BY JONATHAN VALANIA James Mercer’s Rosebud is a beat-to-shit acoustic guitar he bought 10 years ago in a thrift store for the princely sum of $3. When he got it home he took out a Sharpie and scrawled the words YOU WILL BE DEAD across the top a la that iconic photo of Woodie Guthrie holding up guitar with the words THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS written on it. Like all good Rosebuds, it’s hard to find. To get to it you have to go to his home, located in a secure undisclosed location in Portland, unlock the high fence gate that rings the grassy knoll of his front yard, say hello to his lovely wife who is weeding the flower beds that hug the contours of the front porch of the 120-year-old Queen Anne house he bought four years ago, hear around back past the two towering Doug Firs in his back yard, past the rode-hard-put-up-wet maroon ’89 Ford Shins touring van that Mercer holds onto for sentimental reasons despite 300,000 of wear and tear, cross the wide circular driveway that takes up most of his expansive back yard, go past the wishing well and into the once-dilapidated carriage house that’s been restored and converted into a recording studio-cum-guest house (you can see it in the new “Bait And Switch” video), climb the circular stairs to the second floor, turn to your right once you get to the top and you will see it leaning against the wall.
Don’t touch it.
This is the guitar with which Mercer has roughed out the rudiments of pretty much every Shins song including the one that Natalie Portman insists will change your life. It certainly changed James Mercer’s life. That $3 guitar brought him everything he now has: Marisa his beautiful wife, who he met him when she came to interview him for Spin, his two children four-year-old Sabine and two-year-old Odette, and the $1.3 million home (seven bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms) they currently reside in, the home recording studio in the carriage house, the hundreds of thousands of Shins records sold and the invisible crown that sits askew atop his trademark widow’s peak, confirming his decade long reign as the the indie king of bearded pop. The phrase ‘you’ll be dead’ originates from the cantina scene in Star Wars where Ponda Bab and Dr. Evazan, a couple of interplanetary space thugs, are trying to intimidate a young Luke Skywalker:
[Ponda Baba gives Luke a rough shove and starts yelling at Luke in an alien language which Luke doesn’t understand]
Dr. Evazan: [explaining] He doesn’t like you.
Dr. Evazan: [grabbing Luke] I don’t like you either. You just watch yourself. We’re wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems.
Luke: I’ll be careful.
Dr. Evazan: You’ll be dead!
Obi-Wan: [intervening] This little one’s not worth the effort. Come, let me get you something.
[Dr. Evazan shoves Luke across the room and pulls out a blaster]
Bartender: No blasters! No blasters!
[Obi-Wan ignites his lightsaber, severing Ponda Baba’s arm]
James Mercer — bookish, sensitive, shy and always undersized for his age — grew up with the distinct feeling that God had affixed a bullseye on his back. His whole life has been some variation on the Cantina scene. There was the time he went to a fair in Montana and got called ‘faggot’ for the crime of wearing eyeglasses in public. There was the son of his piano teacher who bullied Mercer behind his mother’s back until he just stopped showing up for lessons. There was the middle school stoners that thought he was too straight and the high school jocks that thought he was too weird. But from the moment he started teaching himself how to bang out the power chords to “God Save The Queen” in his mid-teens, that guitar has been his light saber. And to hear him tell it, you would be crazy to go through life without one.
The fact that his cousin, Sherry Arnold, a beloved 43 year old school teacher, was kidnapped and murdered while jogging near her home in Sidney Montana earlier this year for no discernible reason other than they could, only confirms his assertion that only a fool goes through life speaking softly without carrying a big fucking stick. “Who are these fucking creatures, who are these fucking people who would want to do that,” he says. “I really don’t understand the bad side of humanity: the cruelty, the genocide, that whole thing. But they walk amongst us, and that’s the fucking thing that I do know: is that you shake their hands once in a while, you see them on the subway. They’re people who would if they could, you know? And that’s the scary thing about all that shit – that whole thing has been an issue for me since I was a kid.”
He pauses to pop an unnamed pill he takes when his anxiety gets the better of him, and then carries on.
“It’s like that moment in 2001 A Space Oddyssey when that early hominid invents the first weapon out of a bone,” he says. “The massive mathematical advantage of that thing just spreading these genes. Not only does he no longer have to compete for who to have sex with, he can actually kill the other things that want to eat his food and want to fuck the other females. What a huge, tremendous reward for having the brains and the violent nature. So we have violence in us, in such a deep way, and I think we need to understand it, and respect it for the dangerous thing that it is. And we don’t. We just don’t.” MORE
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