02.04.2007, Words by Paul Benney

The Shins: Lovers of that pop format.

In the 2004 film Garden State, the character Samantha (played by Natalie Portman) is an enthusiastic fan of The Shins. Speaking about New Slang, the stand out track on their 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World, she says: “You gotta hear this song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” The Portland four-piece inspire similar adoration in the real world. Their emotive indie-pop songs dripping with gorgeous hooks, heart-melting harmonies and imaginative lyrics ensnare all who stumble across them. Lead singer James Mercer, a lover of “that pop format” and “the parameters of verse/chorus/verse”, couldn’t make music any other way. This self-confessed Anglophile spent his teenage years growing up a music geek on a US airbase in Suffolk listening to The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen. Success in the UK is very dear to him. News of that their remarkable third album, Wincing The Night Away, has charted at Number 16 brings a huge smile to his face. Impressive indeed, but it’s nothing compared to the Number 2 position it achieved in the US. The Shins, darlings of alternative American rock, are a mainstream success. No wonder Mercer seems a bit dazed.

You’ve just broken through. How does it feel?

“We’re all really excited right now. The album is Number 2 in the US album charts. Pretty Ricky is Number 1, and I don’t even know who that is. But I have this feeling that we can’t possibly become some sort of household name in the States. I don’t know what’s going on at all.”

Is it fair to say that you’re confused?

“I don’t mean this to sound nasty, but when you’re Number 2 in the States, a lot of the people buying your record aren’t really music fans, so to speak. How do they reconcile in their head the schizophrenic nature of their taste? That they are listening to Pretty Ricky The Shins.”

What’s the title of the album about. Is it about feeling awkward at parties?

“That does happen sometimes, but it’s more about when I can’t sleep. I’ll think about shit that bothers me – embarrassing things I’ve said or remembering some confrontation and how badly I behaved. That’s where the title comes from.”

Your lyrics are full of vivid imagery, but it’s not always clear what you’re writing about. What does it all mean?

“I do leave room for interpretation. Sometimes, I’ll just do stream of consciousness writing and find some bits that work. Then I’ll use that as a theme and start building on it, so then I am interpreting them as I go along. I use that to apply logic to something that maybe didn’t make much sense in the first place.”

However, the song Phantom Limb is unequivocally about lesbians. Do gay women often enter your stream of consciousness?

“Well, that one was written in a different way. I was trying to interpret what I was getting emotionally from the music. I felt that there was some melancholy and bitterness in the verse and chorus. But there was also a bridge that sounded jubilant and happy. And so I had to explain that. Why would somebody have those feelings? I decided there’s some sort of romance going on, but that it’s troubled. Quickly, I realised it’s a love affair, a homosexual love affair. They’re in a small town, it’s difficult and these two kids are the type of kid I was – weird kids. It’s like a story, which is cool because I’m trying to develop an ability to fictionalise like that. If you’re stuck with writing the shit you experience all the time, you’re limited.”

Does Phantom Limb mean penis envy?

“Ha! It’s a good call, but no. I guess it was about this love they had to hide, or that it was visible yet they weren’t allowed to show it.”

Shins fans are notoriously obsessive about your songs. Do you mind people pouring over your lyrics?

“In a way it does make me self-conscious because you wonder if you really deserve such attention. When you understand that certain people are going to analyse what you’re doing, there is a bit of pressure; but for some reason, it doesn’t seem to have affected me in a negative way. I look at it as a chance to do your best work. At least you know somebody is going to give a shit.”

You did an interview with PETA, the anti-fur people. Yet you have a song called Red Rabbits, which pretty cruel.

“Cruelty to animals is part of the very fabric of my being.”

Where did that come from?!

“God, it’s totally random. I wear leather shoes, I eat meat and I’m no animal rights crusader. I don’t like to see cats hurt or whatever, but that’s about it. Anyway, we did a show in North Virginia and these two PETA people showed up and wanted to interview the band. I told them up front that they were gonna think I was a hypocrite if they thought I was a PETA man. Anyway, now it seems I’m a PETA activist. I don’t know what the fuck to do about it.”

Don’t wear fur coats?

“Yeah, then I’m a hypocrite when I already am a hypocrite.”

Why does Wincing The Night Away sound so much richer than your previous two albums?

“Probably because I didn’t engineer the drums this time around. I wasn’t satisfied at all with the drum sounds I engineered on the first two albums, so I asked Phil Eck to handle the drums. Then I brought in Joe Chiccarelli to help with production and engineering. He’s really savvy and he’s worked with some huge bands [such as Beck and U2], so that’s probably why.”

First track, Sleeping Lessons, has an epic feel that’s a bit like Arcade Fire or My Morning Jacket. Did you feel they’d raised the bar and you needed to keep up?

“Not really, because originally I wanted that song to start off sounding like you were walking through the woods in Louisiana and you stumble across a big party; and then turn it into a shoegazer kind of song. That didn’t work at all, so I started working with the sequenced keyboard line that’s now on the track and turned that into a garage type of song. It’s funny you should say it sounds grand because when Joe Chiccarelli engineered the drums on it originally, it sounded just way too big, too grandiose. It was just something that’s not me. So I explained and Joe understood and we shrunk the drums down to make them sound like I engineered them.”

One of the songs on the new album, Sealegs, has a hip hop beat and sounds a bit like the Beta Band. Are you a fan?

“Yeah. I think they had a very complex emotional vocabulary, but, at the same time, they took the whole thing so lightly. I mean, calling a record ; that’s just so brilliantly stupid. The music is like a collage of different styles. So the fact that I was enjoying a band like that freed me up to try something different like I wasn’t afraid to do it. I think they’d have been cool with something like that.”

Your music has featured in all kinds of films and TV shows, but how did you end up writing a song for the Spongebob Squarepants movie?

“Friends of friends know the guy who created it. I love Spongebob, so I totally did it when he asked me. I look at those things as real challenges, you know? The only regret I have about that song is the sound of the fucking drums again!”

Your songs are always growers. Do they grow on you as well?

“When we were making this album, I do remember commenting that this was going to be a record that people need to get home and listen to twice. So maybe I was seeing new dimensions as we repeatedly listened to the songs during mixing. I actually really enjoy listening to this record, which is something I’ve rarely felt in the past.”

Talking of growing, you’re a keen gardener, aren’t you?

“I love growing tomatoes. They’re all about summertime and I love the smell of the leaves. I’ve also got a great apple tree in my garden and the apples are awesome. I rented the house out once to a guy who owns an award-winning restaurant in Portland, and he used the apples from that tree in his recipes. Which I’m very happy about.”

Do you believe in fate?

“It’s a tricky one. I would say I’m somebody that has a tendency to think the world is governed by these really dry laws; but then I definitely leave room for things like fate to play a role. It does seem too coincidental the number of weird things that have blessed us. I also think a lot of it has to do with us getting along with people – developing friendships and not being closed off. A lot of people let opportunities pass them by because, well, they’re assholes.”

The Shins’ third album, Wincing The Night Away, is out now on Sub Pop/Transgressive Records.


Written for the autumn 2007 edition of Dummy.

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