LOS ANGELES — Ask the band directly, what are The Shins about, and the four friends’ free-for-all flow of deadpan wit, wild metaphor and the occasional outburst of song (evidence of not just a clever group of people but a happy one) stops cold.
“Oh, I don’t know,” begins a hesitant James Mercer, who as The Shins’ primary songwriter and singer is generally deferred to in interviews.
“Oh, that’s really hard,” cuts in keyboardist Marty Crandall with uncharacteristic gravity. “It’s like impossible to do.”
Mercer tries again. “As far as what we sound like, we kind of have this ’60s sort of thing in there, R&B. I mean the early ’60s R&B that The Beatles and The Stones were so into. And then there’s the mid-’80s new wave that we all love so.”
“There’s just so many different styles of songs, though,” Crandall corrects him.
“I know. And then there’s country & western in there sometimes, too . . .”
Guitar and bass player Dave Hernandez jumps in: “I always thought the biggest strength of our band is that James doesn’t align himself with one style. It’s natural. It’s . . . cerebral.”
Hernandez laughs as he says it, but there is definitely a shared respect among the band for Mercer’s undeniable songwriting talent, and the idea of The Shins as thinking man’s music gets instant approval from Crandall. “It is! It makes you think . . . The lyrics . . . ” He drifts off, lost in thought.
Since the 2001 release of debut album “Oh, Inverted World,” names like The Beach Boys and The Zombies have often been referenced in Shins reviews. Listen to 2003′s “Chutes Too Narrow,” which has a fuller sound and more eclectic scope, and you’re as likely to be inspired to pull out your old Smiths’ records as you are your parents’ Bob Dylan. Mercer’s music is at once likable, which lends to its sense of familiarity and surface simplicity, but it’s complex, authentic stuff. Add to this the lyrics Crandall mentions, which are more evocative than narrative and more sensitive than their titles imply (“Caring Is Creepy” recalls a failed romance with the oddly touching line “One day I’ll be wondering how/I got so old just wondering how/I never got cold wearing nothing in the snow”), and the marvel of the band becomes exponential. There’s just no reducing The Shins.
“I remember on our first Web site,” says Mercer, trying to salvage his humility, “it said that we were ‘an American pop combo,’ which just seemed like the easiest way to say, to give you a very . . . It really tells you nothing.”
On top of this, The Shins are too good to rely on the And You Will Know Us by the Locks on our Head phenomenon that has been redefining indie music of late (i.e. indie’s fashionable now, so to become successful indie bands mainly need good hair). The music plus hard work has drawn them an audience, and The Shins still tend toward T-shirts and jeans.
“I think my favorite opening line was from [our] first time in Europe and we just got on stage and I was like,” Crandall spreads his arms and shrugs, ” ‘This is how we look.’ “
“Is this what you expected?” Mercer says with a laugh.
Much of the work has come in the form of constant touring, both domestically and abroad, which has helped boost combined sales of The Shins’ two albums to nearly half a million. In between tours, they maintain a fairly demanding schedule of one-off shows including cutting-edge festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties as well as television appearances ranging from the expected (“Austin City Limits”) to the downright surprising (“Gilmore Girls”). Contributions to the soundtracks for “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and “Garden State” are winning the band even more fans; the latter record has gone gold.
This interview took place in the runup to next week’s shows in Osaka and Tokyo, their first dates in Japan, on the afternoon of an annual holiday concert organized by Los Angeles’ self-conscious alternative authority KROQ. The Shins were sharing the bill with the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Killers and Interpol. Still they don’t take themselves too seriously and seem downright humble in light of their achievements. Much of their exposure, they recognize, has been won by dedicated fans who are willing to do whatever they can to give The Shins a leg up.
“There really has been a lot of that,” says Mercer. “It could just be one person like Zach Braff [writer, director and star of "Garden State"] who just goes out on a limb and says, ‘This is my favorite thing’ and totally backs us up. There are those few gems that really are our allies.
” . . . And then there are those droves and droves of people who don’t give a shit at all.”
The level of loyalty among Shins proponents is exceptional. One famously persuaded McDonald’s to feature “New Slang” in one of its commercials, conveniently overlooking Mercer’s line about “the dirt in your fries.” (The ad didn’t last long.)
Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse is one of the band’s oldest and probably most celebrated champions. He’s widely cited to be responsible for winning The Shins the attention of Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman, who signed them to the seminal Seattle label, and it was his group that first took Mercer and company on the road back when they played — with much the same lineup — under the names Flake and Flake Music.
“[Flake] opened for Modest Mouse,” recalls Mercer. “It was our first tour and it was their very first show of their very first tour outside their town.”
“There was like a bartender,” says drummer Jesse Sandoval of the turnout, “and maybe three other people.”
So what do The Shins consider to be recent milestones? The television shows, which were “surreal,” and touring Europe.
“I was stoked,” Mercer says. “I always used to think, when we were in Flake, like if you tour Europe, you can end your music career saying, ‘Hey, I got paid to go to Europe and tour.’ That’s a success; you’re done.”
“Any kind of situation where your whole way is paid, it’s incredible,” adds Crandall. “You go to places that you never thought you’d ever, ever go.”
“We’re from Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Mercer says, putting it in perspective. “This band started with about as lowly a beginning as you can imagine.”
Despite comments like this and the fact that most of the band has relocated to Portland, Ore., which is center to a thriving music scene, The Shins aren’t ashamed of their roots.
“We’re not down on Albuquerque,” insists Crandall.
No, Mercer concurs, “I was watching [reality police show] ‘Cops’ the other day and it kind of made me miss Albuquerque.”
“The best episodes are about Albuquerque,” Crandall says.
The band says they’re really looking forward to finally hitting Japan; their pairing with Shonen Knife in Osaka elicits particular excitement (“Are you serious? Our opening band?!”). Crandall, who becomes a sort of host-with-the-most during The Shins’ live shows (“I can’t help myself,” he says. “It’s like a disease,” says Hernandez), is working on his Japanese. They’re likely to perform a mix of songs from both albums, plus a couple of new ones. “We’ll be well-prepared,” Mercer assures.
The Shins follow up their Japan stopover with a string of dates in Australia and New Zealand, then return to the States for perhaps another month of touring before they get back to the studio in summer in preparation for a planned late-fall release. So what can we expect for The Shins’ third album?
Sandoval: Christian thrash.
Crandall: Christian thrash grunge.
Mercer: It’ll be Christian, besides satanic.
Crandall: That when played together becomes Buddhist.
Hernandez and Crandall: Think about that!
Mercer: . . . Think about it.
In other words, it’ll be cerebral.