Special Music Feature
James Mercer’s Inverted World
“We’re a little nervous,” James Mercer says into a cell phone as he stands outside the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., a slight unease in his voice. “But we’re really looking forward to it.”
The Shins haven’t played a show in Albuquerque, their hometown, in four years. Since then, much has changed. On Jan. 13, 2007, The Shins took the stage on “Saturday Night Live” to play for more than four million people. Ten days later, their third album, Wincing the Night Away, would debut at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, selling 118,000 copies in the first week, making it the most successful debut in the history of Sub Pop records.
The Shins have some catching up to do.
The band that changed your life 10 years ago returns home on Tuesday, April 10, to play a show at the El Rey Theater. James Mercer talks to the Alibi about humble beginnings, Truman Capote and how The Shins really feel about Albuquerque.
The Shins began as college-rock outfit Flake (later renamed Flake Music), fronted by Mercer and guitarist Neal Langford. Jesse Sandoval, then a student at La Cueva High School, signed on as Flake’s drummer and perennial Bow Wow Records clerk Marty Crandall soon joined as the band’s keyboardist. Dave Hernandez, formerly of Scared of Chaka, eventually replaced Langford after he left to pursue other interests.
Sub Pop CEO Jonathan Poneman—who would, on the eve of the release of Wincing the Night Away, call the band “instrumental to Sub Pop’s renaissance”—saw The Shins play with Modest Mouse in San Francisco in 1999 and asked them to contribute a song to the Sub Pop Singles Club, a now-defunct monthly 7-inch record subscription service that featured unsigned acts. The success of the single--the now ubiquitous "New Slang"--gained The Shins Sub Pop’s support in the release of the band’s first full-length album, Oh, Inverted World.
What did you think about Albuquerque when you first moved here?
I remember moving to Albuquerque and feeling an extreme culture shock. I moved and went into the sixth grade. I had lived in Germany before that and I was thinking, "Oh my god." It was like I was in a ’70s teen movie about doing drugs and having sex at too young of an age. It was like one of those after-school specials; it was pretty bad. That was Eisenhower Middle School. It was pretty fucking heavy metal-ed out. I went one year to Eldorado High School and then I moved to England.
How did Flake take shape initially?
I moved back to Albuquerque after high school and I went to UNM. I met Neal Langford through my friends. Neal and I started Flake, basically. We met Marty at a show and eventually asked him to join the band. Typical way that bands form.
What did you study at UNM?
I was trying to study chemistry but I was just not willing to put the effort into it that was required and was having too much fun playing in bands. So I dropped out of school and I was working odd jobs. The first job I had in Albuquerque was working at Uncle Cliff’s as a ride operator.
What made you decide to disband Flake and reform as The Shins?
I felt like I wanted to do something more pop-based than Flake. I mean, Flake was pretty poppy, but it was very “of the day.” I wanted to do something that was based on the stuff that I really loved, like old ’60s R&B. I had just really romanticized this whole thing in my head. And so I started recording, messing around with this four-track, and put together this concept of The Shins. Jesse played drums and I’d play all the other instruments. And it’s that Nature Bears a Vacuum thing that I put out myself.
What was touring like in the early days?
In about ’98 or ’99 Modest Mouse’s Isaac [Brock] called Neal and asked Flake to go play some shows, open up for them in Texas. So we went out and played these shows to, like, 1,500 people a night—it was shocking. We did a combination of Shins songs and Flake songs. Right about that time Napster was a big deal and so our songs suddenly were all over the college network of kids listening to rock and then we got signed. We were on Sub Pop’s radar because they had a copy of the CD that somebody had given them and Napster was a way they could gauge your popularity.
What was the atmosphere for music like in Albuquerque when you lived here?
There were a lot of good bands. Things were cool, but still, the thing was, you’d have a situation where Scared of Chaka would go to New York and play in front of 500 people and they’d play in Albuquerque and 150 people would come out. It was kind of like you could only make money elsewhere. There wasn’t a huge audience. There were really great bands, but there wasn’t so much this huge, vibrant scene. It was a good place to learn.
What was your vision for The Shins?
I wanted to get good at recording and I wanted to make a good record. That was always the goal. Maybe around ’98 or ’99 I got a computer and my friend got me some black market recording software and I started messing around until finally I had a pretty good melody to record with. And that’s when Oh, Inverted World started to take shape. Experimenting with a computer and digital recording made it so much easier. Our first EP is on vinyl and it was recorded on a cassette four track and it just sounds crazy—the fidelity is so bad.
By 2003, all four Shins had moved to Portland, Ore., to be closer to their record label. Bolstered by the success of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow (the combined sales of the albums exceed one million copies), The Shins were in demand all over the world. Despite the band’s fledgling success, however, Mercer was plagued by personal and professional hardships. He bought a home with the royalties he earned from allowing McDonald's to use "New Slang" in a TV commercial. Thieves, presumably from the crack house next door, broke in and stole the song's master tapes. Mercer and his wife have since moved out and relocated to the house Elliott Smith lived in when he recorded Roman Candle, and where Mercer fleshed out Wincing the Night Away.
