Build + Sustain A Career Doing What You Love w/ James Mercer of The Shins
(jazzy music) (audience shouts and applause)
Thank you guys very much. Thank you. Thunderous, thunderous applause. It continues, thunderous applause. All right, that's good, that's good. Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode of Chase Jarvis Live. I'm Chase Jarvis, your host. About every week or two we film one of these things, and I sit down with someone who has inspired me deeply, someone that is inspired by the world, and we sit here on this stage, and I do my best to unpack actionable and valuable insights, with the goal of helping you all be inspired and live your most creative life. My guest today is truly a rock star, but before we get to him, for you folks you are out there in the internet world, all over we have thousands of people tuning in, feel free, if you wanna ask a question of James, I will ask a couple of questions from the internet, so hashtag cjlive on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever you'd like on any of our posts, and maybe a couple of those questions w...
ill surface their way there. You guys here in the in studio audience also feel free to ask a question. We are live, so like get your shit together before you go on camera. (laughter) But without further ado, our guest is an absolute rock star in so many ways, not just musically, but as a human. He's insanely creative. He's got some new entrepreneurial things that we're gonna talk about, a new app called Pasted, and then we're gonna have an amazing acoustic set that you will all remember, and you'll say, remember that one show? You get to tell your kids and your friends about it. That's gonna be tonight, so without further ado, please a massive CreativeLive Seattle welcome for Mr. James Mercer. (shouting and applause) Come on, bud, come on. (audience clapping)
How're you doing?
Sit down here, nice and slow. Otherwise it'll make a noise.
(mumbles) There he is.
Welcome, thanks a lot for joining us, bud.
I mean are you comfortable?
Yeah, this is good.
Just got you some brown water in case you wanted some brown water.
Oh, that's grown up juice.
So one of the things that is insanely inspiring about you and your career is A, the start. One of the things that so many people think who are watching from afar is that the start just happens and you shot out of a cannon. But from what I know of your past and so many other people who've made a living in life doing what they love, it was, you know, you've heard 10,000 hours or just years and years of toiling. I would love it if you'd start off our conversation today with a little bit of backstory of what it was like in the beginning where there wasn't people lining up for you.
And when you were living in your basement or whatever.
Well, I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my dad is a Air Force guy, and he had been stationed overseas in the U.K. for three years. And so I graduated high school over there in an American style high school that was kind of an international school. And then we moved to Albuquerque.
Wait a minute, like there to Albuquerque?
From there to Albuquerque. Albuquerque has a massive nuclear weapons facility, and that was my dad's forte. That's what he did was munitions, and of course as you work your way up in that career you are in charge of nuclear bombs. So that's why we were in Albuquerque, and you know, he really pushed me to do some sort of a technical field. I mean, science and engineering stuff, which wasn't really, I didn't really have the brain for it, you know, or the desire I think. And I ended up dropping out and playing in bands and just was really fascinated by music and art and so on.
How'd that go over with a military father?
Oh, I mean, not well, as you can imagine. I remember my mom saying one night, they were arguing about it. They were frustrated with me, and her just saying, "I don't know why he does what he does." (laughing) It was totally confusing to them I think, you know, it made no sense. And so my 20s was spent, in bands messing around and having a lot of fun honestly.
Was there any success at that point? Or was it just in bands having fun.
We couldn't draw 200 people to a show in Albuquerque, In our hometown, so no, not really. (chuckling) I was learning a lot, though, I was learning a lot about songwriting. I was learning a lot about what I was capable of, you know. I was faking it a lot and trying to be something that I really wasn't, that didn't really make sense for my personality, and just kind of working it out. And by the end of the '90s technology had advanced to the point where you could record at home. And a buddy of mine gave me a--
A bootleg. Well, he gave me a bootleg version of Cool Edit Pro, which is a really cool program actually, and that's what I recorded the first Shins record on.
The whole record?
On a Hewlett Packard Pavilion, like one of those short stack things that like an office sort of computer.
And so still basically unknown, working.
Were you working to pay the bills, or how did that work?
Yeah, I was working odd jobs. (chuckles)
You can say it. (laughter) That's why you're all here, right?
I was working all kinds of odd jobs, I mean I, temp agencies are great.
What were the oddest?
A buddy of mine gave me some starts of marijuana, and I started growing that in the closet and selling that to friends, and stuff like that, I mean just whatever I could do, you know.
You were just ahead of your time. It's very entrepreneurial here in Washington.
I really don't recommend that in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1999.
With a military father.
Yeah. But you know, I just knew that I needed to be able to go on tour, and I needed time for myself to do what I was really into because I knew none of these jobs that I was doing were going to come to any nice end. It was just paying the rent, you know. So I just kept working at it, and recording was a huge thing. I mean, getting that device and being able to layer tracks and so on. That was like, I mean it blew my mind. Then I became kind of obsessed about it.
