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The polyphonic twee
From indie shy-boys to multi-platinum chart toppers, it’s certainly been a long, strange journey for The Shins. By now, we all know that Natalie Portman played a part in their success – but what’s Elliot Smith go to do with it?
Ed Power, 27 Mar 2007
In the soulless opulence of a central London hotel, James Mercer of The Shins is reflecting on the day a dead rock star walked into his life.
“Elliot Smith used to rent the house in Portland, Oregon where I now live and where I put together all of the songs on the current album,” he says. “One day, an old girlfriend of Elliot’s called to my door. She told me he had lived there for some years. I was pretty knocked back. Apparently, he would record in the basement. Did that creep me out? Not at all. I found it inspiring.”
If you came late to The Shins it’s likely you were turned onto the band by one of the most blatant pieces of product placement in music history – in 2004 Natalie Portman lauded Mercer’s crew as the band “that will change your life” in the cute/sickly indie-flick Garden State (Zach Braff, the film’s director, is a lifelong indie-phile).
Sitting down to write The Shins’ first post-Garden State album, Mercer realised he’d been handed a one-shot opportunity. Return with the right record and the millions introduced to The Shins by Garden State would flock to the group. Fumble the pass and all that good publicity might be squandered.
“There was pressure, I guess, after Garden State,” admits Mercer, 37, who put The Shins together in New Mexico in 1997. “That said, it wasn’t negative pressure. We knew that there was a potential audience out there for us that had never previously existed. I saw that as an opportunity rather than a burden.”
His optimism proved justified. Released just a month ago, Wincing The Night Away has already gone platinum in the United States, debuting at number two in the Billboard chart (making it, by several orders of magnitude, the most successful album in the history of Sub Pop records).
“It’s nice, but I don’t read too much into it,” says Mercer, speaking so softly it sometimes sounds as if he's lapsed into an enigmatic silence when, in fact, he's merely paused for breath. “You gotta stay grounded. Otherwise you can’t keep doing what it is you do.”