A World Apart
Some bands trumpet their presence like a parade of angels. You know -- God's gift to music. The recent elevation of Bono to the status of world diplomat and would-be savior is just one example of the messiah complex rooted in the rock-star psyche. John Lennon spent the latter half of his career trying to downplay this very deification, only to have some Salinger-wielding crackpot forever fix his constellation in the pantheon of martyrdom. More abstruse groups like Radiohead take their own lonely, ascetic path to pop-cultural divinity. The Shins, however, appear to be the meek who shall truly inherit the earth.
"I think there are those bands out there that are just like 'We rule!' I never really seem to end up liking those bands," says James Mercer, the helium-voiced auteur behind the Shins. Riding a wave of popularity and music-press adulation, Mercer seems all too wary of the pitfalls of buying into one's own myth. "Our success is pretty limited right now, but it's still much more than I had really ever hoped for," he says. "A couple of years ago, I was pretty much resigned to obscurity and was fine with it."
Perhaps a lot of this modesty can be explained by the name of Mercer's band. Shins, after all, are much more likely to be kicked, skinned, bruised and broken than listened to. This same theory could also apply to the rather unassuming moniker of the Shins' prior incarnation, Flake. Begun in 1992 as a somewhat conventional, Pavement-slanted indie-rock combo, Flake labored away for most of that decade in the arid wasteland of Albuquerque, a city whose most lucrative cultural exports are turquoise jewelry and howling coyotes. The group released two full-lengths and a handful of singles during its seven-year existence; it played house parties and dive bars, and opened for the occasional touring group like Guided by Voices, Love as Laughter and even Denver's own Apples in Stereo.
"We played with them back in, like, '97," Mercer recalls of his first contact with Robert Schneider's band. "They were really cool. Robert is brilliant; he's amazing." The influence of Schneider's revered Elephant 6 collective is painted boldly across the Shins' aesthetic canvas. Besides the Apples' own spring-wound psychedelia, there are threads of Neutral Milk Hotel's narcoleptic grandeur and the Minders' power-pop acuity that unravel from the fringes of the Shins' sonic fabric.
When Flake disintegrated in 1999, Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval decided to focus their energies on a half-assed moonlighting gig they had formed called the Shins. "We mostly played unannounced shows in people's living rooms," Mercer confesses. A homemade, four-song, vinyl-only EP, Nature Bears a Vacuum, was the Shins' inaugural release in 1998. "We recorded that first seven-inch on an old cassette four-track. At first it was just a bedroom-side-project sort of thing. I had those songs, and they didn't really work with the Flake format." Bubbling with analog static and malfunctioning keyboards, Nature Bears a Vacuum was a crude, effusive, gloriously raw harbinger of what would eventually become the trademark Shins sound. Songs like "Eating Sties From Elephants' Eyes" and "My Seventh Rib" percolated like lysergic geysers, surging from new-wave surrealism to neo-psychedelic majesty.
Mercer still remembers the Shins' humble position at that point in their career. "We didn't get a lot of attention from that single. The one offer that we did get was from this guy in Tokyo who runs a tiny label called 100 Guitar Mania. He liked us and wrote me a letter, and then we started talking over e-mail. And then he just disappeared. He wanted to put out a record and everything else. It was the only sort of prospect we had at the time for a label."
For the jilted Shins, however, opportunity lurked just around the corner. After opening for up-and-coming indie-pop luminaries Modest Mouse, Mercer and company were invited to accompany that band on a U.S. tour. With former Flake-mates Marty Crandall (keyboards) and Neal Langford (bass) in conscription, the Shins became the right band in the right place at the right time. "Our signing with Sub Pop happened partly through Isaac [Brock] from Modest Mouse," explains Mercer. "I guess he just kind of talked us up or whatever. And then who really helped us out was this guy Zeke [Howard] from Love as Laughter. I guess Jonathan [Poneman, president of Sub Pop] asked him, 'Hey, have you heard any cool bands out there?' and Zeke gave him our CD. It was just this little demo we had burned. It had 'New Slang' on it and a couple of other songs."
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine anyone needing anything but "New Slang" as incontrovertible proof of the Shins' burgeoning genius. Released by Sub Pop as an advance single, the song instantly arrests the attention, pulsing with a melancholic delicacy. From the opening sizzle of tambourines to the final ebb of vintage-amp reverb, "New Slang" burns into the brain like a late-summer sunset. Cooing harmonies swoon; drowsy basslines sway; sad chords shiver with unrequited ardor. Underscoring everything are Mercer's lyrics, mumbled with slump-shouldered resignation: "I'm looking in on the good life/I might be doomed never to find."