The production on Wincing the Night Away sounds like a return to the texture-oriented recording approach of Oh, Inverted World. Were you trying to recreate the atmospheric feel of that record?
I think I wanted to challenge myself production-wise and come up with something new. I think that’s what makes a record that kind of grows on you as opposed to being right upfront. I was challenging myself, like, “How can I take this pop song and make it really artfully done?”
Many of the lyrical themes on this album deal with loss of control. Was there a feeling of vulnerability in your life that informed your lyrics?
I went through a tumultuous period during the production of this record where I was kind of out of control in my own emotional state because of stressful things that were happening around me. There are moments on the record where I talk about being confused by that and by what I think about the world, loving and hating the whole thing.
Was it hard to keep yourself from becoming claustrophobic, making this album at home?
I definitely was going crazy there for a while. It was a situation I put myself in where I demand to have a say in every role that takes place. But that means you’re going to be exhausted. And then you feel frustrated that you’re in that situation, but you put yourself there.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as an anxious person. How does that influence your creative process?
I think it makes me work hard. In order to alleviate that anxiety, I think, if you just work hard, just keep working and make sure you’re doing something. And then you don’t have to worry about that. I am. I can be. Not all the time, but it’s definitely a part of my personality.
You’ve said that your lyrics are influenced by Truman Capote.
He’s poetic at times about really mundane things. It’s touching in a way that makes you appreciate life in general. If you can turn the way that somebody drinks a soda into something beautiful and poetic—and you can see the beauty in it and bring that out with language—it’s just so moving. What a wonderful, simple pleasure to have; to be able to see the artful side of reality. I think that’s why I’m so moved by that stuff.
So what's “Phantom Limb” about?
“Phantom Limb” is about these two girls who fall in love in high school. The whole idea that I had in my head would be a young girl who moves from the Valley up to the Heights, maybe she goes to Eldorado or something.
So that lyric--“the fabled lambs of Sunday hams, the EHS norm”--is in reference to Eldorado High School?
Yeah, that’s right! But then [she] finds this love—which makes you feel even more alienated from everyone else. But it doesn’t matter because it’s love and it’s real.
When you found out that Wincing the Night Away debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, were you able to tell yourself that The Shins had finally made it?
I guess in my head, I’m like, "We only have three records. You’re just starting. Not only do you only have three records, but you’re 36. What have you been doing?" I don’t know when that point comes. Well, I feel like we’re doing great. It’s working. Maybe you start thinking about the next record. It’s good to not always be so blown away by everything. I think that’s something that’s been developing with us lately. We’re getting comfortable with our position—we’re probably still in the process, but it can be really intimidating.
Can you tell me about your experience on "Saturday Night Live"?
It was really fun. It was surprisingly less nerve-racking than other TV shows we had done. They make it really fun and lighthearted. And then we went to the after-party. Marty got drunk really quick and it was pretty hilarious.
What brought you to play “New Slang” on the show, a song you wrote six years ago?
They asked us to play “New Slang.” I was kind of disappointed that they wanted us to play it. Then I talked to some people who said other bands had put up big stinks and fought them on issues like that and they’re just not wanted back. So I was like, well, let’s be pragmatic about it.
What’s your response to the way The Shins are received in the media?
I don’t pay much attention to it. I don’t read the interviews or the reviews. I’ve read a few, but I generally feel pretty self-conscious after I do. It’s not a comfortable feeling for me, so I just avoid it. I wish I hadn’t read some things. They [my bandmates] read everything. If there’s something really bad they’ll tell me.
Why do you think people react so strongly to your music?
If that’s true, then I would hope that they feel some sort of shared experience. I think I make myself pretty vulnerable in my songs lyrically and maybe that’s it. Hopefully there’s something there that people connect with, like, "This guy knows what I’m feeling."
The Shins haven’t played Albuquerque in four years. People were beginning to speculate that you didn’t want to come back to play a show. Did you really want to play here?
Yeah, definitely. It’s always like, “Oh, come on, we’ve got to play there. It’s our hometown. We’ve gotta do it.”
Do you have reservations about playing here?
We’ve been talking about it a lot. It definitely stands out to us, going back to town. I just hope people know how much we love Albuquerque and how excited we are to come back and play. We’re proud to be from Albuquerque.
Besides parents and friends, is there anything you miss about Burque?
Does the world make more sense to you now that you’ve seen so much of it?
I think that maybe on some intuitive level I have a bit more of a grasp of the size of the whole thing or the complexity of it. I think that’s one of the things that moving around all the time as a kid gave me. I always had an understanding that this was just one angle on life.