Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
An interview with guitarist/vocalist James Mercer
By Scott Deckman
Talk about hectic… The Shins, all formerly of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were so hectic the other day that their press agent said they’d be too worn-out for me to interview them at Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat, so even though I’m a short Metro ride away, I had to do this one over the phone. Turns out I coulda shown up, as I found vocalist/guitarist James Mercer to be one of the nicest musicians I’ve interviewed to date.
And just how in-demand are these popsters?
When I get on said Metro that morning, who would I glimpse when I opened up Express, the Washington Post’s freebie? It’s not just that though. The Shins, who, along with Mercer, 33, are composed of keyboardist Marty Crandall, 28, bassist Dave Hernandez, 33, and drummer Jesse Sandoval, 29, have been added to MTV2’s rotation with “So Says I”, Chutes Too Narrow‘s first single, a record that ended up on many critics’ best-of lists for 2003, including an impressive number 4 in Entertainment Weekly. And in their 10th Anniversary issue, Magnet recently placed the band’s 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, at number 60 in their countdown of the best albums since 1993, the year of that publication’s birth. Enough of this fawning. Mercer and I hit on quite a few topics, including the Shins’ success, ’80s English post-punk, the enduring legacy of The Beatles, and why Tyra Banks should be given some glasses.
Being that you were in Flake Music, and now you’re on the charts, what do you make of all the success you’ve gotten?
In a way, it just seems that I’m in the shoes of Isaac (Brock) from Modest Mouse three or four years ago.
Tell me a little bit about your early years and how you got involved in music.
That’s hard to say. I think I was always one of those introverted kids that didn’t receive social satisfaction from hanging out with other kids, maybe didn’t quite fit in very well sometimes. You know, one of those typical sort of whiny shitheads. (laughs) I picked up the guitar and got into music and all that stuff probably sorta because of that.
Did you quit school to pursue it full-time?
I quit school because I got lazy and bored of studying chemistry.
Where did you go to school?
UNM. (University of New Mexico)
I read that you lived in Europe for a while.
Yeah, I lived in Germany during elementary school, then moved to Albuquerque, then moved to England and graduated high school, and then moved back to Albuquerque for college.
Has this given you a wealth of material or a different outlook than the average American songwriter?
I think moving around a lot helped me to feel more isolated and introverted.
So basically, it fucked you up?
But you have to be fucked-up to be a good artist.
Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I think I’m actually a pretty balanced person. I mean, I don’t seem to have too many emotional problems or anything…
When you came back from Europe, is that when you got into the Albuquerque scene? Was there even a scene?
Kind of… I mean, every place has a group of kids who are into music and form bands. Albuquerque is just… small. I moved to England during high school, which is the time when most kids fall in love with music and gain an identity from it.
Were you influenced by the British bands being in England?
Yeah, totally. I learned how to sing singing to Morrissey and Smiths songs in my bedroom. I loved Echo & the Bunnymen and The Cure and all that stuff that was popular. The House of Love was one of my favorite bands.
Was it cool to likeThe Beatles then, or not?
Among my friends, yes it was. The trendiness of The Beatles comes and goes, and there’s a lull for Beatles stuff in my life right now, but everybody knows how good The Beatles were. The other day we went to Rick Rubin’s house and there was early Beatles stuff playing, you know?
Everybody seems to go back to The Beatles sooner or later. You were in a Dinosaur Jr. cover band, right? When and where was that?
That was like probably ’91, ’92, and it was in-between bands. The first band I was ever in was called Subculture that was sort of a typical R.E.M. college-type band.
Was this in America or Europe?
This was in the States. I was in a band in Britain before that, but it was a band that never left the garage. It was just me and my brother doing Sex Pistols and Ramones songs. Moving over here, I got in an actual band that played in bars and stuff. That was Subculture. Three of the guys from that band and I left and formed Blue Roof Dinner, which was the Dinosaur Jr. cover band. We covered other songs too, and we had a couple originals.
J. Mascis meant something to you in those days?
Oh yeah, totally. In fact, we ended up naming our band Flake, which was taken from a Dinosaur Jr. lyric.
Did you like a lot of the Boston bands of that era, like The Pixies, Throwing Muses…
I loved the Throwing Muses. Saw them in Cambridge or something at the Corn Exchange. Pixies, yeah, I loved The Pixies.
MTV2 is playing “So Says I.” Are you looking for a single like that to break you to an even bigger audience?
It’d be really strange if we have the type of success that the White Stripes have. But if it were to happen, I guess I’d just do my best to ride it the way they’re doing, which seems to be gracefully.
