Sleepless With the Shins

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It’s 5:38 a.m. in Portland, Ore., and I’m staring into the abyss. I’m lying on my back, eyes wide open, in my bed at the Hotel Lucia. Pretty soon the sounds of a city waking up will penetrate these thin walls and the light of day will filter in through the insufficient blinds until all hope of a restful night’s sleep has vanished.

I stumbled drunk and jet-lagged into this room just three-and-a-half hours ago, but I haven’t been able to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a clip. This level of insomnia is prohibitive but unsurprising. I’m in the middle of an agonizing break-up. After seven years, she just left. I fumble with items on the bedside table and realize that, for the first time in days, I didn’t take any sleeping pills. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Suddenly, the lyrics from “Sleeping Lessons,” the first song on The Shins’ new album, take on new significance (“You’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise”). I’m nearly 3,000 miles from home, attempting to gain some insight into The Shins and to extract communicable meaning from their brand-new album. In my darkened hotel room, probably still drunk, I say the album’s name aloud—Wincing the Night Away—and I no longer need to search for its meaning. I’m living it. I cue up the disc through my laptop, and fall in and out of sleep until it’s time to meet the band.

When singer/guitarist James Mercer picks me up from the hotel in his wife’s silver Volkswagen Golf, he acknowledges his own past struggles for peaceful slumber. Without using the word “insomnia,” he grimaces slightly and recounts restless nights spent tossing and turning with troubled thoughts of daytime events, particularly those that led to the heartache and loneliness that have become a staple in his songs.

Although the band’s third full-length is already in production at Sub Pop, Mercer still agonizes over the details, sweating the small stuff. He wonders if “Australia” is an acceptable title for the second track or if fans will think the melody on “Sea Legs” is a blatant Morrissey rip-off (which, he comes close to admitting, it kind of is: “Listening to him taught me how to sing,” he says). Still a couple months away from the album’s January release, Mercer is already worried about people’s reactions. In bed at night, hindsight is 20/20.

We drive to the Sunnyside neighborhood, where he lives with his wife in a newly purchased house just down the road from Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock. As we park on a quiet residential street and walk around the block to a nickel arcade, Mercer sets aside his anxieties to concentrate on a much more important task—raking up prize tickets so we can leave with as many Tootsie Rolls and lollipop rings as possible. For someone who writes the types of songs that can leave you feeling even more lonely and desperate and broken than before, at the arcade Mercer seems pleased with himself and the immediate world around him. After a few rounds on a vintage aim-and-shoot coin drop and some Skee-Ball, of course, he makes bank with an archaic amusement involving robotic pixies and creepy circus music. Five games—and hence, 25 cents—into it, he has it down. “If it’s just about the tickets, that’s the game [for me],” he says. We cash in, and the Shins frontman grins when he discovers he has enough tickets to cover his top prize—a keychain with a mini #6 billiard ball attached. On the way out he fastens it to a belt loop, and says, “It’s going to be my new hip thing.”

Sporting an untrimmed beard and dressed in dark blue jeans with a retro black tee, Mercer looks like a friendly regular in this stylish part of town. We grab a sidewalk table and order microbrews at Baghdad, one of his preferred spots, and I take out a lyric sheet to the new album, hoping to dig in and deconstruct a little. Though he remains genuinely affable and is almost always a good sport, Mercer can become visibly pained when discussing the meanings of his songs. On more than one occasion, he actually groans. Shins songs can be deceiving. At concerts, you’ll see entire audiences smiling and singing along to the lilting melodies. But these aren’t exactly cheerful songs. They’re about estrangement, disenchantment, heartache and—ultimately—loneliness.

“It made me feel sick while I was writing this one,” he says of album closer, “A Comet Appears.” Just discussing the song cues some of the residual Catholic guilt Mercer has left over from childhood. “It’s about putting people in situations that they can’t get out of and not knowing you’re doing it,” he continues. “[About] demanding things from people that aren’t possible for them to give, but you can’t move on without it, and so it just destroys things.”

He’s written a lot of songs about love, but not many with happy endings. An exception is “Sea Legs,” about falling in love with his wife. Mercer actually smiles as he sings me the line he’s most proud of—“Girl, if you’re a seascape, I’m a listing boat / for the thing carries every hope / I invest in a single life.”

Now that he’s married, and indeed very much in love, he’s beginning to search outside himself to catch up with his muse. “Phantom Limb,” the album’s first single, is about two teenage lesbians and the alienation they feel from their peers at a small-town high school. As we scroll down the lyrics, Mercer admits that much of it is actually about the alienation he felt growing up, just re-contextualized.

“A lot of this stuff was written before I had fallen in love with Marissa, or it was while I was falling in love with her, but I don’t know how to write about that,” he says. “I know how to be melancholy; I don’t know how to be joyous.” He thinks of some topics he’s covered in recent lyrics, such as resentment, regret and even sexuality, and says, “I worry about people knowing that I feel this way. And at the same time, there’s another side of me that doesn’t feel this way all the time. I’m not always so bleak, you know? I’m a happy person.”

