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James Mercer, the frontman for the Shins, was in an excellent mood when PopMatters phoned him up this past summer. True, some of that was probably due to the fact that he was on a much-needed vacation at his parents’ house. But mostly, he seemed incredibly pleased with the tsunami-like raves that had started to pour in for his group’s debut LP, Oh, Inverted World. It’s not something he had given any thought to while making the album, but it had clearly come as a satisfying surprise. After toiling for years on the indie circuit in Albuquerque, New Mexico (if Albuquerque can be said to have an “indie circuit”), first as a member of the Flake and next as a part of the Shins, Mercer was finally earning the respect and notoriety that his songwriting talents had always deserved.



PopMatters:

Where are you right now?



James Mercer:

I’m at my folks’ house. I’m actually getting ready to move to Portland. A lot of my friends have moved up there and I’ve got family who live up there too.



PM:

I know the Shins have been around for a while in various incarnations. I mean, the group has undergone several name changes, right?



JM:

Well, Flake was sort of a communal effort and the Shins was a side project that I started during Flake.



PM:

Huh, I didn’t know it happened that way.



JM:

When I started the side project, it was just two-piece and a four-track and we put out an EP like that. And then Flake broke up and I actually had different members in the Shins.



PM:

So you recruited a couple of new people.



JM:

Yeah, but then the band members that were not Flake members originally moved to Portland and, as a result, the guys that used to be in Flake were able to become a part of the Shins. So, now we are the same members that were in Flake.



PM:

Can you talk a bit about how your sound changed then from Flake to the Shins? I mean, what was you purpose in starting up the Shins?



JM:

Flake was very live-based. If things didn’t work when we played live, then they wouldn’t be recorded. And that’s why I think the Shins started up for me as a side-project. There were little acoustic things that I liked to record and it wouldn’t work with the Flake vehicle.



PM:

Well, it doesn’t sound like you really intended for it to be a live project and yet you’ve toured quite a bit as the Shins. Does the material give you trouble onstage?



JM:

Well, I think what’s happening now is the Shins is putting out recordings that are acoustic and quiet or maybe with kooky keyboards and backup vocals and stuff. And it’s true-we’re being forced to do is learn how to do that live. And it has been tough for us so far. We’re trying to learn though.



PM:

How many shows have you guys played so far?



JM:

As the Shins? I’m not sure about a number, but we’ve been doing this for about two years now. You know, really touring and stuff as the Shins.



PM:

I noticed on your website that you call yourselves “An American Pop Combo” and I found that kind of funny just because my sense is when people think of pop these days, that word has such a negative connotation. And especially, I think, within the indie rock community you’re trying your capture. Has that ever crossed your mind at all or has it ever been an issue for you?



JM:

I guess I like pop music and I think [the phrase] describes us pretty well. I don’t think I really thought of pop as having a bad connotation when I came up with it. At one time I know it did. When I was in middle school and probably high school but then in the early 90s it no longer seemed like a bad thing to call pop music pop music anymore. But yeah, maybe it is a bad thing. (laughs)



PM:

Well, I think the tide is turning again, at least if you guys and the New Pornographers are any indication. Both of you seem totally unabashed in your love of pop music and the response has been pretty positive so far. But at the same time, I can’t help wondering if this is really that new a movement or whether you’ve just had really good timing. I mean, pop has always existed in one form or another-



JM:

Well, I didn’t plan anything; I didn’t try to time things. Maybe it’s just some lucky thing that other bands happen to be doing it [well] too.



PM:

We’re there other bands doing this that you’re aware of?



JM:

I think we’re coming from bands like the Apples In Stereo, and the Aislers Set and stuff like that.



PM:

That’s interesting because I read the reviews and they keep talking about the Beach Boys.



JM:

It was surprising to me actually. But apparently it’s true in some sense because somebody had their little kid listen to the record and the kid actually said, “It sounds like the Beach Boys.” (laughs) I thought it was just critics saying that because it was something they could reference pretty easily.



PM:

Obviously, I love the album you guys have done, but I have to admit that even with albums that I love, it’s rare that I can say with certainty that I’ll listening to it even a year later, let alone five or ten. But Oh, Inverted World is one of those rare albums that I’m pretty sure I’ll be spinning years down the road. Was creating something timeless something that was important to you when you were making the album or did it just kind of happen that way?



JM:

I think it just kind of happened that way-if, you know, what you say is true. Maybe listening to classic pop and things like that helped to write something that’s going to endure a little bit more. I think we all listen to pretty good stuff.



PM:

What were you listening to?



JM:

I love Echo and the Bunnymen and I like old James Brown. I don’t know, pretty much everyone’s favorites.



PM:

And so you think those influences made onto the record without you even knowing it?



JM:

Right. Some people might criticize that because it’s not attempt to recreate rock or pop music in some modern form, but maybe that gives you a slight advantage because you come up with something a little more human.



PM:

Well, I definitely hear some modern influences though. Like there’s definitely some strains of Modest Mouse in there. When did you tour with them?



JM:

I think it was in 1999.



PM:

And when were the bulk of the songs on Oh, Inverted World written?



JM:

Mostly over the past year and a half.



PM:

That’s interesting. So did Modest Mouse bring you along because you sounded like them or do you think touring with them caused you to absorb some of their style?



JM:

I think it’s more that we were influenced by them. You know, by hearing them play every night.



PM:

It’s not so much in the actual songs but some of the vocal effects definitely remind me of The Moon & Antarctica.



JM:

It’s very possible that they rubbed off on us.



PM:

How did you guys sign to Sub Pop? It seems like a really strange choice, at least to me.



JM:

Yeah, well, you know, they were the only ones interested really. We weren’t getting a lot of attention from labels.



PM:

Wow. When I think of Sub Pop, I think of that whole power rock thing.



JM:

They’re definitely trying to change that image, but, yeah, that’s what I always thought of them as. We played a show with Love As Laughter and they liked us and we prepared a little three song CD, which they passed on to the label. And that’s when they approached us.



PM:

Well, it’s turned out to be a great deal so far. They’ve done a hell of a job of promoting you. I just opened up Rolling Stone and saw a review of the album-



JM:

Yeah, I haven’t seen that yet. It came out today, right?



PM:

Yeah, today. And I opened it up to the review section and there you guys were. Steve (a publicist at Sub Pop) told me that in the two or three years he’s been working at Sub Pop they’ve never had an album reviewed in Rolling Stone. I mean, have been surprised by the critical reaction?



JM:

Oh yeah, very much. I’m very happy.



PM:

Has there been any change already in the band or anything?



JM:

Well, this tour coming up is the first one we’re headlining. So, I guess that’s the only real impact that it’s had.



PM:

Clearly, you’re comfortable with your level of success so far.



JM:

Yeah, right now anyway. Doing interviews like this is like the fanciest thing that happens to kids from Albuquerque. We don’t have autograph signings or anything.



PM:

So, how would you feel if you were more visible? I know a lot of indie bands have a particular hang-up about that.



JM:

I think it would be pretty hard on me if there was [attention] like that.



PM:

I know there’s this backlash thing in the indie world-



JM:

How do you mean?



PM:

Whenever they perceive a band to go beyond its initial fanbase, there’s this traitor sort of mentality.



JM:

Yeah, sure. I remember after Modest Mouse signed to Epic and they were on tour for that record, there were a couple of places where the fans made it known that they were pissed. Somebody actually wrote “Sellout” in dirt on their van.



PM:

Childish.



JM:

It’s just so strange.



PM:

So you think a lot of attention would be hard on you personally?



JM:

I guess. I think I’m just too lazy to cope.

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