James Mercer is an addict. He needs constant fixes. And there’s no chance he’ll ever go straight. It’s been too long. He got hooked at a young age, say around five or so. It’s mainly his dad’s fault. He was the family pusher. When Mercer was growing up, The Beatles were always on the turntable. “My dad used to play Sgt. Pepper all the time,” he says proudly. Ever since, Mercer has been a true pop junkie, sucking down hooky melodies quicker than a fifth grader powering through a Capri Sun pouch.
“I’m so pop-minded that I don’t understand people who listen to music that’s all harsh and unmelodic,” Mercer admits. “Sure, some of it’s OK, I guess. But I need something more. There’s just something about a good pop song. It’s like nothing else.”
For most, that obsession would have resulted in a lifetime stuck inside a pair of headphones. That wasn’t enough for Mercer. His habit has always been bigger than a bed-ridden Brian Wilson. That’s why in ’97 he started recording a few songs himself. Sure, he already had a band, the Albuquerque-based Flake Music, but it was muddy—true Elephant 6 pop cut with a bit of emo and Robert Smith romanticism. But Mercer wanted something more pure, more potent. He pulled out the four-track, set it up in his bedroom, and started laying down stuff whenever he could. The result was a series of delicate, spacey and wistful songs, basically the stuff Syd Barrett always dreamed about—at least, when he was sane. Suddenly, Mercer had come up with the blueprint for The Shins.
Five years later, Mercer and The Shins—now consisting entirely of former Flake Music members—are being heralded as underground pop Goliaths. Critics got so excited about the band’s debut disc, last year’s Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop), that there’s probably more than a few copies with the liner notes stuck together. True pop-heads were nearly as giddy. Album sales were, by indie standards, astronomical, the record claiming a spot on Sub Pop’s all-time best-sellers list.
It all came as a shock to Mercer. The Shins started out strictly as a diversion for him. Now he’s stuck under a spotlight he never was expecting. “The whole thing is a little weird,” he says. “I’m not an extremely extroverted person, so dealing with all this has been a real change. But, then again, attention isn’t really a bad thing.”
All the praise is justified, though. Oh, Inverted World is one of those rare indie pop albums that builds on groups like the Beach Boys, the Birds and the Beatles rather than just pay tribute to them. Even the best moments of bands like Apples In Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control are just crusty and oh-so-hip lo-fi versions of “Good Vibrations.” But The Shins have taken ’60s shiny-happy psychedelia and saturated it with the kind of longing and loneliness that leaves you blissfully depressed. While the rest of the group is running on auto-jangle, Mercer’s crisp tenor is busting out dense lines, like “When every other part of life seemed locked behind shutters/I knew what worthless dregs we all are …” (“Know Your Onion!”); and “Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth” (“New Slang”). Not exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Yet even at Mercer’s most depressed, like on “Caring is Creepy,” he made sure there were so many lush hooks that you can’t help but sway along. Mercer blames it all on his constant urge to avoid the expected.
“When I was a freshman in college, we had to read this essay by George Orwell in English 101. In it, he went off on people who use clichés. He said it was basically just laziness. He made such a convincing argument that I try to avoid anything that’s too obvious, lyrically and musically. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. But you at least have to try.”
For the moment, Mercer is just trying to deal with all the pressure that comes with being a success, even an underground one. He’s writing material for a new Shins EP—one that was supposed to be already recorded and set to ship. He’s also got a tour to deal with. That’s its own kind of trouble. Sure, Mercer loves getting in front of people, and he wants to push Inverted World as long as he can. But he admits that life on the road is still a foreign thing.
“When we were in Flake, we toured four times in eight years,” he laughs. “And each tour was a disaster. Now things are much more enjoyable. We have our own van; that helps. But I’m still not used to touring. The thing about touring is you eat horribly, you drink too much and you’re stuck in a confined space with your best friends. And that’s cool most of the time, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to throw each other out the window every now and then, either. Sometimes I even want to throw myself out.”