Talk about the little indie band that could. To date, The Shins have sold more than 1.5 million records and garnered a Grammy nomination for their last album, 2007's Wincing the Night Away, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. Not bad for a foursome from Albuquerque.
Things have been pretty quiet since then, though, for the band now based in Portland. On Monday, May 11, they'll be stopping by San Diego for a gig at SOMA, but they're coming empty-handed, touring without a new album to their name.
“I've been writing a lot,” explains frontman James Mercer. “I've got a lot of stuff ready to go. I just haven't had time to start recording.”
For one thing, Mercer has been busy working on his acting debut. An old friend of his, indie film director Matthew McCormick, tapped Mercer to star in the feature-length movie Some Days Are Better than Others, which is slated for release early next year and co-stars Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein.
“That was fun, but challenging,” Mercer says. “It was something that took me out of my head, I guess, and forced me to see another side of creativity that's really interesting. It's a very weird art, acting. You have to become somebody else.”
He says he had to fight the instinct to turn down the offer. “I was worried. I definitely did not want to say no to this because I'm chicken, so when I decided to do it, I was hoping it would work out and I wouldn't embarrass myself.”And now that he's seen the tapes? “It's not too hard for me to watch or anything,” he laughs with relief.
He's not entirely unprepared for fame, should this film turn out to be the next Juno. In the wake of Wincing—magazine features, late-night appearances, Saturday Night Live—came on-the-street autograph and cell-phone photo requests. The Shins never got big-headed about it, though Mercer admits, “It's kind of cool when that happens when your parents are around.”
That's typical of the modesty that defines Mercer, who is one of the nicest, hardest-working musicians you'll ever meet. He even took his parents to the Grammys when The Shins received their nomination for Best Alternative Album in 2008.
“That was surreal,” he remembers fondly. “My parents really, really loved it. My dad was wearing a big cowboy hat and a Western-style suit. He looked like some record executive from Nashville. It was fun.”
With all that success and fanfare, it might seem safe to presume that The Shins are simply resting on their laurels. In fact, Mercer has been carefully calculating the next big step in his band's career: self-releasing their fourth album now that their three-record contract with Seattle's Sub Pop has expired.
By all accounts, the relationship has been beneficial for both parties. The Shins are Sub Pop's best-selling band to date, and it's the label's indie cred that helped skyrocket them in the first place. So why self-release instead of renew?
“You get to keep more of the money!” admits Mercer, who quickly adds that there are other reasons, too. “You get [creative] control, but you also get to own what you do. Sub Pop owns the recordings that I did during the life of that contract. It's a strange thing to realize. Even live recordings that we did—they would own them. This is just a way to take ownership over your own stuff.”
The Shins will likely hire a label, possibly even Sub Pop, to handle distribution, promotion, booking and so on, Mercer explains. “They'd get paid for that, but we would own the masters. The Shins now have a name that's marketable enough to merit such an arrangement.”
In the meantime, Mercer has been working on launching his own label, Aural Apothecary, and the band will be road-testing new songs during the tour, including one called “The Rifle's Spiral,” which may end up being the name of the next album. As for a release date, it'll be ready when it's ready.
“It would be nice if this record were coming out, like, right now. But I just don't know if it's in the cards for The Shins to put out a record more often than every two-and-a-half years.”The Shins play on Monday, May 11, at SOMA. www.theshins.com.