Having talked to so many people in the seat that you're in right now, this is a really common theme that I'm hoping that you all can help us culturally move forward, which is that there is something that you're supposed to be or become. If you're successful, you're gonna be a doctor a lawyer or whatever. Obviously, the times are so much different now, and what are we doing to stamp out so many of the things that that could be, an amazing artist or a musician, but we've got this cultural sensibility that we need to reframe. So that story, I've heard it over and over again. So A, you're not alone, and B, let's make sure that the rest of the world doesn't feel like that where we have some responsibility to impact them. What were you saying?
And you're really filling this niche. I mean where certain skill sets that are very valuable now are just not available at the traditional college or whatever so.
Yeah, CreativeLive is just to disrupt that.
So you said something sort of declarative right there, which was like an actual recording was really important. Why was it? Did it give you a sense of like permanency and you were capturing something and you were able to share it? What was the--
Well I mean, it's how you make a product in the music world, you know. It's how you get the attention of some of the people who are here tonight who really changed my life. Megan Jasper is here from Sub Pop, everybody. And so I loved, also I loved records, you know. I wanted to be part of that world. And also in Albuquerque it's kind of few and far between the people who know how to do that. You need somebody who knows how to record, is a good engineer and has good taste. So that's a combination that's just, you can find it in a big city like this, but in Albuquerque there were just only a very few, and it was expensive.
So is that why you were doing it yourself at that point?
And so I started doing it myself. And it started with a four track, like you said, and then it was this Hewlett Packard Pavilion computer that like--
Word processing by day.
Oh man, yeah.
Shins recording device by night.
So how did you get from there to Portland and Seattle and the northwest. Like did you just like literally decide to pick up and move? Was it because everything was happening here? And what timeframe? Give us a little.
Well I mean, it sort of starts with little tour jaunts that I made. That reminds me I should probably turn off my cell.
Yeah, make sure y'all phone's off. You don't wanna be that person, right?
You know, little jaunts that we would do in an old band that I was in called Flake, we met people. So again, it's just working, it's doing, it's getting out there and meeting people and making connections that you don't realize will come to some strange fruition, you know, down the road. So on this one trip we opened up for a little band in a sandwich shop. It was a band that was on the newly form Up Records called Modest Mouse, and we played right there, right?
In the sandwich shop.
In a sandwich shop on, you know, a stage, not near as big as this, you know. And people were coming in a buying their food and stuff. So what happened was Isaac hit me up, about opening up for them in Texas because he had remembered we were from New Mexico, and he put it together and was like, "You guys come out and open up for us. "I really liked that record you guys did." It was a 10-inch we had. And I hung out with Zeke Howard, who was partner with me on Pasted.
Yep, we'll talk about Pasted.
He was drumming for Lovers Laughter, who was opening up for Modest Mouse as well. It's these connections, you know, it's crazy.
Well, from sandwich shop to like top 10 billboard albums. Obviously, there was a journey there, so get your ass now to the northwest.
Okay, yeah, sorry.
No, it's all right, I'm excited.
That was the point.
No, this is the detail that people want. They wanna know the sandwich shop because I think people at home, they don't know that James Mercer--
Oh, it's in Chico, California.
They literally don't know. This is part of the thing is that you think that this stuff happens overnight, and the reality is that you're living in a basement with a four track--
Your parents are frustrated.
Yeah, your parents are pissed, and so there are people out there who are listening who are trying to go from zero to one. That means they don't even identify as creative or whatever, and they're trying to get there. And then there are people who've been grinding for a long time, and you almost just have to outlast the shit. You have to get through it. And so now I would like you to take us on a little journey here up to the northwest because you played the sandwich shop. You met Isaac.
So Zeke and Isaac both go back to Seattle where they were living, and they speak to people at Sub Pop and say, Sub Pop was really cool in that they were telling some of their bands and people that they knew like, "If you see anything cool out there, let us know." And so we got kind of a direct connection or indirect connection to Sub Pop through that. And it wasn't too much longer after that, and Megan and Jonathan, who were running Sub Pop, showed up at a show.
Where was that show?
That was in San Francisco that I first met you. But we started having correspondence with Sub Pop, and it was a big deal. I don't think I really realized how big of a deal it would be for Albuquerque. But yeah, it was really cool. Really crazy time for us, you know?
So did it, you're living in Seattle now, you're talking to Sub Pop, and keep it going.
No, I was still living in Albuquerque and lived there until well, just for a couple years.
That was the camera.
That was GoPro down.
And then I moved to Portland, Oregon actually because a friend of mine had run out of gas in Portland and became a dishwasher. (laughter) Literally that happened.
I have a friend who's got a lot of money. He's a dishwasher. I'm gonna go move in with him. Is that what you said?
