Dope fiends I can handle. Masochists, man-haters, even people who swear Sister Hazel had more than one hit. I can tolerate these things. But thieves in my own home?
My original copy of The Shins’ Oh Inverted World went missing two weeks after I bought it; the subsequent burn went in two days. After four consecutive copies went missing I got the hint: burn copies for everybody, before they steal them. That worked for a while but now The Shins have a new CD.
James Mercer, former guitarist for New Mexico’s now defunct Flake, started The Shins as a side project in early 1997, an outlet for his more subdued, melancholy tunes. When Flake folded he tapped his former compatriots Jesse Sandoval, Neal Langford and Marty Crandall for the new project. The band’s first major release, Oh Inverted World, broke Sub Pop’s record for most Cd’s sold, and for good reason. The record’s masterful fusion of despondent beach pop and indie rock are bound to bring a lump to your throat and a smile to your face. Subsequent tours with Modest Mouse and other avant-rock elite sealed the band’s status as an indie rock mainstay.
Mercer seems like the kind of guy who wouldn’t be much fun at parties. On the phone he’s courteous enough, even pleasant at times, but you can sense his reserve. He’s out of his element. You can picture him, strangely at home in a 4 AM basement scene, wracked with introspective anger, quietly banging his guitar.
Mercer’s lyrics on Chutes too Narrow, the band’s newest release, show a man tortured perhaps, but possessed with a certain genius. Mercer spoke to The Alcove’s Andrew Phillips from his former home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The Alcove: I heard you guys just did an interview with Rolling Stone. Did that blow your mind?
James Mercer: Its kind of weird. I guess I am kind of impressed; it was really chill. I don’t really pay much attention to it. I don’t really seek out reviews.
TA: It seems like you’ve gotten a lot of good ones though.
JM: Yeah, I think we have. But if I read the good ones, I’ve got to read the bad ones.
TA: How do you feel about your reception? I mean Rolling Stone doing a piece on you is a big deal. Are you ready for the attention?
JM: I don’t know. I mean a lot of bands, that I don’t appreciate very much, get reviews in Rolling Stone. I take it with a big dose of salt. I guess I don’t get too excited about stuff like that. My folks do, they get excited for me.
TA: Do you foresee a mainstream break in? Do you even want that? It seems like you’re right on the edge.
JM: I don’t think we want that. I think we’re doing just fine where we are. We’re doing ok. We’re making pretty good money doing it. Its not like we’re starving or something and need to supplement our income that much. I feel like any more success means more obligations, which I don’t want to bother with.
TA: On the new record you have a chorus that goes “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love.” Is that your philosophy or is it a specific reference?
JM: That one seems to be partly a metaphor for what has gone on over the last two years with all the changes that have happened in my life.
TA: But what’s “the fatal flaw in the logic of love?”
JM: (laughing) I’ve sort of been reading a lot about the evolution of sexual behavior and stuff like that. For some reason, its been sort of fascinating to me.
TA: What have you been reading?
JM: Biology stuff, about how animals reproduce and the way it works socially. And it’s just strange because it gives you such a dry analytical view of something that you have always been taught by the media and by human history to romanticize. TA: Does that stuff make you feel that relationships are over- dramatized?
JM: I would say definitely. I think we feel spiritual about love and stuff like that. In a way we’re almost religious about it, about sex, about everything. Coming at it from a scientific point of view its just simply not that at all. That is all sort of fallacy. Not to say that I’m not a romantic person.
TA: Did you feel pressured to live up to the last record it was a huge success
JM: I did, but I feel like you always deal with pressure. I feel like the time when I was writing Oh Inverted World was a time when I was dealing with the pressures of life. Like, “What are you doing? You’re gonna be thirty. You need to prove yourself.”
TA: Now that you’ve got a few tours under your belt, have things slowed down on the road? A lot of bands lose their will to party after their first couple of tours.
JM: I’d say we’re sort of somewhere in between. There’s definitely nights where we party after the show and wake up regretting it. But, by and large, we’re pretty good. I’m the one who sort of has a problem sleeping on the road.
TA: You sleep ok when you’re off the road?
JM: (laughing) No, not really.
TA: Have you had that problem for a long time?
JM: I have since I became an adult. Its really frustrating sometimes, but you just kind of get used to it. It really doesn’t seem to affect me that much. If I go for a long time without sleeping I’ll get sort of scatterbrained. That kind of sucks because its difficult to remember what part’s next on stage, I hit the wrong chord and I’m like “What were you thinking?”
TA: The first record seemed to have a more somber quality. What kinds of things were happening when you wrote “New Slang” for instance? Were you just really depressed?
JM: I think the majority of the song is about this time where I was getting out of this relationship of six years. I had quit my job and was moving out of town. I wasn’t too happy with things. I was like “I’ve always hated this town but now its actually falling to shit.” That whole period time in the late twenties, for me at least, was sort of a let down.
TA: Do you feel like that kind of pain makes your work stronger?
JM: I can see that being very true sometimes its just anger. There’s always some sort of twist on it, anxiety or something, that makes the good song come.