A Healthy Dose of the Beatles Originally Inspired the Shins Frontman and Songwriter James Mercer

Flake, the hard rock band that singer-guitarist James Mercer fronted in the early ’90s before forming the Shins in 1996, had a decent following. The band could draw a 100 or people to its shows.

But Mercer had started writing songs that were a bit too poppy for the group, so he started the proverbial side project. Twenty years on, that side project is still going strong.

“My band mates weren’t interested because they wanted to rock out,” he says in a recent phone from Niagara Falls where he had a day off from the tour that brings the band to the Agora on July 29. “So it was an outlet for those type of things. I took it seriously and to be honest probably spent a lot more time thinking about the Shins because it was my little project.”

That “little project” would make its debut in 2001 with Oh, Inverted World, and Mercer’s group, albeit with different lineups, has become an indie rock sensation. The band’s profile received a serious boost when Oh, Inverted World tracks "Caring Is Creepy" and "New Slang” both appeared in the 2004 film Garden State.

Indie rock can often be abrasive. But the Shins embrace more accessible pop sensibilities, something that Mercer says stems from receiving a heavy dose of the Beatles while growing up.

“My dad liked the Beatles,” he says. “I had a friend whose mom was obsessed with the Beatles. She gave him a cassette that was a mix of the early hits and he made a copy of that for me. I just loved it and that was my first understanding of what the Beatles were about. My dad got me the 20-year anniversary release of Sgt. Peppers. That was '87. It’s crazy that that’s now 30 years ago. Those were pretty influential records.

As he started to work on the band’s latest album, Heartworms, he decided he’d try the approach that worked so well on early Shins’ albums.

“I had always wanted the writing to reach some fidelity that would take the Shins from being an indie band into a world where straight people could actually dig it,” he says. “ I feel like the pinnacle of that was working with Greg Kurstin on [2012's] Port of Morrow. We did some great work on that and the songs are really strong but it didn’t have the effect that I thought it would. I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll go back to the way I was doing it.’ I produced it the same way I had produced the first three albums.”

The Squeeze-like album opener, “Name for You,” starts the album with a bang. The uptempo track features percolating synths and cooing backing vocals.

“Originally, that song had a drone-y quality with a straight beat,” says Mercer when asked about the track. “When I started messing around with it, I realized it needed something, so I gave it a more danceable beat. It really took off and started to engage me, and I ran off with it. Then, it was about trying to find interesting harmonies, and I wanted to do something interesting production-wise.”

In the mid-tempo "Mildenhall,” a tune that possesses a bit of a country Western feel with its clopping percussion, he references the time he spent living in England.

“That goes back to us moving to England, and it was just kind of depressing,” he says. “[My family] moved from sunny Albuquerque. I had friends there. I had made out with a girl for the first time. And then we moved to England, and it was dreary and gray. I was just depressed about it at first. Then, someone gave me a copy of [the Jesus and Mary Chain’s] Psychocandy, and it turned me onto [a new type of music]. It was just one of those lucky moments in life.”

For "So Now What," one of the new album’s many highlights, he teamed up with former bandmate Richard Swift to create a song with soaring vocals and orchestral flourishes.

“What happened there was that I was done touring with [the indie rock act] Broken Bells, and it was time for me to focus on doing another Shins record,” Mercer explains. “I was working one morning and trying to come up with new ideas. [Director] Zach Braff hit me up to write a song for his new film. I feel like I have an obligation to him because he’s helped my career so much [with Garden State].”

“I had to write something new and listened to my tapes,” says Mercer. “It was melodic and had a wistful vibe to it, and the movie is sad but heartfelt, so I began working on it. My studio wasn’t set up yet, so I hit up Swift to see if we could knock it out really quickly. He was into it, and that’s what happened. It went on the soundtrack, but I had forgotten about the song, and we were rehearsing to go on tour in September six months later, and the guys in the band came across it. They loved it and wanted to play it in the set, and we were working on the record at the same time, so we put it on the record too.”

After twentysomething years, the Shins remain as popular as ever, and the band will likely draw a capacity crowd to the Agora. Mercer says he’s as happy as he’s ever been with the current lineup.

“I still have ideas,” he says when asked about what keeps him going. “I still enjoy it. I like being home, but I can’t help but sit down with a guitar and then something pops up. I would be sad if I couldn’t express those things and get them out there. I’ve made it easy on myself too. I have a great crew and a great band. I have a studio in my house too. Everything in my life facilitates [making music].”

The Shins, Tennis, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 29, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $37-$77, agoracleveland.com

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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