Yeah, I mean that was called a soft landing for us in Albuquerque, you know? (laughter)
Okay, so you're in Portland, there's a scene. You've got this amazing group of people at Sub Pop Records.
Exposed to all kinds of new things, totally different social life and yeah, it was cool.
When the first record happen?
That was 2001, June of 2001. And then we went on tour, and 9/11 happened while we were out there, and we just began this crazy career. You know, and it started out slow still. It was just a record available. That's all, you know, although it was on Sub Pop.
Gave it some credibility.
Mom and Pop record stores, they respect and admire Sub Pop, but we were unknown. And so touring was an integral part of getting the word out.
Was it like a bunch of guys in a van, just like you see in the movies.
In a van, sure, and we're driving, and my buddy is doing his best to tour manage working with, you know, people who don't wanna pay us no matter how well we did.
So catapult yourself from driving around in a van to releasing a full length or was an EP.
Yeah, so we put out a single on Sub Pop, and then a full length record on Sub Pop because I had built up quite a bit of material working with this computer.
It's all about the computer. (laughter) The robots help, they're great.
Seriously, I tried to do what I did on Oh, Inverted World with a four track, and it didn't, I'm not that skilled. I mean, it just takes a lot of work. It was a great, you know, the advent of that thing really did change everything. So we had the first record came out. Sub Pop sent us to Europe. We went and played in Sweden and stuff, and it was just really cool. And then what happened is about that time, so it did spread. There was something about the record that had some hooks in it, and it wasn't too long, after the record coming out, I mean maybe six months to a year... I remember receiving a treatment and somebody wanted to put one of our songs in a movie. And we immediately were like, yeah, totally.
The treatment, he doesn't mean the spa. He got a movie treatment.
Yeah, a movie treatment, it is like the scene is written out, and here's how we'll use your song. And we were like yes, totally, and that was the first of many of those sorts of things.
Do you remember what that was?
It ended up being Garden State, which didn't come out until 2004 or so, but it was 2001 or when we were approached.
A lot of people lost their virginity to that in this room, right? (laughter) That one, thanks, everyone.
So that ended up being a really huge thing for us, and is partly why I'm here today, you know.
You think so?
Yeah, it was a big deal for us. It was just--
Well, that soundtrack was really widely played.
Really popular movie and a popular soundtrack.
Yeah, so are you and Zach Graff buddies because of that?
Um, I can't say we're buddies, but I know him, and I've done more work for him, and he's a real sweet guy, and yeah.
All right, so did that just go from like zero to a hundred miles an hour, and you went from--
It went from the red van that we were touring in to actually being able to rent a business.
See these are musician terms, right? It went from the red van to the bus.
We went van to bus, yeah, it was pretty cool. With a bathroom in it. (laughter)
Upgrade, wow. Did Sub Pop know about that? Because that's probably an upcharge.
So let's go from there to stardom. Just skip everything, and you got the number one or two album on Billboard.
That would have been Wincing, the third record.
Yeah, contrast those two lives for us.
So red van to the bus with the bathroom, and then playing large venues, sold out shows, Billboard top 10 albums.
I mean my personal life really hasn't changed that much. There's not that much of a difference, you know.
What about the psychology? And is this something, do you actively resist this? Or it just because you're James? The people wanna know.
I would say yes, my psychology has changed. Megan is here who's known me during this whole--
Can we just, Megan just, Megan just put your hand up.
I'm sorry, Megan, I'm sorry. (audience cheers and applause)
I'm sorry bud.
You have to, you have to, you have to.
You know, I think that the people who knew me back then would say yes, I was very, I was just very shy. And just reticent and all that. I mean, I've come out of my shell I guess during this process a little bit. But I mean, you know, I don't know, I am not very visible, you know. I'm not really spotted on the street often or any of that stuff, so my life really hasn't--
Is that active? Do you actively work against that?
I don't really think about it much.
Also living at Portland probably helps, right?
Living in Portland helps, yeah. Yeah, and I guess I haven't really sought out my image being available, but it wasn't a decision. It was just sort of like, you know, I had cool friends who did great art like Jesse LeDieu here in Seattle, and so that would be the default thing for us as far as art work or things like that. It wouldn't just be like us on the cover.
So but you don't have to tour in the bus with the bathroom necessarily. You don't have to live in a small apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Yeah, in Albuquerque. Do you feel like your art changed because of the acknowledgement? I'm trying to help people relate to the fact that so many people have a great freshman album, and then struggle as a sophomore because there's a lot of shit going on.
And did you feel none of that, some of that? It feels like based on how you're responding that you were just like doing your thing. Is that true?
