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The Shins

Interview von: Matthias Rauch mit James Mercer, am: 08.05.2004 ]

Seit ihrem grandiosen ersten Album “Oh, Inverted World” sind The Shins für mich eine ganz besondere Band, denn kaum jemand versteht es, auf so intelligente und berührende Art und Weise Melodien zu schreiben, die man aufgrund ihrer fast kindlichen Naivität normalerweise keinem abkaufen würde, und in einen so mitreißenden und begeisternden Indiepop-Kontext zu setzen wie The Shins. Ihr zweites, mindestens genauso gelungenes Album „Chutes Too Narrow“ zeigt die Band nun noch kompakter und ausgereifter was Songwriting und soundliches Gewand anbelangt. Sänger, Gitarrist und Mastermind James erwies sich als sehr offener und reflektierender Zeitgenosse. Wir sprachen über Europa, Gap Werbung, gewisse Labelkollegen und Filesharing.


Musicscan: So tell me about your first impressions of Germany?

The Shins: I lived here as a kid for three years and I guess I was just looking to see familiar things and it did sort of come back to me. Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are in Germany actually.

Musicscan: Where did you live?

The Shins: Near Rammstein, in Miesenbach. There was a forest behind the place we lived in. It was very nice, just sort of played in the woods all day. Just nice memories.

Musicscan: I suppose your dad was stationed here then.

The Shins: Yes, Air Force. So my first impressionsÂ…I was surprised of how extremely modern the country seems. I donÂ’t know, when I was a kid it seems to me that maybe the thing that I remembered about Germany was that it was quaint. But it is much more modern than I had thought it would be, more modern the States.

Musicscan: In what way?

The Shins: Maybe I just mean more metropolitan, maybe itÂ’s because obviously we are in cities all the time. Also the architecture, though.

Musicscan: Did you expect a lot of old architectural designs?

The Shins: Yes, and you get that, too, but there is just a large number of new buildings and they are all kind of arty.

Musicscan: Did you experience any difference in the way the audiences respond in Germany compared to the States?

The Shins: I think the German audience is more enthusiastic at this stage of our development over here than the American audiences were at the same time. Our record just came out about 4 weeks ago now and when we were a really new band in the States, it was a slower build.

Musicscan: So is this a bit unexpected for you?

The Shins: Not totally unexpected. We are accustomed to people enjoying our music, but it is much better than we had expected. We thought we would be a little more unknown, but we have been selling out shows and that has been really cool.

Musicscan: How many people do you play in the States usually?

The Shins: In New York for example it would be around 2000. But what we do is, weÂ’ll do a smaller venue and then weÂ’ll sell it for three nights just to keep it more intimate.

Musicscan: How many people have you averaged in Europe?

The Shins: I would say about 400, which I think is very good for a first tour.

Musicscan: What is the biggest difference to the first album for you personally?

The Shins: I think maybe the approach to the recording. I just had better stuff, it would be technical things. As far as songwriting goes, I think that the second record is more competently put together, but in a certain way there are things that I miss about the first record and the whole process, because it was so exploratory. I was just learning how to record and write at the same time. I mean I am still obviously learning about all that stuff, but at that time I was just sort of in the dark feeling my way through.

Musicscan: I believe you recorded the first album pretty much on your own.

The Shins: Yes, it was entirely done by myself. On the second one I did about 75% of it and then Phil Ek engineered part of it.

Musicscan: So does the album feel different to you, not just the technical aspects but the overall atmosphere of the album?

The Shins: Yes, it does. There is a lot less noodling around with sounds on the second record. It is much more straight forward.

Musicscan: You are pretty busy band and I was wondering if the Shins ever felt like a job to you?

The Shins: There are times when you wake up in the morning and you are just exhausted from staying up and unloading at three in the morning and then having to get up and drive where you would rather sleep in, but it never feels like a typical normal day job. I have had plenty of those and that gets pretty fucking boring. Week after week in the same office, year after year.

Musicscan: Is there a way you can keep things fresh for yourself?

The Shins: For me actually I am just finding out that you need to not party too hard. Then you donÂ’t feel sick and exhausted. That is what really exhausts me, is staying up all night and getting shit faced and waking up hung over and tired. That is really bad. So for me just staying healthy keeps it fine. I mean playing is fine if you allow yourself to be in sorts than you are ok.

Musicscan: But I was wondering if there is something that you do so that it doesnÂ’t become a routine after a while?

The Shins: I think Marty is a good person to have along. He is really hilarious and just filled with energy and he always does weird shit like buying stupid little toys and stuff like that. At any minute you stop at a rest stop he will come back in with some weird ridiculous toy. I think that is how he entertains himself.

