“Then a kid in class passed me a tape”, sings Shins frontman James Mercer under the red lights of London’s Hammersmith Apollo, “… and that’s how / we get to where we are we now”.
These are the words in “Mildenhall”, a song on The Shins’ latest album about how Mercer’s love for music began in the cassette era. There’s something of that analogue mixtape spirit in his latest venture, even though it’s the most digital of creations: an iPhone app.
Mercer’s app, Pasted, creates image collages on your Apple iOS device. The collages evoke the cut ‘n’ paste photostat aesthetic of old-school punk show fliers, and Mercer has already used it to create record covers and T-shirts for The Shins.
I caught up with Mercer earlier this year during the European tour for the band’s fifth studio album, “Heartworms”. It was the biggest show Mercer had ever played in London, but he was laid back and engaging as he described the inspiration for the app.
“I was at an old restaurant in Hawaii”, Mercer recalled in a bare office somewhere in the bowels of the venerable venue, “and I saw a collage that the proprietors had made over the years, all the cut-out pictures of faces of their friends and family and their regulars. I thought that’s such a cool look. It’s so organic and handmade. I figured there must be an app that allows you to do that. There was no such app…. It wasn’t really an idea as much as a failed shopping attempt!”
With the help of Ben Fogarty, president of digital design agency The Brigade, and Zeke Howard, former-bandmate-turned-programmer, Mercer set about creating a collage app.
Mercer said he doesn’t know anything about coding and has a newfound respect for how difficult the development process can be.
“I think what I bring is more of an aesthetic eye”, he said. “We talk a lot about the interface, how it should look, color choices and things like that. So on my side it kind of feels like doing a record. It’s certainly a collaboration in the same way”.
As we spoke, the haunting sound of violins drifted through the air. Out in the corridor the band’s warming up with a bit of Bach. But Mercer and his bandmates are no Luddites. While the band discussed which of Hammersmith’s drinking establishments they should decamp to, drummer Jon Sortland looped beats on the Garageband iPhone app through a chunky Bluetooth speaker. And for Mercer, his phone has replaced his old dictaphone for recording song ideas and has even replaced parts of his musical kit.
“The best tuner I’ve ever had is on my phone”, he said. “I used to have this Peterson tuner that cost 350 bucks and it would break and I would have to have it repaired. So I probably over the years spent $1,000 on that tuner — and it’s nowhere near as good as the one that’s here for $3”.
Some artists fight technological developments, from Metallica suing Napster to. But Mercer said that touring and Instagram are his favourite promotional tools. He credits online sharing of his earliest songs for attracting the attention of record label Sub Pop. “I can’t complain about streaming. It kind of started my career”, he said.
Is technology the new rock ‘n’ roll, I ask.
“Jesus”, he said. “Maybe. The thing that I like about it that reminds me of rock ‘n’ roll is that you can go from being this loser of a kid who maybe is socially awkward, and you can kind of pull a rabbit out. You’re not fitting in. You feel this alienation. And then you can actually make that cool. It’s kind of magic”.
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