It wasn't very intense, and I remember being asked these questions back when we put out our second record because the first one was a success. Um. (sighs) you know in some ways I think that the creative process is always a bit of a struggle. You're sort of having a conversation with yourself. You're criticizing it as you're doing it, and this dialogue's going on, and you're imagining people seeing it. I mean that's, even when I'm doing my visual stuff or writing, you know, I'm imagining this conversation and I'm having the conversation at the same time with myself. So it is a bit of a struggle I think no matter what. You know, like when I was in Albuquerque alone in my room I knew my friends were gonna hear it. I knew the other bands in town were gonna hear it, and I wanted to freakin' show them, you know? (laughter) So, I had this like angst and intensity about it.
Yeah, did you lose that when it was just on the radio? Or because there was no them, there's no they.
Maybe then it slightly shifts and changes because you have in addition to the people that you know, that you're impressed by, that you wanna impress, you also have unknown person that you want to impress. But I don't know. It didn't have the impact that I think it does have on some artists sometimes.
Got it, all right, shift gears. So I wanted to find out a couple of things about you that, well maybe that's the question. What are some things about you that if you revealed right here that people would be surprised to know?
Because the whole selling weed thing is probably a thing.
I feel like I'm easily read. That's probably a surprise. I never have actually revealed that before. (laughter)
You're safe here in Washington, you're safe.
But now that it's legal up here, you know it's like. My god, though, what would have happened to me if they'd have found that in the closet? You know, you're in your 20s. It was wild. I mean, an ideal day for me is at home with my family, my wife and kids, in the garden.
In the garden. Last time we were together in San Francisco you talked a lot about gardening. Is that a thing?
I mean it's a big thing for my wife, and it's something that I sort of introduced to her. But she's just run with it, and it's just a big part of our life therefore.
Do you have like chickens? You're Portland, so you have chickens, you have goats and stuff.
Our neighbors have chickens.
I've seen Portlandia.
Yeah, right, that's our neighborhood. (laughter) We haven't got chickens yet, no pets. Maybe that's a surprise I have no, we have no pets.
Well, you also remarked in one of the most recent answers there about-
I was in MS13 for a while. No one, there's nothing surprising.
There's nothing really surprising.
Now, why are they surprising? The fact that you grew weed in your closet to pay for your food? You said something a second ago, just about being creative where I'm writing or drawing or, I don't know if you said painting, under your breathe you said four or five things. And that's one of the things that is widely apparent when you are spending a time with you, that you think and work on lot's of different dimensions. Is that inherent in you? Do you feel like that was uncorked by your music? And it was putting music out there, that allowed you to pursue a bunch of other things, and you get used to putting yourself out there? So what is it... Talk to me about that for a sec.
I mean, I have always been curious, there is that. I've always just been fascinated by the world and I guess I've always had a little bit of almost delusional belief, that I could do something cool, that I could contribute something. So, maybe those two combined, has got me messing around with lots of things.
Well, that's the thing, when you ask a room full of... Say we were like all eight-year-olds, who wants to come up here and draw me a picture? Every hand in the room goes up. And then you ask that same question, when they are 12. 20% of the hands are up. And you ask that same question when they are 20, and there's like four people in the room that wanna get up and draw. Yeah, it's frustrating, that's one of the reasons why this place exists, but would you put yourself in the camp of people who've just blown through that and not paid attention to it, and you're always good with wearing that as a badge?
No, I was definitely one of the kids who would not put his hand up, even at eight years probably. I was shy, I was really terribly shy. So, I really had to, come out of my shell. So, I was doing art, but it was in my bedroom, I kept private. But I had a friend named Neil Langford, who was in Flake with me and he kind of took my hand and pulled me on stage at one point, and that was the beginning of me sort of the getting over that stuff. And I mean, I really don't know that I would have ever done anything, if it weren't for that moment. He really was like, he heard me playing in my room or something, he was like, "You should join our band."
To go play at the sandwich shop.
Yeah, right, yes.
That's another thing that I'm hoping that people at home can take away, is that it started at the sandwich shop, not just for you, but for everybody.
Yeah, yeah I mean right. Sure, I would guess that I mean unless you are spotted at the mall, at 10 years old and Disney signs you do something, you know it's gonna be the sandwich shop.
That never goes well though.
Yeah, it doesn't go well. (laughter)
It never goes well. So you feel, reasonable confident as an artist, you said, "I think I can make a mark." And that sounds like it came over time. One of the things, when we were last in San Francisco together, you talked about a new creation, you've talked about yourself as a non-techie.
And yet here you are, is you don't know James and some friends, developed an app. That seemed like you've got however many millions of records out there in the world, you just self produced a new one. And the things that you are talking about a lot is this app.
I'm really into it right now.
Is it weird, you are into it, right? Tell the people.
