400,000 ALBUMS LATER, THE US INDIE-ROCKERS FINALLY TOUR
|(l to r) Dave Hernandez
(bass), Marty Crandall (keyboard), James Mercer (guitar,
vocals), Jesse Sandoval (drums)
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, ISNT EXACTLY
ROCK GROUND CENTRAL. In fact, says the Shins frontman James
Mercer in a telephone interview, it doesnt have much
of a music scene at all. But this has its pluses as well as
We werent exactly Albuquerques cup of tea,
and wound up recording stuff instead of worrying about the
fact that Albuquerque wasnt real impressed with us.
We ended up getting signed by Sub Pop so its 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 bands trajectory when things are looking pretty
bright. Both their 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, and last
years 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 quartets 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 Harajukus cozy Astro Hall. Were
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 Im hoping thats 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.
Mercers 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.
Mercers 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 wouldnt
be able to elaborate or use metaphors that associate the relationship
with some other problem.
Its 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 theyre doing the most mundane, crappy
stuff. I dont think it has to be that way. I think theres
something about the nature of pop stardom that kills your
The son of an Air Force officer who grew up on bases in England
and Germany, Mercers songs also bear the imprint of
his fathers 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 mixone can understand why Albuquerque didnt
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 hed 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 werent
selling any records. So its what got us signed.
Not surprisingly for one of musics first Internet success
stories, Mercer supports file-sharing. Weve never
had a problem with downloading. I mean if I really like a
CD I dont want to have a burned CD with my friends
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 didnt 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 were much more pop-y, if you can get
sorority girls to like the Strokes, theyre a little
bit closer to us than when they were listening to Korn or
Harajuku Astro Hall, Jan 31. See
concert listings for details. M
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