James Mercer – founder, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist of The Shins – is sweating. It's not that I've gone in with a particularly challenging line of questioning, it's just hot – we're in Austin for the SXSW music festival. Besides, what could you possibly ask 41-year-old Mercer – all-round nice guy, family man, and purveyor of inoffensive melodic indie-rock – to get him worried? The Shins might be smarter than your average band, but they're definitely not controversial.
They are huge in America, where they enjoy the perks of the mainstream: a top five album, a spot on Saturday Night Live, magazine-cover appearances. They are here to promote their fourth album, Port of Morrow. In many ways it is a classic Shins offering: expertly produced indie-pop gems with big choruses and heartfelt lyrics.
It has been five years since the release of their last record, Wincing the Night Away, and the band has undergone a number of line-up changes, with original members, keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, being replaced. A lot was made of the supposed sackings but Mercer maintains that he didn't want to get comfortable and he felt the need to be challenged.
"I'm responsible for the quality of what the Shins put out," he says. "I want to do as good a job as I can. I don't want to get lost in the shuffle of trying to maintain relationships which can be exhausting to some bands; you see it happen." However, Mercer will happily give credit where it is due. "I'm responsible for the songs. I write the songs, I write the lyrics, I come up with the big ideas. From that point on it's a collaboration," he insists. "Greg [Kurstin] co-produced it, he put it together, he figured out the overall aesthetic and how these songs will be presented. And Nik [Freitas], who plays a bunch of guitar on the record, was hugely influential on its sound. There are a lot of great hooks that he just came up with on the spot."
Five years is a long hiatus for any band to take. "You do hope people will still remember you!" he laughs "But there was no real reason for it being that long. I mean, we stopped touring the last record about four years ago, then my wife and I had kids, we moved house. Then Brian came along with this idea of doing a band. It doesn't take much for a year to just disappear, you know?"
The band in question was Broken Bells, which he formed with Brian Burton, better known as producer Danger Mouse. Broken Bells were made out to be a hipper offering than the Shins, and their work is clearly something Mercer is proud of. Not that Mercer is concerned with being cool, as anyone who has seen one of the many internet comedy skits that he has been involved with will attest. "I enjoy being an idiot," he smiles. "I'm not obsessed with music. I really enjoy doing this and it's the only thing that I'm particularly good at."
The band appeared in the 2004 indie flick Garden State, when Natalie Portman plays a Shins track to Zach Braff and tells him that the band "will change your life". It's something Mercer is still often asked about. "It was cool, [but] it biases some people against you a little bit... But what can you do about it?"
The Shins' new single, 'The Rifle's Spiral', is out on 28 May. 'Port of Morrow' is out now (www.theshins.com)