I think it's another creative sort of thing, starting a partnership with some friends, Zeke, who I told you helped me to get signed at Sound Pop. I was in a restaurant in Hawaii, called Buzzes, an old... I mean, it's been around probably since the 40s or 50s, on the beach in Kailua. Neat old place, and there was a collage of just faces mainly, and just a big board filled with these faces. Old pictures and you could see that at the bottom, they were getting newer, it's like from the 60s all the way to the 80s or something. And I thought, with your phone using facial recognition you could possibly, make an all like that, and so I started looking for it. Because it's like it's gonna be there, and I'm gonna buy it at my Instagram is gonna be so cool. But it wasn't there, and so Zeke and I spoke and Zeke is a programmer now, he is no longer the drummer for levels after. But he is a drummer, still he's playing tonight actually in town. But so, he said yes we can do this, this could be done and he already was in the midst, he had done work for Spotify. He runs a company with his partner Ben, called Brigade
Brigade shop in Portland.
Just cool stuff.
I didn't realize he had done all this cool stuff, and he had this whole second carrier. But, anyway so we work together and we for many long months we hashed it out, trying to design this user interface which is really fun to try and figure out what do people wanna do? What do you like about the apps that you love? And then there's the whole aesthetic side to it, and so yeah, we created a collage app called Pasted.
And I think you're gonna show us.
Yeah, let's see if it pops up
(laughs) He really wants to show us you guys.
I really wanna show you guys actually. But I am not sure that I am running over here.
We'll figure out what has to happen in order to put that up their. Do you think you know?
It's think maybe.
Okay, to the Apple TV?
Airplay to what?
To Boot A.
Booth A, thank you.
Booth A, or Booth Deck.
Can you guys call me Booth A from now on? (laughter)
So look at it, there it is.
Yes, so this is Pasted, that's our cute animation, that happens at the beginning. So, get started and basically what we'll see, our photos in my camera roll.
Did you edit this first? Because this could be ugly (laughs)
I selected some photos--
Okay, alright we're safe.
This is gonna be very rough okay, but the thing that this does that other collage apps don't do, is you can select a bunch of things and throw them out at once. Okay, there they are, it's not looking cool yet.
I don't know man.
But I can select this, and I can just start moving things around If I work at it, I can approximate what I select buzzes it has facial recognition sort oids coming at my mom and my daughters face there. And its just this kind of cool, and you can see that basically you can assemble last night's party, now I've changed the filter. You can go like this, and there's a bunch of different filters. You can go up and get the backgrounds changing. But I've done a T-shirt design with this.
Thank you for that gift by the way. He gave me this shirt, it's amazing.
So anyway, that's basically the gist of it but you can imagine messing around with this for a while. And it's got a bunch of cool features, like this is a masking tool where you can do weird stuff like this.
So, why did you do this? Was it just was...
Because I could buy it, so I had to make it. (laughter)
But that's the thing, like that's a take away that if you're again at home, or out there. If you if you're interested in making something, make something that scratches your own itch. 'Cause that's what people care about, people know that and if you have a thing that is bugging you, there's probably a million other people, that just the way the world works. And in the process of making this, what kind of experience was it for you? Were your satisfied? Were you terrified? Because this fun and interesting for you to share this with a bunch of people who know you as a musician, and now you're a developer, is that weird? Or are we all hyphens now?
It's a different sort of thing, there's a lot of similarities. I mean when you're creating a product, it kind of goes back to that thing, or when you're recording a record you really just taking what you're doing in your bedroom or on stage, and you're turning it to something that people can experience from afar, and it really becomes about product design and there's packaging, and all those things. So, it's similar in certain ways, that whole, the aesthetic side of it. Do we have any of those examples?
Some of the collages that you really like.
I was just about to break them out.
So, I don't know if you wanna talk through some of these... These, it's gonna be hard to see it from the back of the room, but I'll hold these still so that the camera that's hovering over your head right there can get it. These are some of the examples of things that the community have made, this is like very falon ask, right But it like truly beautiful stuff, and one of the things the first... Hold on to that, I'll show a few more here. One of the things that... Well, that's scary. If you actually pay attention to the app and it's on the front page of my phone right now and the night that we hang out in San Francisco not too long ago. There is a thriving community that's using this to make stuff. A lot of these just sort of abstract . That's Yuki, he's here, our bass player. Where are you at Yuki? At the back there, it's like he's playing it right now, I saw that. This is cool, this is Annie Beatty who did this, who is really great artist and does all kinds of (mumbles) we even worked down on Portland, she's moved to LA but that's a great one. There's a dead alive sticker packs, so The Shins dead alive song that we first release. We did the sticker pack based on the video that we created. So the stickers in there, kind of like Instagram
Yeah, you didn't show the stickers.
You didn't show the--
The third stickers.
There you go, this is a person named Blue Kekaw that's her handle on Instagram. He or she actually.