The recording of the Shins' debut album, Oh, Inverted World, proved to be as unconventional as the evolution of the group itself. "It was all produced digitally on a little portable six-track," elaborates Mercer. "I was living in a tiny studio apartment at the time. I would commute to Marty's house, go down in the basement, set up the recorder, record the drums and the loud guitar stuff, and then come home and do the bass lines and the acoustic guitar and all the singing in my bedroom. It took quite a while; it was a pretty laborious process." Mercer then painstakingly edited and mixed these tracks on his home computer, layering the arrangements with overdubs and textural effects.
The result is an album that encompasses both ambition and quietude. Falsetto-drenched harmonies shimmer with organ and echo throughout. The tumbleweed-inflected twang of the Kinks' "Willesden Green" segues into the space folk of the Byrds' Notorious Byrd Brothers on "One by One All Day." Elsewhere, dark, vibrato-haunted verses are bolstered by accordion and asthmatic harmonica. "Your Algebra" is a baroque Syd Barrett singing the Association, and the last song, "The Past and Pending," is a desolate acoustic lament that fades into forever with the phrase "Lose yourself in lines dissecting..."
Although Oh, Inverted World's balance between antiseptic abstraction and organic vulnerability seems intentional, Mercer himself sees it as more of a not-so-happy accident. "That detached feel of the album kind of bugs me. I'd like it to sound more warm and atmospheric," he admits. "That first record was so far from what I wanted it to sound like. Some of the things that I think ought to sound nice sound lo-fi, and the things I think should sound lo-fi sound all overly nice. I'm real critical of my own recordings."
Mercer is also critical of how the Shins have been portrayed in the litany of press that has inundated them over the last few months. "I don't really want to be thought of as some retro-'60s band," he asserts. "There are certain elements there, but it's not the whole thing we're about. People are trying to push us like that: 'C'mon, they're really good! They're like the Beach Boys!' But there's a million bands out there trying to be like the Beach Boys."
Mercer, however, is still honest about his predilection for the decade of Soul Power and the British Invasion. "I spent the late '90s in an office job listening to oldies stations on a clock radio," he reminisces, "so I think sometimes I'll write a song as if it were 1965 without really being aware of it. I love the Beatles; I think it'll take forever to fully grasp what they did. I love Sam Cooke and the really old James Brown stuff, Jackie Wilson. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions are brilliant. I feel the same way about Smokey Robinson. He's a real soul singer who wrote songs that were easily accessible to a pop audience."
The '80s also loom in Mercer's musical background. "I still listen to a lot of the stuff I listened to in high school in the late '80s, like Echo and the Bunnymen. I was never a really huge Cure fan, but I just recently discovered Boys Don't Cry. 'Accuracy,' 'Jumping Someone Else's Train' -- those songs are amazing," he gushes. It's not hard to see how these bands' chemistries of crooning gloom and lush pop might have seeped into the groundwater of Oh, Inverted World.
With praise for the recording emanating from such lofty places as Spin, Mojo and Rolling Stone, the Shins' next recording will have a lot to live up to. Sub Pop has them slated for a new EP to be released sometime this spring. "There's a bunch of live stuff that we recorded in Seattle with [Built to Spill producer] Phil Ek, and then we're recording two new songs," says Mercer. "And then I think we'll have a couple things off singles that weren't on Sub Pop, so it'll be like seven songs."
Just to make the pressure all the more intense, Mercer and Sandoval recently relocated to Portland, a move that effectively split the band between Oregon and New Mexico. "The arrangement's not too bad, really. I do all the writing, so that kind of makes it easier. It's not like in Flake, where everyone just kind of jammed together in the basement to come up with songs," Mercer remarks. This is not to say that he downplays his bandmates' contributions to the Shins. "I'll write a song on my guitar and bring it to Marty and Neal and Jesse, and they'll come up with much cooler stuff than I would've ever thought of."
Oh, Inverted World popped up on endless "Best of 2001" lists, and the Shins have been sanctified for breathing a few humble lungfuls of vitality into an indie-rock scene choking on emo smarm and egoistic pretension. Yet even with all this worship heaped upon him, Mercer seems to remain grounded in pragmatism, not to mention a little good old-fashioned humility.
"We're trying to get prepared for playing some bigger places on our next tour," he says worriedly. "I think I'm pretty nervous about it. As for our new recordings, I don't have much of an agenda about how I'd like them to sound. I'm just hoping to get better."
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