12 noon in Lancaster Gate and a drowsy James Mercer semi-strides into the Columbia Hotel lobby, complete with fastly-fading tan, vintage tee and a lazy-shaver’s beard. He shakes your hand, asks who you’re writing for and sits in the only armchair, flanked by band buddies Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez. He is quiet and thoughtful. He listens to each question carefully. He is giving nothing away.
What you really need is an interview without the interviewer. To read about a band without them tiptoeing around some know-nothing journo they’ve just met; dodging demands to slag off The Strokes or sigh for the thousandth time as they tell you where they got their name from. Sure, we can recite bits of biography, fill in gaps, make-up stories and string together snippets of speech. We can tell you where they come from, what they like, who they listen to. But we can’t tell you who they are, what they are like, or get close enough to understand how & why they make music. And surely that’s the most important thing.
[Drummer Jesse Sandoval wanders in five minutes late]
Dave: _Where’d you get to? _
Jesse: Trying to sort out my laundry
James: _Did you get all the stuff in your duffel-bag cleaned? _
Jesse: Yeah, mostly
*Surely you don’t have to do your own laundry now that you’re all international rock stars?! *
Jesse: _Yeah, actually I was just talking to the girl who did my laundry; I just said that to make myself look domesticated! _
*How do you cope with being on tour all the time? *
James: You just have to get used to it. I think that after doing it for so long, and we’ve been on the road for most of the past three years, you start to get into a rhythm and a routine, so you become much better at dealing with it…
Dave: _I think the most difficult parts of it are the practical things, like the long journeys in a cramped tourbus, or the hotels we’ve ended up sleeping in. _ [looking around the lobby of the Columbia] _ I think that now we’re selling more records, we’ve been up-graded, but during the promotion for the first record, we ended up staying in some pretty low-rent places, sometimes with just two beds between the four of us. So when we’d had a hard day travelling or on-stage and you come back and we’re all cooped up in the same room, it can be quite difficult. _
Marty: [jokingly] _Yeah, and I don’t know anyone who’d want to spend three years sleeping in the same hotel room as these guys! _
*So you don’t get sick of the sight of each other then? *
Dave: Oh, all the time…
Jesse: [laughing] _No Dave, we just get sick of the sight of you! _
James: _No, we all have moments where we feel tired and claustrophobic, but we all know in ourselves when we need some space, and I think the rest of the guys can sense that. _
Dave: _Yeah, we’ve all known each other so long that we can give each other time to themselves if they want it – which I think stops us from bitching at each other. _
*James, obviously as the singer/songwriter, a lot of attention gets put on you. Are you happy about that? Would The Shins be any different if you just hired three different backing musicians? *
Jesse: [pretending to walk-off] _That’s it, I’m leaving! _
James: _I guess that kind of attention is inevitable with me being the singer, and the guy that writes the songs; but I think that anyone who talks about The Shins as if it’s just me and three other guys doesn’t understand the way we work. Yeah, I write the songs, but then on top of that, Marty invents these neat little keyboard lines, Dave puts his own bass and guitar parts together, and Jesse holds all of that together. _
Dave: _We all bounce ideas off each other. _
James: _Exactly. And this record definitely wouldn’t have been the same without these guys playing on it. _
With The Shins there is no pretension. There are no fits of grandeur or self-importance, and while he approaches each interview with an impenetrable professionalism, what becomes clear is that James Mercer and his friends are a group of humble, irreverent and self-effacing young pilgrims who love playing the music they’ve made, and simply take the pressures of promotion and touring as part of the package.
The truly outstanding moment on the band’s debut Oh, Inverted World was a tune called New Slang; a wistful wisp of autumn-scented reverie that sounds like a collage of faded photographs, forgotten memories and muffled emotion. It featured the line “new slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.” Strangely, it found itself as the soundtrack to a McDonalds advert…
James: _I think that whole thing got blown out of proportion a little bit. To my knowledge, the advert only got shown in the States, and it didn’t run for very long at all before they dropped it. _
So you can’t be very good at selling hamburgers then
James: _No, I guess not _
Marty: _Dammit! That’s my career in advertising ruined! _
I’m guessing they didn’t include the ‘dirt in your fries’ line in it…
Jesse: _No, it was only the opening few chords and James’ harmonies. _
James: _Yeah, something tells me that might not have been such a great way of selling more Happy Meals. _
*How have people responded to you doing it, have you had many cries of ‘sell out!’? *
James: I think a lot of people were surprised by it, and yeah, we did have some people coming up to us and saying ‘what the hell did you do that for?’ The way I try to explain it is that although we’re doing very well at the moment, when that record came out we weren’t a big band; we’re not on a major label or anything and it’s not even as if people are really buying records anymore. For a lot of alternative artists at the moment, it’s a pretty hand-to-mouth existence.
Dave: Also, we didn’t exactly go around with burgers in our mouths going “yeah, go eat at McDonalds!”
And you used the money you got from it to build the studio, didn’t you?
James: That’s right. It meant we could afford to set up in the basement of my house, so at least we used the money to create something.
