You’d expect the mood backstage at Detroit’s
Majestic Theatre to be jubilant, chaotic, outrageous —
groupies hanging on band members, alcohol flowing, other substances
available in the tiny alcoves that flank the cramped hallway.

Mira Levitan
I can dance like the king of the eyesores. (FOREST CASEY/Daily)

If not for the sweat drying on bassist Dave Hernandez’s
forehead, you wouldn’t know that the Shins had just played a
galvanizing set to a rapt audience. Singer and songwriter James
Mercer sits in a folding chair against the wall of the
Majestic’s green room. He looks like a Vincent van Gogh
self-portrait, piercing eyes and receding hairline, but he’s
friendly and relaxed.

“We’ve been the Shins since 1996, when the only
other band (with a “the” name) was the Drag. We were
way before the Strokes and all those bands,” said Mercer
bemusedly.

“We sounded like shit (tonight),” says Hernandez.
Levels had been set at sound check, but when they took the stage,
the band didn’t hear what they’d expected.
“Somebody fucked with the levels or something,” says
Mercer, his voice tinged with disappointment. Despite their
dissatisfaction, the show sounded fantastic and the audience hung
on their every action. Their reputation has grown since their debut
album, Oh, Inverted World. “It’s crazy, the last time
we played Detroit we were at the Magic Stick, and this is so much
bigger, a huge show.”

Although the Shins work with standard pop elements —
sparkling, driving guitar lines, effervescent keyboard hooks
— their songs have a numinous quality not found in most
modern rock. “I don’t really think we fit in,”
says Mercer of the indie rock scene. The Shins have been touted as
Beach Boys successors since World became one of the most
talked-about albums of 2001; they cite Echo and the Bunnymen, the
Jesus and Mary Chain and the Cure as influences. “I find
we’ve got kind of a super ’60s R&B pop thing, like
Sam Cooke would do.”

Whatever their inspiration, the Shins’ sound on sophomore
release Chutes Too Narrow has tightened since their debut.
“With the first album, I was left fiddling with it on my
computer. At the time we had really cheap equipment, so we already
had this low fidelity sound. Reverb made things sound a lot better.
If I’d been able to fiddle with (Chutes) for six months, it
probably would have sounded more like that. I get clouded up and
tend to overthink,” Mercer explains.

Mercer’s lyrics possess a rare combination of universality
and quirk, specific verses and accessible choruses that hold
listeners’ interest. “I just try to write original
metaphors. People across the board need to make sure not to use
clichés. They’re inherently dishonest, like
you’re lying because you can never feel exactly the way the
guy who first wrote that felt.”

“I guess I remember how I felt when I wrote the song when
I’m singing, but not all the time. I had a girlfriend who
used to say, ‘You need to stop writing songs about such
depressing shit,’ and a lot of it is depressing. I
don’t know — sometimes you’re faking being
emotional, and sometimes you really feel it.”

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