Interview: The Shins


by thomas maxwell

The day I found out I would be interviewing one of my favorite bands I was very excited. That night when I got home from work I pulled out my shinny blue see-through LP (“Oh, Inverted World” the Shins first record) and went to town. I’m sort of compulsive, so I listened to the half-hour album five times that night. I notice new imbedded tracks and sounds each time I listen to that magical album. Then I pulled out one of their EPs “Know Your Onion” followed by the Postal Service’s first EP with a cover by the Shins of “We Will Become Like Silhouettes”. All of these records put me in my “happy place” where all my problems seem generic and petty. The Shins formula of a dense foundation in acoustic guitars, smooth as silk bass lines, methodical jocular drumming, shimmering keys, and wonderfully intense vocals embody what pop music is and what it always has been. James Mercer is undoubtedly proving that there are other intenselyintimate indie writers that people can identify with on a Blake Schwarzenbach level. You can really listen to James and create a deep understanding of his qualms and thoughts. I just find myself agreeing with his observations and ideas much more than any writer in quite a while. The new album, turn it on, close your eyes, smile, and try not to keep the wonderful pop melodies from infecting your brain.

What’s up man, how’s the weather over there in Portland? Are you suffering from seasonal depression yet?

JM: It’s not quite rainy and stuff yet. It’s been really windy and strange.

Let’s talk about the new album, how much of Chutes Too Narrow is based on childhood memories and experiences?
Hmm, what do I have in there, I mean I think there’s always a little of that stuff. I think I’d have to look at the lyrics, let me grab the record. I think I did a little bit less of the childhood memories stuff on this record

As opposed to “Oh, Inverted World”?
Yeah, “Oh, Inverted World” had a lot of, like “One By One All Day” is sort of a whole mixed bag of memories of my childhood. But yeah, I don’t think there is so much of the childhood memories on this album. “Pink Bullets” is sort of looking back on one of the first girls I ever dated. It’s just sort of fond memories in a way.

Was your childhood an awkward part of your life?
I don’t know, I was a pretty shy sort of kid. I moved around a lot because my dad was in the Air Force so we were always changing posts.

Is that how you met Neal?
I guess in a way yeah. I met Neal in Albuquerque when my dad was assigned to Kirtland Air Force base.

Is self reflection an important part of your writing?
Yeah definitely and I think that most of my work is about personal sort of things and sort of reflecting on my own thoughts and behavior.

I personally liked the folky feeling of tracks like Pink Bullets and the steel guitar used on Gone For Good. It seems like all of indie music is moving to this grass roots appreciation and you guys sort of embody this movement. What do you think of this?
It sort of less modern I guess. I think it depends on the band. As a band you need to figure out what it is that’s unique about yourselves. I think sometimes it’s a little depressing for me to go and see a band that’s obviously trying to emulate some other band’s uniqueness.

“Bite somebody’s style”?
Yeah exactly. It never comes off well I don’t think and at best it’s usually a stage they’re going through and hopefully
eventually they’ll figure out what they’re really about. So I think some bands are modern that do totally new stuff and they’re sort of a new sound that they
created themselves. Then other bands there’s something about there nature and they’re into older bands and are influenced by that. Just as long as you’re doing what you really ought to naturally be doing, I think that is what’s most important.

Were you hoping the new album would be danceable and do you think it is?
(laughing) I don’t know, I don’t think it is danceable.

Do you wish it was?
I never really write with the idea of doing a dance number but I’d like to try I guess. I think that would be pretty cool. I love dance music and I like to dance, but yeah I don’t know, I don’t think it’s much of a dance album.

Was it hard for you to say
goodbye to Neal Langford since he was one of the cofounders of the band?
Yeah, actually he wasn’t one of the cofounders of the Shins. He definitely was a cofounder of Flake, but the Shins was really Jessie and I and Dave who is back in the band and Marty.

So Dave actually was the original bassist. That’s kind of crazy.
Yeah I know, it’s like at ever turn of events with this band is confusing because people are really confused about how we changed from Flake to the Shins when in reality we didn’t change from Flake to the Shins.

(interrupting) Exactly, that was going to be my next question, what was up with the name change and why did you choose the shin, I mean there’s a lot of body parts.
(laughing) What happened what, the Shins was going along while Flake was still existing so it was totally two separate bands. The Shins was a totally separate idea it was going to be pop songs as opposed to jamming out indie rock and it ended up through a series of coincidences that we got Neal in the band and he was a great bass player, but it was coincidental that we had all been in Flake. (If you are still confused, three of the four members of Flake remain in the Shins with the Exception of Neal Langford who was replaced by Dave Hernandez formerly of Sacred of Chaka)

Okay, so if you had to compare,
I mean, I was a listener of Flake after the Shins had already started, but even though they are different bands and there are obviously different feelings in the songs the main difference I see is acoustic guitar as opposed to electric guitar.
Yeah, I can see that, production wise you mean right? Yeah that’s true man, I don’t know, Flake…

(interrupting) To me, the Shins really get your singing abilities and expert song craft out where as in Flake it was more about the rock, it was more about the instruments.
Yeah totally, and that’s what I kind of miss about Flake because it was kind of cool to go back and forth with guitars.

You never really answered my question why the shin?
The first time I ever heard that name was in a musical called “The Music Man” and the mayor of this town, Gary, was mayor Shin so there’s scenes where people are like ‘are the Shins here?’ or ‘where are the Shins?’ and so you hear it a lot. Something about it sounded kind of random and strange and it has this sort of Irish feel to it (he’s Irish). It’s mainly the randomness of it. I don’t like it when a band’s name gives too much information.

Is there any type of music you’ve ever wanted to make, but just haven’t gotten around to it?
I have actually always wanted to do
some dance music. I’ve been talking to Jimmy Tamborello from Dntel (and the Postal Service) about possibly singing
on a record…

Would you consider yourselves part of the new SubPop superstars with the Postal Service, Iron & Wine, the Thermals and former labelmates Hot Hot Heat rounding out the line-up? What changed over at SubPop?
Yeah, were definitely a Pop superstar (laughing). I don’t know what changed
at SubPop. I think that what happened in the mid nineties is SubPop realized that their attempt at becoming a major label and their philosophy that if you simply act like a major label that you will become a major label has failed. And so they got a little more realistic about the company and sort of made the company more efficient. They sort of stripped it down and there was a lot of personnel changes so there are new people there who are very hip and sort of understand what is cool in music right now and they are sort of changing what SubPop has always meant to people and it’s working wonders.

That version of that song and then hearing Iron & Wine on the same single sort of proved that any type of song can be made into another type of song (in this case a techno/dance song into a retro 60’s rock and acoustic folk song).
Yeah if it is a good song and that is why I think the Postal Service is doing well. I don’t think it’s so much that they are doing indie dance music I think the songs are really good.

Look, I work in an office and I’ve heard you knock us white-collar fascists. What was it that you liked least about working in an office?
I think I’m just lazy or something. I worked every day pretty much since I was fifteen until about two years ago when we started touring enough to make some money. I never really enjoyed working for other people.

Touring plans for the near future?
We’re going out to New York for a week on Monday to do CMJ and a bunch of in stores and we’ll be playing at Maxwell’s. And then we’re touring in November in the States. We’re playing at the All Tomorrow’s party in LA.

Check out the Shins on the SubPop website at