Narrow Chutes, Wide Success

The Shins quietly become the hottest band in indie rock.

The police lineup would look like this, if the crime were - being a record-store clerk. Or a dork.
The police lineup would look like this, if the crime were being a record-store clerk. Or a dork.
Everybody loves the Shins. No, seriously -- everybody. Take Kevin, for example. All rippling muscles, tattooed arms, headbanger hair, and a hellbent-for-leather, don't-fuck-with-me attitude, Kevin is the backstage bouncer at the Bowery Ballroom and thus something of a New York City indie-rock landmark. Generally speaking, he doesn't like anyone, unless that someone is a member of Metallica, which he saw the day before -- or, as it turns out, the Shins.

"Hey, James!" he bellows.

Shins frontman James Mercer stops, midstride, on the way to the band's dressing room, to find Kevin beaming at him from the foot of the stairs. "So I went to the concert last night and got a copy of the set list!"

"Wow, that's great . . ." Mercer replies, smiling politely. "Congratulations." He turns again to head upstairs.

"You want me to make you a copy? I could make you a copy," Kevin shouts after him. Mercer stops again, waits. "It was a great show, only they didn't play 'Sandman.' But other than that . . . Oh, you're busy," he catches himself, taking note of the trespassing journalist Kevin's forgotten -- amazingly -- to ask for her backstage pass.

"Well, that was weird," Mercer notes quietly as he rounds the stairs, out of earshot of his new best friend. He seems surprised and a little baffled that he and his bandmates -- a bunch of scruffy, unassuming musicians with two under-the-radar LPs to their credit -- have managed to turn the Bowery Ballroom's hardest-hearted hulk into a lovestruck schoolboy. Likewise, Mercer appears genuinely puzzled by the attention and admiration that have slowly built up steam around the Shins since the 2001 release of Oh, Inverted World, the band's debut.

Nevertheless, he's going to have to get used to the spotlight. The Shins may be dark-horse candidates for stardom, inasmuch as Mercer and his bandmates all come off as something short of cool (but well past nerdy), and their dewy yet razor-sharp pop songs steer way clear of anything you'd call trendy. But, judging by the sold-out crowds packing into all three nights of Shins shows at the Bowery and the media klieg lights blazing at them during the day, the band is poised to take off in some possibly big, but definitely important way. And judging by Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins' recently released second LP, the excitement is more than deserved. Whether Mercer likes it or not.

"It is kind of strange," Mercer admits, peeling off the label on his Amstel as he takes a moment to gather his thoughts. "I mean, it's odd to have gotten to a place where people know who we are, where it's possible for complete strangers to recognize me on the street, because . . ." He pauses again, considers, pulls the last of the label off his beer bottle in one deft stroke. "Because, I don't know, they saw a video or came to see one of our shows or something. I'm still getting used to it, to be honest."

While the tape recorder's on, Mercer's replies are very crafted, very measured. But you can sense something deep and weird burning under the surface, particularly when he glues his megawatt gaze on you. Mercer himself is an apt metonym for the songs he writes. Though the major-chord hooks and uptempo timing of Oh, Inverted World suggested '60s-style beach pop at its sunniest, something in every song hinted at a weirder, darker universe. The darkness in the music gave the songs both weight and a contrasting fragility. One misplaced note, you sensed, listening to tracks like "Caring Is Creepy" and "New Slang," and the whole thing might shatter.

Chutes is, by Mercer's own admission, a sturdier effort.

"I've heard, with the new record, that it takes people a few listens to figure it out," he says. "But I don't really think it's that different . . . I mean, no more different than any of the songs on the last album were from each other. I think I was more confident this time around."

There have been other renovations at Chez Shins. For one thing, Mercer has left his longtime Albuquerque stomping grounds for greener pastures in Portland, Oregon. Although drummer Jesse Sandoval relocated as well, keyboardist-guitarist Marty Crandall remains in New Mexico, as does Dave Hernandez, who replaced Neal Langford on bass before the recording of Chutes.

"It's no different, really," he explains. "You know, I started the Shins as a side project of Flake, kind of a private thing that then happened to turn into something else. I'm not saying we're not 'a band.' We are, but that's still the way things work." He shrugs. "It's healthy. I promise."

And, Mercer continues, the move was healthy in other ways, too.

"I'm a lot happier in Portland," he says. "Albuquerque doesn't have much of a music scene. It got to the point where so many people had moved, I'd go to one of the few clubs and not know anyone there. So I think, creatively and personally, it was very much a necessary change. I guess that's all part of the confidence thing . . . You know, you make a change for the better, and it changes you."

The confidence Mercer alludes to is reflected in the directness of Chutes Too Narrow. Whereas Oh, Inverted World sounded prismatic, drenched in reverb and highlighted by ethereal, doubled-up harmonies and synths, erstwhile Built to Spill producer Phil Ek has given Chutes a gleaming, crystalline mix that underscores the increased muscularity of Mercer's songwriting. Overall, the album has the energy of a breakup album, by turns brash and wistful, and frequently lacerating.

"Well . . . huh." Mercer appears at a loss for words. "I guess you could say it's a breakup album about breaking up with my old life, but, well, actually, I was really trying not to write so much about external events, like girls or fights or whatever. I tried to be, I don't know, more in tune with my stream-of-consciousness . . ."

He sighs. For a moment, Mercer is lost in thought, tracing a vein of indigo down a leg of his brand-new jeans.

"I wanted the lyrics on this record to be really direct, really simple, in a way," he resumes. "Not simple in terms of ideas, but . . . I guess what I mean is that on Oh, Inverted World, I was definitely being cryptic on purpose . . ." He trails off again. Mercer considers for a second and then finishes the thought. "I think you can hide a lot of yourself by being obscure. But I think it's time for something else now."