He or she, do you know? you don't know.
I don't know but does really really cool stuff with Pasted.
So, it looks like in part like my grandma's hallway, just covered with these collages of when we were all young.
She did that.
Yeah, like all these little cut outs and what not. The Rolling Stone did a big piece about the about the app and is it like Rock poster collage thing?
That's one of the things that we've kind of discovered is a value in it. Back in those days in Albuquerque, I would spend hours at Kinko's, making photocopies and blowing things up, and then using wideout in making flyers and stuff. Paste is actually a great way to do that sort of stuff.
On your phone and not have to necessarily own a $2000 laptop, with Photoshop on it or.
Got it, well throughout the course of our conversation so far, I've asked some folks here in the room to be forwarding the questions that are coming in from all the world and I've got four or five, and I'd like to go to a couple of those, but y'all in here in the room, I'll let you guys have a couple of questions is a second, but I do wanna get to this one, Mary Jennings asks, "Have you ever really considered giving up being an artist, or is it what you're meant to do? And if you have, was it the art making? Or was it the struggle to successfully perform that was the challenge?
I think it is that, that was difficult.
That's was two things so. (laughter)
The art making?
Yeah, the art making, or was it the performing after you've made the art sort of like--
Oh, right I see, in the world of music, you have to end up performing don't you.
I guess, I mean really I always enjoyed making music, and I don't think I would have ever really given that up, but yes I did, before I was able to make a living out of it. Of course, it's like, "I'm I just really kidding myself, "like what is this that I'm doing?" And one time I told my parents in Albuquerque that you know, I had this new computer and I was gonna really push hard and don't expect much from me in the next year, I know you guys are frustrated with me but I'm gonna push hard this year to make as good an album as I can, and see if merits anything and see if it becomes any kind of a success. And I promised them if that didn't work, I would go back to school and get a proper job and stuff like that. So, yeah there is that moment--
How did that go for them, I means was that, they were like, yeah right, and then they are tapping their fingers.
You know, they acted supportive.
I like the way you said they acted. (laughter)
You know, they were frustrated and I can understand it, I mean I'd probably--
You want a lot for your kids.
And they are a different generation. So, yeah they did their best to be patient with me, honestly
How big of a part of your career today is fear vs 20 years ago when you started?
I have to be honest, I mean it's a mixed bag still.
But this is like, this need to be said James, this is why I'm asking the question.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, right yeah, it's a good question. and I've never been asked that, I think that I was pretty fearless early on, because there was nothing to lose. And I would say that there are times now, when there is fear and anxiety about--
Is it because of who you've become? Because you have expectations? Because you're like try to get a paycheck? What's the fear about now?
I recently, I had this doubt because I'm really out of touch in a lot of ways with like the modern music scene. I know certain bands, and they stick out to me, but I do see a lot of things that are popular that I don't really understand why they are popular. (laughter) And we all do probably
That was so nicely said, wasn't it? (laughter)
But then it's a disconcerting sort of thing you know. But then I realized.
I'm gonna remember that, that's so brilliant, what you just said--
In a conversation with my wife, she kinda pointed out you've never been touched man. (laughter) You've never been in touch with it it's always been like you know... And that's kind of good I guess.
But that's the thing, like that's one of the reasons I asked the question because, you just do you. And that's why I think artists by and large and just people, whether you are trying to transition to career or whatever it is, you think that the answers are out there but they are really in here, like that what makes you, and why these people show up.
Things I love, and things I really love, you can see influences and so on. But I love those things dearly.
Yeah, but this is why people show up, because you are not in touch with the new hot shit.
So if you are sitting at home But that's the thing, if you're sitting at home, like what you gotta do, is you gotta do you. So, another question, that's dovetail of that other one is we haven't even touched on the new record yet, which this is a great segue into it. Why don't you give us a short... So, talk about it for just a second, then I'll ask, this is your question from Brian.
Okay, the new record is on Columbia Records, its called Heartworms.
Heartworms. What's the title? Give us the back story.
Are these like stupid rock journalist questions, cause I don't know how many--
It's good, I kinda like this story I like to talk.
I don't know if any of you remember there was a band in the 90s, called Heartworms.
No, no one remembers that.
