August 19, 2022
Godspeed are the bakers at dawn, James Mercer sang on The Shins' breakout single, "New Slang," from the band's revered 2001 debut, "Oh, Inverted World."
At 51 years old, the indie rock elder statesman, husband and father of three girls is living "the good life" that he feared he was doomed never to find. Getting there has just taken a lot longer – to borrow some more of his lyrics – than eeking out his measly pies.
Mercer and The Shins are slated to perform at Philadelphia's Franklin Music Hall this Friday, one of 40 stops on an anniversary tour that salutes the 21st birthday of their magical first album.
"Nostalgia kind of bites me sometimes, especially lately," Mercer said during a phone call before the band's recent show in Atlanta, its first after a 10-day break. "I think it's partly doing these songs. It's brought out old friends from the woodwork, who were around me back then."
Performing the songs that were written when The Shins were a desperation dream has forced Mercer to survey his life and legacy. It's hard for him to shake the profound worry he felt at the time.
"I realize that people are coming out to hear a record that is very special to them. And it's very special to me," Mercer said. "Those songs bring up emotional moments in my life, and you do ponder all of the changes that have happened since the songs came out. My life is different in so many ways, and in some ways I'm still that kid, you know? Anxious and – I was so aimless. Writing those songs was a way to try and make sense of things."
The Shins are a band created out of an inversion of sorts.
In the early 1990s, Mercer was part of the Albuquerque, New Mexico alt rock band Flake Music. At the time, the scene there was dominated by metal bands and their riffage, but Mercer and company won the respect of their peers with a sound that was attracting a growing audience.
"We really kind of had a niche that we filled in the Albuquerque music scene. We were, I guess, pop punk," Mercer said. "We would have a song that sounded a bit like Pavement, and we'd have a song that sounded a bit like Superchunk. We kind of just filled this niche for a generic indie band that could open up for the bands coming through for gas money."
Mercer, born in Hawaii, grew up moving around a lot based on his father's deployments in the U.S. Air Force. His dad taught him some basics on guitar during a stint in England, which Mercer reflects on in "Mildenhall," a song from The Shins' most recent album, 2017's "Heartworms."
When Mercer dropped out of college at the University of New Mexico, he leaned into music – maybe the least sure of professional paths to wander, even for a scrappy romantic with real talent.
Flake Music found glimmers of success – they toured with bands like Modest Mouse and Califone – at a time when indie and alternative rock music were like honey for disillusioned young people. The music expressed a relatable, playful search for meaning and beauty in the fuzzy space between irony and sincerity ("too dumb to refine," as Mercer sings in "New Slang").
Mercer has an exceptional knack for pairing phrases and hooks together, a gift that many singer-songwriters need solitude to cultivate. While gigging with Flake Music, Mercer experimented on his own in his Albuquerque bedroom, incorporating a folk sensibility into songs that didn't really fit with the band.
"I started getting pretty good at it," Mercer said, and he soon enlisted Flake Music's drummer, Jesse Sandoval, to perform his new material as a two-piece, The Shins (named after the family in "The Music Man," Mercer's dad's favorite musical).
Pretty soon, The Shins had some buzz, and by 1998, they had released a 7" single, "Nature Bears a Vacuum," via Omnibus Records.
Flake Music's members and sound essentially morphed into The Shins, a project that suddenly had Mercer uncomfortably leading the charge of the band's destiny. Instead of just moving on from his former group, Mercer tried to adapt the existing dynamic as much as he could while shouldering a huge creative responsibility.
"I was just kind of crippled by this social anxiety, I think, and that's why when Flake broke up and The Shins starting gaining momentum, and I needed to put a band together, I ended up just putting mates from Flake into The Shins," he said. "It didn't work out that great, because the shift that had to occur was just a difficult one for them to make. I was now the guy who was in charge. That wasn't the case before. The transition was a challenge."
When "New Slang" debuted as a single ahead of the release of "Oh, Inverted World," The Shins were quickly offered a record deal from the venerable Sub Pop, and the album's ruddy mix of styles and tempos found an adoring audience. It's sold more than half a million copies over the years, and god only knows how many burned CDs lay in unused booklets in the trunks of dying mid-2000s sedans.
The significance for Mercer is not so much in the launchpad The Shins got when their music appeared in the 2004 rom-com "Garden State," but rather in the memories of writing the album that set his life's course.
"The smell of roasting green chile is just an instant time machine that takes me back to Albuquerque," Mercer said.
"New Slang" and "Know Your Onion!" are perhaps the most recognizable cuts from "Oh, Inverted World," each showing the hallmarks that differentiate Mercer's music: on the former, pensive lyrics with a melody that can summon tears, and on the latter, a capering bounce that puts the singer's sinewy range in the spotlight.
Mercer prefers some of the album's slower moments, like closer "The Past and Pending" and the lilting "Weird Divide" with its descending arpeggios.
