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James Mercer: “Everyone was too cool to care”

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James Mercer
Short Profile

Name: James Russell Mercer
DOB: 26 December 1970
Place of Birth: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Occupation: Musician

James’ most recent album is called After the Disco by Broken Bells.

Mr. Mercer, how do you write a song?

It depends on what the song needs or wants. I try to interpret what the music is already saying. I listen to the music and try to figure out what emotions are being expressed by that music. Often times it’ll remind me of something I’ve been thinking about and I’ll go down that route. If that doesn’t work, I think it’s cool to just try to come up with some sort of hypothetical scenario that gives that emotional feeling that’s being expressed by the music. There are different ways of doing it, but generally it is trying to get the feeling down on paper of what the music is already saying.

How does it make you feel when people say you are one of the best songwriters of your generation?

It actually makes me feel self-conscious. I’m happy to be considered one of them and I appreciate it, but I’m such a fan other songwriters and there’s so many very talented ones out there.

Like who?

The other day somebody asked me about records that have influenced me and going back to my grammar school years I was listening extensively to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There was a kid who lived upstairs in our apartment building - in Germany, actually - and he listened to that record all the time and turned me on to it. I loved it.

What was it about that album that spoke to you at such a young age?

Even at such an early age the sort of lyrical depth it had appealed to me. The lyrics weren’t just about chicks and stuff. It was kind of pretty deep stuff on that record. It revealed to me that pop music could be something really big. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be something really kind of profound. It set the bar really high for me. I strive to do stuff that’s strong like that.

Were you a loner as a kid?

We moved around a lot because my parents were in the military, so I was a very shy kid and it made it hard for me to meet new friends. I have a fondness for Germany, the happiest part of my childhood was here I think, but in some ways it kind of screwed me up. I would lose friends a lot, so I shied away from making new ones. My sister was very different from me. She was very gregarious and was able to make friends all the time. She ended up with tons of friends because we moved a lot.

Do you think that made you more creative?

Probably. It gave me more time alone, more time to play guitar. I probably played guitar more than I would have if I would have been like my sister, who is very warm and friendly to everybody.

She’s not a musician?

She’s not. I tried to make her a musician. Because she was so popular and stuff I thought that if she would sing my songs we would automatically be a cool band. And she refused. She never wanted to.

Even back then you weren’t the solo artist, singer-songwriter type…

I think there is just something less appealing to me about the solo guy, the singer-songwriter guy. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I just never saw myself being that guy. I always loved bands and I’ve always leaned towards that as a listener.

Your songs with The Shins and also with Broken Bells, your collaboration with Danger Mouse, are often rather melancholy. Are you a nostalgic person?

I try to avoid nostalgia in my day-to-day life, but I do find it is something that I can feed off of when I’m writing lyrics. It is kind of depressing and I worry that it’ll get me depressed if I allow it, so I avoid opening going through the junk drawer. Do you have a junk drawer in your house?

No…

I have a drawer that is filled with stuff I didn’t want to throw away, but reminds me of something. I have shit from when I was a kid, like marbles or a matchbook I got on a vacation with my parents, junk that I can’t really throw away.

Those sound like happy memories, though.

They are, but the fact that they’re gone makes you melancholy. So I avoid the junk drawer.

One thing that defines our contemporary culture is a sort of ironic distance and a lack of sincerity, which in a way I think that is the opposite of melancholy.

Yes, it is what they call “meta” right? They are self-referential, laughing at everything and everything is a joke. Whereas melancholy is an earnest feeling and something that you don’t want to go too far into. Everything started to be sort of a joke in the ’90s. Everything was tongue-in-cheek and I always had a hard time with that. That’s why in my old band I had a song called “Caring Is Creepy,” because no one wanted to care. Everyone was too cool to care.