Barely 24 hours after having waded through the debauchery that is UCSB on Halloween night, Artsweek, dressed head to toe in a fuzzy white bunny suit, found itself immersed in one of those magical moments straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Okay, so there were no mad hatters, caterpillars smoking hookahs or oversized blonde girls stomping about in aprons, but it certainly felt other-worldly-dreamy when James Mercer, the lead singer-songwriter of the indie pop quartet the Shins, was on the other end of the phone, sharing wonderfully wise and often times sparkling gems of advice about being in one of the most up-and-coming bands of the moment. Making sure no Cheshire cats lurked in the Artsweek office, it came time for this white rabbit to perk up her ears and listen up.
Mercer, along with Jessie Sandoval (drums), Dave Hernandez (bass) and Marty Crandall (keyboards), emerged from having spent the last few months tucked away recording the follow-up to their critically hailed 2001 release Oh, Inverted World! The four Albuquerque natives chose to again record in Mercer’s basement, but were joined this time by veteran producer Phil Ek, known for collaborating with such celebrated artists as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse.
The resulting product, Chutes Too Narrow, has barely been released for two weeks and has fostered an unstoppable buzz emanating from all four corners of the U.S. music scene. Publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Spin and the like have all paid heed to the charming, frolicking acoustic pop created by Mercer and gang, acknowledging the return of that ever elusive combination: raw talent and overflowing appealability.
On this day Mercer is packed in a van with his bandmates, driving from Portland to Long Beach, just in time to split the bill with Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse and other musical demigods at the long-anticipated All Tomorrow’s Parties two-day music festival being held at the Queen Mary this weekend.
“We’re so excited,” Mercer said. “We’ve never seen the Queen Mary, and they’re letting us stay on the boat for one night. It should be a lot of fun.”
Indeed, the Shins are ripe for public performance as most of their fans are clamoring to hear the newest material live. Yet, unlike many of the bands sharing the stages between Saturday and Sunday, the Shins are hardly novices at the indie rock gig.
“I had a band starting back in ’92 called Flakemusic and had [the Shins] as a sort of side project,” Mercer said.
After having made some waves with several singles and an album, When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return, plus touring with bands like Califone and Modest Mouse, Sandoval and Mercer devoted more energy to the Shins, even playing with Cibo Matto and American Analog Set.
Flakemusic enjoyed a seven-year run but eventually unraveled, allowing for the Shins to take center stage. Through the end of the decade, Mercer and his new outfit released several 7″s and were eventually tapped by Sub Pop Records to join the family. It wasn’t until the unforeseen critical acclaim of Oh, Inverted World! that the international music scene seemed to recognize the Shins as possibly the greatest musical offering since the Beach Boys.
“[The success] was really strange,” Mercer said. “It just changes things. For me, being in a successful band was more of a fluke than a dream come true. It’s just such a strange way to make a living.”
Still, the Shins appeal to their fans on a multitude of levels. Beyond their adorably poignant and unfathomably catchy ditties, the group seems to function under a noticeably more relaxed, upbeat personal mantra. Even flipping through the album art on Chutes Too Narrow can’t help but produce a chorus of “awww”s, thanks to rainbow-colored cartoon imagery strewn with daisies and hearts.
Their press release shows all four men stiffly slammed against a cement wall with ghastly looks on their faces, only to include, on the opposite side, a bio of the band written by Marty’s semi-famous girlfriend, Elyse Sewell. Though her name may not ring familiar, she placed third on the UPN’s reality series “America’s Next Top Model” and proudly wore clothing branded with “The Shins” on camera whenever possible.
“Yeah, I think she wore three shirts of ours,” Mercer said. “It was really sweet.”
This happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t mean the band isn’t serious about getting down to business, though.
“We still want to create a quality piece of art,” Mercer said. “When it comes to the studio, we also like to work really hard.”
Still, one look at their website offers a collection of photos where it seems each member works harder than the next to contort their face into a million positions, even a picture of a “Shinja” in training as he kicks toward the camera. So, where did these Portland-based indie vets find themselves this past Halloween night?
“We did an in-store at a really cool record store here in Portland,” Mercer said. “We all dressed up as head-trauma victims, with fake blood and hospital gowns that had the open slits in the back. We wanted to go without underwear but we knew the Sub Pop people would be there, so, you know.”
Hmm… what a fine mental picture, indeed. Four grown men covered in fake blood, with skivvies bared, charming their local crowd with elaborately sophisticated songs able to masquerade as carefree pop ditties. This white rabbit could only sigh, take a few swigs of shrinking potion and hope there would be stowaway room on the Queen Mary this weekend… and maybe some extra carrots.