The Shins: Great Expectations

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After a season of change and a surge in popularity, the Shins are ready to face their future as indie rock’s best-loved band. As the group prepares the release of its third album, MAGNET checks in to see how its garden’s grown. By Corey duBrowa

July 6, Los Angeles: Rock ’N’ Roll At The Hollywood Bowl
The first thing you should know about the Shins is that they possess a finely tuned sense of occasion. Despite their “aw, shucks” demeanor, the members of the band are only too aware that the most important act to grace the stage of the Hollywood Bowl was the Beatles, more than 40 summers ago.

“We were driving up here for soundcheck,” says bassist Dave Hernandez with some degree of awe. “We were thinking, ‘We’ve come a long way.’ We saw a picture of the place being built in 1922, and you can only imagine all the really great bands that have played here since then. I was a little nervous.”

And so the Portland, Ore., quartet—opening for Belle And Sebastian’s sold-out, one-night extravaganza featuring orchestral support courtesy of the L.A. Philharmonic—is dressed to kill, in a manner of speaking. Playing the role of “alterna-Beatles,” they’re sporting matching olive-drab military shirts to go with their usual cords/jeans casual wear. The austere, Soviet look was put together this afternoon by singer/guitarist James Mercer’s wife, Marisa, who purchased the gear through a military-surplus site on the Internet. This pseudo-revolutionary fashion statement would undoubtedly have Fidel Castro smiling ironically about the capitalist implications.

So there beneath the blue suburban skies of a perfect Southern California evening go the Shins, trooping onstage while the patrons in the expensive seats down front nibble their chèvre and polish off their Merlot. The audience is a uniquely Californian mixture of laid-back and upscale that doesn’t go unnoticed by the band. Keyboardist and resident wiseacre Marty Crandall directs the Shins’ nervous energy outward.

“Anybody in the house with some caviar, say ‘Heyyy,’” he raps between songs, raising the roof South Bronx-style. “You in the cheap seats with your ghetto-ass KFC, go ‘Hooo.’”

The Shins’ set picks up momentum as shadows fall over the Hollywood sign directly behind the cavernous bandshell that forms an umbrella over the stage. Songs both old (the audience of nearly 20,000 croons along to the chorus of “New Slang”) and new (the band debuts three songs this evening, including a tune Crandall introduces as “The Phantom Limb”) score direct hits with the crowd. Belle And Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch later gives the Shins a shout-out from the stage in his inimitable Scottish lilt, beknighting them “top of their profession as good indie rockers and a fine bunch of lads.” It’s a description that makes Crandall giggle later that evening.

“We were eating dinner with those guys backstage and, for whatever reason, we started talking about what each of us smelled like when we’re wet,” says Crandall, beer in hand and strolling through the outdoor patio that serves as this evening’s afterparty haunt. “Stuart said he smelled like a ‘Labrador’; not just ‘wet dog,’ but ‘Labrador.’ So we all started asking whether we could sniff his ass. He smiled politely, then just sort of walked away.”

The Shins’ intraband banter is a rough-and-tumble exercise in verbal self-defense involving jokes about ethnic origin, Mercer’s seemingly robotic work ethic and carnie sex. There’s also a lengthy story about a contest for charity called “Iron Composer,” a booze-soaked musical spin on the Iron Chef TV series, staged at Seattle’s Showbox club in June. Crandall and Hernandez competed with Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen to write a song in less than an hour while downing multiple vodka shots and having meat thrown at them. (Their entry involved a “Donovan jam” about a female anatomical feature that rhymes with “Dolores,” “forest,” “chorus” and, in a feat of lyrical improbability, “Meatosaurus.”) With comedians David Cross, Todd Barry and Jon Benjamin as judges, the Shins’ duo was proclaimed the winner.

