A lineup change, a new label, a film score and a few new songs are greeting fans of The Shins as the band returned to the road this past week after an eighteen month break.
Longtime bassist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval have been replaced by Fruit Bats' bassist Ron Lewis and Modest Mouse drummer John Plummer. Lead singer and guitarist James Mercer began working with Plummer about a year ago, in what "intended to be a side project" but made the decision to shuffle the band's lineup based on the time spent together. Lewis was brought in three weeks ago to learn the set the band's current tour set and both new members will participate in recording the follow up to 2007's "Wincing The Night Away."
Mercer says he has written 30 songs since the last album, but currently only two are being played live: "Double Bubble" and "The Rifle's Spiral." Both of these songs were written by Mercer and then fleshed out by his new band mates who added the drums, bass lines, and keyboard parts. "The last record was another attempt to change and find something interesting and new for us to experiment with," Mercer says. "[The new album] is forming in my mind and how I want it to feel. There seems to be less dwelling on lack of confidence about things and more affirmative feelings in the songs."
Indeed, Mercer's past lyrical work has reflected a witty, cerebral and almost cryptic approach, a quality that helped gain the Shins' notoriety in its early years. This time around, Mercer sees his writing moving into a direction that deals with "uncertainty" and how people grapple with it. "I wouldn't say musically there's something that stands out right now. I think that my real anger about people allowing their convictions to cause them to do a lot of awful things in the world has turned into this fascination," Mercer explains. "Uncertainty is such a horrible thing to people...there's just a billion different ways to look at the world and you'll find somebody that has found "the way."
Mercer has also moved into other media during his time off, taking on an acting role alongside Sleater-Kinney alum Carrie Brownstein for the indie film "Some Days Are Better Than Others," as well as contributing to the forthcoming Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse collaboration, "Dark Soul of the Night." He also teamed with Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock to score the film "180 Degrees South," a documentary that examines climbing and surfing culture within an environmental movement context.
"I would go over to Isaac Brock's house every day, and we'd go up in the attic where he's got this really cool studio and we'd start messing around and feeling it out," Mercer says. "It was challenging in that you had to strike the balance between finding something interesting and engaging to listen to but not overly so, because then you're distracting from what's really important: the visual thing. So that's a new thing, for a pop writer, is trying to straddle the line like that." Mercer spent a couple weeks backpacking in Chile with the filmmakers before diving into the writing process.
The Shins became one of this decade's biggest success stories, driving the term "indie" as not only a sonic descriptor into more mainstream, popular culture, but also finding success as the industry shifted from physical product to digital downloads. After three releases on Sub Pop, the band plans to go out on its own, releasing the fourth record on Mercer's recently formed Aural Apothecary label. "I think I've learned, you can' really control things. You can't let it bug you too much: people are going to get your stuff for free," Mercer says of the business side of his future label. "We benefited right off the bat from Napster, before we were signed and stuff. I think also nowadays, The Shins are what would be considered a niche market. We capitalize on a niche audience. In the old days, in the 80's, that would have been difficult for us. So it balances out somewhere there."
The Shins are currently on tour through May 21 and plan to enter the studio this summer. "The live shows seem to be doing well, even in this strange economy and swine flu, the ticket sales of good," he says. "I was just thinking today about how valuable it is to travel and play shows. What happens to the local music subculture - it does cause a lot of talk about you, and all the bands know who is in town that weekend or that night."