"'Weird Divide' was one that I really loved, and it surprised me because it was just this little thing I'd play on the acoustic," Mercer said. "And then it was also a big challenge for me, because I'm not actually that great of a guitarist. In order to do those solos, it took pass after pass after pass to get them right. It's a strange song, too. It's not something you hear on a pop record."
Even in the early days of The Shins, Mercer explored unique ways to fill out his recordings without making them too busy – often by adding effects, layering guitars and throwing in fleeting sounds that give body to certain moments. At the end of "New Slang," there's a sputtering noise that kind of craps all over the song's sentimentality.
"I took the tambourine loop and then I ran it through a delay (effect) that had, like, an infinite delay," Mercer said. "So yeah, it just starts to sound like a balloon deflating."
The wave of success from "Oh, Inverted World" propelled The Shins to their follow-up classics, 2003's "Chutes Too Narrow" and 2007's "Wincing The Night Away," which brought the band legitimate mainstream attention at the cost of fraying relationships. Mercer left Sub Pop to form his own music label, Aural Apothecary, and subsequently let go of his original bandmates during a hiatus that prompted doubts about the band's future.
"I don't know why I'm talking about this," Mercer said, stopping himself after mentioning that era. More than a decade later, his relationships with his former bandmates have largely been healed, he said, and he still considers them members of The Shins, even though the band since has featured a number of different lineups.
Musically, perhaps the most important event that happened during the time The Shins were in limbo was Mercer getting close to musician and producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, whose work with Gorillaz, The Black Keys and MF Doom has been defining of a stylistic crossover between the sounds of hip-hop and rock records.
Mercer and Burton together formed Broken Bells, a fusion of Mercer's more experimental inclinations and Danger Mouse's infinite playbook of studio gadgetry.
"Brian has just been a Godsend," Mercer said. "He's a really dear friend now, and I think I kind of needed a friend at that time, because I had alienated myself from my old bandmates. Brian was just perfect. He was someone that I'd always run into and we'd talk for an hour. I kept running into him at festivals, and then when this idea of me trying to start something new and do something on the side came up, he was the first to volunteer."
Broken Bells' third full-length album, "Into the Blue," is due out Oct. 7 via AWAL.
"I really think it's our best work yet," Mercer said.
Collaborating with Danger Mouse has opened doors for Mercer that he spent years avoiding. Despite the vibrancy and rich detail in Mercer's work, he had always feared working with other artists during the early days of The Shins.
"The songs don't sound like I'm a timid person, necessarily, but yeah, I was always afraid that if I worked with somebody who was a proper musician, then they'd discover I'm not one – and that would be this disaster, you know?" Mercer said. "I'm not a proper musician, but it's worked out."
Proper musician or not, few artists possess the imagination and wit to craft songs as euphoric as The Shins' "Australia," whose lyrics could be interpreted as a confrontation with imposter syndrome.
The version of The Shins that reemerged with 2012's "Port of Morrow" showed Mercer with a greater willingness to embrace bigger, more epic builds in his songs. He now belts his choruses with a little more conviction and doesn't shy away from crescendos if the songs call for them.
"It can be corny if you do that, if you really finish a song with a flourish," Mercer said. "I wonder if I was just a bit more demure on the first record, and then I gained confidence, and I was like, 'I can do that! I'm allowed!'"
The band's most recent release, "Heartworms," is a two-part album that has a "Flipped" version of each song in a completely different style. The lyrics are often more concrete than the introspection of the band's early releases, reflecting the changes in Mercer's life and the people who now inspire him to write.
"Having kids means I've got these three new relationships, and so lately I've been thinking of them and picturing them when they're older," Mercer said. "A lot of the new material is based on those relationships, and the changing relationship with my wife, how we're getting older and stuff like that. There's a lot of bittersweetness that comes with having kids in this world today."
Mercer now seems to address his feelings and responsibilities more directly, notably on a song like "Half a Million," where the remedy for being pulled in so many directions is reaching for his guitar.
The Shins' current tour behind "Oh, Inverted World" is their first since 2018. When Mercer returned to the stage, he had some jitters to overcome.
"The first few shows on this run, I was pretty nervous about it," Mercer said. "I thought, I don't know, am I going to be able to do this? Am I going to be able to sing properly? I feel this huge relief now and I feel the excitement about shows."
The part he's enjoying most is the way revisiting old material has fortified his bonds with the people around him. Touring is often a blur for Mercer – it's harder than it used to be – but traveling with The Shins family keeps it exciting.
"We have fun when we're out on the road. We're all really good friends," Mercer said. "The crew are all great and love each other. It's pretty crazy right now with what's happening as far as the relationships that are being formed."
Mercer said The Shins are in a strong position for a new album, whenever the time comes. He's got about 17 songs together and may even tack on bonus tracks from unreleased material during the "Oh, Inverted World" period. For now, he's focused on supporting Broken Bells' new album.
But as Mercer celebrates the music that first put The Shins on the map, he feels gratitude for the aimless kid experimenting in his Albuquerque bedroom.
"I'm glad that kid figured something out," Mercer said.