It wouldn’t be a night in Hollyweird without a star sighting, and completely unbeknownst to the Shins—who are milling around signing autographs and, in Hernandez’s case, entertaining a large contingent of extended family—Courtney Love has made her way into the party, entourage in tow. From the moment she arrives in her Stevie Nicks-inspired, white-witch ensemble, it’s clear she’s here for one reason only: to hunt down and capture Murdoch, who’s nowhere to be seen two hours into the fete held in his group’s honor. Finally, at around 1 a.m., Murdoch slips in wearing a natty suit and porkpie hat, pleasantly chatting up fans before Love elbows her way into the clutch of indie-rock poseurs circled tightly around Murdoch, vying for his attention.

“That’s me, babe—text me whenever,” Love sneers Ab Fab-style, handing Murdoch a scrap of paper with her digits scribbled on it. “I’m in the U.K. all the time.”

Murdoch politely accepts the note before Love further invades his personal space with a kiss on both cheeks. It appears to require all the strength he can muster not to wipe his face with the back of his hand after she flounces off into the night.

The Shins remain blissfully unaware that Love has even crashed their little nightcap. When last seen sometime after 2 a.m., drummer Jesse Sandoval is quietly making the rounds while Mercer busies himself cleaning broken glass off the cement floor after accidentally toppling a tray of empty beer bottles. “I don’t want to see anyone step on this and get hurt,” he explains.

March 30, Portland: Thai Anxiety
“This record? Sure, I feel some pressure.”

Despite his unfailingly polite demeanor, James Mercer is showing some visible signs of anxiety. He’s sitting at a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant in the Southeast Portland neighborhood where he lives, one of the many parts of the city undergoing slo-mo gentrification. Raised in a military family and accustomed to frequent moves—he’s called Kansas, Alabama, Utah, New Mexico, Germany and England home—Mercer relocated from Albuquerque in 2001. (The rest of the Shins have since moved to Portland.) Mercer initially settled into a former ’20s-era speakeasy in one of the city’s “transitional” inner-city districts, where violent crime is a frequent part of the daily menu.

“We had a crack house right next door,” he says. “Around the corner from us, some kid got shot while I was away on tour. It was really random. You wouldn’t see many confrontations, but you’d hear a bunch of gunshots two blocks over. But over here,” he says of his new environs, “you’d feel safe walking around at three in the morning.”

The 35-year-old Mercer is suitably attired for Oregon Spring Break: the rain-sodden time of year during which most residents plan their southern escape in order to avoid the tail end of the region’s winter doldrums. He’s wearing a moth-eaten grey wool sweater and tattered jeans, his face unshaven and framed by studious-looking glasses that give him a rumpled, professorial air.

More than anything, Mercer seems a little distracted. At the moment, his band’s third album is months behind schedule; he’s due to be married to fiancée Marisa in a week, with the ceremony taking place on a beach in Hawaii (Mercer’s birthplace and Marisa’s home state) before the pair jet to Tahiti for their honeymoon. Then there’s the spate of Shins live dates: a quick stop in the U.K. to curate the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, then off to the Sasquatch Music Festival on Memorial Day weekend, the Hollywood Bowl slot, San Diego’s Summer Street Fair and Lollapalooza mid-summer, and finally the Reading and Leeds outdoor festivals in August. (The U.K. commitments will eventually be dropped in the band’s mad dash to complete the record by fall.)

“All of this was booked back when the record was supposed to be done by now,” Mercer observes dryly. “My brother, who’s doing artwork (for the album), keeps bugging me: ‘When is it going to be ready?’”

Whether perusing various Shins-related online message boards or visiting with archetypically Jack Black-slack clerks at music stores such as Portland’s Jackpot Records, it’s clear that a lot of people are awaiting the Shins’ next record. Rolling Stone published a behind-the-scenes blurb last December estimating the album’s release date as May and its predominant musical angle as groove-oriented, an assessment Mercer now laughingly dismisses.

The group’s first two albums—2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow—have sold a combined 800,000 copies and made the Shins this decade’s defining indie-rock act. It probably doesn’t hurt that their contributions to the Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack transformed them from The Little Band That Could to Indie Nation Action Heroes. (Natalie Portman’s Garden State character Sam went so far as to suggest that their music will “change your life.”) At press time, Sub Pop, the band’s label, confirmed that the Shins’ third album, Wincing The Night Away, will be released Jan. 23, 2007.