Musicscan: Where you the only songwriter on “Chutes Too Narrow” as well?

The Shins: Yes, I am the sole songwriter on both records. I sit down and write the chord structure and the melody and the lyrics. So the song itself is there and I could stand over there with an acoustic guitar and you would recognize the song. They write their parts such as bass lines, the most of them at least. Some of them I also write, but those guys really do come up with their own shit and they are really good at it.

Musicscan: Are there ever any discussions when you come in with a song and the other guys are like “this sucks?”

The Shins: Not really. I mean if I would really want to do a song, we would do it. But if they are not that into it, I am probably not that into it either. We have similar tastes, we like good music. I have certainly written songs that we have played for a while and then we figured that it didnÂ’t feel that cool.

Musicscan: What is your relationship with Sub Pop like?

The Shins: It is a business relationship, but we are also friends with them. It is very much sort of a family feeling in a way when we go to the office up there.

Musicscan: Are you happy with the work they do for you?

The Shins: Yes, I am pretty happy. I mean there are limits, they are an independent label still, even though Warner Brothers owns part of it. They are still on their own. So the whole issue of us just hitting in Europe would have been taken care of earlier if we had been on RCA for example. But then we may have been dropped by now if we were on RCA.

Musicscan: So would the whole major label thing be an option for you at this point? I am sure you have had plenty of offers.

The Shins: Yes we have been taking to all kinds of major labels. I mean they come and talk to us and try to meet us. So they are interested, but right now I feel like I canÂ’t be serious until we are done with our obligation with Sub Pop. We still have one more record to do for them.

Musicscan: I have heard that you guys are big fans of Napster and the whole file sharing idea. Do you think music should be available to everybody for free?

The Shins: That is hard to say. I donÂ’t think it is necessarily a question whether it should or not as much as is it feasible to prevent it from happening. In your situation, we had been on the road opening up for Modest Mouse for like a month, early on when we werenÂ’t signed or anything and nobody knew who we were. We burned CDÂ’s, about 500 of them, and sold them all. That is not that many records really in the States, but because of Napster at the time which was huge in the college circuit we got pretty popular really quickly. People were downloading the files and sharing them and at one time you could go onto Napster and there would be more than a hundred different computers online at one time that all had that Shins EP that we made ourselves in Albuquerque. There were kids in Connecticut listening to it. And then what happened was, later we got signed and when Sub Pop started selling the records there were all this kids out there who wanted to actually own a record. For us it was huge. Sub Pop predicted we would sell about 20.000 copies the first year and we sold over 100.000 and I think largely because of Napster. There were so many people who knew about us and wanted to actually have something physical. Maybe it is about concentrating on packaging and giving people something extra in the packaging and then just donÂ’t worry that much about the downloading thing. We definitely benefited from Napster in huge way.

Musicscan: Your music was in a Gap ad. Would you do that again in retrospect?

The Shins: I donÂ’t know if I would do it again now, but going back I would. I donÂ’t regret doing it, I donÂ’t regret doing anything yet. It is such a strange business to get into. I mean I donÂ’t have a steady job, I donÂ’t know if this is going to be going on in six months. So I think sometimes when financial things have come up and it is this big decision I sometimes think about my parents. My dad grew up on a cow ranch and I think explaining to him me not taking that money because of political concerns that I am not that invested in, would be really difficult. The other thing is I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone who goes out and buys things and spends a lot of money because they saw a commercial. The reasons that I would ever not do it and the reasons we say no to a lot of things are purely selfish self-image reasons. Just because you donÂ’t want to associate yourself with something like that. In a way that is sort of a superficial reason not to do something because I think it doesnÂ’t necessarily benefit the company that much. So over all, I probably wouldnÂ’t do it again right now. We have said no to bigger things.

Musicscan: What kind of things?

The Shins: There was big cologne company that wanted to use “New Slang” for a commercial and it was going to be all over Europe. It was going to come out about right now. So we were like “this is our first tour in Europe, we don’t want to have a fucking commercial.” We didn’t know how much it was going to air, maybe it was going to be everywhere and people would go “that’s the band that did that commercial.” That would just suck. The times when we did those things was early on when hardly anybody was listening to the Shins and we had no audience. It was three years ago. It is over.

Musicscan: What kind of money are we talking about?

The Shins: For the Gap ad it was less than 100.000 and more than 40.000 dollars.

Musicscan: Did you feel that The Shins were perceived differently after that? Did it give you a promotional push?

