James Mercer's van is leaking. This is not a good thing. Mercer, leader of the Shins, will soon depart with his band on a two-and-a-half-week tour that includes a stop at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe this Monday night, April 22. The mostly West Coast swing will be the Shins' most extensive road trip as headliners and a chance to wow an ever-expanding audience hooked by the charm of Oh, Inverted World, the band's critically lauded debut CD and one of last year's genuine pop-rock joys. It's a time of great hope and promise for the Shins. Except for that leaky van.
"For some reason, we've got water underneath the carpet," Mercer says. He's calling from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he's taking a break after grappling with the vehicle. "I just can't figure out where the leak's coming from. I'm pulling up the carpet, I took all the benches out and I'm using silicone sealer to patch up any little holes I can find. I don't know. I'm worried. It's so wet living up here. I wanna keep this van for quite a while, but I'm afraid about it rusting out."
If Mercer seems extra sensitive to the soggy Northwestern climate, it's not just because his van's sprung a leak. Mercer recently moved to the area from Albuquerque, a drier part of the world in more ways than one. Indeed, Albuquerque's anemic music scene was among the reasons Mercer relocated to Portland after 11 years of flailing away in the desert.
"Albuquerque has a lot of great bands, but not a lot of support for those bands," Mercer says. "You'd go to shows and basically it would just be the other bands in the audience and that was about it. I think UNM [the University of New Mexico] attracts an older college student, a lot of returning students that don't go out, and the kids that go to UNM from back east just want to get in touch with their crystals and such. If we'd have been more of a Phish-type band, we'd have been huge."
Mercer's abandonment of New Mexico left the Shins somewhat fractured, with Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval both now in Portland, while bassist Neil Langford and keyboardist Marty Crandall still live in Albuquerque. But Mercer considers the lineup secure -- understandable considering the same foursome started playing music in the early '90s as Flake, later changing the name to Flakemusic, and then developing the Shins as a side project for Mercer's more pop-oriented songs. By 1999, Flakemusic disintegrated and what was once a hobby became a full-time band.
None of which would matter outside -- or even inside -- New Mexico if not for Oh, Inverted World, arguably the most engaging album released last year. The CD is a library of hooks and quirky choruses that mix an indie, lo-fi sensibility with pure pop songcraft. Mercer's plaintive vocals give his songs an innocence laced with an introverted sense of knowing, a sincerity that echoes everything from mid-'60s psychedelia to the Beach Boys' more sophisticated songs.
"Caring Is Creepy," for example, the CD's opening cut, is lopsided with teetering drums that scattershot alongside roving bass lines, the rhythm section accompanied by well-aimed guitars and cheesy keyboards that only occasionally follow the melody. Even better is "Know Your Onion," a comparatively up-tempo sample of the Shins' inverted world. An exasperated Mercer starts the song by shouting out, "Pimpled and angry/I quietly tied all my guts into knots," with later attempts at optimism ("When they're parking cars on your chest/You've still got a view of the summer sky") succumbing to an onion's sting: "I knew the worthless dregs we are/The selfless, loving saints we are/The melding, sliding dice we've always been."
But the CD's high point is "New Slang," which starts out like a charming folk tune -- something you could see Charlie Brown and his pals, arm in arm, crooning around a campfire -- and then gives way to a succession of other engaging notes and Mercer's earnest tenor watching how "Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall/Never should have called/But my head's to the wall and I'm lonely." Melodic dips and turns carry the tune back to the same campfire opening, a wonderful touch that emphasizes how far the song's taken the listener in the preceding three and a half minutes.
Mercer says that his songs are "pretty simple" when he first starts writing them ("Sometimes they stay pretty simple," he notes), but the ones that wind up more complex do so gradually and with the help of a computer, specifically the Pro Tools sound-editing program first made popular by producer Butch Vig on Nirvana's Nevermind.
"Using a computer to record allows you to cut and paste your songs," Mercer says. "You can cut the chorus out or double it or extend it or move it around. It's really the choreography of the song, the arrangement that's facilitated by the computer.
"When I think up chord progressions, it's usually just sitting in my room with my acoustic guitar," he adds. "But during the recording process I'm always coming up with ideas. And if we weren't recording with the computer, it would mean going back in the studio and rerecording the whole thing. The computer makes it so much easier to change the songs without having to redo everything."
Mercer's attention to craft and the resulting patchwork of catchy melodies caught the attention of Sub Pop kingpin Jonathon Poneman, who signed the Shins to a three-disc deal and quickly released "New Slang" on the label's long-running seven-inch-single series. Oh, Inverted World and its wave of critical acclaim soon followed.
"They take care of things," Mercer says of Sub Pop. "You know, the Shins was always a bedroom project. We put out our own records and you'd have to do everything, from calling the pressing plant on down. It's kinda nice having someone else do those things."
Mercer adds that he's heard major labels are kicking around the idea of signing the Shins. But he sounds wary. He says he's seen how his friends in the band Modest Mouse have been treated by Epic Records, who, according to Mercer, "have no idea [Modest Mouse] exists. There's just one guy that knows that they're around. I think we're doing fine right now. I don't really think that we would make that much more money. Sub Pop does a well enough job of shoving us down people's throats. A major label seems like it would just confuse things."
Things are confusing enough right now for the Shins. This is, after all, a band that survived more than a decade of neglect in a barely existent music scene to find itself the latest edition of the great pop hope.
"It's kinda strange," Mercer says of all the attention. "Doing interviews like this, it's all new to us. I remember having a conversation with a friend and saying, 'You know, I think I'm probably gonna end up being unknown and poor for the rest of my life doing this.' Because I wasn't having an easy time fitting in at college, and the idea of getting a corporate job didn't appeal to me. So this all came just in time. Just as my parents were probably fed up with me. They've always been really supportive, but they want their kids to do well and I was definitely struggling. But now they're really proud."
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