“This record is ‘it’ for the Shins, their shot to take it to the next level,” says Rich McLaughlin, Sirius Radio’s director of alternative programming and host of its Left Of Center show. “Garden State allowed casual music fans to discover them. Before the movie, they were a band for music snobs. Afterward, it was OK for soccer moms to listen to them.”

As Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman puts it, “I don’t want to assign them some unnecessary spokesperson-of-a-generation handle, but it’s hard to imagine a band more instrumental to Sub Pop’s renaissance than the Shins. Their rise to prominence and our reemergence are totally linked. They’re the one group, no matter what kind of music you happen to be into, that everyone at the label can rally around and get excited about.”

This is a set of circumstances at once flattering and frustrating to Mercer and his mates.

“I remember feeling like Chutes Too Narrow came out much later than I would have liked, too,” says Mercer. “It was two years [from start to finish]. I remember saying to the band, ‘We can’t tour like this again; we have to stop at some point and start writing and recording again.’ Then Garden State happened, and it was as if Oh, Inverted World got re-released—sort of like three records in two. (The film includes two tracks from that album, ‘New Slang’ and ‘Caring Is Creepy.’) Then the offers started coming in to play shows that were triple the amount we’d ever been offered before. So it was like, ‘Well, why don’t we make some more money playing together?’”

But it’s not as though the Shins did nothing but run around the world like mercenaries for the past three years. Mercer, Crandall and Sandoval parted ways with original bassist Neal Langford prior to the Chutes sessions, a topic the band readily dismisses with a breezy “oh, he’s off piloting hot-air balloons now.” (In reality, it’s become something of a sore subject. Due to an old business arrangement, all proceeds from the group’s ’90s-era recordings as Flake Music go to Langford. It stands to reason that the more popular the Shins become, the more Langford will gain from sales of the Flake Music portion of their back catalog.) Sandoval is the proud father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, Lucho; Crandall has been dating Albuquerque native Elyse Sewell (who placed third on UPN reality show America’s Next Top Model in 2003 and now does fashion shoots in Asia and Europe); Hernandez has gotten engaged and adopted Dexter, a Boston terrier.

Among Mercer’s many distractions, he’s managed to find time to write songs. Lots of them. In fact, so many that most of his recent hours have been spent whittling down the long list of ideas.

“I’m relatively quick at coming up with a riff, chord progression or melody,” he says. “But it’s slow going for me to turn that into a fully fleshed-out song. I mean, I have 50 right now. I went through my tapes and had tons of song ideas, but I had to narrow those down to the ones I thought would come quickly. That resulted in 12 songs; so the recording process has officially begun.”

Mercer isn’t ready to preview these snippets just yet, but he nevertheless seems eager to explain their genesis: “We often pair joyous-sounding melodies with lyrics that can be much darker. Like ‘New Slang.’ That’s a song totally about bitterness, almost hatred: a band fighting for its life.”

These seemingly antithetical impulses lie at the heart of the Shins’ best work. Mercer is uncomfortable with naked displays of emotion, choosing instead to camouflage his frequently dyspeptic outlook in a garland of sunny, Kinks-like melody.

“I’ll have the melody written first, then I’ll sit down to write lyrics with some kind of imagery provoked by the music,” he says. “Typically that ends up being something I’m dealing with in my personal life. I went through a relationship that ended badly, and a lot of my relationships with my friends have changed, too, which can be kind of disturbing. But I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t want you to be able to tell who I’m talking about, and half the time it’s about more than one person, anyway. It’s a collage, a composite person, a police sketch.” He laughs sheepishly. “And I like to keep it that way.”

Almost as quickly as the thought has left his head, Mercer adds a postscript: “My chosen aesthetic is pop music. I can only handle so many sad-sounding songs. I find myself barely able to write those things. You’re just being too emotional, and I’m uncomfortable with that. A vocal melody that’s too sad gives me the creeps; it’s like you’re getting too personal with me. There’s a song I’ve been working on lately that’s physically making me sick; it’s gotten a little too close to that place. I can only work on it for so long, listening to it over and over again, then it gives me anxiety. You’re dealing with this negative thing, but then you keep bringing it up and it makes your body feel like that thing is happening.”

