The Shins' James Mercer Looks Back on His Changed World 18 Years After Garden State

Hipster fandom was a mixed blessing for The Shins, says frontman James Mercer.
Hipster fandom was a mixed blessing for The Shins, says frontman James Mercer. Frank Ockenfels
If you can believe it, it's been 18 years since Natalie Portman's character, Sam, implored Zach Braff's Andrew to don a giant set of headphones and listen to a song that would change his life in the 2004 indie film Garden State. It might be even harder to believe that the song in question, "New Slang" by the Shins, is now not only old enough to vote, but to buy beer. Although the New Mexico-born group led by James Mercer had released a pair of folk-rock inflected, critically acclaimed albums by the time the movie famously promoted the band, it's safe to say the film and its Grammy-winning soundtrack truly put the group on the map.

"You don't want to be a one-hit wonder, or have that label attached to your name, I suppose," Mercer says over the phone during a recent tour stop. "There's a worry that maybe you're somehow missing the mark of being able to reproduce your early success. But back then, when the movie came out, I was excited, and now I'm just in the space where I'm thankful that it happened."

Understandably, the Shins frontman has recently been in "looking back" mode. Inspired by advice from his friend and Broken Bells bandmate Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, Mercer released a remastered version of the album that includes "New Slang," Oh, Inverted World, in 2021 for its 20th anniversary. And currently, Mercer is leading the latest lineup for the Shins on a 21st anniversary tour, playing the album from start to finish. The Shins will be in Dallas on Tuesday, Aug. 2, to perform at the Factory in Deep Ellum. As technical a process as remastering audio recordings can be, for Mercer, it was also an emotional one.

"Brian Burton felt like the original record was a little quiet compared to the modern stuff that was on the radio around the same time as Oh, Inverted World," Mercer says. "But I have to admit, when I sat down and listened to some of these songs there were plenty of moments where I felt very sentimental. It's been such a big part of my life, and in the life of my friends, my bandmates back then."

Concerts that celebrate a specific album by featuring all its songs live have been en vogue for a number of years now, but this is the first time Mercer has gone with such an approach. He says there were songs from that record he had to reacquaint himself with. Two of his current bandmates, who were not a part of cutting the record over 20 years ago, were key in helping Mercer reconnect with a couple of deep tracks with which he'd lost touch.

"The song I was most worried about was 'Your Algebra,'" he says. "Luckily, our drummer, John Sortland, came up with this cool beat, so now it's one of my favorite tracks. And 'The Celibate Life,' which we really never played live except for very early on, is difficult to do live because it has an intricate guitar solo and a strong rhythm deal where shifting between the two was difficult. But now we have Mark Watrous on guitar, so we can pull off anything. Now I really look forward to playing that song, too."

Thinking back to when Garden State sent the band into a bigger realm of popularity also makes Mercer remember some of the downsides to greater fame. When the band's third album, Wincing the Night Away, which was the first Shins album following the movie, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling a whopping 118,000 copies in its first week, there was a shift, and it wasn't all necessarily positive. Mercer immediately knew some early band adopters were fleeing the ship, even as many others were jumping on.

"When you get big early in your career, the hipsters who liked you before all that don't like you anymore," Mercer says. "They think you've jumped the shark. It's a strange feeling because you feel like you've lost a certain part of the audience that was critical to your success before. We were successful, but we weren't getting the buzz kind of talk anymore, and we were too big for the hipsters. It's a funny situation."

"When you get big early in your career, the hipsters who liked you before all that don't like you anymore ... They think you've jumped the shark." – James Mercer

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In a way, it's almost refreshing to hear an acclaimed artist as accomplished as Mercer admit to things such as caring about finicky music snobs. It's all too easy for A-list festival headliners to come off as unbothered by the public or unmindful of the opinions of others. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that an insightful songwriter of Mercer's caliber would have any qualms over admitting vulnerability.

"For me, there's a personal fragility that's never gone away," Mercer says. "Just because you've sold a certain number of records, people have a tendency to think of you as something impervious."

Just as any discussion of Oh, Inverted World must include Garden State and the band's critical breakthrough with "New Slang," so too must that discussion include Mercer's reality as barely an aspiring musician leading up to that point. He admits that he regrets how Warner Brothers kept the record from being released in Japan for some reason he's still not sure about. But beyond that, Mercer acknowledges that 22 years ago, even talking about traveling to Japan, let alone selling records there, is "farther afield from where I was and what I was thinking back then when I wrote those songs."

Just before The Shins changed Mercer's life in a major way, he'd made a deal with his parents that he would give himself one more year to make something big happen with his music. It was in that year that "New Slang" would come to life, and his vision for the future began to take on new forms. Looking back on that time, he doesn't sound like a man who escaped a depressing alternate ending as much as one who can look back and know he traded in one pleasant existence for another type of enviable path.

"I definitely wondered about my definition of success back then before ‘New Slang,’ because I was in my late 20s," he says. "I had nothing else going on, and I remember thinking I would probably end up living in Taos, New Mexico, playing and recording music on some small scale. I pictured a very modest sort of life and I remember being happy with that."
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Kelly Dearmore