By Liam Prost
CALGARY – There is no quintessential indie rock dance move. There are a few adjacent flails like the skank from ska, but what indie rock audiences are most known for is bobbing their heads. This shouldn’t have to be the case.
Relevant to this point: Shin’s frontman James Mercer tells BeatRoute that he is often “one of the first people to start dancing” at a party, and is now taken to getting down on stage, a far cry from the misty indie Americana that once changed Zach Braff’s life.
“It’s not part of indie rock,” Mercer says, arguing that to get at a quintessential indie rock dance move, we might have to “go back to the pogo.”
While he’s not quite embracing the pogo yet, Mercer has “been feeling a lot more comfortable on stage and having more fun.” In a recent performance on Jimmy Kimmel, he is even seen guitar-less, in front of his six-piece band and amidst a swath of nautical looking flora. This shimmery brightness is equally evident on the band’s newest offering.
Released on March 10, Heartworms is the Shins sixth offering since their formation in ’96, and is so called because of the thoroughfare it draws between the heart on its sleeve, and its plethora of earworms. The record opens on one such danceable moment, a sk- guitar driven pop song called “Name for You,” an ode to the “limits that are placed on women’s lives.” Mercer penned the song specifically thinking about his children and his wife, whom he praises for her knowledge of women’s issues and feminist discourse. It’s a song that is only political in broad strokes, focused on the experiences Mercer works hard to empathize with.
Musically, Heartworms is a massive and instrumentally varied collection of songs, but there have been enough Shins records to identify a relationship and a consistent structure between them. A Shins record usually closes with a down tempo affair. This time it’s “The Fear,” a song Mercer describes as an attempt at a touching, earnest song.” Mercer penned the song, but the string arrangement was done by band member Mark Watrous and it “transforms” the song with a “mariachi” like melody. It’s a pretty simple song (pun intended), only “three chords” and it has a softness not unlike his best albums closers like “Gone for Good” and “The Past and Pending.”
“I knew that was going to be the last song… I like leaving on that sort of a note,” reveals Mercer.
While The Shins is characterized as a singer-songwriter project, Mercer’s song-writing, production, and performance philosophy all stems from this kind of conscious effort at empathy: he is not a dictator. Accordingly, Heartworms was written, recorded, and assembled in a non-linear fashion in collaboration with several new and returning band members. For instance, there was a year gap between the writing and recording of the first and the second verse of “The Fear.”
Mercer writes the songs, but takes feedback from everyone he can, from band members, to his management, and even his mom, although he makes sure to take everything “with a grain of salt.” The band specifically is a “really big part of this record.” For example, upon the soundtrack cut of the track “So Now What” from director Zach Braff’s upcoming film Wish I Was Here during a rehearsal for a pre-album release show, the band pushed for it to be on the record. Mercer listened, even displacing a song or two that he liked.
The band has also informed the set-list for the live set, bringing out “new interpretations” of early songs.
“A song like “Girl Inform Me…” has this swing to it that was never apparent before,” Mercer describes. The “new arrangement for “Gone For Good”” has “breathed new life into it” after having “dropped out of the set list for years.”
When rehearsing for the tour, Mercer describes wanting “to hear what the guys in the band, what everybody liked,” and try to incorporate those songs into the set, while still staying reverent to the material and the audience and, of course, “play the hits.”
James Mercer is a profoundly empathetic frontman, both musically and personally, and this has solidified perfectly into a contest to give away the band’s early tour van to a young artist that he hopes will use it as an “asset.”
“I could have sold it or traded it in,” Mercer says of the unusual competition. “[But] I just wanted another band to have those crazy experiences.” Thus, he fixed up the van, a Ford Econoline, and will be giving it away to a “talented and hardworking” act of choice: all you have to do is record a cover of a song on Heartworms and post it on YouTube. Already, dozens of precocious videos are available for viewing online.
Presumably, the winner will be the visionaries with the best indie rock dance moves.
The Shins perform May 23 at the Northern Jubilee Auditorium (Edmonton), May 24 at MacEwan Hall (Calgary), and May 27 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Vancouver).MacEwan Hall, Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, The Shins