Much of this happiness stems from the band’s “new” hometown. Since moving from Albuquerque, N.M., to Portland, The Shins have become an important part of the music scene that’s been percolating in the city lately—a scene that also includes Modest Mouse, The Decemberists and Stephen Malkmus. As we talk, we’re interrupted a few times by passerbys who stop to say hello or ask him what he’s been up to. Not because he’s the lead singer of The Shins but because he’s James—their friend. He chit-chats with them for a while and seems genuinely interested in their affairs. “I love living in Portland,” he says. “It’s all in the details here.”

With the exception of Mercer, an Air Force baby from Hawaii, all the other Shins were born and raised in Albuquerque. As drummer Jesse Sandoval puts it simply, “We’re from Albuquerque but we’re a Portland band.”

Before The Shins started to break through, Mercer and co. went by the name Flake Music, and were a moderately successful indie-rock band in the mid 1990s. In addition to Mercer and Sandoval, this lineup featured Neal Langford on guitar and Marty Crandall on bass.

In 1997, Mercer created The Shins as a side project. Originally it was just himself and Sandoval; then friend Dave Hernandez talked his way into bass duties. Hernandez’s own band—Scared of Chaka—had toured with Flake Music back in the day, and both bands even covered each other’s songs. (Hernandez returned to Scared of Chaka for a while, during which time he was replaced by Flake’s Langford.)

With the addition of Crandall—“I asked him to join the band, by the way,” recalls Mercer—The Shins were three quarters of Flake. So if the name change wasn’t just an elaborate ploy to get rid of Langford, then what was it really about? “Flake Music was a good band, but I started to get frustrated because I wanted to do kooky shit like this, and at the time it was the Pavement era and we were kind of copping that style. Everything had to be raw and hard,” says Mercer, “and I needed a new vehicle for this softer stuff.”

But there was something else Mercer needed that he wasn’t getting in Flake Music—autonomy. Apart from the occasional cover tune, all The Shins’ songs are Mercer creations. He has a very distinct vision for what his music should sound like, and he has very definite ideas as to how it should be played. Flake Music formed as a democracy, so the songwriting duties weren’t exclusive to any one member. In The Shins, all musical decisions revert to Mercer; he has complete creative control. The Shins exist to play James Mercer’s songs.

It’s a popular time for bands to be fronts for singer/songwriters a la Iron & Wine or Bright Eyes, but Mercer insists that The Shins aren’t just his hired guns; they’re a real band. “Something about the whole singer/songwriter thing reminds me too much of James Taylor or something,” says Mercer. “Not that that’s a bad thing or whatever, but it’s not the aesthetic that I’m going for or the image that I’m looking for. I really like bands. I want to be in a band.”

So, following an afternoon with the man behind the curtain, I meet up with the rest of the band at Le Pigeon, a trendy new restaurant on Burnside Street, and settle in for a feast at the chef’s table.

Everyone is in good spirits and bottles of red wine start flowing. During dinner, the contrast between the heavy-hearted artist and the freewheeling band of rock ’n’ rollers becomes obvious. Earlier, when I’d asked Mercer to describe his bandmates, he spoke of how Sandoval has a very close relationship with his mom, how Hernandez grew up in a rough part of town, and how Crandall’s aversion to abstract thought might have something to do with his father passing away at an early age. But at dinner, when I ask the band the same question, Hernandez matches his mates to members of the old television show The A-Team while Crandall compares them to various Transformers (a table debate breaks out as to whether Optimus Prime ever physically dominated Megatron; the corresponding Shins being Sandoval and Mercer, respectively.)

If Mercer pilots The Shins, then Crandall is head flight attendant. He’s the guy who talks to the audience during shows, the public face you’re most likely to meet at a party. Backstage, too, he’s what Mercer calls the “social leader” of the band, the one who mixes and mingles, who grips and grins. He’s in charge of writing the setlists and, after seeing the band live, it’s easy to get the impression that Crandall is the mastermind. This isn’t the case, of course, but for Mercer—who winces the night away and couldn’t really enjoy the band’s first tour because of his social anxiety—Crandall is the yang to his yin. Whereas Mercer used to hyperventilate before shows and get so freaked out his hands would go numb, Crandall is a natural stage ham. He’s loose, talkative and he keeps things moving.

“I know it’s kind of a nervous habit,” says Crandall, “but I can’t shut up between songs. I just hate awkward silences.” Throughout dinner, he interjects with witty one-liners and turns to me during lulls and ask things like, “So, are you getting everything you need?”

After we eat, we head to a nearby pool hall. Watching these guys interact is like watching a multi-headed organism at work. “We’re a team,” observes Crandall. “We’re a gang. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

As Mercer observes, Portland is really about the details and open spaces. There’s plenty of both on Wincing the Night Away. With background noise like conversational chatter and subtle bird-chirping weaving its way in and out, the entire disc has a phantom vibe to it. The word the band keeps returning to is, “ghosty.”

