He's no Dr. Drew or Dr. Phil, but James Mercer has had a few things to say about love and relationships over the course of three albums with Portland-via-Albuquerque indie-rockers The Shins. With the assistance of tons of great publicity, the latest, Wincing The Night Away, broke all kinds of Sub Pop records by debuting at number two on the Billboard charts, with nearly 118,000 copies sold in its first week. The A.V. Club caught up with Mercer in time for Valentine's Day to talk about sex, marriage, and the fatal flaw in the logic of love.
The A.V. Club: Do you like Valentine's Day?
James Mercer: I wish I could say, "Yeah, I just totally love it." Of all the holidays, it seems like the one that is so synthetic, in a way. It's one of those greeting-card holidays. But I used to love it as a kid, actually, which is kind of funny. You remember as a kid in elementary school, you'd make your own little mailbox and decorate it with hearts and stuff, and then each kid would make Valentines for the whole class? I used to actually really like that. I think that I liked it because there was always that girl that you had a crush on that you were allowed for this one day to have some sort of interaction with, without getting shit from your friends or from anyone else. You could do it without anyone even realizing that it was something special to you. But I can't say that I've really been, "Oh, Valentine's Day's coming," and been really excited. [Laughs.]
AVC: What's the most important thing to do to have an enjoyable Valentine's Day?
JM: If you can afford to buy some sort of piece of jewelry, however small and gaudy it might be, I've learned that that always works—as a guy, at least. But if you have taste and money, then use both. [Laughs.] It's really not that hard. It's funny, because I've got a friend who calls me every time there's a situation like this where he needs to impress his wife—he calls me thinking that I know, or at least that I'm a friend of his who won't make fun of him for calling. [Laughs.] He sweats it so bad; he just worries that he's not gonna do enough. You don't have to worry about it so much—like I said, any sort of small gift is usually well-appreciated. So that, and dinner somewhere. And then be as clever as you can with that.
AVC: You guys are going to be on tour on Valentine's Day.
JM: The whole band will go to a brothel, or maybe a lotion place. [Laughs.] We could probably all go out and have a nice romantic meal together.
AVC: Were you an outsider as a kid?
JM: I was a regular dork. I was a kid who was scrawny and all that, and probably kind of dumb or something. [Laughs.] I wasn't unordinary; I wasn't extraordinary.
AVC: Did you have many girlfriends growing up?
JM: I was fairly normal in that way. I kissed my first girl when I was 15, and then I lost my virginity when I was 17. So that's pretty good. It was just that when you're in high school, you're sort of forced into the normal world, where you're competing with the football players, just kind of in that world where somebody like me didn't quite fit in. I had a girlfriend in high school, and she was also outside that realm, which was great. Thank God for those girls.
AVC: How did those early relationships shape who you are as an adult?
JM: I think that's always an important thing, and probably even more important if you're one of those kids who feels left out of the whole romance thing in high school. Then, "Oh my God, there is this girl who actually thinks I'm cool?" It was a big deal. It's so unfortunate, though, that you have to be a fucking high-schooler, that you have to be a teenager and handle it the way a teenager does. Looking back, I was such a dumb-ass. And it's funny how girls just kind of know—they're like, "What? I wanna hang out and be with you." But to a young guy, it causes so much stupid behavior. Whereas the girls are pretty much acting the way that they end up acting in their late 20s.
AVC: When did you go from being awkward to being more confident?
JM: [Laughs.] So late that it's embarrassing. I had relationships that were just kind of messy and me not knowing what the fuck I wanted, until I met my wife, really, which was three years ago.
AVC: It seems inevitable that some people have attempted to woo partners by playing "New Slang" and telling them that it will change their lives. How often do you think that actually works?
JM: I don't know. I hope it's worked quite a bit. One of the members of My Morning Jacket pulled Dave Hernandez, our guitarist, aside and said—and I think he was kind of drunk—"Man, my wife and I, we put on Oh, Inverted World, and we just get down, man." He was saying that they have sex—that's one of the records that they like to listen to when they're getting it on. That was pretty cool.
AVC: Which is, of course, why you made that record.
JM: Exactly. [Laughs.] We were trying to put Barry White out of business. Maybe we've got some babies out there that I'm honorary godfather to.
AVC: You have a song called "Caring Is Creepy." Do you really think caring is creepy?
JM: When I came up with that idea for the title, I was talking about how in my circle of friends—this was my circle of friends, especially in Albuquerque—you drink and you hang out and you talk and you make jokes and you do all that stuff, but as soon as you start talking about anything real, something that actually moves you or anything like that, it's just fucking awkward. You know, there's a lot of ways to kill a party—talking about politics and that shit—but I'm talking about anything that's heartfelt. That used to grump me out, so "Caring Is Creepy" is where that came from. The song itself is about a love of mine at the time that went south—it's fitting in that way.
