The Ultimate Shins
|James Mercer explains why he formed The Shins|
|Mercer talks about whether The Shins were really named after his father's love of the musical "The Music Man"|
|Sample from "New Slang" from The Shins' CD "Oh, Inverted World"|
|Sample from "Phantom Limb" from The Shins' CD "Wincing the Night Away"|
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
"My first memories are from Hawai'i ... picking sand out of my hair on the beach," said James Mercer, laughing, while negotiating I-5 traffic somewhere between Seattle and his Portland hometown.
The 36-year-old vocalist for and studio mastermind behind the smart, achingly lovely indie retro-pop of The Shins was pulling memories. His birth at Tripler hospital, the son of an Air Force munitions officer/part-time country singer — no memory of that momentous event, but the paperwork to prove it. The Hickam Air Force Base street he lived on until his family moved to Kansas when he was 4 — he easily recalled its name: Lima Lane.
"The house has been torn down, and it's now a park," Mercer said. "I have a distinct memory of my parents' VW bus ... a late '60s VW bus. My dad was apparently the first person — that he knew of — who owned a cassette player for the car."
Mercer returned in April 2006 to marry O'ahu born-and-raised journalist Marisa Kula in a small ceremony on Waimanalo Beach. The two met when Maryknoll-grad Kula was assigned to interview Mercer for a story.
On an afternoon drive home from just-married Shins bassist Dave Hernandez's belated wedding reception last week, Mercer's newborn alternately cried and gurgled to Mommy's baby talk in the background as Daddy chatted about The Shins. The band makes its Hawai'i debut Monday at Pipeline Cafe.
OF FLAKE AND SHINS
"The things that you really fall in love with in high school tend to guide you through the rest of your life," said Mercer, chuckling.
Attending high school in England — after military-kid relocations from Kansas to Alabama to Utah to Germany to Albuquerque, N.M. — Mercer fell for the "poppy late new wave" of legendary '80s Brit bands like The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen. Back in Albuquerque after high school, Mercer dropped out of college, formed power-pop band Flake Music (with future Shins keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval) and found himself, five years and one album later, restless for something new.
"The distortion pedals were pretty much on all the time," Mercer said of playing with Flake. "And I was really getting into music from the '60s — not the hippie stuff so much, but R&B and R&B-influenced mod music."
These would include the music of R&B greats like Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and early James Brown. Grooving to future indie darlings The Apples In Stereo — who were already putting together their own trippy mix of sunny mod-indie and neo-psychedelia — Mercer wondered if he could do the same with his own musical loves and increasingly softer, folk-leaning songwriting skills. He took the songs to Flake Music.
"The guys didn't seem to like it. And so I created a vehicle for the songs: The Shins."
Guy: "What are you listening to?"
Girl: "The Shins. You know 'em?"
Girl: "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear."
With a couple of critically buzzed-about and modest-selling Shins discs out by 2004, the lines above could've been exchanged by dozens of meet-cute couples before inclusion in Zach Braff's bittersweet Gen-Y coming-of-age flick "Garden State."
But spoken by Natalie Portman — in a scene where she places headphones playing The Shins' plaintive acoustic ballad "New Slang" over Braff's ears and waits restlessly for an opinion — that last line wound up a pop-culture zeitgeist moment that instantly changed the lives of a certain band then living in Portland.
"When I first read the treatment, there was something similar to that (line) in it," Mercer remembered. He liked the scene, liked the fact that he'd be helping out a small-budget production by a first-time writer-director, and gave little thought to lending the song to the film. "I didn't know who Zach Braff was when (I) signed. It was probably two years before the movie came out."
But Braff knew who The Shins were, having fallen for the dreamy melodic pop of the band's 2001 debut disc "Oh, Inverted World" just after its low-key release on pioneering Seattle indie label Sub-Pop. When "Garden State" was released, Mercer ducked into a theater to see it. The new line Braff had written for Portman's character floored him.
"I kind of hunched down in my seat when the song started and (thought), 'Oh, my God, I hope nobody sees me sitting here!' " he recalled, laughing.
The little-indie-film-that-could eventually took in $28 million at the box office. And after "Garden State," The Shins saw "Oh, Inverted World" and its 2003 sophomore disc "Chutes Too Narrow" go on to sell more than 600,000 copies combined.
Having guided The Shins through early career indifference on Albuquerque's live music scene and many record label rejection letters to a solid fan-base prior to "Garden State," however, Mercer felt little pressure kicking off work on the band's third disc.
"I figured people watching the movie (would know that) ... it's not like I wrote the script or anything," said Mercer, chuckling. "I just took it as very flattering. Something that would be cool if we could live up to. But I wasn't sweating it."
Mercer began work on The Shins' third album "Wincing the Night Away" the way he'd begun the two that came before it: without the band and without the worry of creating life-changing music.
"The first record was largely recorded without (the band) even hearing it ... until I played the CD for them," Mercer said of his penchant for holing himself up in his home to write music and lyrics and experiment with various sonics.
"I'm very easily influenced by other people's opinions. ... And I often regret it. So what I do is put myself in a situation where I can really figure out on my own what I like aesthetically about what I'm doing.
"If I can have the time to figure out exactly what I think is cool, then I have a much firmer ground to stand on once the project really gets under way. ... On 'Wincing,' I wanted to feel very free to experiment and come up with as creative a record as I could."
The result is one of 2007's best albums. "Wincing" is 11 songs chock-full of whip-smart lyricism, melodies gliding on buoyant mod- and classic-pop instrumentation, and occasional pieces of oddball aural ear candy all woven around Mercer's ethereal echo-laden voice.
The album's title was inspired by the many sleepless nights Mercer spent working on it.
It also became The Shins' highest-charting disc, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart in January and selling more than 100,000 copies its first week.
Low-key, modest and quick with honest gratitude whenever The Shins' work was praised during our chat, even Mercer concurred that "Wincing" was "the best thing I've ever done."
"I just wanted to have a really strong record," he said. "It's sort of, like, you reach a certain level and feel like you've got to ... raise the bar the way you've seen other really good bands do throughout history. Your goal should be quality. To create something that reaches and engages people.
"And maybe, indirectly, since I knew there was this (new) audience out there ... I didn't want to lose them."
JUST ONE DAY
Besides his wedding day, Mercer has been back to Hawai'i just one other time since age 4.
"My parents wanted to show me where I was born. They love Hawai'i so much," Mercer said, somewhat wistfully. "It's just a really special place to our family, and, of course, now to my (own) family. Marisa loves, loves, loves Hawai'i. She can't stop going on about Hawai'i.
"We'll have three days off there!"
A barely audible female voice gently corrected Mercer about the actual time the new family would have on O'ahu before The Shins head off to tour dates in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Baby, for the moment, was silent.
"Oh, shoot! We only have one day to goof off!" said Mercer, somewhat deflated. "And we'll have to see Marisa's folks and stuff."
No worries, James. At least there'll be no picking sand out of anyone's hair this time around.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.