The Shins: Getting a leg up

Since Natalie Portman declared her love for The Shins' clever art pop, resistance has been futile. They talk to Kevin Harley
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For a man whose band has just executed a perfect leap from independent-darling status to crossover phenomenon, James Mercer is looking remarkably unfazed. Sitting in the bar of a west London hotel, The Shins' singer-guitarist is the very image of the American independent musician: polite, calm, slim, intelligent, direct and just a tad cautious, with a little stubble to offset the clean-cut demeanour of someone who could otherwise be your cool history teacher. And he's not at all knocked sideways by the fact that The Shins' much-anticipated third album, Wincing the Night Away, recently charted at number two in the US Billboard charts, with sales of 119,000. That's a serious figure for a little indie act.

Mercer is a smart guy, though. Rather than popping champagne corks, he's weighed up the numbers carefully. "What it is, I think, is that we have a large fanbase who have been waiting anxiously," he says, "and they all bought the record as soon as it came out. I expect it to decline pretty quickly - I don't think we'll be number two next week. But it's good, it's fine. Nobody expected the sales to be like this, but we aren't affected by it. Thus far, we're doing the same as we ever did." So, no concerns about waving goodbye to cult acclaim and saying hello to the big time? "I might have more perspective on that in six months' time," he laughs. "We have to get back home and see if there's people waiting on our doorsteps. I doubt it, though."

This big splash isn't without context, mind. It's a good time for American college-rock-ish acts right now: the Decemberists, the Hold Steady and Arcade Fire have all broken underground cover with superb albums, while the Shins' old touring mates, Modest Mouse, are headlining the Royal Albert Hall in May.

And since 2001, the quartet from Albuquerque, New Mexico, have become the epitome of the little band who made good. Mostly self-sufficient, and not beholden to music scenes, singles or major-label backing, The Shins' focus sits on Mercer's coolly crafted songwriting and ever-inventive lyrics, which provide fresh, tongue-twisting variations on the hardy perennials of dislocation and articulate romantic befuddlement. When he sings of what it is to "lose yourself in lines dissecting love", he finds fresh blood in the veins of a literate outsider romanticism, with classic-pop precedents ranging from the Beach Boys to Morrissey. Little wonder it caught on.

Released in 2001 and 2003, The Shins' first and second albums, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, made them the biggest-selling band on the Sub Pop label since Nirvana. And they caught the UK's attention, too. At the alt-rock All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2004, The Shins was the band-name on everyone's lips, a buzz they rose to with a revelatory set of revisionist indie-pop, played from and to the head and heart.

A certain pint-sized publicity bomb by the name of Natalie Portman didn't do them any harm, either. In 2004, the Scrubs star Zach Braff wrote, directed and starred in Garden State, a self-consciously kooky serving of teen-flavoured rom-corn that cleaned up at the US box-office. Mercer agreed to let the film-makers use a couple of Shins songs when he read the script; at this point, no stars were attached. By the time of the shoot, Portman was cast as the character who exchanges cutesy looks with Braff after handing him her headphones and saying: "You gotta hear this one song, it'll change your life, I swear."

In that moment, The Shins' gorgeously plaintive "New Slang" bagged itself a new audience. Mercer still marvels at the power of Portman. "I was given an early treatment," he recalls, "and it was just like, this guy's trying to make a movie and he doesn't have any money, so it's cool to help someone out in that situation and you're flattered they want to use your music. It's like a free music video, when you don't have money to make one. When I heard they got Portman to play the girl, it was like, whoah, shit, they must have got some money. Then Scrubs got big, the movie came out and it became this sensation across the country with college-age kids. Right away, sales for our first record increased. It was like an advertisement for the band."

The Shins were already on a roll, but Garden State gave them an extra shove towards indie-scene ubiquity. "We could have continued without Garden State," Mercer nods, "and we'd probably still be doing this interview. The record would've probably come out a year ago, though, because Garden State sent us back out on tour. It doubled or tripled the number of people who knew about us." He shakes his head in disbelief: "It was such a fluke."

Expectations were subsequently heightened for The Shins' third album.