The restaurant’s radio, buzzing imperceptibly throughout our interview, suddenly blares forth the final strains of the Isley Brothers’ “Summer Breeze” in an ironic, bookending illustration of Mercer’s argument, putting an exclamation point behind his assertion that caring really is creepy.

“I hope I’m being talkative enough,” Mercer worries aloud, finishing his beer before standing up to go. “Mostly, we just keep going up to bat; that’s the idea behind the band.”

May 10, Portland: This Used To Be Elliott’s House
An altogether more relaxed Mercer greets me on the front porch of his house—a charming, turn-of-the-century two-story situated near a schoolyard, with tall, shady trees lining the street—six weeks later.

“Check this out,” he enthuses, waving me inside.

Sitting on the sofa next to newlywed Marisa (who’s tall, beautiful and, like Mercer, relentlessly polite) in the living room at the front of their house, Mercer produces an envelope containing a black-and-white photo of Elliott Smith, with lank, shoulder-length hair circa 1994. Smith is sitting in a chair, smiling broadly while playing a beat-up acoustic guitar in what’s quite obviously the corner of the very house we’re currently occupying, almost completely unchanged in the 12 years since the picture was first taken.

“This used to be Elliott’s house around the time he recorded Roman Candle,” says Mercer, clearly entertained by this piece of information. One day while he and Marisa were gardening in the front yard, Smith’s former girlfriend J.J. Gonson, who now lives in Boston, walked down the street during a visit to Portland and mentioned that she had once lived in the house. Gonson spent the next hour chatting with Mercer about all the pertinent details.

Once invited in, Gonson went down to the now-cluttered basement to show Mercer where Smith’s recording setup had been placed during the creation of Roman Candle; as it so happens, it was where the washer/dryer now sits. They both agreed that music seemed to be part of the permanent fabric of the place, and subsequently Gonson has become an Internet pen pal, sending Mercer photos of her and Smith’s time together at the house, reportedly one of the brighter periods in his largely unhappy life.

We walk from one creative ground zero to the other, from the basement to Mercer’s studio upstairs in a compact, messy corner of the house. The detritus of a life quickly lived is scattered across the floor around us. There are neckties (including the one Mercer was married in) thrown to the ground in a wad, a plate and used utensils. There are effects pedals of various vintages and makes, a smallish Barclay tube amplifier and cords snaking off in every direction connected to mics hung from the ceiling’s corners. A synthesizer lines one side of the room, while Mercer’s Mac-based recording setup is along the other. An old Guild Starfire guitar hangs from a peg on the wall, and a battered acoustic guitar emblazoned with the phrase “You’ll be dead” dangles from another. “It’s a quote from Star Wars,” says Mercer with a laugh, acting out the famous cantina scene in which a young Luke Skywalker nearly meets his maker. “I thought it was a profound truth.”

Mercer occupies the command position in front of his computer, dialing an array of digital indicators this way and that. He tweaks the sound, bringing the demos closer and closer to completion before the band gives the songs the final makeover that fully inducts them into the ranks of the Shins catalog. At this point, the album’s title will either be Sleeping Lessons or Wincing The Night Away, a winking acknowledgement of Mercer’s insomnia. It’s an affliction that, ironically, creates the twilight window in which most of his music is written and recorded.

“This is some kooky shit,” says Mercer, introducing what will become the lead cut on the new album. “I’m calling it ‘Pah Pah Pah Pah’ for now. The original idea was to take a blues figure with a ‘wrong’ note in it, then turn it into this weird, psychedelic, shoegazey thing at the end. It’s like our live set; the record will start with that kind of energy. We want to surprise people a bit.”

