FOREWORD: The Shins front man, James Mercer, creates beautiful musical vistas to surround his loftily emotional baritone compulsions. In ’03, I got to speak to him about phenomenal surrealist folk album, Chutes Too Narrow. Though ’07 follow-up, Wincing The Night Away, contains Mercer’s best known song, the soothingly contagious, “Phantom Limb,” it’s not quite as consistently good as its predecessor. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Born in Oahu, Hawaii, where his father attended Air Force Weapons School, vocalist-guitarist James Mercer moved frequently throughout his relatively shy childhood. After a three-year stint in Great Britain, Mercer began collaborative Albuquerque band Flake in ’92 with basement-jammin’ Dinosaur, Jr.-inspired beer buddies Dave Hernandez (ex-Scared of Chaka), Yavapai apache Marty Crandall (ex-Freakazoid Doilies), and Peruvian-born Jesse Sandoval, settling on their current instrumental assignments (bass-drums-keys respectively) as the Shins thereafter. (Note: local friend Neal Langford assumed Hernandez’s role for a few years).
Perhaps England’s wet weather affected Mercer’s stormy musings and ’01 move to the drizzly Pacific Northwest. Now residing in the gentrified inner city of Portland, Oregon, the reserved wayfarer mastered the art of composing delicately shimmering indie pop, keeping one eye on Revolver and the other on Pet Sounds.
Never confined by their encouraging ‘60s influences, the Shins magnificent Sub Pop debut, Oh, Inverted World, combined the melancholy rainy day disillusionment of cryptic contemporary insomniacs the Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, and Black Heart Procession with the tidy melodic serendipity of Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided By Voices, and the Minders.
A sly sophistication enveloped the sleepy angelic harmonies creeping through the barren acoustic landscape of the solemn peculiarity “Weird Divide.” The restless scamper “Know Your Onion” and the quirky Rickenbacher-glazed “Girl Inform Me” provided uplifting relief to the whimsical surrealistic experimentation and camouflaged Country-folk adoration. Startlingly, the light acoustic jingle, “New Slang,” got picked up for a fast food commercial despite the Shins comparative obscurity.
Stimulatingly meditative and discreetly refined, ‘03s delightful Chutes Too Narrow carefully positions its laid-back sedatives next to upbeat dulcet counterparts. Reluctant to dwell on sanctimonious resignation, Mercer seems more assured, poised, and content on the sentimental neo-Spiritual “Saint Simon” and two luminous bass throbbing power pop confections, “Fighting In A Sack” and the head-spinning tender trap “Turn A Square.” “Kissing The Lipless” inadvertently collides the ailing love-struck joy of Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” with the stately pristine stammer of Robyn Hitchcock’s solo ventures. “So Says I” hearkens to the early ‘70s pop insouciance of lost legends Emitt Rhodes and Thunderclap Newman.
One commonality I find with Portland musicians such as the Dandy Warhols, the Thermals, the Decemberists, and Steve Malkmus is their profound literary enlightenment. Did that affect your move?
JAMES MERCER: I read a fair amount. But I didn’t move here for that – maybe indirectly. I did fall in love with Powell’s Bookstore – it’s the biggest in the country. I don’t try to emulate the feel of any writers but I like Joseph Heller. And Norman Duby’s poetry is impressive.
What early musical influences informed you?
JAMES: My dad played guitar and sang in Country cover bands my whole life and I spent time in nightclubs as a kid. My mom would watch him and bring the kids instead of getting a babysitter. My dad loved the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the early ‘70s Eagles. Pop and Country music surrounded me.
Perhaps those Country influences affected “One By One All Day” and “Gone For Good,” which seem reminiscent of Gram Parsons, the Byrds, or Flying Burrito Brothers.
JAMES: I don’t wanna sound like I’m doing a Country song, but I’m very attracted to the traditional scaling bass line Country incorporates. So the influence is aesthetic and low key instead of full blown. It’s a little dishonest in a way.
How did your tenure in England affect your musical taste?
JAMES: I lived there three years and during high school I fell in love with pop and punk. I was listening to the Cure, the Smiths, the Housemartins, and Echo & the Bunnymen. They were popular on the radio overseas alongside the hor