Obsession is often a wonderful mindset to be caught in.
We become obsessed because we relate to something or aspire to it. We love the idea of being something better, something we’re not (yet), so we perfect our skills or ourselves or simply smother our loves until they succumb. Obsessions aren’t always good things: they can become religious fanaticism, stalkerish love, addictions or even an outta-control hobby. Staring at the planes crashing into the twin towers or televised bombs dropping in faraway wars, and that sense of being a bad human counting the death toll - while realising these are just humans like you and me - is something we can all relate to. That, and the tabloid-inspired fear of any repercussions landing steps from your front door.
It’s funny the people you relate to that you never expected to. Songs which start or stop your tears, lyrics that make you feel less alone. Looking at rows of McSpotted kids hanging on barriers outside of Michael Jackson’s hotels or seeing queues of kids in the rain at 2pm outside of the Brixton Academy waiting for Panic! At The Disco, it’s easy to see those who become somewhat irrationally attached to a band and turn someone into an idol. You could call these people modern disciples and you could call those they adore heroes. You can call these kids in the rain freaks and geeks; but then you find yourself, like I did, vaguely seeing a bit of yourself inside of them. It’s the knowing that they’re there because they relate to someone that affected them, that made their days and changed their lives. Our days and our lives. These heroes write songs we listen to on repeat, and albums that rarely leave our ears, at least not for any extended periods of time.
This isn’t addicts anonymous but I admit it: I’m a Shins fanboy! I’ve barely stopped listening to Oh Inverted World or Chutes Too Narrow, and since it leaked their forthcoming newie Wincing the Night Away (out January 2007 via Sub Pop) has rarely been out of earshot. Today I meet James Mercer, a man whose lyrics have inspired me through the hard times and whose songs - one of which I want played at my funeral - have bonded me to ex-lovers and best friends.
As I arrive in west London boozer and whisper a half-arsed “Hello”, I realise I’m not keeping my cool at all: my palms are dripping and my face is shining. I turn around and buy a pint of Dutch courage, place my Dictaphone on the table and hit record…
You recently got married. A few of our boarders said they played The Shins at their weddings and were wondering what music you played at your wedding?
We had good old songs like The Kinks, 'Only You' by the Platters, 'Please Please Please' by James Brown and The Zombies. Basically all my favourites. We had a Hawaiian band, too, playing Hawaiian music. I was born in Hawaii and my wife is from there, too.
Your third album, Wincing the Night Away, is in the can and ready for release in January. Without meaning to blow smoke up your ass, it sounds like a triumph to me. How does it feel to have the record finished?
I’m really happy and proud. For a while there I was champing at the bit for people to hear it. It’s been great doing these interviews and getting the first bits of feedback.
How do you feel about it being leaked so early?
I don’t really know. I’m not really sure what damage it’ll do. For a band like us I think it could be a good thing and help us. I’m not really sure what the repercussions will be. One thing I will say is that the sound quality on these leaked tracks isn’t very good. We spent a lot of time getting the production perfect so I’d prefer people heard them the way they are meant to sound.
Do you worry that it’s the geekier end of your audience who can be really anal and the most upset by any change of direction?
Geekier perhaps, but maybe in a way that they’re more attached to us. I’m not really sure what they think. I suppose whatever comments they make are as legitimate as any.
The new record has the same dark shadows and uplifting sound as previous albums, and kind of feels like a combination of the tones of both records. Would you agree?
Yeah, I’ve said that a couple of times in interviews over the past few weeks. This record was different, though; we had so much more time to sit and mess with it longer, and to experiment. Marty, Phil (EK) and I spent a lot of time with Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, U2), which was more like the first record where we didn’t have to rush.
Was it good not having the pressure of release date and things like that to work towards?
Yeah, I decided not to put that kind of pressure on myself and it was a really good feeling of like, "Ah fuck it". When the Garden State thing happened it changed things, and I felt like if that meant the kids that don’t really give a shit about us had time to disappear then that isn’t going to hurt anything. We’re not worried if we don’t sell as many records as we could have done, but more about the people who really give a crap about the music still being with us and buying it. I figure that will happen. Nobody wants those noisy jocks you get shouting at Modest Mouse gigs.
Do you feel your success to date has given you more pressure or freedom with this record?
