The Shins’ James Mercer revisits his 16-year-old self for our Sweet 16 feature

Back in 1987, James Mercer was living on a Suffolk RAF base, with a bad flat-top, a skateboard and a copy of ‘The Queen Is Dead’

James Mercer: This photo was late 1987, and we were on a school coach heading down to London to see Les Misérables. It was a pretty good show from what I remember. In the background, that’s my friend George Farrel, the kid who got me into My Bloody Valentine and a lot of cool music at the time.

I was in the UK because I lived there for three years until I graduated. My dad was an air force guy and he worked at Mildenhall in Suffolk, and we all lived on a base nearby called Lakenheath – me and my younger sister, and we had half brothers and sisters also. The feeling there was that of a little restriction, because you can’t get away with much, but one of the cool things was that the G.I.’s had vending machines with Budweiser in them. And I was into skateboarding, so I’d just skate around and grab a beer from the vending machine. The town of Newmarket was nearby, so me and some of the other kids would skate all the way there or get the bus to Stevenage to the skate park, or we’d go to a rock show, of any of the bands that were coming by – bands like The Pastels and House of Love.

I was hesitant to move to England because I had a crush on the girl down my street, but I was stoked to be moving to the place that was running the game of New Wave music back then. So I thought everyone would be really cool and wearing Swatches, but when we got there… Suffolk is pretty drab. It was raining the whole time and there wasn’t anything really cool about it. I thought it was going to be like a Thompson Twins video. Then George came along and could drive his dad’s car, so we could get out to shows at Norwich Arts Centre and the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, which I refer to in a track on our new record, called ‘Mildenhall’ – it’s all down there. It was an interesting story for me to put into a song – this kid with a really shitty flat top that only works with all this mousse in his hair. But of course that doesn’t work in the rain. I was bummed for the first year of being there, from 15 to 16, until I found a good group of friends and ended up having a lot of fun.

I didn’t feel that special as an American kid in England, but maybe that was because there were so many American’s around on the base. I was terrible at making friends for that first year, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I didn’t have a friend outside of the classroom. I was just so shy, and my younger sister was so gregarious. She meanwhile was becoming the president of her class. She was the complete opposite of me – very outgoing but with terrible taste in music.

Skating saved me from being completely alone, but I remember in early December we had a snow storm and this kid in my class told me, “we’re going to take the trucks off of our skateboards and see if we can snowboard down the hill by the high school,” and I was like, “fuck yeah, I’ll do that.” I was so excited that I was going to be hanging out with someone other than my parents and my records in my room. So I sat in my window, and I was so anxious and nervous about it, and I sat and watched them coming along in the snow. They walked and they walked. And then they walked straight past my house and they never picked me up. I didn’t speak to them for 6 months, then the summer came and I told them this story and they were like, “dude, we just totally forgot.” That’s how stupid of a kid I was for the first year.    

I was finding comfort in music though. I had bought ‘The Queen Is Dead’ from Woolworths, on an island display, and I bought ‘Ocean Rain’ at the same time. I just saw them and got them, so I really lucked out with those two records. And a British friend of mine, his mom was a super Beatles fan and she made me a cassette tape of Beatles hits, which was a lucky moment, too. And I went to see My Bloody Valentine at the Corn Exchange in ’88, who I loved because they had melodies in there. When the ’90s came around people weren’t so concerned with that, like The Smiths had been, for example, and that wasn’t for me. 

I was happy at 16 because I’d already been through my rough patch. When I was 12 I was hating life. Discovering skateboarding and music is what changed things for me and gave me confidence that I needed. I think there was a healthy amount of fuck the world that I had, and it saved me.

James was talking to Stuart Stubbs