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by Dan Grunebaum



(l to r) Dave Hernandez (bass), Marty Crandall (keyboard), James Mercer (guitar, vocals), Jesse Sandoval (drums)

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, ISN’T EXACTLY ROCK GROUND CENTRAL. In fact, says the Shins frontman James Mercer in a telephone interview, it doesn’t have much of a music scene at all. But this has its pluses as well as its minuses.

“We weren’t exactly Albuquerque’s cup of tea, and wound up recording stuff instead of worrying about the fact that Albuquerque wasn’t real impressed with us. We ended up getting signed by Sub Pop so it’s worked out very well.”

With two distinctive albums out on the label that broke the grunge movement a decade ago, the Shins are at that point in a band’s trajectory when things are looking pretty bright. Both their 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, and last year’s follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, have sold over 200,000, and the band have repeatedly toured North America and even gone as far as Australia.

So why is the quartet’s Japan debut coming so late? “We kind of got screwed up by Warner on our first record. They had the option to license our first record in Japan, and they took that option and decided not to release it,” Mercer explains with a surprising lack of ire.

Chutes Too Narrow is thus the Shins’ first disc to be released in Japan. Domestic indie imprint P-Vine is distributing the album, and has also put together a tour that includes an upcoming date at Harajuku’s cozy Astro Hall. “We’re trying to make up for lost time,” adds Mercer. “Funny thing is, I know a lot of Japanese expats in the States who really love the Shins, so I’m hoping that’s some kind of good sign.”

Emerging from a long tradition of US indie-rock that runs from bands like the Minutemen in the ’80s through Pavement in the ’90s, the Shins are hook-y without being commercial. Mercer’s songwriting often has a sunny feel, but just when things seem to have been building to a straight-ahead pop chorus, Chutes Too Narrow subverts expectations with an oblique line, an off-key note or an angular chord.
Mercer’s lyrics also approach the standard fare of relationships with an indirect slant. “The subject matter gets a little more varied or subtle, hopefully not as blatant,” Mercer, now 33, says about his songwriting. “Whereas when I was 18 I probably just wrote about some chick, and I wouldn’t be able to elaborate or use metaphors that associate the relationship with some other problem.
“It’s the weirdest thing: pop music is generally not something that people get better at. You look at most artists, and they start out at 18 with their most incredible hit, and by 40 they’re doing the most mundane, crappy stuff. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think there’s something about the nature of pop stardom that kills your soul.”

The son of an Air Force officer who grew up on bases in England and Germany, Mercer’s songs also bear the imprint of his father’s second calling as a country and western singer. A laconic, country feel and the occasional pedal steel solo throw a wrench into the overall quirky, college-friendly indie-pop mix—one can understand why Albuquerque didn’t know quite what to make of this band. Happily, more sophisticated listeners in other parts of the country did.
Laboring away in obscurity at the end of the millennium, the Shins had the opportunity to tour with Modest Mouse, now indie-rock standard bearers but at that time still only mid-sized. Mercer burned some of the songs he’d been writing onto CDs, and sold about 500 of them on the tour.

“That was pretty good, 500 CDs by a little band from Albuquerque,” he recalls. “But when we got home I learned about Napster, and went on Napster, and after a few weeks that CD was all over Napster. There were like 5,000 computers that had our songs on it. At that time, A&R reps were using it to find out how bands were doing on a grassroots level. I know that our A&R guy looked at Napster and found out that we were a very popular band, even though we weren’t selling any records. So it’s what got us signed.”

Not surprisingly for one of music’s first Internet success stories, Mercer supports file-sharing. “We’ve never had a problem with downloading. I mean if I really like a CD I don’t want to have a burned CD with my friend’s writing on it. I want to have the actual CD.” The Shins’ 400,000 album sales and the effort they put into creating unique packaging would seem to support this view.

It also didn’t hurt that at the time the Shins were breaking, the youth market was falling in love with the movement that has come to be know as the New Rock Revolution. “When the Strokes hit,” says Mercer. “I remember thinking this is going to be good for the Shins. It was a real band that had influences coming from bands that we loved like VU, so we were pretty stoked.

“Even though we’re much more pop-y, if you can get sorority girls to like the Strokes, they’re a little bit closer to us than when they were listening to Korn or Paula Abdul.”

Harajuku Astro Hall, Jan 31. See concert listings for details. M

Credit: P-VINE

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