Okay, they were-- (laughter) They had one really cool record but it was Archie Moore who had done Velocity Girl, and other bands, it's facing right now. But really cool guy. And I was in the midst of writing the song titled Heartworms, and I wanted to describe this love affair, as something that the person just really wishes they could just take a pill, and just get it knocked out of them, and just be passed it. So, they feel infected by something, but I didn't wanna be too grotesque. So, I remembered this Heartworms, and that phrase it always just struck me as something really cool. So, I contacted Archie Moore, and he gave me the go-ahead. First he kind of messed with me, he was like, "Dude, I cannot believe you would ever..." (laughter) And then he was like, "Just kidding." And so he left me to use it, and I'm very thankful, because I really love what he did. Yeah anyway, so Heartworms, and that to me just became like everything about the records, you know, it's like those moments where all of a sudden oh, now everything makes sense, the records is called Heartworms. I'm hopefully infectious, and touches your heart. So, it was just kind of a grotesque version of like the word ear worm. (laughter)
But it's been a while, is it not? Since you released the album
Released the record. Oh yeah, it was five years for The Shins, it was five years for... Course I'm in another band called Broken Bells, and we had done one two years earlier. I kind of leap frog Broken Bells and Shins.
Well, let's talk about Broken Bells for a second, cause I think that's a really interesting project, go there for me, give us the back story, Danger Mouse.
Okay, so Danger Mouse is this famous producer, Brian Burton, is his real name. And when he's not wearing the costume.
Do you call him the Danger? Or is that his middle name?
No, just Brian, of course yeah, Brian. And so I was in a bit of a... Oh man, I don't wanna say, crisis mode.
You can say, it's safe mode. Right, it's safe here.
I was struggling with the band, and I wanted to do something different, I knew that. I wanted to sort of change things up, this is after Wincing the Night Away. And Brian was also in a similar situation, he wanted to have a new band, like a proper band. He really likes to perform, and write, and he's great, at all of it. And so he wanted to do the same thing, and we got in touch through my management. I had met him a number of times at shows and stuff, he was a shins fan, and I was a fan of his stuff. So, he proposed the idea, that we get together and just have a band, like we'll just write songs together, I know it's crazy though.
Yeah, let's do a band is it that simple?
And he had a working studio and like he's got Kenny Takahashi and Tom Manfukan who are great engineers. So, I was just invited to go down there, and of course this is back, I'm still a little bit in my shell at this time. I was nervous about this. I mean, I hadn't gone and performed with people outside of my band before. So I mean, it was a pain in the ass to get me on stage in the first place, and now I was gonna go work with proper musicians and a famous producer. Brian had just finished basically touring and doing the second Gnarls Barkley record. They are big bands, it's a big act, that was one of the biggest songs of that era. So, I was really nervous, and it's funny looking back. You have those moments, you're just scared to death to do something, and often you just do it and get through it, and you look back later and you're like, what was I so afraid of? It was one of the first, it was a big moment for me working with Brian.
But if you take that little nut, like if you walk with anything from this conversation, you should walk away with that. There's a moment where you're terrified and then as soon as you start doing it, as soon as you're into it, and maybe start to get out of it you ask yourself what was I so terrified about? Take that, I'm sure there's a lot of people retweeting that right now. But the journey from Shoots to Narrow, to the new album how have you changed as an artist?
Well, I'm more adventurous. I think the new record is the most adventurous thing we've done. And it's a lot other steps, you know, working with somebody like Brian, who has very different aesthetic scope and very different technique, and learning a lot. And is just doing it enough, and growing and then also feeding off of new music at the top there. So as out of touch as I say I am, I really love Arial Peak.
(laughs) I'm obsessive about new music.
I love Tim and Paula, and some of these really cool things but they are not necessarily the absolute top of the charts or anything like that.
But David Butler wants to know, did you have a long-term plan, or are you just following your instincts?
No plan, no.
(laughs) Oh, God, no never a plan, never.
Well, I would if I could, but I didn't have a plan. I have realistic goals, that I'll set for myself but yeah, no I didn't have sort of like a life plan, and I mean this was hard work and luck and knowing when an opportunity has arrived and not letting it pass.
And that's intuition.
I guess so, yeah.
Right, we're gonna go to, I got two opportunities to answer two questions from here in the in studio audience, You are in the front row, so you're gonna get second place here. We're gonna go, you in the fourth row there. Please, the mic is gonna come your way, and you can use that. Actually stand up, and tell us who you are, and be yeah, this is official, right.
Yep, I think it's working but you are not attached to the PA.
Okay, great. I wanted to ask you about your voice. Because I think you have one of the most incredible special voices, and just when you started to sing, what was your first kind of experience with, especially someone whose shy and a voice is so personal, so... And I grew up in Hawa East, so word up with Buzzes (laughs)
Thank you Sarah Rudnolf, great to hear from you.