Shins albums have always had a celestial quality, recalling apparitions and spirits. Another word Mercer often uses is “creepy.” If Wincing the Night Away is a reference to sleeplessness, the music itself recalls the dream world. It’s filled with subconscious melodies and lucid imagery. Digital effects and studio wizardry have helped The Shins’ recorded output sound almost like it comes from another dimension. It’s not the type of music that can be perfectly recreated live; Shins concerts are much more rough-around-the-edges than the band’s immaculate records.

Before recording Shins debut Oh, Inverted World in his studio apartment in Albuquerque, one of Mercer’s friends downloaded some bootleg recording software. This allowed Mercer to do in his bedroom what only bands with major-label funding could previously do. Mercer remembers thinking, “We can continue to be this indie band and I can go back and f— with shit and make it sound like a real record.” This was in the late ’90s when home recording was undergoing a revolution of sorts, thanks to attainable computer programs like Cool Edit Pro and Pro Tools.

With his 30s looming, Mercer approached his parents and squared up. He was going to give The Shins one big push and if it didn’t pan out, he told them, he’d change his entire career. In the meantime, he was going to quit his job making lights in a ceramics factory and work full-time on what would become Oh, Inverted World. He played a few tracks for his dad. “I kind of phrased it like this: ‘I’ve got this computer and I’m able to record the way no one in this whole f—ing state is recording. I’m using this new technology that can allow me to actually control the whole recording process. And I’m going to do it. I’m going to record some good shit, and if I don’t get some response from it, if it’s just like Flake, I’ll go back to school, I’ll get a degree and I’ll quit the whole f—ing thing.”

Shortly after that conversation, The Shins toured with Modest Mouse and found that their music was being heavily traded on the original Napster. Far from being upset at the illegal file-sharing, The Shins were ultimately helped by the Napster buzz, soon signing with Sub Pop, the Seattle indie that most famously launched Nirvana’s career.

But the real sea change, everyone agrees, came in the form of a little-movie-that-could called Garden State, written and directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff. During the movie, Natalie Portman tells Braff she’s listening to The Shins. She passes him the headphones and says, “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.” For the next 25 seconds, you hear “New Slang” while Braff listens intently. As many people as that moment affected, no one felt its gravity more than The Shins themselves.

“It had a huge impact on my life,” admits Mercer. “We more than doubled our fan base.” But once he signed off on the licensing rights, he had little control over the creative outcome, which was a situation that made him squeamish and uncomfortable. It’s something he struggled with and, three years later, he still wonders about it. “You couldn’t ask for better advertising, you know? But is it too much? I certainly worried that it was putting us into a situation where we might be overexposed or seen as being in cahoots with some sort of Hollywood thing, but I don’t exactly think it’s been taken that way.”

It was the moment that made The Shins famous. The two songs used for the film (“New Slang” and “Caring Is Creepy”) came from the first album, Oh, Inverted World. When the film was released, the band had already finished touring for the second one, Chutes Too Narrow. But with a brand-new fanbase that was snatching up their catalog, The Shins had to tour again and, as Mercer puts it, “meet the new audience” before work could begin on Wincing the Night Away. It was a two-year process and the band, admittedly, took its time.

Perhaps the pace was a reaction to the hurried schedule for Chutes Too Narrow. Recording that album was a nightmare for Mercer. “It happened in a fury,” he explains. “I was losing my mind. Talk about not sleeping—I would sleep two hours a day, and then I’d be in a waking trance. I was so stressed out; I was having weird visions instead of dreams. We got it done, and then, really, I didn’t want to hear that f—in’ record ever again. It was such a painful process.”

It’s a good indication then that Mercer still enjoys listening to Wincing the Night Away and has been eager to play it for friends. The rest of the band members are excited about the disc, too. They’re proud it doesn’t repeat what they’ve already done and that it’s their most actively experimental album yet. The “ghosty” factor has been turned up to 11.

“I really like the idea of kids just being able to embrace this album as opposed to it being a chart-topper or something,” says Hernandez. “I like the idea of some teenager in New Hampshire or Ohio having this disc as something that can really comfort them. I like that. That’s neat.”

Portland is a city known for its caffeine addictions. It’s curious how we Americans have become such slaves to the gap between our desires and our actualities—we drink coffee to stay awake, and yet as many as three out of every four adults in America have experienced various symptoms of sleeping disorders, and nearly one in five has taken something to help them fall asleep. Many of the same teenagers Hernandez hopes will take refuge in Wincing the Night Away will grow up to be insomniacs, while others will develop social-anxiety disorders. But at least they’re not alone. Mercer sings their pain the way Morrissey once sang his.

After shots of tequila and a few games of pool, Crandall drops me off down the street from my hotel, leaving me to trudge the rest of the way on foot as his Scion disappears round the bend. It’s already past last call and I’m looking forward to sinking into my bed. For the first time in days, I’ll be able to sleep the night away.