"Hey, James!" Shins front man James Mercer stops midstep on the way to the band's dressing room to find Kevin beaming at him from the foot of the stairs. "So I went to the concert last night and got a copy of the set list!"
"Wow, that's great..." Mercer replies, smiling politely. "Congratulations." He turns again to head upstairs.
"You want me to make you a copy? I could make you a copy," Kevin shouts after him. Mercer stops again, waits. "It was a great show, only they didn't play 'Sandman,' but other than that...Oh, you're busy," he catches himself, taking note of the trespassing journalist he's forgotten--amazingly--to ask for her backstage pass.
"Well, that was weird," Mercer notes quietly as he rounds the stairs, out of earshot of his new best friend. He seems surprised and a little baffled that he and his bandmates--a bunch of scruffy, unassuming musicians with one under-the-radar LP to their credit--have managed to turn the Bowery Ballroom's hardest-hearted hulk into a love-struck schoolboy. Likewise, Mercer appears genuinely puzzled by the attention and admiration that have slowly built up steam around the Shins since the 2001 release of Oh, Inverted World, the band's debut.
Nevertheless, Mercer is going to have to get used to the spotlight. The Shins may be dark-horse candidates for stardom, inasmuch as Mercer and his bandmates all come off something short of cool (but long of nerdy) and their dewy yet razor-sharp pop songs steer way clear of anything you'd call trendy. But judging by the sold-out crowds packing into all three nights of Shins shows at the Bowery, and the media klieg lights blazing at them during the day, the band is poised to take off in some perhaps big, but most definitely important, way. And judging by Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins' soon-to-be-released sophomore LP, the excitement is more than deserved. Whether Mercer likes it or not.
"It is kind of strange," Mercer admits, peeling at the label on his Amstel as he takes a moment to gather additional thoughts on the subject. "I mean, it's odd to have gotten to a place where people know who we are, where it's possible for complete strangers to recognize me on the street because..." He pauses again, considers, pulls the last of the label off his beer bottle in one deft stroke. "Because," he continues, "I don't know, they saw a video or came to see one of our shows or something. I'm still getting used to it, to be honest. "
While the tape recorder's on, Mercer's replies are inevitably very crafted, very measured. But you can easily sense something deep and weird burning under the surface, particularly when he glues into you with his megawatt gaze. Mercer himself, in this way, is an apt metonym for the songs he writes. Though the major-chord hooks and up-tempo timing of Oh, Inverted World suggested '60s-style beach pop at its sunniest, something in every song hinted at a weirder, darker universe. The darkness in the music gave the songs their weight--and in another contradiction--their quality of eerie fragility. One misplaced note, you sensed, listening to tracks like "Caring is Creepy" and "New Slang," and the whole thing might shatter.
New album Chutes is, by Mercer's own admission, a sturdier effort.
"I've heard, with the new record, that it takes people a few listens to figure it out," Mercer notes. "But I don't really think it's that different...I mean, no more different than any of the songs on the last album were from each other. I think I was more confident this time around."
Mercer seems to want to leave it at that--"more confident." But when pressed, he elaborates.
"Maybe because we toured so much for the last record, I feel more..." He trails off, searches his mind. "Or maybe it's just part of getting older and more experienced in what you do, generally. I mean, ideally, you know, you get to be more comfortable with yourself as time goes on."
As he acknowledges, there have been other, less internal renovations at Chez Shins. For one thing, Mercer has left his longtime Albuquerque stomping grounds for greener pastures in Portland. (As Mercer jokes, that's what Albuquerque bands do: leave.) Although drummer Jesse Sandoval relocated as well, keyboardist-guitarist Marty Crandall remains in New Mexico, as does Dave Hernandez, who replaced Neal Langford on bass before the recording of Chutes.
(In fact, Hernandez was the original Shins bassist; Langford had previously been in Mercer, Crandall and Sandoval's old band, Flake Music, and filled in when Hernandez was called away.)
According to Mercer, the long-distance band relationship thing is working out just fine, thanks.
"It's no different, really," he explains. "You know, I started the Shins as a side project of Flake, kind of a private thing that then happened to turn into something else. I'm not saying we're not 'a band.' We are, but that's still the way things work. A lot of the song is done before anyone else even hears it. So, now, Marty and Dave just come up to Portland to add their parts..." He shrugs. "It's healthy. I promise."
And, Mercer continues, the move was healthy in other ways, too.
"I'm a lot happier in Portland," he asserts. "Albuquerque doesn't have much of a music scene. It got to the point where so many people had moved, I'd go to one of the few clubs and not know anyone there. So, I think creatively and personally it was very much a necessary change. I guess that's all part of the confidence thing I was talking about...you know, you make a change for the better, and it changes you."
The confidence Mercer keeps alluding to is reflected in the directness of Chutes Too Narrow. Whereas Oh, Inverted World sounded prismatic, drenched in reverb and highlighted by ethereal doubled-up harmonies and synths, erstwhile Built to Spill producer Phil Ek has given Chutes a gleaming, crystalline mix that underscores the increased muscularity of Mercer's songwriting. Overall, the album has the energy of a breakup album, by turns brash and wistful, and frequently lacerating.
"Well...huh." Mercer appears stumped. "I guess you could say it's a breakup album about breaking up with my old life, but, well, actually, I was really trying not to write so much about external events, like girls or fights or whatever. I tried to be, I don't know, more in tune with my stream-of-consciousness...But then, there are songs about girls, too. Like 'Gone for Good,' I guess that one's pretty clear."
He sighs. For a moment, Mercer is lost in thought, tracing a vein of indigo down a leg of his brand-new jeans.
"I wanted the lyrics on this record to be really direct, really simple, in a way," he picks up. "Not simple in terms of ideas, but...I guess what I mean is that on Oh, Inverted World, I was definitely being cryptic on purpose..." He trails off again. Mercer judges it for a second and finishes the thought. "I think you can hide a lot of yourself by being obscure. But I think it's time for something else now. "