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Shins frontman James Mercer goes up-tempo

May 8, 2009 |  2:42 pm

The singer has a movie coming out, a tour starting up and a new album to work on.

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James Mercer went to the movie audition last year expecting the worst. He wasn't even an actor but a singer-songwriter and the leader of a hugely popular indie-rock band called the Shins. But he was drawn to the character of Eli, a 35-year-old musician whose band and career are hopelessly stalled. "He's now doing temp jobs and is worried about his future," Mercer says of Eli. "Kind of like me 10 years ago."

A lot can happen in a decade. He eventually got that co-starring role in "Some Days Are Better Than Others," set for release in August. And with the Shins, Mercer has risen from his early bedroom recordings in Albuquerque to be the frontman of a million-selling indie-rock band, making music emotional and philosophical, with vivid melodies and an equal flair for understated ballads and rousing pocket symphonies of pop.

The band's last album, 2007's "Wincing the Night Away," showed a weakness for pop harmonies and a tradition of song craft practiced by the likes of the Beach Boys. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, suggesting an army of followers waiting to hear of the Shins' every move.

"Maybe it makes you work a little harder," says Mercer, 38. "I'm trying to avoid having regrets about missing opportunities. That would be the worst thing. Like having an audience waiting, and not working hard enough, and coming out with a record that disappointed them. It's just really work. The more you put in, the more you get out."

It's the third day of the Shins' 2009 tour, and Mercer is calling from his brother's home in Seattle. On Sunday, the band performs at the Hollywood Palladium, where fans may be surprised to find a largely new lineup of the band onstage.

Four months ago, Mercer replaced two longtime members: drummer Jesse Sandoval and keyboardist-bassist Marty Crandall, who both relocated from New Mexico with Mercer in 2002 to the band's current base of Portland, Ore. He made the change for creative reasons, he says, bringing in bassist Ron Lewis of Fruit Bats and drummer Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and Black Heart Procession for a more exotic range of sounds.

"I can see myself working with Jesse and Marty again in the future," he says. But not now, and not when Mercer returns home after the current tour to begin recording the Shins' fourth album.

The band, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson and founding lead guitarist Dave Hernandez, is performing two new songs on tour, including the danceable "Double Bubble," a sound the Shins haven't been known for.

"They're a bit more up-tempo, even upbeat," Mercer says of the songs, among the 30 he's written in preparation for the album. "One of them is maybe aggressive-ish. I haven't got any ballads at all so far. I wonder what that will be like, if that's the case -- to have a Shins record without the slow ballad."

"Chutes Too Narrow" was the breakthrough album in 2003, and the Shins sound became only more refined and complex.

On "Wincing the Night Away," there was something stirring about how the Shins could drift from white noise into real beauty -- as the noisy "Pam Berry" led into the clarity of "Phantom Limb," while Mercer's crisp, yearning voice surfed across a pattern of bright guitar strumming and an anxious beat.

Now, even amid the new, faster tempos, the content remains as reflective as ever. The song "The Rifle's Spiral" concerns the ease with which some can develop solid convictions on the big questions, he says. "I seem to be more and more shocked at how people at this late date can really feel confident about just about anything -- religious beliefs or political beliefs. . . . I just never have been able to be."

His plan is to begin working on the album after the tour ends this summer, refining his ideas before bringing in an outside producer. He also expects to involve the full band earlier in the process, aiming for a more immediate, "live" sound.

He knows fans will be waiting and that for others, the Shins will remain a symbol of the soft, contemplative side of indie rock, and therefore a target for contempt. Mercer understands.

"I remember being in high school," he says with a laugh, "and you had to draw those lines and define yourself. I don't think when I was in high school I would have been willing to admit that I liked the Shins. I was into TSOL and Black Flag. I probably would have listened to the Shins secretly in my bedroom."

--Steve Appleford

Photo credit: Benjamin Reed / Los Angeles Times

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