Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Approved Photo 4 by Marisa Kula Mercer
Nine Songs

James Mercer talks Craig Howieson through the songs that showed him there are no limits in the quest to write the perfect pop song.

24 October 2023, 08:00 | Words by Craig Howieson

There are few songwriters with an ear for melody quite like James Mercer. But it is clear that in crafting some of the most memorable moments of his back catalogue, he was also paying homage to some of the very best who had come before.

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of The Shins second record Chutes Too Narrow; an event that is being marked by the release of a remaster of the album and also coincides with the launch of Sub Pop’s first ever EU/UK online store, the Mega Mart 2. The significance of such anniversaries is not lost on Mercer, the driving force behind the band. “It's a strange thing, because it's revealing how long I've been doing this.”

It also becomes apparent that the intervening years have provided some perspective on Chutes Too Narrow’s creation for the indie pop icon. “When I was doing the record, I felt like I was under a lot of pressure,” he says. “It was the first time I had worked on a project where felt like I hadn't been given the opportunity to get into every little detail and tweak it.”

While the album may not hold the band's biggest hits - if streaming numbers are to be believed - it holds a special place in the hearts of fans, and seemingly amongst some of Mercer's inner circle. “It's funny,” he laughs. “So many of my friends and people that I respect are like, ‘That's your best record.’ I think it's probably because when I do go in there and get obsessive about things, I tend to actually make things worse…maybe? Who knows?”

And while there may be a raw immediacy to Chutes Too Narrow, it still contains all the hallmarks of Mercer's uniquely pop inflected indie rock. The Shins are rightfully regarded as one of the finest indie bands of the past two decades, but they have also always been outliers, daring to embrace classic pop when their peers would scoff at the mere thought of it.

It comes as no surprise then to find Mercer’s Nine Songs choices are littered with some of the most exquisite pop moments from the past seventy years. “These are songs that definitely mean a lot to me,” he explains. “I guess they represent some sort of higher ideal of quality that you could aspire to.”

One constant in his transient youth - a time spent following his dad, who was a munitions officer in the Air Force to bases in Germany, England and then back to the U.S - was the presence, and deeply held love of music. “One of the first songs I remember ingesting and really being moved by was “Top of The World,” he beams when talking of his formative experiences with music. “I'm talking about when I'm four or five and just being really transported.”

It’s clear his almost studious approach of the masters has shaped the writer he is today. “I'm blatantly trying to do this type of material” he says when asked how much of an influence the acts on his list have been.

“I don't worry too much about trying to make a song sound avant-garde or anything. I'm just trying to get to the nuts and guts of what makes a song compelling. I follow these people as examples of how you could do it.”

“We've Only Just Begun” by Carpenters

Who doesn't love that song? I remember as a high school student in the ‘80s when things were so much more cliquish, that you had to pick an identity and your music was going to be part of that, at least in the American high school culture.

I was in England during high school, but I was with a lot of American kids in an International School. And you just couldn't stray from what you knew. If you were a punker, then all you listened to was those few bands that were accepted as proper punk.

So the Carpenters were just something you would never claim to like at all. You had to hate them in fact, if you wanted to be cool. But in my 20s, I succumbed to the beauty of these songs; how wonderfully they're recorded and the charming nature of those two kids who made them.

It’s beautifully written and beautifully executed. I don't know much about it, but I know that they were fans of Burt Bacharach and they even worked with him a little bit. And you can tell they loved the Beatles, and they loved songwriting. They just were trying to be ninjas and they did it.

“Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard

I really learned this song because my dad would play it. We lived in Germany during my elementary school years, and he was a nightclub singer. He had an old Gibson J-50 - a big bodied acoustic guitar - and he would sing a lot of country songs.

He grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana, so he was literally a fucking cowboy. He learned how to ride a horse before he was driving a car or riding a bike or anything. And so he was legit, and the Germans just loved it. And he was good at doing it. He was good at sitting with the guitar and being funny and entertaining in between songs. He'd walk around and ask for requests and stuff.

It's one of those cases where I knew my dad's version of the song and the way he delivered it. Then when I heard Merle Haggard's version later, I was a little bit disappointed. There was something about the way my dad did it. And there were many songs like that, where I'll hear them and I'll remember ‘Oh, my dad used to do that. He did it better.’

