With a new crew for 2017, James Mercer explains how he keeps his "benevolent dictatorship" together.
The Shins are hitting the road for a headline tour of theaters and amphitheaters later this month, following a busy summer performing at more than a dozen festivals in North America and Europe.
"I’ve got two weeks off at my home in Portland working in my studio and then we’re taking off for 30 dates in North America,” lead singer James Mercer tells Billboard. The tour kicks off Sept. 23 at Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, and includes stops at Vino Robles in Paso Robles (Sept. 28), Red Rocks in Denver (Oct. 5), Seth Hurwitz’s new venue The Anthem (Nov. 2) in Washington D.C. and Nashville’s beloved Ryman Auditorium on Nov. 15. Mercer said he’s looking forward to returning to Los Angeles' Greek Theatre on Sept. 29 for an evening of music presented by Goldenvoice.
“The Greek Theatre is a big deal to us,” he says. “It’s a big venue for us in a big town for us. I can't put my finger on why Los Angeles is such an important city, but somehow that cerebral knowledge of the type of people who live in L.A. and the size of the crowd and everything else gets me excited."
The headlining tour is a chance for the band to connect with fans in a more intimate setting after playing 14 festivals in 2017 including Sasquatch in Washington, WayHome in Toronto and Lollapalooza in Chicago.
"We were really shocked to see how many people came out for us at Lollapalooza -- when we walked out on stage and were very pleased,” Mercer said, adding the energy of the crowd "transfers to you and you get more into it. That’s what we figure is going to happen at the Greek."
The band is touring in support of the band's fifth album, Heartworms, released in March by Columbia Records. Heartworms is a bit more up-tempo and dancier than the indie rock standard bearers' past albums. Opening track “Name For You” hits with a rockabillly-ska upstroke and Mercer’s instantly recognizable vocals louder and more direct than the soft subtle hits like “New Slang.” The album’s centerpiece track “Mildenhall” pays homage to Mercer’s childhood as a British military brat, recalling the analog days when he rocked a flattop and skateboarded to shows at Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange with a young love interest for whom he would "stay up waiting with her in the cold, for cheap beer and rock and roll."
Mercer is the only remaining original member of The Shins, but he said the group’s current bandmates — Yuuki Matthews, Mark Watrous, Casey Foubert, Jon Sortland and Patti King -- get along creatively and personally and are starting to feel comfortable together.
"At Lollapalooza we were sitting backstage and we were told by our tour manager, 'OK wait here and I'll be back and I'll pick you up and walk you to the stage,'” Mercer says. "And somebody pressed play on a boom box and started playing 'Werewolves of London' randomly. We started joking about it and kind of making fun of it but also singing it really loud and without any freakin decision made by any individual. We all just started walking out of the dressing room and walking across the campus of the festival in the wrong direction, carrying the boom box and singing that ridiculous song. And our tour manager found us and said, 'Where the fuck did you go?’ So that's the type of crew I'm running with right now."
His current tour has the band playing tracks from all five albums, telling Billboard, "The thing about The Shins that maybe differs from other indie rock bands is that there are a lot of different styles of songs and types of energy expressed in the songs. So we have real fucking rock songs. And we've got a tight group of musicians. The other thing that's really cool is that we have three really good violinists in the band. Both of our guitarists play violin and Patty King is the best violinist I've ever played with. We can do a little chamber music moment -- It's not your typical show where you hear anthem after anthem after anthem that you would get with a lot of these modern indie rock bands."
In the past Mercer has said the band operated like a democracy, but now that shifted a bit to a “benevolent dictatorship.”
"I very much consider the other opinions and am very respectful about it and so on. But at the end of the day I guess I have to make the decision. In the world of art you're allowed to be a dictator,” Mercer tells Billboard. “In the world of politics you're a cunt if you do that. But in the arts it’s different and my bandmates are really really great about it. I started this band in my bedroom.”
After the tour wraps with a few dates in Australia and Mexico, Mercer said he wants to work to develop some new music and work with producer Brian Burton, popularly known as Danger Mouse, for their collaborative project Broken Bells.
"Brian is so busy. I text here and there and I just like working with him. That's all I know. It's easy for me,” Mercer said "I want to work with him again and I'm sure he would like to do it too. But he's making a lot of good money working with some really incredible people and he's running a label too. He's a busy guy but I’m going to see him when I stop in L.A.”