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It'll Change Your Life

James Mercer of The Shins talks festivals, crowd response around the world, songwriting and "Garden State"



"You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear," Natalie Portman's character, Sam, says in the movie, "Garden State." She's talking about the song, "New Slang," by The Shins.


ack in May, I met up with one of my best friends from college at the Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash. The Shins topped the list of bands we both wanted to see, even though (or likely because) we'd both seen them before. You might say we're the prime demographic for The Shins, as "Garden State" came out during our first year of college, introducing us—and the world—to that wonderful indie rock sound.

"I like it a lot more now than I used to," James Mercer, lead singer of The Shins, says of playing festivals. "It used to be so stressful, no sound check... 'throw and go' is what the guys call it. It's a lot easier because we have a really great crew and setup is pretty consistent. I've embraced the whole weirdness of it. The thing that's strange about festivals is that half the crowd isn't there to see you."

Mercer and I talked about how festivals have changed the way bands tour. Bands tend to anchor entire tours on appearances at certain festivals such as Sasquatch or Bonnaroo. While the sound quality may be better in a theater, bands are drawn to playing in open, outdoor spaces. In Bend, The Shins will indeed be playing outdoors, at the Athletic Club of Bend.

"There's something cool about playing out in an open space," Mercer says. "I don't know, it's weird. It's all about the crowd. If you have a crowd that's enthusiastic and engaged, it changes everything. There are times where you don't have that. In certain cultures, you'll play to crowds that are difficult to read. The concept of rock and roll and live music, it's our thing. In other countries, their response is very different."


ercer says when they play Japan—where they'll visit in December—there's an enthusiastic amount of applause and then the sound stops. It's more organized, he says.

"We do really well in France, which I'm stoked about," Mercer says. "We played in Italy and it was a really great crowd, fans wanting to hang out after and we felt like rock stars. Canada is interesting, different parts of Canada have different crowds. In the middle of the country, there's a much more subdued response. It's just a different sort of culture. Then Vancouver is just insane."

The Shins are currently touring in support of their latest album, "Heartworms." On that album, Mercer moved from a co-producer role (as he did on "Port of Morrow") to producer. "Port of Morrow" also included Greg Kurstin, who Mercer praises as a wonderful producer and guitar player. To Mercer, the move from co-producer to producer did mean more work for him, but he modestly says it's mostly just a title.

"I guess it means I'm the final artist of the aesthetic. That's the case generally anyway if you're the guy who wrote the song."


peaking of the "guy who wrote the song," Mercer's lyrics have been at the heart and soul of The Shin's music since the beginning. While he may no longer be the 20-year-old burning with angst, he can write more hypothetically now. As life and responsibilities change, so do the lyrics.

"If I'm home and I have the time, I yearn for the guitar," Mercer says. "I want to sit and play the guitar. I want to play something new, I don't play my songs or sit and play covers. If I come up with anything cool, I record it. I have files and files of recordings. That's how the process begins. Whenever I'm playing guitar, I try to think of something novel."

Now, I know what you're wondering. Did I talk to Mercer about "Garden State" and totally fan-girl out? How could I not!? "Garden State" came out 13 years ago, but how often do you get the opportunity to ask the man himself about the experience?

"I love that stuff, that was one of the coolest things that ever happened to us," Mercer says. "Often in those situations, you already have a song recorded and you just need to say, 'Yes.' I love that crossover into other aspects of pop culture."

The Shins

Tuesday, Sept. 26. 7pm.

Athletic Club of Bend

61615 Athletic Club Dr., Bend.


About The Author

Anne Pick

Music Writer | The Source Weekly

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