The Shins: I donÂ’t think it gave us any promotional push at all. I think it is just something to talk about in interviews. That is all it seems to be and it probably prevents some people from liking us, it probably really does. There are some kids in the States that wonÂ’t listen to anything that is on a major label. They will not listen to anything that is on RCA for example. They will not listen to the Strokes because they are on a major label which is owned by a big corporation and all of that. So there are definitely people who hate that we did that. I was never really like that even when I was young and really idealistic about things. I mean I still have ideals, but I guess I am just a little more pragmatic now.

Musicscan: Do you read press about yourself?

The Shins: I hardly ever do. It just makes me feel self-conscious.

Musicscan: Do you think it influences what you think about yourself and what you do in a way?

The Shins: Yes, I just donÂ’t want to be self-conscious when I am writing or when I am walking down the street or anything.

Musicscan: Do you think it is even possible for a band to exist beyond the realm of the media?

The Shins: Just by playing life I would assume. Some bands really rely on the media to make them what they are. They know how to use the media and they are very conscious about it. We are not at all, we donÂ’t think about that stuff. We probably should even, but we definitely donÂ’t.

Musicscan: So do you think it is possible to influence the image that is being created?

The Shins: Yes, I think some bands do. Right now I am thinking of Hot Hot Heat. I donÂ’t know if it is their management or something but they seem to be very in control of their image. It even seems like they are the source of it and it is very contrived. Nothing against them, I think they are a cool band, but they are sort of traditional in that way: they are a rock band. And they are like what are we going to do, what are we going to look like, how do I stand. It is almost like they have got it figured out before the photographer even knows. That is how it comes across. Maybe they just know how to do that shit naturally.

Musicscan: Is it possible to exist without an image as a band?

The Shins: No, you are going to get some sort of image. Maybe you just come across as people who donÂ’t know what they are doing and that is your image. You always end up with something. I think people have a hard time giving us a defining image.

Musicscan: Is the band your priority in life or are there other things that are much more important to you?

The Shins: I think that the band is not my priority right now. I think writing songs is a priority of mine. I guess learning about life and the world is a priority of mine.

Musicscan: Do you achieve that through music?

The Shins: I think in a way I sit down and meditate on things through music. It is like a tool to think things out for myself.

Musicscan: Do you think you will be involved with music twenty years down the road?

The Shins: I am not sure. I think I will for the next five years, but I am not sure about a life long thing.

Musicscan: How far ahead do you plan with the Shins as band?

The Shins: We plan ahead maybe six months at the most. We don’t have any long term goals. It is not like “first we are going to do this and then we are going to go on a major.” I really don’t know what I want and sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do it anymore. Sometimes I get this feeling that it is too taxing on me. So I want to figure something else out, some other way to make money. I mean I will always write songs and I will probably always put something out for the next while as long as I feel I have something to say.

Musicscan: So what inspires you and helps you create in the normal routine of a day?

The Shins: Lately I have been inspired by the different ways that people live and perceive the world and approach problems. Driving through the Eastern part of Germany and just talking with Carsten our tourmanager about that. Just talking about East Germany and how it changed and when the Soviets took it over and this whole competition of ideas of capitalism and communism. I think things like that or broad issues inspire me.

Musicscan: Is that reflected in your music?

The Shins: Yes, in some of the songs. Some songs are just about chicks but some of them are a bit more heady than that.

Musicscan: Is there one thing that you can constantly draw energy from or is it ever changing?

The Shins: I am always fascinated that human beings know their fate as long as you are willing to admit it. You know that you are going to die and I think it is fascinating that some of us believe that there is an end to this experience. And we still sort of deal with life and try to figure it out and still behave morally or try to. I think human beings are fascinating because of that and I can always write a song about that.

Musicscan: A lot of musicians I have talked to have mentioned that they make music as a way to become eternal, to outlive oneself so to speak, so that there is going to be something after their dead.

The Shins: That is interesting. I think I would have children to do that but I donÂ’t think songwriting does that for me. I mean it is a really interesting idea like you are making a dent in pop culture. Everything will be different from now on because The Shins existed, even in this tiny way, even though we are a small band. I know there are bands that have heard our songs and have been slightly changed by it. It is a fascinating idea, but I guess it doesnÂ’t help me in any way. It is a bit of an egotistical way of looking at it, but that is the way we are, isnÂ’t it. We are egos.

Musicscan: Ok, letÂ’s wrap this up. Is there anything you want to add?

The Shins: No, thank you. I can honestly say that this was the best interview on the entire tour.

  The Shins
  Sup Pop Records