Tuesday afternoon. You get off the train and London’s a wash-out of black clouds and umbrellas, paramedics, police cars and empty tourist attractions. You hop from train to tube, inhaling the street-level sulphur from the trail of slow-moving traffic and keeping your head down whenever someone asks you for change.
Why the hell are The Shins are playing in London? They should be packing-out beach parties on Hollywood Boulevard. Cruising in open-top cars through Santa Monica. Their songs should be on the closing credits to some Great American Road Movie; the kind where your hero gets the girl and they both run off, hand-in-hand into some unknown sunset. They should not be playing in paint-peeling toilet clubs in Camden.
James Mercer: We got here on... what was it, Sunday?
Dave Hernandez: Monday.
James: Yeah, Monday morning. Since then we’ve been pretty busy.
Marty Crandall: [pawing at the sleep-dust in his eyes] Yes!
James: Yeah, a little bit. I guess it’s not so bad ‘cos we all slept on the plane, but you still have this clock in your head that’s telling you to go to sleep at like 6 o’clock in the afternoon.
How much are you interested in being here? Do you care that much whether you break in Britain or not?
James: Yeah, I think more than most countries actually. Obviously we want as many people as possible to hear our music, but especially over here because so many of the bands we love are from England. Musically, I guess it’s a second home.
Monday 20th Janurary. Four geekish, guitar-wielding indiephiles stumble from their plane, jaded and jetlagged. Over the next four days, they perform three shows, a clutch of interviews and a session slot for XFM, before being bundled back on a 747 to play more shows in the States. But they didn’t come to here to buy tacky tourist tat, sight-see or get style-mugged in Shoreditch. They came to start a fire.
Since ‘Chutes Too Narrow,’ The Shins’ near-perfect second album, saw its stateside release in October, the band’s success has been astounding. Though its predecessor, the sepia-shaded sixties-pop of ‘Oh, Inverted World’ grew into a small-scale hit for the band, nothing could have prepared them for the excitement caused by its follow-up; landing them guest slots on Letterman and gooey prime-time show ‘Gilmore Girls,’ as well as more than holding its own on the Billboard charts besides the likes of Jack ‘n Julian. If this year’s first flying visit to London was to try and ignite some sparks of interest in the band, it certainly seems to have worked.
James: I don’t suppose we’ll be sticking around long enough to tell how well it’s going round here, but so far everything seems really positive. All our shows have sold out as well, so I guess someone seems to be spreading the word.
Are you surprised with just how well the record’s been received?
James: Oh yeah, really pleased, really surprised. The past two years especially have just been crazy. Marty [Crandall; a smirking chesire-cat of a keyboard player] and I have been playing in different bands since like ’93, and all of a sudden it’s just taken off.
How are you coping with the level of success you’ve achieved so far?
James: I think we’ve been pretty good with keeping our heads screwed-on about it all. I mean it's not as if...
Dave: The thing is, we’ve all known each other for so long, and we’re such a tight-knit group that I don’t think we’d let one of us get carried away by the whole thing. We all try to look out for each other.
So you haven’t all become rock ‘n roll divas then?
Marty: Well, there was that one time...
James: God no! I think the important thing is that we all spent so long in small bands that never went anywhere, that in some ways we’re still approaching everything that happens to us as though we’re still doing that. We haven’t forgotten where we came from.
Where they came from: After years of tramping around the US indie scene, sneaking onto small-time split seven-inches with ramshackle pop bands, James Mercer finally released a record; 'When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return' as the front-man of Flake Music.
James: The Shins was kind-of a side project while Flake was still a working band, and I guess Flake broke up really because I wanted to take more of a lead in recording the stuff. The Shins was originally me, Jesse (Sandoval, drums), Dave (Hernandez, bass/guitar) and Marty (Crandall, keyboards). So basically, Flake became The Shins.
Confused? It’s easy to see why.
Flake Music was collaborative. It was sound of a fully-working band, bouncing sounds off each other. Its songs were unremarkable ramshackle psych-pop, more concerned with creating an unheavenly clatter than carving out a killer chorus. But at some point, Mercer wanted to change his approach, get serious about songwriting and record the kind of material he knew he had inside him. To achieve that, Flake had to die.
The Flake stuff’s a lot harder than The Shins’ material; particularly ‘Chutes Too Narrow’
James: Yeah, well you see we had distortion pedals back then. At some point in Flake I started writing songs without any effects, just going straight to my amp. Then I found this super-reverb pedal that I really got a good sound from, and I used that a lot, especially on the first record.
So how’s the new record different to your debut?
James: I think the new album’s better in a lot of ways. Sonically, it’s an improvement over the last record – it just sounds a lot better. More confident production.
Do you take more time over writing songs now?
James: Yeah, I do. I also think I’ve got better at it; I’ll listen to some of the first songs I ever wrote and just think “oh god, that’s so embarrassing.”
So does each song have to match up to the last one you’ve written?
James: Not really. Obviously, if I write a song that I know isn’t good then I ditch it, but I prefer to just record stuff and then see what works on the record.
Your lyrics read like you spend a lot of time over them.
James:I think a lot of that is through growing up listening to records made by real lyricists, people like Morrissey, and reading the lyric sheet in my bedroom. I just like listening to songs where the words mean something.
A lot of them are quite abstract though. How do you know that people who hear your record are getting the same meaning as what you had in mind?
James: I don’t think that really matters. I sometimes get people coming up to me and asking, ‘oh, what does that line mean?,’ and I find it quite strange. I think the beauty of music is that you can create your own meaning through the songs
You recorded this album in your basement, didn’t you?
James: Yeah, about 75% of it was done in my basement.
Did that help much?
James: I guess it helped me to feel comfortable when we were recording. I felt more in control of the engineering, plus there were less restrictions on us; we didn’t have to worry about ‘oh well we only this much studio time to get it finished in.’
Brian Wilson barely left the studio when he was recording ‘Pet Sounds’ & ‘Smile.’ Did it never make you a bit paranoid having all the recording equipment lying around the house, thinking "oh, I’ll just go downstairs & try to tweak it?"
James: Yeah, but then that’s kind of the way the first record was made. Plus, I kind-of enjoy all that stuff. I wouldn’t have been afraid of it taking a very long time to record, as long as we got it right in the end.
A lot of people mention the Beach Boys as an influence in your songs. What would you say are your main influences?
James: Well I lived in Suffolk during high school, so there’s definitely a real British pop influence there. My dad was a country & western singer in nightclubs, so through him I listened to a lot of country records. There’s also a definite ’60s pop thing, like the Beach Boys, who we all love.
Do you all share the same tastes, or do you end up fighting over what’s on the stereo?
James: Dave listens to Slayer! [the band start giggling]. Before he came on board with us on this album, he played in a few punk and grungy-kinda bands, so you’ll sometimes hear some quite heavy stuff coming out of his stereo.
D’you find it hard playing those pretty pop ballads then?!
Dave: Yeah, but I’m just biding time until I get my death metal band started!
Next week, DiS delves deeper into band and asks them about the joys of touring, that controversial McDonalds commercial and finds out which member is addicted to Skittles.