than that. So try to put it right in the middle. We have to stay connected you know.
Jason: Do you think it's changed your outlook and creative process at all?
James: Probably, in certain ways. I think it's changed my outlook on life in general but I haven't written a bunch of kids songs or anything. I've written a couple actually.
Jason: What kind of music do they respond to? Do they have all your albums?
James: They do. They seem to respond to catchy things. The poppier it sounds to me, the more they seem to like it. They love "Simple Song." Right off the bat they loved that because I was working on this record with them around me all the time and stuff. If I started playing that, they would run into the room and spin around and dance. Little girls, two little girls. It's pretty fun.
Jason: You can kind of road test 'em.
James: Yeah really. There are songs they really gravitate to and others they're okay with. They'll dance to anything, but they really love certain things.
Jason: You know the album title, Port of Morrow, and also the cover imagery really, you know, you're going to have to tell us but it seems like very wistful about life and the passage of time, the after life. I'm kind of just reading into it but is this related to becoming a father and thinking in those kinds of terms?
James: Yeah, I think a little bit. Yeah it is. You see time passing so quickly with the kids. That's one of the reasons it's hard to be away because Odetta is two years old and she's just doing something new everyday and you realize, this is it. This is our time together so it's hard to let her grow up without you there. You become more conscious of your own mortality - of everybody's mortality - when you have kids. I didn't expect that but you do. You kind of think more about death than you ever did, which is really strange.
Jason: And life.
James: And life; how precious it is.
Jason: The other big thing that happened in the five years since Wincing the Night Away was Broken Bells. I wanted to ask you, what did you learn from Brian - Danger Mouse - in that process? What do you feel that you took away from working with him?
James: Well. that he's really good at what he does. I think I learned a little bit of, sort of, his perspective, his attitude about recording and about song writing. He just has a really great, casual semi-cynical attitude about it that's refreshing and gives you the feeling you that you can do it. You can do anything. And you shouldn't let your lack of talent or something, like that inhibit you. It's just an interesting way of doing stuff.
Jason: That's such an important part of being a producer is just having a sounding board and someone can just say, "Hey, you can do it."
James: Yeah definitely, exactly. And you know just somebody who has a very clear aesthetic mind about things. He's definitely that sort of guy.
Jason: So for "Port of Morrow" you worked with Greg Kurstin, who many of us know for his project Bird and the Bee. He has also worked with Foster the People and even big pop artist. But known for more of that electronic, pop side. Why was he the right guy for this album in your mind?
James: Well I have the "Bird and the Bee" stuff and I had heard other things he had done, so I knew he can do really, high quality production, maybe even commercial I guess.
But I knew him as a friend before I knew he did all that stuff. And so, I knew number one that I can communicate with him. I also knew that his taste, his sort of go-to record collection, his 70's German progressive music. He's got this really avant-garde taste and interesting ideas about music but he can harness that and do anything. I just really like it. I knew that I can talk to him and we can get along in the process.
Jason: I really admire you as a songwriter.
Jason: I wonder if you can share some insight into your creative process as a songwriter. Do you have a set routine for writing or can inspiration just come from anywhere?
James: It can come at anytime, I guess. I do sort of have a set routine, but it's not something I'm just really diligent about or anything. I just find myself unable to escape the guitar. I see it in the corner of the room and I want to go pick it up and just sit for a second. So I do that pretty much daily. There's times, different times when I mess around.
My favorite thing to do while I'm sitting there is try and think of new things, new parts, new melody and all that. So that's the thing that keeps The Shins going is just sort of constantly generating little ideas and recording them and stuff. And when it comes time to record a record, that's when I sort of take all that stuff and flesh it out and start to get it into a proper song format but I procrastinate a lot on that part of the process.
Jason: Are you a student of great songwriters? Do you have any kind of real big influences?
James: I suppose I do in that I love listening to good music. I like to figure out how they make it, so I'll sit and try and figure out the chords for a Bob Dylan song or a Beatles song, or a Neil Young song. So yeah I definitely have them as sort of the hallmarks.
Jason: You've done some great covers. One of my favorites is the Squeeze song "Goodbye Girl" which you did for Levi's.
James: They're terrific writers.
Jason: They're out at Coachella as well.
James: I know I heard that. I want to see them.
Jason: You should check 'em out. And also with Broken Bells you did a couple covers. I went to the very first show at The Bootleg all the way back and you did "Crimson and Clover," I think at that time. Give us an example from Port of Morrow of a creative jumping off point for a song, whether it's kind of a guitar chord or a lyric.
James: What was the source of the idea?
Jason: Yeah kind of that start, the thing that really…
James: Well, "Simple Song" was the it that rhythm and the way that the melody sort of counters with it. (picks up guitar and plays) They're sort of intertwining or something. Like one rhythm is going this way and the other one is countering it and bouncing alongside it. That was the whole thing about "Simple Song." That's the only reason I think it's entertaining to listen to.
Jason: And the lyrics came after that was established?
James: That song actually I came up with that thing basically just what I was doing and I was sitting there and my wife was there with me and I just sort of started writing about her and writing about our life and stuff. It was right when we were really building the nest, you know, and getting ready to have kids and stuff.
Jason: Well it seems like you're really enjoying yourself.
James: I am. I am.
Jason: Creatively and in life. There's this great Funny or Die skit with clapping butter. Have you ya'll seen that? You made an appearance in Portlandia.
James: Thanks to Carrie.
Jason: You know, you're having fun.
James: Yeah I definitely am. It's like I'm a real late bloomer, you know. I'm really enjoying myself lately.
Jason: Has it felt like a continual evolution for you creatively or has each album felt so distinct and just stand alone in a way?
James: I mean, writing-wise they all happen to pretty much in very similar ways. I've learned a lot over the years. It's been 12 years or 11 years since the first record. So there's that evolution. In the last five years is when things have really accelerated and I've changed a lot. I mean, it's having kids, its being married, moving to a new place and doing the Broken Bells thing with Brian. Just many, many things and its just been really cool to have that happen you know in my late 30's, I guess, to have that start to happen.
Jason: Well as we head into your second set and we welcome the band back on stage, do you want to tell us anything about the folks that you have with you and maybe some really embarrassing trivial bit of knowledge about each of them?
James: I don't know. There's too much embarrassing stuff I have on 'em. Yeah I can introduce everybody.
Jason: Sure so why don't we get the band back out here and enjoy the second set. It's The Shins live for KCRW.