Embracing the ’80s and flipping the script with The Shins frontman James Mercer

“I wanted each of these albums to be of equal value.”

How do you make a seamless album sound even better? If you’re James Mercer of indie rock/dream pop titans The Shins, you literally flip the script.

In this case, mastermind Mercer and his band reworked all eleven songs on The Shins’ stellar 2017 release, Heartworms, with completely all-new arrangements for a wholly re-recorded role-reversal album, The Worm’s Heart, out today in various formats via Aural Apothecary/Columbia.

The sonic shorthand is this: If Heartworms was like the Robbie Robertson and The Band version of these tracks with additional ’80s flourishes, then The Worm’s Heart is more like the Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground version. “Rad! Rad. I like that description,” Mercer exclaimed to Digital Trends.

The Worm’s Heart is more like the Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground version.

Also rad is how the new album works in the opposite running order, with The Fear, the last track of the previous album, now appearing as the first, and the remainder of the songs all following suit. On top of all that, the songs have the word Flipped added to the end of their respective titles.

“I thought that would be really cool if we could do that, but there was a period of time where the label had created an acetate with it still in the original running order,” Mercer continued. “We listened to that and we went, ‘No, we need to mess with the original order.’ Name for You didn’t work as an opener for The Worm’s Heart for us, so we thought we’d try totally reversing the order. We listened to it that way and we went, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’ We told the label to reverse it, and they quickly did another acetate.”

Digital Trends got on the line with Mercer at his homestead in Portland to discuss the creative freedom he felt doing all the new Flipped versions, his take as a Hawaiian expat on the recent Honolulu alert scare, and why he won’t be welcomed at any ’90s nostalgia parties anytime soon.

Digital Trends: I gotta say, I’ve totally flipped over the Flipped versions on this record. (Mercer chuckles) I hope it’s OK with you if I say I think I like this version better than the “original” album, which I already liked to begin with.

James Mercer: (chuckles) No, that’s how I feel too! We all kind of felt that way. Me, sitting there tinkering forever and getting too deep into the details of things — I think that ended up with having some of the Heartworms mixes being overwrought. But having that as the background for what informed our getting into doing it the second time around was really great. And it didn’t take long, either. It was fairly quick.

james mercer the shins restaurant
Nikki Fenix
James Mercer of The Shins (Credit: Nikki Fenix)

I guess that was liberating for you in a way, since it was five years between studio projects [i.e., between 2012’s Port of Morrow and 2017’s Heartworms]. Did you really feel like you “overworked” what you were doing for Heartworms?

Yeah, probably. It was a challenge for me to take that on. During Port of Morrow, I was working with Greg Kurstin [Mercer’s Port co-producer, who also played guitar, bass, and keyboards on the album], so I hadn’t been too heavy into doing the engineering and production myself since [2007’s] Wincing the Night Away. So, yeah, it had been a long time. It’s something I don’t regret doing, but it’s also much more fun for me to listen to the Flipped versions! (laughs)

It’s interesting how we have a fully produced album that is essentially a demo for another album. I also like how you flipped the entire running order too. I actually like having The Fear now as the first track, instead of the last one.

We weren’t sure that it was gonna work. We were originally roped into the idea that maybe we just needed a wholly different track order, but we thought it worked perfectly well to just reverse the order.

I like having The Fear (Flipped) first because you’re showing no fear with this idea — that you can remake eleven songs, and just completely turn them around. Dead Alive (Flipped) is a great example of that, where you now have that string section intro, whereas the original had a different vocal take on it. You’ve created multiple identities for this material.

And we were all pretty surprised at how well each one worked in the different format. Some of them did take a little exploration of, “OK, how do we find what’s going to make this one pop in the way we want it to?”

“I wanted each of these albums to be of equal value.”

All of that was really fun, and the experimentation and the more casual nature of the whole process was a relief for me, because when I completed Heartworms, it had been a pretty laborious process.

There was a period of time where we did actually consider swapping out some of the versions. What I was sensing was, what we would do is pick all the “best” ones to put on the one version, and then put all the ones that maybe weren’t as cool on the other. But I wanted each of these albums to be of equal value.

The Worm’s Heart is basically your Black Mirror soundtrack version of the original album.

(laughs) Exactly! Yeah, that’s a good way of saying it, because that is the vibe.

Was there one track that triggered the whole Flipped thing for you? Or was it more of an amalgamation?

The first one we started messing with was Name for You, partly because that was the first song on the record. Jon [Sortland, The Shins’ drummer] actually used his iPad for that. He’s got some kind of a drum machine on there, which he used to create that drum track.

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That’s a good flip-call, since the original is more of what I’d call the “jangle-rock” version.

