Talk to James Mercer for more than one minute and you’ll understand why The Shins frontman has been performing for 20-plus years—he eats, sleeps and breathes music.
From his home in Portland, Mercer watches his 3-year-old play and muses on The Shins’ newest album and the world tour bringing him to Comerica Theatre in Phoenix on Tuesday, October 3.
The show will feature special guest Spoon, with whom Mercer is honored to share a bill.
“We know we have to be on the top of our game because they’re so good,” he says with a laugh.
The tour’s last leg took The Shins to several places the band has never performed before, including Turin, Italy.
“I have so many Italian musical instruments like Farfisa organs and box guitars that are made in Italy,” Mercer says. “I’ve posted about it like, ‘Why do I have all this Italian stuff and we’ve never played in Italy?’ and it finally happened.”
As for the show’s setlist, Mercer is leaving it in fans’ hands. Before heading to The Shins’ gigs, music lovers can request what they want to hear via Set the Set, settheset.com/t/the-shins.
“It gives you some time, ahead of time, to practice the damn song,” he jokes.
The new album, Heartworms, was released in March after a years-long creative period. The title track came from a melody he wrote 10 years ago; another track, “The Fear,” goes back even further. Mercer says he’s taken on more of a storytelling role this album, inventing hypotheticals rather than writing about personal relationships.
“I was listening to The Beatles, and Paul McCartney songs, in particular, realized he’s just making up cool stories, sort of like a novelist would and that means he can really write a lot of songs,” Mercer says.
He points to the song “Rubber Ballz” as an example. It tells the story of a guy who kills his girlfriend because he thinks she’s crazy.
“That’s totally fictional, trust me,” he says with a laugh.
On the other hand, “Mildenhall” is details the singer’s experience falling in love with music – and The Jesus and the Mary Chain – as a young boy in Suffolk, England. Mercer’s taste in music is a source of pride for the vocalist, who DJs for the band on Bluetooth speakers before shows. He plays a variety of music, ranging from old punk like The Sex Pistols to bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Ariel Pink.
“Everybody loves it,” he says. “They’re always like who is this band? Is this some old band that I somehow missed?”
The Shins will end their tour in Mercer’s home state, Hawaii, in December, where his family will stay on and take a vacation.
After that, he already has another project lined up.
“My transmission on my truck is leaking fluid so I’m going to attempt to conquer that. Maybe I’ll learn something.”
The Shins and Spoon, Comerica Theatre, 400 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, 602.379.2800, comericatheatre.com, 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 3, $39.50-$50.