Interview: James Mercer of The Shins

words by Jackson Ellis | photo courtesy of Sub Pop Records
| Monday, May 17th, 2004

The ShinsOriginally published in Verbicide issue #11

On February 13, 2004, I spoke with James Mercer, singer/songwriter/guitarist of indie-pop superstars The Shins, following sound check at The Roxy in Boston, MA. A year previous, The Shins were a highly-respected indie band with what couldn’t be described as anything more than a cult following. Now, I was speaking to a man fronting a band less than a month removed from playing the David Letterman show, and who would be following up their stop in Boston by heading to New York City to appear on Conan O’Brien and MTV’s “Carson Daly Show.” It was a unique opportunity to speak with someone in the midst of a rapid ascension into mainstream popularity following a decade-plus of indie obscurity.

Their newest album, Chutes Too Narrow, was released to rave reviews from publications ranging from fanzines to Rolling Stone, and the hype appears to be entirely organic — The Shins, as Mercer describes, owe their careers to the exposure they gained through Napster, and are “not serious” about moving onto a major label, preferring the combination of artistic control and incredible support offered to them by underground powerhouse Sub Pop. If the network appearances and the sold-out shows are any indication, Mercer and The Shins have found themselves in a fortunate and well-deserved position to revitalize pop music.

What’s it been like rising out of relative obscurity to playing David Letterman? Was that amazing?
It was; it’s surreal, actually. It’s really kind of strange. I mean, I think we all have this weird feeling that this is all some sort of mistake (laughter). And somebody going to come tap us on the shoulder and make us leave. Yeah, it was really strange — I grew up watching David Letterman, like everybody, and it’s the first time I’ve really had that experience of looking over and having a celebrity sitting there. And it’s this bizarre, strangely familiar, “of course, you’re my neighbor” sort of feeling.

So who set that up for you guys?
I think Sub Pop. I think they pretty much made that happen, yeah.

That’s pretty cool; now you’re going to be playing Craig Kilborn this coming week?
We did Craig Kilborn’s show; we’re doing Conan O’Brien this week in New York, and the also the Carson Daly Show.

Crazy (laughter).

You guys are suddenly doing the full circuit.
Yeah, all these things, all of a sudden. A band on Sub Pop — which is like a coup.

I was just going to ask, what’s it like working with Sub Pop? They’re giving you unbelievable support.
Huge support, really helping us out.

You get “indie cred” with major label support, practically.
It seems like that. We’re really doing well; that’s why we’re so, sort of…not reluctant, exactly, but we’re not real serious about moving onto any bigger labels.

How many more records do you have [with Sub Pop] under your contract?
One more obligation to them.

I was checking a bunch of reports online, checking to see how you got involved with them. Some said that Modest Mouse introduced you to them; others said that you got set up [touring] with Modest Mouse after signing to Sub Pop.
Well, Modest Mouse was a huge, huge help to us — I mean, we’re signed because of Modest Mouse. We were living in Albuquerque, I was recording and things like that, but, I mean, I had sent shit out. You know, you send stuff to labels and they just throw it out. So, us touring with Modest Mouse was a huge thing — Napster was a huge thing that happened right at that moment that helped us [immensely], because labels could go and find out how popular a band’s shit was by going to Napster: “Oh, there’s 500 hits on this song,” or whatever.

So what you’re saying is you think Metallica’s lawsuits were a bunch of crap.
Well, Napster gave me a career. Whereas Metallica are…whatever. They’re coming from their ivory tower and worrying about some shit I don’t understand. I can’t relate with it at all. Then, Isaac Brock [of Modest Mouse] was pushing us actively on Sub Pop, and then a kid named Zeke Howard from Love As Laughter actually handed [Sub Pop President] Jonathan Poneman a CD of ours. That’s when, I think, the final part of the jigsaw puzzle was closed and we ended up getting signed.

It helps having friends on the inside.

So how has the tour been going, and how has the fans’ response been? This place has been sold out for over a month.
That’s just ridiculous! This is just a huge change for us. We played TT The Bear’s the last time we were here. So this is a big, big change — everything’s changed. And it’s been really great, the response has been really great; I think we’re better as a band, live, so things seem to be working temporally just right.

Now you write all the songs, but as far as production goes — when you’re in the studio — who determines the sound effects and the orchestrations that go on the records? For instance, it sounds like there’s cat purring at the beginning of “One By One All Day,” and there are strange noises at the end of “Kissing the Lipless” and entire songs like “Your Algebra.”
Well, on the first record, I was listed with the help of the band [as being the producer]. I think we listed it as “Produced by James Mercer and The Shins.” So it was me, alone, most of the time, who was producing and doing all of the recording and stuff.

And the tweaky little sound effects.
Yeah, exactly.

Is that a cat purring on “One By One All Day”?
No, that’s me. It’s me going [James demonstrates the noise he made]. I thought it sounded like a sprinkler head! At one time I had an old Russian rifle being cocked at the beginning of that song, and there’s actually versions out there on CDs that people have with the rifle.

A different version of your first album?
No, it’s the same song, but not the same album. We were burning our own CDs for a long time — that’s why the Napster thing happened. On the newer album, though, [the production] was a lot more cooperative with the rest of the band, and with Phil Ek being there with us, helping us out on some stuff. He’s a big shot, he’s recorded Built To Spill, all of their records.

The lyrics of your songs are really good. When you write lyrics, do you find that you are inspired by other lyricists, or do you have literary influences, like certain poets or authors?
I think it’s sort of both. Definitely both. And, I don’t know…for some reason, I have a really hard time figuring out where I get direction lyrically. I think the only real clever thing I do is just coming up with some original metaphors.

So you just go with whatever you’re feeling at the time?
Yeah, and I think it depends on what the song is trying to get across to me.

The lyrics come—
Lyrics are last.

Okay, you knew what I was going to ask. See, you’re getting into that “interview groove,” you know the question before it comes! (laughter) How about musical influences? I hear a lot of Beatles influence in your music.
Yeah, I love The Beatles. Everybody loves The Beatles, they just go through different stages of being able to admit it. (laughter) Old things like that, and their interpretation of ‘60s R&B…Motown stuff, we love Motown stuff, I love the sound of Phil Specter’s stuff…I feel like [our] first record was sort of a “stereo Specter” record, if I could have ever been that good…And then, let’s see, ‘80s neo-psychedelia stuff, like Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees. And then country and western music.

Hm, I don’t get that response very often when I’m interviewing people. What was it that made you, coming out of Albuquerque, just suddenly decide to pursue a career in music? Were you a musical prodigy?
No, not at all! I am far from a musical prodigy! I’m 33, I just turned 33…I played in bands for 10 years in Albuquerque.

What was your first band called, started with an “F”?

Flake, that’s right.
Flake was the first band I was in where we actually made a CD — but that took almost 10 years for that to happen, you know, it was ridiculous!

Was that self-released?
No, Omnibus Records put that out for us. They were at one time our label.

What do you think of being out on the road on Valentine’s Day?
Oh, I know, it’s kind of lame in a way, I guess…but what the fuck is Valentine’s Day? I dunno. (laughter) I guess I can have a romantic interlude some other time.

So, for the next year — or even looking beyond this year — what are your plans? Are you writing a new album?
Yeah, well, we’re going to tour Europe for the first time, tour Japan for the first time, we’ll do one or two month-long tours of the States, and see where it goes. We’re going to record another album in about a year.

Are you working on new material?
All the time.

Are you playing anything new that hasn’t been released yet?
No, no…

It’s not quite refined enough?
Yeah, right, not quite! (laughter)

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