Huh, mean I remember listening to records in my room and singing along all the time, privately in my room with the door shut, and not wanting my parents to hear anything, but sort of wanting them to hear. (laughter) And singing along to a lot of... A lot of this is in that time when I lived in England, so I had gone to Woolworth's and bought Echo & the Bunnymen's, Ocean Rain and The Smiths, The Queen is Dead (laughs) And u2War, and like these were, these were records that were on the pop charts in England at the time, but over here at that time, they were pretty obscure. But sitting and singing along to all those songs, I think I learned how to sing a bit. I will say this, and it goes back to Brian. Having a producer in the room, criticizing you as you 're singing, really gets you to focus on your voice and helps you have perspective, and it really is a great training tool. So, I think I learned a lot about singing and kind of honed the skill a little bit. I mean it's funny because, you know as all these... The pop acts that you hear. I have to say I'm very impressed with a lot of them, I mean these people are, they are well trained, I mean they've gone that route I guess. But you know, they really are great singers a lot of these kids. And so, I'm like self taught, and it's that process, singing in the bedroom with the records and then maybe having the luxury of Brian Burton crapping on your performance once in a while. (laughter)
Actually that's a great, we're gonna go to the front right here for that the second question, but before we do. Soyang Lim wants to know, "Well, if you grew up so shy, "what exactly made you get over shyness to perform?" because if you've got a barrier between you and performing--
And why do I wanna perform?
Yeah, what is it? Is it masochistic? What's the thing?
(laughs) I think that, and this is maybe a little bit lofty but I think that humans want to communicate. It's kind of our thing right? We do this thing, we speak to each other, we try and express things and we always have. I think that art is sort of an elaboration on that. And so, the shyness almost pushes me, it's even more beautiful, the goal of actually communicating to somebody. I mean it almost wanna make you choke up. If you thing about it.
It makes it all the more beautiful, you know to actually express yourself and have it received. So I think that, that maybe is the drive.
Awesome, Sherry wants to know, "Will someone please someone please get onstage "and take a picture and see what James and Chase "are seeing right now?"
So, Casey can you come up, just take a picture of what we're seeing right now. We're happy to do that Sherry, we'll post that on social.
That's so cool, we can do that.
Yeah, we can do that right? We'll post it in our social channels, and in the mean... Careful bud. And in the meantime, we're gonna go to you fine sir. Please stand up, tell us who you are and ask your question, to Mr James Mercer.
Hi, my name is Mitch, my question is about your songwriting. I know the shins have gone through a few different line-up changes, and I'm curious do you feel your songwriting, has it all been tailored by the people you're playing with? Or the songs are just your songs independently of who they are with?
You can't hear, like have you songs been tailored, are independently, or are they a reflection of who you're playing with right now?
I think it has certainly been altered, because...
That's probably enough dude. (laughter) Thank you Casey, thank you. I'm just kidding buddy.
I love how he runs his game.
I'm just kidding, I love that guy. I'm playing.
I would say that, it's indirectly because you know, the people that are around me, I am turned on to lot of music overhearing what they're hearing. So, like in my early days, Marty and Neil in the first Shins iteration were just huge music nerds and really opinionated. Which was good and bad you know, but I really got exposed to a lot of cool stuff. And so I think that it's indirectly a big influence, the people that I'm playing with for sure.
One more question from the in studio audience, all way back, to the tall man with the white shirt. I think his name is Tab. There are so many awesome people in this room, I love it.
Can you hear me okay?
You talk loudly.
I'll talk loud, I'm curious what do you do when shits gone off course, like what's your workload or prospect, when things aren't going well creatively, in whatever sense.
Well, I mean, I'm working on multiple songs at once. So, I can leave a song behind for a little bit you know, and get on to something that maybe I haven't addressed in a couple months. And I might have fresh years. That's a good thing I think. The other thing is just question, I think I've found that sometimes the reason I started writing a song is actually the problem. Like sometimes the thing that I thought was the anchor is actually like the anvil, like I'm holding it down or something (laughs) And so, you question everything, re-approach production So, I'm talking about music you know, and it's the kind of the only thing I'm really versed in. Those are the two things I try. And sometimes I just bail, I just abandon the song.
There is some research that came out recently, I'm not very good at citing research, so I just take my word for it. (laughter) Research right, now but something like that there's some optimum number of projects it's like four or five projects, that you have going on at the same time. And this is not just for career, this is just in life. You've got four or five things that you are working on, and when you get stuck on one, you move to another, you work on that. And they ultimately life, is pretty simple and all of these things relate to one another in a way that you can't actually understand but that they take turns getting the other one on stock. So, is like is five, like you have five songs that you work on at the same time.
Oh, yeah sure, and I was just realizing maybe a canvas that's laying on the floor that I'm smudging paint around on it as well. When I get frustrated or bored with that. I like that approach.
Great. Well, to be able to sit here and speak with you, in front of a couple hundred folks, or 150 folks have many fit in this small room has been a treat. And there's just a lot of... The questions that are coming in from all over the world there's not too many of 'em, for us to get to, but I'm painfully aware that the thing that so many people have, why they are here, why they are tuning in, all over the world is to hear you play.
I can play a couple of tunes. (audience clapping)
Would you guys like that? (audience clapping) (instrumentals)