Yeah, it’s got that poppy, sort of funky vibe to it — but he went really dark with it, you know? And it happened really quickly. Jon and Yuuki [Matthews, who plays synth, bass, percussion in The Shins, and more] started messing with it, laying down that new background that I was to then do new vocals over. Actually, I fell asleep while they were doing it. (both laugh) That’s how relaxed I was.

That’s the mark of a guy who’s got the pressure off him! You overthought the Heartworms album, and now you’re going, “I’m making the chill album this time.” And the next time you guys go on tour, you could play these two albums back to back.

(laughs) That would be cool, yeah! I wonder what we’ll do the next time we go out. We’ll have to do some of the Flipped versions for sure.

I think you’re gonna have to play some Flipped versions live, I totally agree.

Doing it with the full band was much more fun.

Oh yeah, yeah. And the other reason is because the band was such a part of it — as opposed to Heartworms, where in the early days of recording, it was me alone, trying to get the basic tracks down. But this one was just a free-for-all! (chuckles) Doing it with the full band was much more fun.

And speaking of playing live, you guys played in Honolulu at the end of last year, right?

Mercer: Yeah, we ended the tour there [on December 12, 2017, at The Republik].

You were born there too. What do you think about with what just happened with the false emergency alert?

Well, I’m so glad I wasn’t there with my kids! I just don’t even know how I would have reacted to that. You know, my dad was a nuclear weapons specialist. It would have just been (slight pause) … terrifying.

I can imagine people still being traumatized by it. I mean, what do you do? Back in the ’60s, they knew what to do, but now we’ve forgotten about the fallout shelters. Where are the fallout shelters?

Right? If you go into big cities like New York, you still see that symbol on certain buildings, but does it even register with people what they’re there for? I can’t even remember doing any “in the event of” drills as a kid myself at all.

Neither did I. Do you remember that TV movie, The Day After?

Yeah, that 1980s TV movie that freaked a lot of people out because they thought it actually happened.

That was the closest I ever got to it. I remember having nightmares about it after that.

I think the only way to counter those doomsday feelings is to strip the music down and do it all acoustically on the next album. When you’re on a creative roll like this, do you feel that carries over into whatever you wind up writing next? Do you carry on with that momentum?

I haven’t even thought about the option of not having vinyl available.

There are quite a few songs leftover that I couldn’t quite finesse into the right place to get them on the record. They’re songs that were going to be on the record, but I pulled them off. Those are what I would probably begin the next project with, by listening to them and seeing if there’s anything there. There’s one that I’m thinking I’ll send over to [Shins multi-instrumentalist] Mark Watrous and see if he can put a bridge to it, or something. I’d start there, probably.

Good, good. While we like listening to The Shins in the digital universe, vinyl is something that’s still important to you as an artist, isn’t it?

It is very important to me. I guess I haven’t even thought about the option of not having it available.

Here in the house, we use Sonos and have Alexa hooked up and all that, so we are in the modern age in that way. But in our parlor, we’ve got a proper, nice turntable, and that’s where I listen to records. If I really love something, I want to have the vinyl.

What albums do you still go back to as your benchmarks?

I still really love [The Smiths’] The Queen Is Dead (1986). I still listen to the same copy of it I bought at Woolworth’s. (chuckles) And I really fell in love with [Echo & The Bunnymen’s] Ocean Rain (1984). Those were probably the most formative records during my high school years. If you listen to my stuff and you have that in the back of your head, you can hear it.

Oh, I can hear that. There’s especially some of those ’80s threads in the Flipped versions — and even some of the originals, like the Heartworms version of Rubber Ballz, with that synthy feel and taste to it.

Yeah. Back in the late-’90s, when I first started doing Shins stuff on 4-tracks, I remember somebody saying it sounded “kind-of ’80s.” It was obviously kind of too soon for it to sound like The Fixx, or something (both chuckle) — but at that moment, I remember feeling a little embarrassed. I also felt that was sort of a passive-aggressive dig, you know?

But strangely, that’s always been there, and on both Heartworms and The Worm’s Heart, I felt the confidence to just embrace the ’80s.

So Now What totally has those ’80s-style keyboards on it — and perhaps the most telling line in that song, which kind of encompasses this project, is “I guess we just begin again.” It’s all in how you embrace the music of your formative years, but turn it into something new that’s all your own.

I suppose that’s true, yeah! I can see that. At the Crystal Ballroom out here in Portland, they have ‘90s Night there now. But when I got into my 20s, I just rejected everything that was happening on the radio, so I would be posin’ if I pretended to give a shit about a lot of the music of that decade. (laughs)

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