Do you think The White Stripes and The Strokes are making major radio and major labels sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the so-called underground or indie rock? Do you see that the doors are opening for lesser-known bands?
Probably. I think that some of the interest we’re getting from major labels is because of the huge success of bands like The White Stripes. The Strokes will appeal to someone who usually listens to regular radio, and then enough of those people are into it that The Strokes are on the radio, and then those people are little bit more likely to listen to The Shins, just because we don’t sound that different from Creed in comparison. (laughs)
What do you think when you see publications like Magnet rank Oh, Inverted World at number 60 for the best album in the last ten years?
I really appreciate it, and my parents get a huge kick out of it. I don’t know what it is about me that doesn’t really run with that, you know?
Might that be the side of you on “Young Pilgrims,” so fed up with the disillusionment with indie rock glory and all that crap. You’ve been doing this forever and now all of a sudden everyone likes you. The side of you that “wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just fly the whole mess into the sea.”
That’s also sort of describing a part of my personality that seems to be kinda self-destructive. I came into this business sort of inadvertently, always knowing that this was the most fickle, bizarre, ridiculous industry you could ever involve yourself with. The success you have is a fluke. You should always consider it a fluke. And any failure you have doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a piece of shit.
The last song, “Those to Come”: Did Modest Mouse inspire you in the songwriting?
I don’t know. I really like a lot of their stuff, and we certainly spent a lot of time with them, so maybe they did.
Did you pick up a fanbase by touring with them?
We benefited hugely touring with Modest Mouse. That’s what got us our start. The first time we really toured with them, we burned copies of a five-song EP we’d made, went to Kinko’s and dittoed off the covers, cut’m out, and put’m in. We sold like 500 of those on a tour with Modest Mouse, and that was right when Napster was hitting, and suddenly we were all over Napster, as if we were on a big label. It was plastered everywhere, and it got us signed. This guy Zeke who was on tour with Modest Mouse as well handed a copy of that CD to Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop.
With the advent of the Internet and proliferation of all the indie labels and XM Satellite Radio, do you think it makes being on a major label or getting played on the major radio stations as important as it used to be?
I think it’s far less important now. The Internet has made everything easier for bands to get started. People wanna hear good music, and if you’re creating it nowadays, they’re much more likely to hear it.
“Those to Come,” with its ethereal lyrics, are you into any Eastern philosophy?
Only what comes through pop culture.
Are you getting any indie snobbery from the GAP and McDonald’s commercials?
I don’t know… I guess we probably do somehow, there’s probably a lot of people talking shit about us, but I don’t know about it. I think that almost anybody woulda done what we did.
Does that help a lot in funding things?
Oh yeah, totally. And that’s why we have a better-sounding record this time. I was able to go buy nice shit to record the record. And I was able to put a down-payment on a house. There’s practicality here, and I don’t really romanticize this whole thing as much as I did when I was 16.
Honestly, for the record, was Elyse Sewell, third-place runner-up on America’s Next Top Model 2003, robbed by that mean ole Tyra Banks?
Yes, she absolutely was (The Shins’ fans will know I’m talking about keyboardist Marty Crandall’s girlfriend from Albuquerque. Mercer thought I was joking at first, then adds …). She was the most attractive and the best-looking, and in fact, she actually has a fucking modeling career and none of those other girls do, not even the winners.
Did they know each other before …Top Model?
Oh yeah. They met years ago in Albuquerque (Crandall is the only Shin left in Albuquerque). They started dating a long, long time ago when she was, like, in high school. He was working at the record store, the cool, hip record store in Albuquerque (the now-defunct Bow Wow Records), and she was a music fan.
Who are you into these days, and what are some of your major influences?
I really love The Fiery Furnaces (whose 2003 debut, Gallowsbird’s Bark, is on Rough Trade). We’re trying really hard to have them come out with us. Of all time? I love Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, you know, all that.
Did you like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s last record?
Yeah, it’s really good. That was one of the reasons we were stoked to sign to Sub Pop (Sub Pop released The Jesus and Mary Chain’s final album, the brilliant Munki, in 1998).
Who in the entertainment world have you gotten to meet since you’ve become somewhat famous?
Christina Ricci was in the audience at a show.
Winona hasn’t tried to seduce any of you guys yet?
(laughs) We’re not big enough yet.
She hasn’t shoplifted anything from your studio?
No. But I did get robbed and lost everything.
Are you serious? When?
A few months ago. (September 2003) They took all of the master recordings of everything I’ve ever done. It’s all gone. There’ll be no remixes of anything or that shit. The master files are gone.
Question: The house is burning down, which record do you grab? You only get one.
ONE?!? I’d grab The Queen Is Dead. It meant a lot to me.
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