The story of the Shins is not unlike that of any other rock band from any other town: A few guys start playing music (in Albuquerque, in this case), write some songs, try to get shows and impress people. But what makes the Shins unique is that they are better than most at what they do. They've found a formula that works, because it isn't a formula.
The Shins' songs combine the basic rock elements (guitar, vocals, drums, bass, keyboards) in a way that creates something entirely unique--their songs are never predictable, canned or bland. The Shins' music is organic, made without pesticides or artificial ingredients; it's not genetically modified, nor does it need extra preservatives to increase the shelf life. When you stick to the basics--catchy melodies, intelligent lyrics and creative musicianship--the product ends up being flexible, durable and complex in its simplicity. This is the Shins: fresh and simple, exactly how music was meant to be.
"I remember thinking that when I started the band, I really wanted to have a band that people who were in cool bands thought was cool," said guitarist/singer/songwriter James Mercer.
So Mercer and keyboardist Marty Crandall, bassist James Langford and drummer Jesse Sandoval set out to make music that would impress their peers. And, attests Mercer, it worked.
"That's the biggest reward, is that those guys are like, 'Yeah, that's a cool song.'"
This road from fledging New Mexico band to successful international indie-rock stars was not driven quickly, nor was it easy--the members of the Shins have been playing together for more than 10 years, in various band incarnations and instrumentations.
The Shins formed around 1997, when Mercer realized that in order to really get where he wanted to go, he needed to take hold of the steering wheel and get a new sense of direction.
"The majority of us were in a band called Flake at one time," said Mercer, "and I think we just didn't take it seriously enough or try hard enough, so the Shins was this thing where I was going to take control of the recording process and the writing process and really try and make sure everything was just so, in the hopes of gaining some sort of artistic credibility. It's probably all based on some ego problem, I'm sure."
But that direction and self-conscious attention to artistic credibility is what makes the Shins' music high-quality. Like good literature, in which every word means something and carries weight, every note, chord change and decision made in a Shins song is working toward a larger goal. That goal is not just to make a good song, but to tell a story, to express a certain emotion or sensibility--even common themes like "love gone wrong" or "life goes on." The themes themselves aren't extraordinary, but the expression of them is poetic and metaphoric. In "Kissing the Lipless," for example (off the Shins' second record, Chutes Too Narrow), a relationship is likened to death through images of grass growing over a bed, and being buried in the yard.
"Lyric-wise, I think that what I do is I really strive to avoid the use of common metaphors, and just really strive to try and find something that's unique when it comes to descriptive phrasing," said Mercer. "I think just that I had been exposed to bands who did interesting things lyrically. I loved Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Smiths; I thought that they both have great lyrics. And so I think I was just sort of challenged by that."
Songs like "So Says I," from Chutes Too Narrow and "Caring Is Creepy," from Oh, Inverted World rise to this challenge with bird references that show different levels of anxiety. In "So Says I," there's "a cold November dawn, and there are no barking sparrows;" in "Caring Is Creepy," "all these squawking birds won't quit."
"Mostly, I sit there and I basically try and describe somehow an emotion or a story or something that fits the emotion that the song is already expressing, to me, which is kind of weird, because I often get people saying that the lyrics are sad but the music is happy. But to me, I think I always see this melancholy in our music. I think it changes once you get the keyboards and drums on the song--it makes it sound a lot happier than it was intended originally," said Mercer.
The lyrics are balanced by the music, which is embedded with hooks so subtle and well-crafted that the songs become memorable after the first listen.
"I sort of sit there and play my acoustic usually and just start humming and trying to come up with melodies that I like with chord structures that I find interesting," said Mercer. "And I think some of the credit belongs with the fact that I think I have a limited attention span with things like that, so that I only end up spending time on things that are really catchy."
The catchiest melodies rise to the surface, and each member of the band adds his ideas, so the songs--although written by Mercer--become the creation of the band as a whole.
"Ninety percent of the time, those guys come up with stuff I never would have thought of," said Mercer. "It's like, I write the song and put it together basically with Jesse, record his drums, and then I do my rhythm guitar stuff, and then Dave and Marty come in and they add their bits. Everyone just comes up with whatever they think will fit. We are a band."
As a band, the Shins have done what so many other bands have been trying to do for decades: revitalize the basic pop/rock formula. The Shins' solution is to make it as good as they possibly can, always working harder to make it better.
"I just want to come out with a really good record, our third record" said Mercer. "I feel like it's definitely going to be a better record than the two we've got now, so I'm just sort of working on that, looking forward to getting into the studio again. I'm just excited about the songs I'm working on right now."