"The pressure I was feeling," he says, "was just, y'know, goddammit, you gotta write some good shit, do some good songs. I knew there were people waiting for the record but I don't know any of them, so there's a limit to how much you can worry about the outside world when you're in your studio. It'll be interesting to see what happens next time, since we're having commercial success. But I can't write with any idea of giving people what they want. That's never been anything I've been capable of doing."

In the event, Mercer's private life seemed to divert the strain of any pressure as he wrote the album. Ongoing bouts of insomnia, bad relationships and crack-houses were the gist of it. "I had a series of negative things happen in a row," Mercer shudders. "I even started to get superstitious about how I couldn't avoid negative things.

"I moved into this old house that had been a crack-house," he recalls. "The old lady who'd lived in my house had died and her children had gone off the deep end. Those people were now walking the neighbourhood and had total resentment towards me. And they were friends with the crack-house next door."

Not a good set-up, then? Mercer shakes his head: "When gunshots would go off, I'd call the police.

"Cops started raiding the house at four in the morning. They'd confiscate the drugs and money, arrest them - and then let 'em go!"

He shakes his head in horror. "So, they started getting aggressive and threatening me, which was stressful. At the same time, my relationship with my friends started to fall apart, I think there was some resentment about The Shins, I got into a relationship with a girl I shouldn't have..." And after a pause for breath: "Then my house was robbed and the masters of Oh, Inverted World got stolen. It was a tumultuous time."

Happily, it ended in near-fairy-tale fashion. "I'm through it now, I'm over it. At some point there, I met my wife and she pulled me through it. She was this grounding, beautiful force, and our first kid is due in late May, so..."

Equally happily, Wincing the Night Away plays less like the soundtrack to a living nightmare than the album that The Shins' audience would have dreamed of. "I'm always optimistic," Mercer laughs. "When the shit hits the fan like that, I just keep going. I don't let it bug me." Cannily, and the album consolidates his winningly wordy indie-pop template and steers it into new, psychedelic, waters with dreamy washes of synthesiser. It achieves a kind of pop holy grail: complex content, which rewards repeated listens and doesn't stoop to anything so obvious as choruses, with a direct and immediately catchy surface.

The closest comparison is with Eighties British indie music: shades of Morrissey haunt Mercer's seductively opaque lyrics, as do Echo and the Bunnymen. Mercer spent his twenties in Albuquerque, playing in a crunchy power-pop band called Flake - "the laziest band in Albuquerque," he laughs - before forming The Shins as an outlet for his interest in old R&B and classic-pop songwriting. Before that, though, his father's career in the air force meant that the younger Mercer lived wherever his dad's three-year placements took him. "Hawaii, Kansas, Alabama, Utah, Germany, England," he recalls.

Between 15 and 19, he lived in Suffolk, where skateboarding was his hobby and British pop was the soundtrack to his life. "I got turned on to some cool bands because of skateboarding. I learned about punk rock from Thrasher magazine, but they loved The Cure. The Smiths were huge.

"You're OK being what you are when you listen to that stuff - in fact, there's something beautiful about it. There's even something romantic about being a loser. It's like, it saved me."

On the duly adored "New Slang", there's a lyric that goes, "I'm looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find". If the Shins' popularity hinges, at least in part, on a Morrissey-esque appeal to intelligent, romantic outsider-dom, it's something Mercer welcomes. "I hope so," he enthuses. "I mean, kids kill themselves because of that shit, they just end their lives because they don't feel like there's any way out of being a loser. As a teenager, you don't have to be anything at all. 'Phantom Limb', on the new album, is kind of about that," he says. "It's about these two girls who fall in love with each other. They're in this shitty town, they're alone and they find each other and feel connected. They have this thing and it frees them from everything around them. It's so positive, because it's about seeing a future." And Mercer knows something about that right now. After the mire of insomnia and crack-head neighbours, he can feel confident about his band's future. They've made an album that meets anticipation head on and is a proper hit to boot. Whatever comes next, he should be the match of it.

"Being in a band, you don't have any job security - like, what will you do if it falls apart? So, with this album doing well, it means I might have a nest-egg there. I feel very optimistic and positive right now." Indeed, you'd swear this band have changed his life. And they may well be changing a few others along the way, too.

'Wincing the Night Away' is out now on Sub Pop; The Shins play The Astoria, London WC2 (020-7434 9592) on 25 February and Bush Hall, London W12 (020-8222 6955) on 26 February