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"It's an unconscious sort of thing," says Mercer, speaking of how his surroundings in New Mexico shaped his songwriting. "There's a lot of Spanish and country music in Albuquerque. After I started to find my own voice, it included those influences." Other influences would also find their way into Mercer's music. After only one listen to The Shins' Sub Pop-released debut full-length Oh, Inverted World, The Beach Boys are a given. From that point on things become less defined. One hears a bit of Modest Mouse-flavored indie rock, possibly a dash of Western psychedelia common to Beachwood Sparks, a pinch of The Gothic Archies and Badly Drawn Boy and a spoonful of Olivia Tremor Control.
It's a hodgepodge for sure, but a refreshing one, thanks to Mercer's eerie, psychedelic music and mildly nonsensical tales of yearning, confusion and love. You aren't likely to hear this lyric while stumbling along the radio dial: "Girl inform me. All my senses warn me your clever eyes could easily disguise some backwards purpose. It's enough to make me nervous. Do you harbor sighs, or spit in my eye?"
It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue; that is, until you hear Mercer sing it. And hearing is believing. Look no further than "New Slang," the lead single off Oh, Inverted World. Imagine Marty Robbins' penning a dust bowl ballad for Mac McCaughan to sing to an ex-lover and, well, that's "New Slang." The video for "New Slang" (shot by Lance Bangs, who has directed videos for Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pavement and Belle & Sebastian), is a total non-sequitur to the song. Featuring the band flaunting its geeky record-collector self, the video recreates memorable album covers from indie rock's past using The Shins as stand-ins. The Replacements' Let it Be, Slint's Spiderland, The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, Squirrel Bait's Squirrel Bait, Sonic Youth's Sister, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, and Cat Power's Moon Pix all receive their own clever treatment.
The Shins got their start a decade ago as indie rockers Flake Music, which featured the current members of The Shins in a slightly altered instrumentation and fell apart in the late '90s. "Neil [Langford, bass] was out of town all the time. He's a hot-air balloon pilot. That, combined with the fact that I needed a vehicle for these poppy songs, caused us to break up Flake and concentrate on The Shins," says Mercer. However, Langford would soon give up the coolest day-job a musician ever had - touring around the country in a hot air balloon - and rejoin Flake Music just prior to its break-up when the band's former bassist moved to Portland, Oregon. Flake Music then morphed into The Shins. Shortly thereafter, Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval packed their bags for Portland as well, leaving Langford and keyboardist Marty Crandall behind in Albuquerque. While Mercer says that the change of scenery hasn't really affected his songwriting yet, he's appreciative of the vibrant music scene he's found in Portland.
At the age of 31, Mercer - who is finally blossoming into his own as a songwriter after spending the past 10 years working out the kinks with his old college band - has no worries about being perceived as hip by his peers. "I feel like only recently I've had the confidence to do what I want to do and not worry about, 'Oh that's not going to sound punk rock.' Growing up is about accepting what you want to do." For Mercer, it was writing catchy, melodic pop music. The record label end of things would work itself out naturally. And sure enough, it did. Zeke Howard (Love as Laughter) and Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) both planted a bug in Sub Pop CEO Jonathan Poneman's ear. Poneman quickly released the hounds to see The Shins in concert. The hounds liked what they saw, and promptly presented the band with a contract to release a single as part of Sub Pop's single-of-the-month club. "We took the contract home. And then a couple other guys from Sub Pop came to see us play in Albuquerque and proposed that we do a full album instead," says Mercer.
A full album for The Shins translates into 11 songs and 33 minutes. Unlike so many current CDs that clock in at over an hour, Oh, Inverted World refreshingly takes its cues from the 1960s. A majority of the songs are a mere two minutes plus change and the album as a whole actually leaves you wanting more - a philosophy that Mercer says carries over to their live show as well. "I get bored playing the same part over and over," Mercer relates. "Plus there's pressure from the record labels to get more material out of you, which can lead to more licensing opportunities for them. But I think you should skimp them and keep it to yourself and be able to put out more records."
Mercer may take offense to record industry tactics, but he actually has nothing but praise for his label. "I give Sub Pop a lot of credit with letting people know who we are," says Mercer on how a relatively unknown band from New Mexico can suddenly pop up on Top 10 lists around the country. Even more bizarre than praise from music critics, though, is recognition from the mainstream. Clothing retailer GAP contacted Sub Pop about using some material from The Shins in a commercial campaign. "GAP sent me a videotape with a bunch of weird art video and films from the early '70s included on it. It was all black and white, just kooky stuff," explains Mercer. "I put together little things that I figured I wasn't going to use for anything, and sent them off. And they liked one of them."
If you're curious, you can watch the commercial, as well as the band's music videos, on the band's page at the Sub Pop website. But by all means, don't miss the opportunity to see The Shins in the flesh.
The Shins' James Mercer on his recent favorites.
Reading: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
Listening: The new Breeders, which I really like. Destroyer. A Buck Owens CD that I listen to everyday.
Spare Time: Sub Pop gave us an XBOX. So, I've been addicted to this game Halo.
Band from New Mexico: Henry's Dress. They're from Albuquerque.
Thing About Albuquerque: The food. New Mexico has an indigenous crop of green chili that isn't grown anywhere else in the world. It's like an Anaheim chili. It's a spice they use in everything. SEE ALSO: www.theshins.com
SEE ALSO: www.subpop.com
A former staff writer for LAS whom we like to call Diggles, Mr. Hoepker is currently laboring away on various music-based projects. He now works in academic publishing (ahem), but is perhaps still best known by his DJ moniker, The Noiseboy.
See other articles by Doug Hoepker.
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