Nearly two years ago, when James Mercer was doing press for Broken Bells, his collaboration with producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton told MTV News that he had no intention of abandoning his day job as frontman/songwriter for the Shins.
The problem was, Broken Bells ended up being bigger than either man could have expected, and that long-awaited fourth Shins album kept getting pushed back further and further. Though through it all, Mercer maintains he was always working on the record; he was just never quite sure when he was going to be able to finish it.
"It's been five years [since the Shins' Wincing the Night Away], but the Broken Bells kind of takes a two-year chunk out of that, and I've got two kids now, so it's really only been six months," he laughed. "The songs started to build up, so during times when I wasn't down working with Brian or doing other things, I was home, fiddling with the guitar like I always do, and the songs just sort of kept coming, and I realized I was definitely going to want to do another Shins record."
On March 20, that record, Port of Morrow, will finally see the light of day. But to say the Shins are the same band would be incorrect, to put it mildly. They've lost longtime members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval and left Sub Pop and signed with Columbia, which will release the album through Mercer's own Aural Apothecary label. But to Mercer, really, nothing has changed — and the Shins are still very much the Shins.
"In theory, I could have named the first Shins record 'The James Mercer Record,' but I just don't like the sound of that. There was a time when I was wondering, 'Should I just start a new band?' and I pretty quickly realized that I've always had — especially in the recording process — people coming in and helping out, or sometimes I would do a whole lot of it myself," he explained. "And although that might be a difficult transition for people to make, out there listening, that's nevertheless the reality of it, so I need to do what will keep me going, and so wanting to work with new people and wanting to stay engaged in the whole exploration of music is sort of what I'm doing now."
The new incarnation of the band will be augmented (live at least) by Richard Swift on piano and organ, Jessica Dobson on lead guitar, Yuuki Matthews on bass and Joe Plummer on drums, and fans have already been given a taste of what to expect on Morrow in the form of first single "Simple Song," which, interestingly enough, isn't actually all that new.
"I wrote the majority of it in 10 to 15 minutes, sitting on the living-room floor with my wife, and then it sat like that. That was during Wincing the Night Away's production," Mercer said. "But I knew it was going to be something that was fun to get into. And, to be honest, the night before we let go of that song, I was really nervous about it. ... I was really anxious and wanted people to like it."
So far, the consensus seems to be that people do. Though it's been a long time coming, Mercer said he's been inspired by the response so far, and he can't wait for fans to hear the rest of Morrow. And while he's taken on the lion's share of the responsibilities this time out, he's not feeling any pressure to validate whether the Shins are still the band folks have celebrated — because no matter who's playing with him, the Shins are always going to be the Shins.
"Some don't [understand how this band works], but that's because I wanted it to be a band, the aesthetic of that, and when I'm working in the studio, people are helping me do this," he said. "So it is still a band; it's just not like 'We all met in grammar school and came up together.' But, like, Neutral Milk Hotel is not that, but they're allowed to do that, so I'm figuring, 'Why can't I?' "
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