It’s easy to be sanctimonious, because we’re not creating anything. If it’s impossible for the rest of us to wander through life without being at the mercy of some giant corporate machine, just try selling your songs without the Time-Warner record deal, FM radio rotation or the keys to MTV. In a period where major labels are ready to dump ‘niche artists’ (ie, anyone that’s not shifting units like crooning sub-jazz cunt Jamie Callum or pitiful Tory-rockers Keane) to shore themselves up against the invasion of illegal downloading, times are even harder for artists on independent labels. Sometimes you’ve got to make compromises just to get by.
*As it’s an election year, a lot of bands have recently got quite political, affiliating themselves with groups like Move On, Rock the Vote and PunkVoter. Do you ever see The Shins standing up and doing something like that? *
[Marty looks at his shoes. James & Dave grimace]
James: _Errrm… Not really. I don’t think that would be such a great idea. It’s just… _
Dave: _It’s not like we don’t care, or we don’t have opinions about this stuff, but that’s not related to the music. _
James: _Yeah. It’s like, our music’s about love and growing up and making sense of things. I don’t think people really want to hear us sounding off about George Bush or whatever. And we’re not exactly qualified to talk about that sorta stuff either; there’s plenty of other people who do it much better. Why demean that by getting a pop band up there, preaching to people? _
*Can you understand why people do that kind of thing? *
James: _Oh, God yeah. Some of my favourite bands have always had that conviction to stand up and say things they believe in. And it’s not as though this is part of one big marketing strategy, that we’re keeping quiet so that Republican voters will still buy our records. It’s that our music isn’t about that stuff. It’s about personal politics, nothing more. _
The Shins’ own success has been part of the wider resurrection of alternative music that has seen their label Sub Pop (Nirvana’s old label) shift from peddling pathetic Nevermind-parodies to putting out some of the best records of the past two years, including releases from Hot Hot Heat, The Postal Service and country-flecked troubadour Iron & Wine.
James: _When we first signed to Sub Pop it was quite strange, as a lot of people [staff] were leaving just as we had arrived. _
So it was like, ‘hey, was it something I said?’
James: _Yeah, kinda. I think what people don’t realise is that we actually signed to the label quite a long time ago now, while we were recording the first record. I think it’s definitely changed a lot; there are people like Rosie Thomas and Iron & Wine who came in after us, who are a lot softer, and that’s cool because there’s now a whole range of interesting new artists. _
*Was it a case of ‘diversify or die,’ do you think? *
James: _I think so. The fact was not many people were making good grunge records anymore, and certainly not many people were buying that stuff, ‘cos everyone was listening to rap-rock. So I think it was good that they brought some new people in, just to offer an alternative to all of that. And the label’s pretty successful at the moment; bands like The Postal Service and Hot Hot Heat have done really well. _
Dave: Other bands have been doing really well too, like The Flaming Lips and White Stripes, so it’s definitely a good time to be making this kind of music_
James: Yeah, The White Stripes got nominated for Grammies too. That’s really cool…_
And then you run out of things to ask. You start flicking through your notebook, looking for questions you haven’t yet hit them with, when your friend pipes up with…
*If you had a green Skittle, a yellow Skittle and an orange Skittle, which would you pick first and why? *
James: _Oh, now that’s a really good question! _
Marty: _What about the red one? You’ve gotta have the red one in there! Well, that’s the one I’d choose. _
James: _Marty could probably survive on candy. It’s the only thing he seems to eat. When we’re on tour, we’ll stop off to get some gas or something, and Marty comes running back with a bag full of Skittles and Starbursts; stuff like that. _
*So instead of blowing all his royalties on cocaine, he’s spending it all on Oreos?! *
Marty: _Hmmm, Oreos are okay, not my favourite though. _
Jesse: _D’you get Hershey’s bars over here? _
Marty: _Yeah, that’s more like it! Hershey’s bars and Skittles. Actually, I don’t think I could eat another bag of skittles. Me and my girlfriend were both addicted to them and I think we ate so much that we kinda overdosed. _
James: He used to work in a restaurant, where they have those ice-cream machines…
*Oh yeah, they have those in Pizza Hut. The ones where you can pour your own and then put sweets on top? *
James: Yeah, exactly
Marty: Yeah, and I’m all like “Get out of the way kids! What, you think this is a toy? It’s very serious piece of equipment” I don’t know how many children I’ve maimed while trying to get to that thing…
The interview’s over. You shake hands, mutter some half-baked goodbye and saunter out into the dull, drizzled afternoon. The next time you see them, the band are tearing through an hour-long set at the shoebox-small Arts Café in Toynbee Hall, showing a crowd of guest-list broadsheet journos just what all the fuss is about. Firing through songs like first single So Says I or Girl on the Wing, the band boast a breathless energy that evaporates any idea of them being fey popsmiths, with a sound that’s just as urgent and giddily excitable as on record.
You once had a friend called James Mercer. He was the first guy you knew who had a single mum, and lived in a house with no carpets. You used to spend hours traipsing around the school-yard together, avoiding the kids with shaved heads and fake tattoos, until one day he went to London for a holiday and never came back. You never found out why.
You didn’t tell The Shins singer this, but get the feeling he would’ve been interested…
*My friend Jim Cust asked the Skittles question. Because his girlfriend Ruth told him to. This is Part II of DiS’s Shins extravaganza. You’ll find the first part here. *