The song’s nonsensical title quickly resolves itself. Presently, there are only Mercer’s scatted vocals on the track, added more to indicate counter-melody and cadence than specific lyrical ideas. Its manic 12-bar blues morph into what might be described as a shotgun marriage of the Yardbirds and Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s as “un-Shinsy” (a Mercer term) as anything he plays me this afternoon, a left turn for the band’s fans to absorb, but one they should be able to navigate upon a few listens. It’s intense, fast, droning and undeniably catchy.

The next song, “Australia,” begins with Mercer shouting in a faux-German accent, “Time to put on ze headphones now!” before the Shins’ familiar mid-tempo shuffle kick-starts the track, initiating a series of circular guitar melodies that eventually run headlong into a rockabilly-flavored solo at the bridge. Unexpectedly, vibes weave in and out of the mix while lyrical fragments such as “a little too late” and “every time I try” whiz by. “I need to work on the guitar solo some more,” Mercer adds over the din. “It’s got that James Honeyman-Scott thing going on. I love the Pretenders.”

Mercer cues up another track, tentatively called “Back In Beeswax,” and his comments about this being a more groove-oriented record start to make a bit more sense. A rolling bass line and slinky drum part give the song a hip-hop-flavored backbeat, though one created almost entirely from organic components.

“This one is so different for us,” says Mercer. “Dave put a backward guitar solo on it. It’s mandatory for your third album. Do you know what the beat is? A plastic bag being popped. The cymbal is a bag of beer bottle caps, with me slamming them on this table right here. The snare is a guitar pick on my tooth, dubbed about a zillion times. It’s the human beatbox. Marty’s totally stoked about that.”

The fourth preview track is titled “A Comet Appears.” Perhaps the logical successor to “New Slang,” it’s a fingerpicked acoustic track with no percussion and very little in the way of accompaniment other than a French horn that soars over the closing chords. Mercer takes out a small notebook—packed with scribbles, doodles, various verse ideas and other notations that only he can decipher—and points to the song’s assigned lyrics. Again, even without finished vocals, it’s clear that the tune mirrors the tension going on in Mercer’s life: “Into the sea with stones on their feet,” “chock full of lies,” “give me a way out.” It’s lovelorn and vulnerable, a Shins-issue prom song, one of their classic coming-of-age tunes and the perfect soundtrack for the OC crowd to lose their virginity to.

“One of the guys from Beachwood Sparks told us he likes to put on Oh, Inverted World when he and his wife make love,” Mercer winces, recoiling at the thought.

The final track Mercer cues up is the one I’ll hear during the Shins’ set at the Hollywood Bowl, chop-shop pop that could almost be his rewrite of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” as played by the Jesus And Mary Chain. Called “The Phantom Limb,” it contains the same dramatic, wall-of-sound drumbeat but with weirdly shivering chords and heavily reverbed, almost unintelligible vocals. The song tells the story of two lesbian high-schoolers who, says Mercer, “hate their school, hate their town and are on the cusp of knowing they’re going to leave.”

Of all the directions in which the Shins’ third album could go, the tracks Mercer previews seem to go in most of them—simultaneously. But the sum of this diversity is a far cry from eclecticism for its own sake. What I hear instead is confidence, the sound of a songwriter growing into his shoes, branching out to embrace his influences while turning the sought-after trick of making them his own.

“I wanted to be in a band like this so bad when we first started out,” says Mercer. “I wanted to be in this band.”

Before I pack up to go, we descend the stairs and Mercer puts Smith’s Roman Candle on the stereo. “I didn’t have this disc until we moved into the place and learned whose house it was,” he says, a certain spookiness wafting over the room as we listen to a homegrown album created more than a decade ago and a mere 15 steps from where we stand. Mercer weighs Smith’s lot in his head before waving it off.

“I wish I lived a more interesting life,” he laughs of his monastic existence. “Like when I read in these magazines about the Strokes, it seems like they wake up every morning in a haze after a never-ending merry-go-round of glamour and rad drug use. But to me, the process of making music is way more interesting than the sideshow. I feel like we need to earn the attention and success we’ve experienced so far. I want to know that we’ve worked hard enough for it.”