But I love Merle Haggard's version of it, it's terrific. It's just different I guess. So that's the story behind me being introduced to Merle Haggard. It was my dad covering those songs to earn supplemental income for the family in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s.

“Close To Me” by The Cure

My freshman year of high school was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And there was a girl down the street who all the boys had crushes on. She had a checkerboard shaved into the side of her head and half of a mohawk and she was just super cute. And she was into The Cure.

I didn't know much about them because back then I would have been 14, and I wouldn't have even known where to go. The records that I had bought up to that point were from department stores. It would be hits, so it wouldn't be anything as obscure as The Cure. So I knew I had vaguely heard her playing The Cure in her bedroom and I knew it was really cool, and that I could be cooler if I liked them.

And so when I moved to the UK in 1986 The Cure were like a pop band, or at least they were in the charts. You didn't have to go to some weird fucking record store to find out what's going on with them.

I bought The Head on the Door and this song has always stood out to me because it is so interesting. It's such an inventive, strange way to produce a song. It has this old timey sort of jazzy flow to it, it’s kind of cinematic in that way.

“Seven Seas” by Echo & The Bunnymen

Ocean Rain by Echo & the Bunnymen would have been right around the same time. I really fell in love with that record. That was a record where I sat down and tried to learn songs like “The Killing Moon” and they were manageable. Really, really gorgeous stuff.

I found the 7” release of “Seven Seas” sometime in the late ‘90s and I gave it to a girl that I was trying to impress. I should never have done that. It was so cool. It was a fold out 7” thing with a little booklet, and now she's got it and she probably doesn't even care.

BEST FIT: Are they a band that you've continued to follow? Or are they more of a fixed a moment in time for you?

I think they're more fixed in a moment in time. In the later ‘80s, they came out with some really great stuff like “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and “Lips Like Sugar” and it was bigger and maybe more pop sounding, but still really good.

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose” by Dionne Warwick

I love Dionne Warwick. I loved her when I was a kid in the ‘80s because she still had hits then too. And I thought she was so pretty, and she looked like a very kind person. So I kind of had a crush on her when I was like 13. I guess I must have heard this song on the radio but I'm not exactly sure as it probably came out in the mid-60s or something.

But it would have been sometime in the 2000s that I heard it again, and I was struck by how interesting it is. The arrangements are so clever. You can hear the room and it's just that classic old world way of doing records.

It seemed like Burt Bacharach would produce things in the same way that Frank Sinatra had been doing them in the ‘50s. It's a big room, you’ve got a really good band, you fucking get a terrific take, and maybe overdub the main vocal, and it's just nightmarishly good.

She's so charming and there's so much charisma coming across from her voice, but the lyrics are so great too. It's such a moment in time. It's a sad story about this kid who goes off to L.A. from San Jose, hoping to have a career in the business and it just doesn't work out. And she's defeated, but also seems to say, ‘You know what? I'll be fine.’ It’s just a neat, complex and subtle song.

BEST FIT: I read somewhere that initially she wasn't a huge fan of the song. But when it did so well and she realised how much it resonated with people she made sure to always sing it in her sets. Is that something you can relate to? Are there songs that you've written that fall flat for you personally, but someone's latched on to it and you feel you can't deny them by not performing it?

I'm a very pragmatic person and when you're doing a show and people have travelled to get there, and paid good money to be there, I feel a responsibility to entertain them, and I intend to show them a good time.

Some people may think that somehow that's being inauthentic, or you're not a proper artist if you try and please anyone. Or that you shouldn't ever try to please anyone but yourself, and you have to be completely selfish and all that. And maybe that's true when you're writing, as you don't want to be trying to sound like that Taylor Swift song because ‘Boy, that did well.’

But when we're out touring, and working people are showing up and paying money, we have to play “New Slang” you know? Because I know that's a huge reason why a lot of people are there. But there's certainly evenings where I'm not excited about doing it. And there's a number of songs that are like that, but I'll do what it takes to keep people happy and coming back.

You can put yourself back in that moment, you can remember how it was when you were writing the song and why you wrote those lyrics. That's what we're doing when we're listening to Dionne Warwick sing the song. We're being transported by the song and the words.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters

They had so many wonderful songs. I don't know who wrote this song, or if the guys in the band wrote it. But they have so many of these very romantic and almost spooky, ethereal songs, that they must have had a lot to do with it, because how could it have happened so many times?

