The Shins are the kind of band that has no business having a career, at least not now. Their music is built on soft-cornered melodies, weird chord changes and a shimmery ambiguity that hardly fit with the crisp, direct, sharp-edged sound of the so-called garage-rock-revival bands (the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Rapture) that are all the rage.
But here they are, grabbing a drink in the Fairfax District across the street from CBS, where they’ve just appeared on “The Craig Kilborn Show.” Actor Jason Lee (“Chasing Amy”) drops in to say hi, and it’s the night before they play the Matt Groening-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Companies and TV shows are licensing songs (such as “New Slang”).
By the standards of indie rock, the Shins are newly crowned royalty. More important, they’ve found a way to combine neo-psychedelia, magical realism and R.E.M.'s “Murmur” to make something completely fresh and mysterious.
Despite all the success, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist James Mercer, 32, is just as odd as you’d expect after hearing the band’s soulful, labyrinthine songs.
He’s also well-mannered, sweet and bashful: When his ex-girlfriend, who now “does hair” in West Hollywood, stops by in the middle of their drink, Mercer turns out to be the kind of guy who’s nice to his exes and able to draw cuter women than most skinny introverts. (He’s not the only one: Marty Crandall, the Shins’ keyboardist, is seeing the nation’s third-hottest model, as chosen by the show “America’s Next Top Model 2003.”)
Mercer concedes that the Portland-based Shins have little to do with the now-reigning garage-rock sound. Not that he thinks there’s anything that eccentric about their music. “They’re rock ‘n’ roll songs with a melodic line and a good beat,” he says, sipping a beer. “What kids have liked since the early ‘50s.” It’s not clear whether he’s kidding.
The Shins’ numbers, though, are less ambiguous: Their second record, “Chutes Too Narrow,” has just logged the best first-week sales for Seattle’s Sub Pop label since the company started keeping score in 1991.
In fact, the band has helped Sup Pop usher in its best year of sales and profit ever. Both are lower, of course, than what major labels yield, but still striking in a year when the record industry is groaning under the weight of piracy, an economic downtown and corporate consolidation.
While Sub Pop is associated with grunge -- Nirvana’s “Bleach” and Mudhoney’s “Screaming Life” appeared on the label -- its recent hits include the keyboard-driven Postal Service, the Cure-inspired Hot Hot Heat and the Shins’ debut, “Oh, Inverted World,” all of which have sold at least 100,000 records (a mark sometimes dubbed “indie platinum”). The new Shins album is expected to arrive at that level by the end of the year.
Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop president, credits his label’s good health and that of other indie rock labels this year to low overhead -- and finding bands like the Shins that are “ahead of the zeitgeist ever so slightly.”
Indie-rock fans’ “lifestyle commitment” helps thwart piracy, he says. “There’s a ritualistic quality to buying CDs and records -- to the aesthetic of the album -- that people are not ready to abandon.
“Shins records are very, very short, about half an hour,” he says, and people are, by and large, not complaining. “They’re buying a piece of art.”
This band of artists was formed in the unlikely climes of Albuquerque, though Mercer -- the son of an Air Force colonel -- grew up mostly in Germany and England. In high school near London, he was turned on by the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and was lucky enough to see My Bloody Valentine in the years before they toured the U.S.
Even after moving to New Mexico for college in 1989, he remained an Anglophile. The band’s bassist, Dave Hernandez, describes the Albuquerque scene as dominated by “super blue-collar alcoholism and lots of death metal.” The guys in his old band made fun of him when he started playing with a group so “wimpy.” (Three of four Shins have now relocated to the Northwest, and “Chutes” was recorded in Mercer’s new basement studio and produced by Phil Ek.)
Through his New Mexico years, Mercer stayed inside a lot and played his Smiths records. “There’s a certain weird melancholy to the melodies that I’ve always enjoyed,” he says of English music. “I read in John Keats or someone, one of the romantic poets, that long ago they believed that the gall bladder created melancholy -- and that only the British had that organ.”
Whether listening to Morrissey or Magnetic Fields, Mercer paid special attention to lyrics. He considers traditional storytelling “a little hokey” and prefers something more abstract.
“I try to have original metaphors,” he says. “I read this essay in college by George Orwell; he was just ranting at hearing cliches in the English writers of his day. If you use cliches you don’t mean what you say -- you’re just being lazy.”
His songs are full of visual imagery both arresting and at times overwrought: bedsheets growing grass on their corners, ice cubes melting in the ocean, and a girl who looks “like a knife wearing tennis shorts.” Like the tunes they accompany, many of these make more sense the more one comes back to them.
It’s easy to pick up an English wistfulness recalling “Rubber Soul” and the Zombies in such songs as “So Says I” from the new album and “Girl Informs Me” from “Oh, Inverted World.” Harder to find is the other strain stamped on his musical DNA: country music.
“I spent days and days in country-western bars with my dad,” he says, referring to imitation honky-tonks in Germany that offered wet T-shirt contests and pits where visitors could grill their own steaks. “If they couldn’t get a baby-sitter, I was there.” Mercer now plays the old acoustic guitar that belongs to his Montana-cattle-ranch-raised father.
But he takes it in his own direction. “Gone for Good,” a yearning track on “Chutes” with a sublime pedal-steel guitar, is the most musically traditional song on the album. But the refrain -- “I found a fatal flaw/ In the logic of love” -- sounds more at home in a physics lab than a Merle Haggard song.
“I have a need to apply logic to things that logic doesn’t work with,” Mercer laments. “And it’s very disturbing to me. I’m torn between this scientific approach to reality and [something] irrational and emotional.”
Before he sold his soul to rock ‘n’ roll, Mercer was studying electrical engineering. He’s interested in evolutionary biology and launches into an excited description of Matt Ridley’s “The Red Queen,” a book about the genetic roots of sexuality. Mercer went through a minor crisis realizing his romantic and chivalric ideas were biologically programmed.
He admits, despite his sensibility, that there are limits to what rationality can do. “Math is a very good way to describe music -- but the roots of music,” he cautions, “are unknown to man.”
On the Web
To hear samples from the Shins’ latest album, visit www.calendarlive.com/shins.