July 17, Oregon City: The End Of The Oregon Trail
It was the first city west of the Rockies to be incorporated, but other than for its diminutive downtown historic area, you’d scarcely know it today. Oregon City, Ore., is a sleepy bedroom community about a half-hour’s drive south of Portland. It’s the official terminus of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and the site of a museum housed in three oversized covered wagons tended to by costumed reenactors.

Oregon City is also the location of Supernatural Sound, a state-of-the-art studio tucked away in a thicket of pine trees down a narrow country lane. The recording facility has served as the Shins’ home away from home for the past several weeks—and looks it. Musical equipment and laptops are scattered amid a small flotilla of Tecate beer cans and pizza boxes throughout the studio.

Veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, U2, Beck) is sitting behind a sprawling 48-track recording console in the studio’s control room. He’s manipulating a series of buttons and knobs while keeping a careful eye on Mercer, Hernandez and Crandall, who are energetically recording handclaps in the main room below. The Shins are putting the finishing touches on the reverb-soaked “Circus Walk,” another of the songs debuted at the Hollywood Bowl a couple weeks ago. They’re getting a little punchy several takes into their handiwork, sending a volley of Charlie Chan-accented commentary up to Chiccarelli in the booth: “Wha’, you don’t rike our crapping?”

The band has never worked with an outside producer before. Seattle engineer Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Modest Mouse) served as Chutes’ mixer, but Chiccarelli is a full participant in the creative process. Hernandez begins recording guitar overdubs for “Circus Walk” and proceeds to melt down two different delay pedals while simultaneously managing to snap off the tuning peg on his Guild’s G string. “Jesus, I’ll forget how to play next,” he says disgustedly.

Unfazed, Chiccarelli steps in and resolves the situation, quickly unearthing appropriate alternatives amid the studio’s pile of gear and getting the session back on track, even shouting out an emphatic “Yeah!” when Hernandez finally nails the take. “Great, Joe, this is gonna make all the other songs sound like shit,” Mercer mock-complains during playback.

“He’s a good man, and thorough,” says Crandall of Chiccarelli, quoting The Big Lebowski while popping open a beer in the kitchen next to the studio.

One of the less sexy elements of making a record is all the downtime involved; the Shins have been reduced to playing a black-diamond-difficulty version of “Name That Tune,” in which Crandall plays a single note from MP3s on his Mac—such as Journey’s “Wheel In The Sky” or ABBA’s “S.O.S.”—while Mercer and Hernandez take turns guessing their origin, then singing them off-key.

Beyond his technical prowess, Chiccarelli’s most important role appears to be that of Mercer’s sonic channeler. Mercer occasionally mentions ideas to him (“What if Dave’s guitar part is just a bunch of Pete Townshend feedback?”), which Chiccarelli translates and then dreams up ways to make real, sort of the George Martin to Mercer’s McCartney.

“It’s starting to come alive,” Chiccarelli enthuses during the playback of “Circus Walk.” “It sounds like the Smiths doing Roy Orbison.”

For his part, Chiccarelli sees Wincing The Night Away as a bold experiment for the Shins, something as removed from their previous work as Revolver was from Please Please Me. “I think these guys are unconsciously pushing themselves to a new standard,” he says while labeling the console’s channels for a take on “Pah Pah Pah Pah” (now titled “Building Flowers”). “Like a lot of the great bands, they’re growing into a way of working with each other, collaborating, trying something new. I’ll make a suggestion, and the next time we play it, they’ll already have made it their own. Beck is like that, too. It’s beautiful to see these guys at work.”

Though it’s difficult for a perfectionist like Mercer to admit, the album he’s carried with him in his head for all these months is finally coming into focus. He sounds relieved at the prospect.

“I knew that it could be cool,” he says, walking from the studio to the kitchen. “I knew that it had the potential. There were so many variables, so many unknowns. ‘Is this all gonna work out?’ It’s been fun.”

As odd as it sounds to hear him say it, it’s tempting to believe that, for Mercer, the emotional rollercoaster involved in creating his music really is his version of a good time.