This song is just killer. It's so dark and mysterious that it could almost be on a Halloween playlist. It's strange, because this was African American pop culture at the time. And the contrast from this period in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to what it is now is striking. It's hard to imagine this sort of a song on the pop charts at all today, but it's just absolutely brilliant.

BEST FIT: It’s so overwhelmingly nostalgic that I find it hard to listen to it at times.

Nostalgia is embedded into it. I think it was nostalgic to people hearing it for the first time in the late ‘50s, it's just timeless.

“All Mirrors” by Angel Olsen

To me, this song is also timeless. My wife showed me this song. She's got great musical tastes and she's much more of an avid listener than I am. She was a music writer - that's how we met - so she's always up to speed on things.

We had gone on a short vacation together, which we rarely do because we've got three girls, and she played it, and I just wept.

Angel Olsen is being so vulnerable and that is so touching. And when you do that, you reveal something, a weakness or a fear. It's just so seductive that it kills me. And that's what's so wonderful about music. I think that's when music is the most powerful.

It's like the blues. The blues is such a strange thing, because its people talking about the things that are going wrong in their life and horrible things that have happened. They're a loser at that moment. And then they turn it into something beautiful. What a wonderful thing to be able to do. It's like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It's just insane, but it's real.

And so this is Angel Olsen's fears about what it is to grow older, and to see yourself changing in ways that you wish you wouldn't, and we all go through it. The comfort level that she has with revealing what might be easily criticised as vanity, but it is nevertheless something that we all share - I was so touched by it. And it was neat to share that with my wife. It was a special moment.

“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen

I was dating a really neat girl in Albuquerque, right about the time that I left in ‘99. And I was in this crazy state where Sub Pop was starting to talk to me and my life was beginning to change. Things were finally looking up for the first time.

She was this really interesting girl. She was a poet and different from anybody I'd ever dated. And she loved Leonard Cohen because her parents were old hippies. My parents didn't listen to Leonard Cohen. They listened to old Country music and stuff like that. So she showed me this song.

I guess the thing about this song that I find so moving is I feel like he's singing about girls that I dated. I don't know, necessarily, if Leonard Cohen is in a relationship with this woman, but he's attracted to her. And she's fascinating. He knows this isn't going anywhere, really. But he's drawn to this person regardless, and I have definitely been there.

BEST FIT: It's quite jarring when you come across someone's writing that almost draws a parallel to your own life.

Back in my 20s I think I always had this fear that I was utterly unique and weird and I wasn't normal. And then you hear somebody create this piece of art, and they're describing this thing that you've been through, and it's almost a relief - you feel a connection.

I heard this after I had recorded Oh, Inverted World so I knew nothing about Leonard Cohen. But it really changed the way I approached a lot of songwriting for Chutes Too Narrow because I just was so blown away by his style.

“Old Man” by Neil Young

This is interesting because I also didn't know this song when I did Oh, Inverted World. I knew of Neil Young, and I knew his hits. But like I said, my dad wasn't a hippie, so he wouldn't have had that stuff.

But there was a little thrift store right next to my apartment in Albuquerque. I went over there one day, and there was this vinyl copy of Harvest. The cover was all ripped up, so I was scared to look but I opened it up and the vinyl was just pristine. So I took it home and taped it up very carefully. And then I started listening to it, and it just blew me away.

It was buying that record and getting into it that made Chutes Too Narrow have that more hands-off approach. It's not so overproduced or orchestrated. I wanted to have this more authentic, straightforward production, because of the beauty of these songs on Harvest.

And “Old Man” to me is just so lovely too. I guess he bought a ranch and there was an old dude there who was basically the foreman, and it was decided that he could stay on and help take care of the ranch. Neil Young was a 24-year-old kid, so he didn't know anything about running the ranch or anything. So the old guy stays on and they develop this relationship. And because Young is such a sensitive and intelligent writer he delved into the strange similarities between the two guys, both lonely souls at different stages of their lives.

And it's funny, because it kind of reminded me of myself. The old man sounds exactly like my uncle; an old cowboy working ranches in Montana his whole life, missing toes because of shit that would go wrong. This guy would have been that same sort of dude, and here's Neil Young feeling this connection and admiration for him. It really resonated with me.

And it's just such a beautiful song musically, and melodically with Neil's haunting voice. It's one of the best songs ever recorded, pop wise, I would say.

The 20th Anniversary edition of Chutes Too Narrow is released 20 October via Sub Pop

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