Published Mar 25, 2012When James Mercer hooked up with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and began recording as Broken Bells, plenty of Shins fans fretted the end was nigh. Even Mercer admits he flirted with the idea of abandoning ship.
"There was that thought [of never doing the Shins again]," Mercer says over the phone. "But I love the thing I've created with the Shins. It would have been hard to give that up and just let it die. And, you know, in a way, I realized that wasn't necessary."
Five years after the last full-length Wincing the Night Away, the Shins are back with Port of Morrow, but plenty has changed. The band's line-up has undergone a significant overhaul and Mercer and company left their long-time label, Sub Pop, in favour of creating their own label with support from heavy hitters Columbia.
"On paper it looks like more of a change than it actually is," Mercer says. "With Sub Pop, really, our contract just expired. We fulfilled our obligation with them and then it was just figuring out how to do this. And the whole world and the whole industry had changed during our ten years with Sub Pop. Suddenly there was this option of me having my own label, and having another label, that was established and would have infrastructure, be partners with me. As far as the band line-up, I still worked with Dave Hernandez on the record and Martin Crandall on the record. Touring, we've opened it up and we've got some new people, and well, who knows what will happen? I think it's just loosened up: the definition of what the Shins are and who we are has opened."
Port of Morrow reflects that. On first listen, avowed Shins fans might be angry by the changes to the band's trademark sound. Electronic and '80s flourishes, thumpin' bass, guitar distortion and epic choruses abound, and the disparate influences are off-putting, even disorienting. But by third listen it's evident how much Mercer's changed as a musician and the album's experimental moments become revelatory. Mercer says this is the first album where a producer has had a "strong aesthetic impact," rather than making the record alone in his bedroom. He agrees: this is Shins 2.0.
"One of the things you have to do in order to collaborate with people is be comfortable with them knowing how good or bad you are, what your limits are," Mercer says. "It was really a lack of confidence that caused me to do everything secretly in my room and record everything alone because I was afraid ― well, I was just nervous to go out there and work with 'real' musicians. Working with Brian was huge in that respect. It gave me a lot of confidence to work with somebody so talented and yet he respected me. He knows very well what my skills are now, we've worked together for a long time and will continue to. It's a real boost."