AVC: In "Gone For Good," you talk about the "fatal flaw in the logic of love." What is that flaw?
JM: I guess I felt that there were too many things that love relied on, or that love required—one of them is physical attraction. I think I was just going through a period where I had this girlfriend who… Whether it's true or not, I felt that she was attracted to me for the wrong reasons. I was just having issues with this girl, and the thing that I really wanted from her was this pure, sort of regular love. And she was this person who had been through all kinds of shit emotionally, and I felt like she liked me because of the band and stuff. If somebody loved you for your money, it would give you the same feeling. Then it put me in this state where I just kept thinking about the nature of attraction and of love, and just how basically unfair it is; just how much it relies on the physical side. And that's such an important part of it, and it's something that I love about it, but in that situation, I just felt like it was artificial or something. So that fatal flaw in the logic of love would be that love is essentially a selfish act sometimes—it's something you take from someone, or you seek out because of this very instinctual animal side, the lust side of things. Therefore it's inherently unfair. I mean, there are people who won't be considered attractive, and they'll be left behind. We have this thing where we think that there's something universal and true about love, that somehow it's what's inside that counts, when in reality, to a certain extent, that's just not true. It's not actually what counts the most, and that's the fatal flaw. It's a really cynical look at it.
AVC: Also in that song, you say, "You love a sinking stone that will never elope." But you did get married last year.
JM: I did elope.
AVC: Did you actually elope?
JM: Sort of. My parents were invited, though, so it doesn't count. We went to Hawaii and had a very small wedding, away from friends and extended family.
AVC: So what changed your mind? Presumably it had a lot to do with who you married.
JM: It did. I think, also, I had gone through enough of these relationships that were troubled, and then I found this woman who really—it was just apparent that she loves me deeply. It's something that I can't exactly describe why I felt so differently; she's just a very balanced and healthy person, and that comes across right away, knowing her. She's so healthy, so balanced, and so together and smart and intelligent and stuff, when she tells you she loves you, it just has weight to it. And she's beautiful and all that.
AVC: How did you meet her?
JM: I remember the first moment I saw her, and that was actually at a show, but it was months later that I actually met her. But I saw her in the audience, and I've confirmed this, because I told her exactly where she was standing, and what show it was, and so on. But then I met her later when she was interviewing me for an article—she was writing for Spin.
AVC: How is married life treating you? Any myths you'd like to dispel?
JM: It's been really great. One of the things I was terrified of was that my wife was going to change after we got married—you hear about that all the time. My dad's first marriage apparently was like that, and in the past, he warned me about other girlfriends. But my folks really highly approved of this marriage. I think I worried that things were going to change, and they just haven't. Yet. [Laughs.] We'll see.
AVC: Which clichés about marriage are true?
JM: I'm not exactly sure. I think that what's funny is that I seem to be taking up the roles that I remember my dad having—for some reason, I'm the one who makes the coffee, and my dad was always that guy. [Laughs.] It's kind of shocking how closely I compare to my dad. I'm the guy who takes out the garbage. I guess what's surprising are the sex roles. I don't know what the hell it is. My wife is as advanced and progressive a thinker as there is, and yet we still take up these roles.
AVC: The first single from Wincing The Night Away is "Phantom Limb," which is about a young lesbian couple. Do you think gay and lesbian people have an easier time in their relationships than straight people, since they know what their own sex wants physically and emotionally?
JM: No, I don't think so, at least not from my experience with my gay friends. Because those little things are just like logistics and stuff, and those are really kind of easily tackled. Or, if they're not, you're just like, "Okay, it's just not there, it's just not happening physically" or whatever. It seems to me that it's generally the same issues with personality, control, ego, and all of these things that have to be overcome, just like in heterosexual relationships. And being comfortable with commitment and closeness and intimacy, and all that shit.
AVC: With the new record, you've received some Morrissey comparisons. How do you feel about being compared to one of the most asexual musicians of all time?
JM: [Laughs.] Moving to England in high school was this kind of watershed thing for me, because I moved over there and was exposed to The Smiths and stuff, and became a huge fan of theirs. When I moved back to the States, my friends were listening to Poison. I had lived in Albuquerque during middle school and then moved to England, and when I came back, I had just gone in this total other direction musically. It changed my perspective on music and singing; I learned how to sing listening to those old Smiths records and whatnot. That's my excuse, I guess. [Laughs.]
AVC: Describe the perfect date.
JM: I think perfect dates involve walking a lot, and not a bunch of driving around in cars. Ideally, you can walk together and go to a restaurant, and then walk from there to another nice place—this is, I guess, because of really great dates that I've had with my wife here in Portland. So it would be like, really good restaurant and good wine—and plenty of wine; I think you need to get kind of drunk—and just really great conversation, and be with somebody who's comfortable with themselves and willing to be open. Horrible dates are when you're with people who are immature and can't really be comfortable in their own skin.