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Music Interview: The Shins

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ames Mercer , frontman for the perfect pop band the Shins, is a man out of joint with his time. On Chutes Too Narrow, the follow-up to 2001’s shimmering, elegiac Oh, Inverted World, he litters his gently loping pop songs with anachronistic references to trains, pilgrims, poison pills and ramparts. As before, the Albuquerque-cum-Portland band mines the ’60s, but this time trades Brian Wilson for the British Invasion. Mercer’s barbed lyrics document intimate betrayals and relationships gone sour: “You have too much to wear on your sleeve/That has too much to do with me/Secretly I want you buried in the yard,” goes one typical stanza on “Kissing the Lipless.” Later, the line “she shone up bright like a knife” passes for romantic endearment. In conversation, Mercer (above, far right) is a bit like indie rock’s Holden Caulfield — a raw nerve drawn to and broken down by the pure, untainted and innocent. We talked to him from his Portland home, where he was unwinding after a video shoot. — Alison M. Rosen

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What is “Kissing the Lipless” about?
It’s about losing friends and ending relationships. I have moments when I get this feeling that friendships just sort of have this lifespan or this sell-by date.

Is Chutes Too Narrow a breakup record?
Not really. I think Oh, Inverted World was more.

How dark are your lyrics?
They’re dark in a real way. Dark about things that are real and permanent and really suck and don’t change.

On “Young Pilgrims” you sing “I learned fast how to keep my head up/ ’cause I know I’ve got this side to me/ that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot/ and fly this whole mess into the sea.” Are you self-destructive?
A part of me is, just like everybody. Anybody who’s gotten shit-faced and puked has a self-destructive side.

When you tour, are you all about the rock-and-roll lifestyle?
Well, I think I am least of all. Staying up all night and then having to get up and drive is not fun. But we were in London recently with The Icarus Line, who are renowned for being crazy. We were right there along with them every step of the fucking way. I don’t think people understand that we’re not these bookish kids who share poetry at the end of the evening.

Any groupie action?
Well not lately for me, because I have a girlfriend. But there was some of that happening that I bore witness to, which is good. It should be that way.

“I’m very affected by drugs.”

Does touring put a strain on your relationship?
Very much. It’s difficult because you’re away from the person, and it’s difficult because they know you’re in this weird situation that could, if you let it, turn into bad things.

If The Shins were a sexual position, what would they be?
Doggie style, with a reach-around.

In the song “Pink Bullets” you’re talking about memories, and you sing, “I don’t look back much as a rule.” Is that true?
I do in my writing but I’m not a nostalgic person. Nostalgia makes me depressed. I don’t have a photo album. But in my songs I do tend to look back a lot. There was a time when I was smoking a lot of pot, a time when nostalgia just seemed constant. Like the temporal part of my brain wasn’t working. I was feeling nostalgia about stuff that happened a week before. It was just bizarre. I’m very affected by drugs. They’re all too strong for me, I think.

So you filmed a video yesterday for “Kissing the Lipless.” What’s it going to be like?
Marty [Crandall] and I were at the local mall and we happened across this young man ice skating in the mall rink, and we were fascinated by him. He was super-enthusiastic; it was as if he were in the Ice Capades. We thought it’d be cool to have him in the video. The idea is that he’s skating to the song, becomes lost in it, and fantasizes that he’s hanging out with us.

Is he kind of like Blind Melon’s bee girl?
[laughs] I think in a weird way he might be, but better! He ice skates! This guy is so compelling to watch. Hopefully that, in and of itself, will be entertaining. And there’s the strange juxtaposition of rock and ice skating culture.

Was he taken aback that you wanted to put him in the video?
I think he was just really excited. He can really skate. He’s just astonishingly unaware of how something like ice skating is perceived by mortal men.

Are you that passionate about anything? Or do you wish you could be?
I think everyone wishes they could be like that. I was watching Reading Rainbow on TV, and Levar Burton was interviewing a little kid. He asked the kid, if you could have any wish, what would it be? The kid, who was from California, goes, “I would move to Texas and buy a horse and look for treasure.” That state of mind, if you can keep that, you’re golden forever. You don’t need anyone or anything ever again. 

To buy Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop), click here.
   

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