The Timeless Tunes of the Shins

The Timeless Tunes of the <b>Shins</b>
"I think they were there with me — those songs are in the North American subconscious." Shins front-man James Mercer is talking about the comparisons his band received to ‘60s pop icons Brian Wilson and Love — artists he was largely unfamiliar with when the Shins dropped their 2000 debut Oh, Inverted World! — but he could soon be talking about the Shins themselves. Mercer pens spare, acoustically accompanied ditties that soar on melodic wings to fly with flocks of pop icons.

At age 32, Mercer has been at this game longer than most know; as a member of ‘90s outfit Flake (later Flake Music), he and co-Shins Jesse Sandoval (drums) and Neal Langford (bass) messed around with poppy rock material, releasing a single full-length album, 1997's When You Land Here, It's Time to Return. That was before musical dictatorship and a psychedelic folk band conspired to change Mercer's direction.

"Flake was a collaborative effort, and we struggled with anyone taking responsibility for the final product," Mercer says. "I would go into the studio and wouldn't have any lyrics written. I would just pop them out in three days. The Shins was this idea of crafting songs and recording them as best we could; it was a decision to say screw it, let's be conscious of every part of the song and work hard on the lyrics."

The Shins were birthed as a Flake side-project after Mercer heard the first single by Denver psychedelic poppers the Apples In Stereo. "I was really inspired by that stuff, so I bought a four-track. We continued down that road, I bought a computer, and a few of those first recordings ended up on Oh, Inverted World!"

Leaving Flake in the dust and signing to Sub Pop, Mercer was convinced that his new bosses' estimates — that the Shins pop debut could sell 20,000 copies — were ridiculous. Having sold five times that number since, the Shins return this month with Chutes Too Narrow, another solid collection of intricate pop constructions.

With record sales comes not only the chance to turn a hobby into a career, but other strange opportunities emerge from the woodwork, like scoring a Gap commercial.

"They sent me a videotape of these experimental film reels — they wanted the commercial to have a similar feel. They were super flashy, fabulous people — I had to have these ridiculous conference calls with five people, three of whom said fabulous every other word, blowing smoke up my ass. That's the Gap, I guess. I was going to get paid just for submitting, so I thought ‘Oh, I'll send them me farting for 30 seconds and I'll get money.'"

There was no farting, but Mercer did submit two snippets he felt weren't going to go anywhere as songs, and then noodled on a guitar for a third. "They asked for demos, so I sent them these half-assed recordings. What they meant was perfect, pristine final product. I sent those three off and they sent a letter saying ‘We don't like any of these, goodbye.' Then a couple of weeks later, they decided they did like the third one." The final product, directed by Roman Coppola, featured young Hollywood actors Scarlett Johansson, Ashton Kutcher, Zooey Deschanel and Jay Hernandez riding bikes down an abandoned street and came in two versions: one scored by the Shins, the other featuring a more psych-rocking track by short-lived British band the La's.

With great songwriting power comes great responsibility, something Mercer is up for. "Back in Flake, if a song wasn't what I would call perfect, everybody understood it was the whole band, we're working on this together. There's really something to be said for being accountable. If you don't like the way a song was written now, it's my fault."