Nov 12, 2003 at 12:00 am

All too familiar with his retro-obsessed characterization in the music press, James Mercer would like to clear up one common misconception. Contrary to popular belief, the soft-spoken songwriter of the Shins insists that he does not have his ear planted firmly in 1968.

“I certainly love the Zombies and the Beatles, but I like lots of different stuff,” he politely clarifies over the phone from his home in Portland, Ore. “Like, right now I’m into the new wave stuff, like the Human League, that I listened to when I first fell in love with pop music. So do I listen to as much ’60s music as people seem to think I do? Probably not!”

Not that anyone familiar with Oh, Inverted World would be blamed for assuming as much. After all, that acclaimed debut finds the group — currently including singer-guitarist Mercer, keyboardist Marty Crandall, bassist-guitarist Dave Hernandez and drummer Jesse Sandoval — taking considerable cues from that era’s Hollies, Kinks and Zombies to create the most beguiling baroque pop album of 2001.

To obsess over the record sleeves on which the Shins wear their hearts, however, is to miss what makes the group compelling. More than merely aping pop’s past, they turn their catchy, off-kilter melodies and retrofitted summer sheen into the perfect subterfuge for Mercer’s often grim, melancholic musings. So deceptively pretty are songs such as “New Slang” and “Caring Is Creepy,” in fact, that it’s easy to initially overlook all their disturbing lyrical references to death, bones, blood and loneliness.

Everyone who’s spent any time in their World, then, knows the Shins are more than the sum of their influences.

Formed in 1997, the Shins are a sequel of sorts to Flake Music. Consisting of all four original members of the Shins, that indie rock outfit from Albuquerque, N.M., had toiled in obscurity for years before Mercer decided to fashion a poppier, more accessible songwriting style. The new approach worked, and the freshly named group recorded a single and EP for Northern California’s Omnibus Records before catching the attention of SubPop while touring with Modest Mouse. In early 2001, the Seattle, Wash., imprint issued the band’s “New Slang” single and offered to release a full-length.

“That was the first time I had to start dealing with deadlines,” remembers Mercer, who moved to the Northwest shortly thereafter. “It’s kind of funny because we get signed and suddenly they’re like, ‘All right, we need this record in two months.’ It’s like, ‘What?! It’s been fifteen years that SubPop has existed without the Shins and now in just two months you need the damn record?!’”

Even a self-described sluggish songwriter like Mercer, however, has to admit the rush paid off.

When World hit shelves that summer, the band found itself fast becoming one of today’s biggest indie pop bands. National airplay and media attention ensued, along with sold-out shows, larger venues and high-profile festival performances. Ads for McDonald’s and the Gap featured their music, as did television series such as The Sopranos and The Gilmore Girls. And while the album would ultimately sell upward of 100,000 copies — a remarkable feat for an indie release — Mercer claims it took time for the band’s success to sink in.

“It wasn’t until later, when we started having requests to have our music in TV shows, that any of it seemed really impressive,” he says humbly.

One of today’s more unassuming front persons, it’d probably do Mercer well to get used to the attention. After all, their excellent sophomore effort, Chutes Too Narrow (SubPop), finds the Shins poised on the brink of even bigger success.

With the help of producer Phil Ek (Quasi, Built To Spill), the album tweaks its predecessor’s formula just enough to sound familiar yet, as Mercer puts it, “more immediate and just brighter.” And with songs such as the power-poppy “So Says I” and the countrified “Gone for Good,” the compulsively listenable and even catchier Chutes manages to stick in your craw faster than almost anything on World.

Still, it’s the jarringly bleak lyricism belying the songs’ sunny surfaces that again gives the Shins an emotional heft lacking in most indie pop bands. Like a less surrealistic Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mercer breathes new life into potentially tired topics (failed relationships, depression, etc.) with some of pop’s most detailed imagery. Instead of the usually trite tropes, we get references to friendships buried in back yards, ancient boats navigating muddy seas and, in “Young Pilgrims,” an Augustus Gloop figure who gets stuck — as Mercer does throughout Chutes — trying to make sense of life’s biggest mysteries.

“One thing that really influenced me was this George Orwell essay,” says Mercer, explaining the lyrical approach he’s spent years cultivating. “In it, he basically says that if you’re using clichés, it inherently means that you don’t mean what you’re saying because you’re just using these idioms to communicate in a way that isn’t really honest.”

But if his lyricism would undoubtedly make Orwell proud, Mercer would never believe as much. Indeed, throughout our entire conversation, he seems genuinely reluctant to accept that the Shins deserve their success.

“It’s all such a relative thing,” he insists. “I mean, we are not a big band in comparison to any actually big bands. We’re just tiny. We’re invisible.”

He pauses and laughs self-consciously, then sounds genuinely proud for the first time.

“Then again, I’m not working a day job anymore, so we’re big enough — exactly big enough,” he continues. “You know, I really couldn’t ask for more.”


The Shins will perform at the Majestic Theatre (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit) on Monday, Nov. 17, with the Aislers Set and Broadcast Oblivion. Call 313-833-9700 for info.

Jimmy Draper is a freelancer writer. E-mail [email protected].