Catching Up With The Shins


March 26, 2007 — -- Hyperbole has been a great friend to rock and roll over the years. So when Natalie Portman lifted up those big headphones, looked into Zach Braff's eyes, and said "You gotta hear this song. It will change your life," pop culture nodded and agreed to play along.

Braff's cinematic triumph over the black dog in 2004's "Garden State," and The Shins' subsequent leap into the world of indie music stardom, came with a swiftness that belies the nature of those painful processes. In reality, it takes longer than 102 minutes to break a lithium dependency, and far longer for a mild-mannered guy like James Mercer to get his song into a Gap ad.

It takes, in the case of Mercer and The Shins, about seven years. That was the amount of time between the band's genesis in Albuquerque, N.M., and the moment Portman cooed those now iconic words.

"I felt really conspicuous watching the movie," Mercer tells ABC News' "The Mix," "Suddenly I felt like I wanted to shrink down in my seat. Seeing it made me feel like I was on the tip of a pedestal, kind of embarrassing almost."

Mercer's stand on the pedestal has lasted almost three years now, and there's no sign he has any plans to step down. The Shins' new album "Wincing the Night Away" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, and sold a very un-indie like 100,000 plus albums in its first week.

That's a long run, and a heavy haul, for a band that with a sound that fits no conventional genre.

Mercer seems only slightly surprised.

"It's surprisingly sustainable," he says of the band's left-of-mainstream success. "You can have a real niche audience these days. A small percentage of the population is buying your records, but you can make a living off that."

"We sold out Madison Square Garden theater and the caterers don't know who the hell we are!" Mercer laughs.

The Shins' so-called niche is now well-carved, thanks in no small part to a clever combination of new media and old school DIY spirit. "Wincing the Night Away" is the group's first release with an influential outside producer.

"The first record I produced and engineered myself," Mercer says. "The second one we had some help. But I did most of the crucial engineers on that … which was a mistake."

On release No. 3, producer Joe Chiccarelli joined the fray and the result is a tighter, thicker sound. "Bigger and better," as Mercer describes it.

The band could not have found a collaborator with a resume more finely tuned to both their pedigree and ambition. Chiccarelli has worked with artists at almost every point on the weirdness curve. He's one of the few men to have tamed Frank Zappa, if only for a moment, while also engineering for pop acts like U2 and Bon Jovi.

So if you're going to record lyrics like "They are the fabled lambs of Sunday ham…" (from hit single "Phantom Limb") and you want to hire a nanny for your kids on the tour bus (like drummer Jesse Sandoval plans), then you need a man with Chiccarelli's CV.

With an equally impressive record of past performance is the band's record label, Sub Pop. It was through the Seattle-based company that the "Garden State" script got into Mercer's hands, and from whence the world would follow.

Sub Pop may have broken through with Nirvana in the early Nineties, but the shared label is where the similarities between Kurt Cobain and James Mercer end. Where the Nirvana frontman gutted himself with paranoia about corporate influence, The Shins' leader was immediately "enthusiastic" about selling one his songs to McDonald's for a commercial.

"The median age has gone up for rock stars," notes touring member Eric Johnson, formerly and occasionally of The Fruit Bats. "It used to be like you had to be dead at 26."

Mercer will turn 37 in December, and has no plans to stop recording anytime soon. He looks young for his age, almost like one of the actors in the Timberlake-era McDonald's ads.

"It was such a great scheme," Mercer says, with a sly grin, of the McDonald's commercial. "The way I looked at it, we were pulling one over on these big money guys. The way they're using this sometimes kinda punk rock to sell things, it's just great."

Just who's scheming who is open for debate. Purists will scream that indie rock as a whole should not serve as a production house for big advertising agencies. The Shins' growing and quirky legion of dedicated fans would surely disagree, politely of course.

It's the numbers, though, that make the most compelling argument. Eight weeks after its release, "Wincing the Night Away" is a staple on the Billboard 200, finishing last week at No. 44, with more than 321,000 albums sold. On the indie chart, they'll finish March like a lion, at No. 3 -- owners of the highest-charting album in the history of Sub Pop records.

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