Conversations: James Mercer

The lead singer of the Shins talks about the indie band's newfound mainstream success in this interview and podcast.

Published March 7, 2007 9:00AM (EST)

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As the frontman for one of indiedom's most beloved bands, the Shins, James Mercer, 36, is used to handling a certain amount of attention. His band got a toehold on mainstream recognition by having two songs show up on the hit soundtrack of the Zach Braff/Natalie Portman vehicle "Garden State," but with the Shins' new album, "Wincing the Night Away," the brightness of the spotlight has only intensified: The record debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts when it was released in late January, launching them fully into the midstream of pop culture.

Salon caught up with Mercer by phone while he was in Vancouver, B.C., recently preparing for a show. He spoke about the band's newfound popularity, the pressures that come with it and how he defines a hardcore Shins fan.

-- David Marchese

Where were you and how did you feel when you saw that you debuted at No. 2?

We were in London doing promo stuff -- interviews and radio shows -- at the time. It was really cool. I think partly I was really excited for Sub Pop [the Shins' record label] because it's such a coup. [The album sales] quickly became the subject of all the interviews. It was like, "What the hell's going on? How did you guys get to No. 2?"

From the outside it seems like it has been a fairly organic growth.

Yeah, definitely. We haven't really been pushing hard. It's three years since the last record came out. Hardly any of the licensing opportunities we had were ever solicited by Sub Pop -- other than sending out CDs, which they do for every band. Things have just been happening very organically.

Which is maybe part of the reason you guys have been able to avoid the "sellout" speak that has attached itself to other bands.

Maybe so. It's obvious that we're not pushing really hard to sell ourselves. It has happened naturally, I guess. I hope that's true.

If someone paid me more money to write I don't think people would all of a sudden assume I was doing a worse job. Why do you think that's such a big issue in the world you come from?

Are you talking about the idea that as you get more and more success you get worse?

Exactly -- that there's an inverse relationship there.

Well, I don't know. I have my little theories about that. I think I recognize that when I do my best work it's often because I really have labored over it. Even if it's just the amount I'm putting into it in brain energy -- how much I'm thinking about it, how much I care about it. I think it's possible that there's something about -- I suppose it's the same with writing prose, but there's certainly something about music where I think that if you get soft or if you get spoiled or too comfortable maybe you just get lazy. You don't put enough effort into it.

Do you have a sense that the expectations of a larger number of people are going to color what you do?

It has probably changed the way we perform live. I think sometimes I feel less of a connection. I'm just physically farther away from the people we're playing to. But as far as the writing process, I really think -- and I might just be being optimistic -- that process, especially the very beginning, is such a mysterious process that maybe it's unaffected by these conscious, cerebral sorts of things.

I haven't yet seen the situation where somebody that enjoyed us in 2001 and felt a strong connection with us then has given us up because the jock at the local high school likes us. I would assume that it's probably happened.

Was there a moment when you realized that the scope of your band's popularity had changed?

After "Garden State" had been out for a few months, suddenly there were these requests that we go and perform at college shows, which are great shows to play -- they usually have a big budget and stuff like that. And for the first time we were able to have a bus. That was probably the most significant departure.

Maybe I'm grasping here, but you had to know recording this album that there would be a level of attention that wasn't there in the past. And then you came out with an album that, in some ways, is more challenging than past Shins albums.

I felt like, if we do get this sort of crowd that we don't relate to, and we get a predominant percentage of our audience filled in by those folks, that may be a problem. It gave me a certain amount of freedom to screw around and change up the formula that I had been using production-wise and even maybe songwriting-wise. It also pulled away this worry that I was going to take too long on the record and we'd lose our audience. If we took an extra year to make this record we weren't going to lose the people who were really curious about what we were doing.

At the same time as it seemed there was more at stake, you actually had less to lose.

Yeah, because we're comfortable. We've been comfortable. I could have continued forever at the level we were at after "Chutes Too Narrow." It's a dream, you know? I have this suspicion that when you kinda go all in, you start to play a game where it's all or nothing.

What do you mean by that?

I guess if we were to push hard and really put ourselves out there: sign to a major label, take every opportunity to use their advance to make big videos, and try and be something like Fall Out Boy or one of these bigger acts -- that would be going all in.

Have there been instances where you've decided to hold back in terms of your career or business?

Not really. This is the first time I've been faced with the fear of the possibility of becoming too ubiquitous. [The hardcore fans] want to have a real relationship with a band and they want to enjoy that. I'm that way. [The other day] I saw [a video of] Pink Floyd onstage doing "Dark Side of the Moon." Just hearing those songs -- that stuff I feel so deeply connected to -- I feel total ownership over that music. That's me. I think that's a very special thing to have with your audience and I don't want to lose that. [It's] getting to the point now that there are people who feel that way about us. I think I learned that partly from some of the early licensing things that we did; I was so surprised that people gave a shit, that people were disappointed with whatever we'd done.

Do you have a sense of who a Shins fan is?

It seems to me that many of the hardcore Shins fans are kids something like I was when I was in high school, you know?

Which was like what?

Probably a kid who is pretty sensitive and intelligent but maybe not totally socially adept. Not that gregarious, maybe shy. I don't know. I kind of connect with those people when I see them in the audience. Maybe I'm just imagining it.

By Salon Staff

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