(James pauses and taps his foot with nervous consideration) One of the reasons, in my mind, why I wanted this record to be so good was after the success with Garden State the first record started selling so well, so I feel like I want it to outshine and do something more powerful and different and turn heads away a little bit from that.
Is that why you’ve added elements of electronica to the new record, and not done what people would have expected?
It’s hard for me to remember exactly why I wanted to do that.
Was it because of certain records you were listening to at the time?
Yeah, kinda. I think it’s always cool to surprise people and, y’know, it’s double cool if you can surprise them and impress them. It felt like we could do it, and just do something Shins fans might not expect, but something that they’d respect and enjoy if they like my writing.
Do you feel records by My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse and bands like that have raised the bar somewhat for modern indie records?
Yeah, they are raising the bar - the production is getting so much better and the labels are getting so much stronger as the major labels get weaker which is fantastic. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL TIME! Tower Records is dead and yet Amoeba Record stores are booming; successful boutique record shops are such a great thing too. It’s such a great time, I think.
Obviously the online revolution has accelerated - is there anything you’ll be doing differently on this record to previous albums?
We’ll be doing this thing where if you buy the album on vinyl you get a voucher to download the album off of iTunes, so that you can have it on your computer, too. So that’s one alternative that we’re pretty stoked about. Online is great because I am one of these people who thinks the less material shit we consume, the better. You’re simply downloading electrons, which is a good thing, I guess.
Sub Pop are one of the first labels to go green and analyse their carbon footprint, aren’t they?
Yeah, I think that’s great. We’ll be doing the album on recycled paper and things like that, which I’m really happy about.
How do you feel about the changes to the way people are buying and consuming? Do you feel in an age of illegal downloads that packaging is more important?
Packaging is really important to me, it always has been. I love it when you get this cool, fucking great record cover. I love being impressed by other people's record covers. It’s a cool part of the whole thing, or at least it can be. We concentrate on it and I want it to look great. It’s gonna have the lyrics in it, because you can download them from places off the web but they’re often wrong.
Is the album artwork done?
Yeah I’m really happy with that. My brother [Robert Mercer] designed it and it’s really fitting, I think. It is little weird line art of what look like diatoms.
Y’know, those microscopic organisms that you get on old biology texts which look all psychedelic. My brother’s a really talented artist, I’m really happy with it.
The record has a real theme and sense of humanising the idea of war, which almost feels like bombs are echoing in the background noise?
There definitely is a lot of me struggling with human condition issues in the background noise of the record. I think that I was struggling with a number of issues in my life, and still some of those broader themes, and somehow they all seemed to blend together. Things like competition and violence and such things, in my personal world and in the universal way.
Do you feel it’s an artist's place to make political statements?
I think that, honestly, if somebody feels strongly about something I don’t have a problem with them talking out about it. I like good music and I’m willing to listen to eloquent attempts to communicate, I don’t even really care where their point of view is coming from necessarily, with some boundaries I suppose. If someone is articulately trying to express their point of views on something it’s worth hearing.
Do you feel there’s a lowering of the quality of lyrics and more generally a dumbing down of the English language happening at the moment, especially in America?
It depends who you talk to. For instance if you talk to our president (laughs) it’s funny see. We’re totally represented by this guy, and it’s crazy!
I know. On the plus side it feels like there has a been a real sea change in the way people consume things and make decisions because of the internet and people doing their research and reacting to things on levels of trust, like trusted eBay users. Do you think that might change the way in which people view democracy and the voting system?
In a way, I know it is. We’ve got to do it. We simply have to do it. We have to find the transparency and figure out the ways to make change happen. It seems to happen in these big corporations - how they manage to keep things like embezzlement down, and so on. We’ve just gotta figure out what we have to do about it first. Whether it’s something revolutionary or simple changes that need to be put in place to the existing system. We can’t go back to any sort of feudal bullshit. I don’t think there is a Western World which would let themselves go back to any sort of totalitarian system. Democracy just has to figure itself out. It’s still a new thing, and it needs to be probably more dynamic than it is.
The second half of this interview will run prior to the release of Wincing The Night Away on 22 January 2006. The UK release will be a joint venture between Sub Pop and a certain small-but-getting-bigger UK label. Dare we say who? Nah. Speculate all you like.
In the meantime, The Shins' new single 'Phantom Limb' is released digitally on Monday, November 20. Should you want to make friends with The Shins - and you should - visit them on MySpace.
Photograph by Brian Tamborello