James Mercer

Overlooked anthems 

Words: Florian Obkirche Photography: Getty Images

Broken Bells singer James Mercer and the five tracks on heavy rotation in his studio.   

James Mercer is a busy man. The 42-year-old from Hawaii is lead singer of The Shins, whose playful, psychedelic indie songs have been conquering charts and critics’ hearts for a dozen years.

Since 2009, he has also been involved in Broken Bells, with his friend Danger Mouse (one half of Gnarls Barkley, and producer of The Black Keys and Norah Jones). As a duo, they proclaim their love of obscure pop and understatedly odd dance music, which works splendidly: Broken Bells’ debut album sold 700,000 copies in the U.S. A second album, After the Disco, is out now. Here, Mercer reveals what inspired him as he was working on it

Throwing Muses - Not Too Soon

“To me this song sums up everything that the ’90s were about. Throwing Muses were a girl band,which was a cool thing back then, and they were also one of the first bands I ever saw live back when I went to high school in England. Not Too Soon is a classic power-pop song. It may sound very 1991, but it’d still be successful in any era.”

Smith Westerns - Varsity

“They are a young new indie band. They have this song called Varsity, which is the title track of their current album.I love it. It sounds like a classic ’80s radio song. It’s very easy to listen to. I love their lightheartedness. We were trying to get them to tour with Broken Bells three years ago, but unfortunately they were busy doing something else.”

Apples In Stereo - The Golden Flower    

“I learned a fair amount about how to write songs listening to this one. It’s
a strange song with strange chords. It was a 7-inch that came for free when you bought the Tone Soul Evolution album on vinyl. It was this thing that would fall out when you opened the sleeve. Really annoying, but what can you do? It’s one of my favorite songs ever.”

Fruit Bats - You’re Too Weird

“You’re Too Weird was written my buddy Eric Johnson from the band Fruit Bats. It’s a love songhe wrote for his wife. Well, maybe not exclusively for her. But it’s beautiful and brilliantly written. I met Eric 15 years ago touring when he was playing in his former, highly underestimated band Califone, and we just became good friends.”

Blur - Fool’s Day

“Blur released their first new song since 2003 on their website as a free download on April 1 three years ago. Almost no one paid it any attention—at least not in the States. Which is insane! I thought Fool’s Day was great: one of Blur’s best songs ever. I hoped at the time that the track would herald a new album, but I’m still waiting.”

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