It’s the summer of 2003 and James Mercer is hallucinating, or something close to it. Perhaps he’s just dreaming intensely, surreally, but it’s hard to tell the difference when the songwriter’s running on this little sleep. Hands reach from walls. City streets become flush with existential dread. Anxious, tired eyes grow pink and dim. Such is the case for a bounty of reasons, each of them buttressed by high-stakes: Mercer is in the midst of making one of the most anticipated follow-ups in indie rock history, he’s wracked with fear of missing his deadline, and he’s wary of disappointing the label that played a significant role in his band’s rise, not to mention the fans and critics who identified so strongly with that band’s debut, Oh, Inverted World. To add insult to injury, he’s short one song. So while the world sleeps, Mercer trudges out to his van to write so he doesn’t wake Dave Hernandez, his temporary host and bandmate.
On one of those sleepless nights the nervy songwriter penned “Young Pilgrims,” a wry, pointedly-strummed acoustic number from which the title of the album is question is drawn. “I fell into a winter slide,” he sings, “and ended up the kind of kid who goes down chutes too narrow.” His delivery is semi-playful, but Mercer’s unease is palpable: “I know I got this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and fly the whole mess into the sea.” Forget Garden State’s influence for a second. The Shins’ improbable, long-running appeal is more attributable to Mercer’s ability to blend humor and despair in a way that makes it nearly impossible to decipher which is which than anything a Zach Braff script could grant them.
“There was a song called ‘Mild Child’ that I'd written for the record and we began recording it, but I just couldn't figure out how to produce it,” Mercer says when I reach him on the phone in April. “I'd lost a song and I couldn't put out a record with nine songs. So I stayed up late and wrote so I’d have material to record in the morning. I wasn’t sleeping and was having real anxiety. It got to the point where I would fall asleep, but the dreams I would have just seemed like hallucinations. There was all this stress. I've never experienced it in my life. I wasn't even having normal dreams with a plot.”
The producer Phil Ek, whose roomy studio aesthetic has become synonymous with bands like the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses, remembers a portion of this scene. “I was originally just brought in to mix Chutes Too Narrow. It was started by James in Portland, and they’d already done a bunch of the record in his basement. He sent me a couple of songs, like ‘Kissing the Lipless’ and ‘So Says I,’ which were for the most part finished. Or I thought they were finished because I was supposed to mix them. But we got into the studio up here in Seattle and realized that it wasn't done at all, so I ended up doing a bunch of production stuff with them as fast as we could because they were on a little bit of a deadline.”
Ek recalls that everyone, including and most importantly Mercer, relaxed once Jonathan Poneman and others from Sub Pop Records stopped by the studio to hear portions of Chutes. “They were like, ‘This is amazing. Just do whatever you need to do.’ They knew it was great and more stuff needed to be done, and it was no big deal. They just said, ‘Finish your cool record and we'll all be good.’”
We know that proved to be an understatement, of course. According to Stuart Meyer, the Shins’ A&R rep during their years at Sub Pop, Oh, Inverted World had already sold 100,000 copies by the time Chutes Too Narrow was released in October 2003. So that Chutes sold 15,000 copies in its first week probably wasn’t a huge surprise. But what no one could’ve possibly realized at the time was that the Shins were quickly becoming the flash point for a broader shift in entertainment, fashion, and advertising toward “indie” sensibility. Which is to say, what Main Street, Hollywood, and Madison Ave. have come to think of as indie.
It’s worth quoting the great critic Nitsuh Abebe at length on this point. Writing for Pitchfork at the turn of the decade, he said, “I don't know quite when it happened, but at some point a certain vague strain of ‘indie’ dropped its last vestiges of seeming weird and became a commonplace … When those I'm-a-Mac, I'm-a-PC commercials came out, I even saw some ad critic describe Justin Long's Mac guy as an ‘indie type.’ Why? He's just a young middle-class-looking white guy with a haircut.”
“And soon enough,” he continued, “any film, book, or cultural product that came anywhere near a certain sensibility-- anything anyone would describe as "quirky" or cleverish or tender-- fell in the indie bucket, too: Garden State with its hilarious Shins scene, Wes Anderson movies, Dave Eggers (??), Juno, Zooey Deschanel's general existence, private colleges, button shirts, the Internet, IKEA, Miracle Whip, literacy, you tell me. The sensibility used to seem rarer, and then, I suppose, half the people attracted to it grew up and got creative jobs and now it floats everywhere. So huge swathes of twentysomethings, like anyone with a college education or a Mac or a strummy guitar record: indie, apparently?”
That the Garden State quip was listed first in Abebe’s series is telling. Because for all the indie-fication of the modern world that the other examples are partially responsible for (Miracle Whip lol), the scene Abebe’s referring to was arguably indie’s (and the Shins’ for that matter) true Trojan Horse moment. “What are you listening to?” Zach Braff’s wounded character says. “The Shins. You heard of them?” replies Portman’s salve. “You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life.” Garden State eventually topped $36 million in box office receipts and its soundtrack, which featured the Shins’ “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy,” was awarded a Grammy. Suddenly it wasn’t uncommon for, say, the aesthetes and the athletes at your local high school to share a modicum of musical taste, a trend that continues today thanks in large part to Pitchfork’s becoming the Bible of Cool for such far flung demos as ambient music fans and Beyoncé fanatics alike.
The timing of Garden State’s release and surprise success proved to be impeccable for the Chutes Too Narrow album cycle. The film hit in August 2004, just as the Shins were winding down from nearly of year of touring on the heels of the album’s October 2003 arrival. Probably road weary, the band nevertheless booked another tour just to take advantage of the increased attention.
“We were getting requests from colleges for the first time ever,” Mercer says. “We'd never played colleges, you know? And so then we went out and decided it'd be smart to meet these new fans and establish a relationship with them, so we did a whole 'nother cycle. It was like another record had come out.”
Amazingly, Mercer tells me, the Shins weren’t part of the original Garden State script treatment they were shown. The band were just going to be part of the soundtrack. But the hard work of Sub Pop’s then-licensing lead Shawn Nolan, who’d pitched the band to music supervisors at Scrubs, had obviously paid off. Ten years removed and Braff still seems to be a fan — he licensed the Shins’ previously unreleased song “So Now What” for his recent Kickstart-funded film Wish I Was Here.
“The soundtrack was a million seller and just totally hit a nerve,” Meyer, the Sub Pop A&R rep, recalls. To be sure, even minor success in any creative field is enough to write home about. But the notoriety the Shins’ enjoyed was to some extent larger than what they could conjure themselves in a vacuum — pop culture is littered with great artists who existed at the wrong time and place. Still, the conceit wouldn’t have worked if the Shins weren’t, well, special.
Phil Ek, the producer, also remembers that time fondly, having not only produced portions of Chutes but also toured with the band as its live sound engineer. "It's fun to see a band transition to a different level, watching them go from a band that some people knew — they were already indie darlings — to being a band that a lot of people knew. And they were excited and were delivering it and the songs were so strong and so engaging.”
In 2007, Mercer and his bandmates Marty Crandell, Jesse Sandoval, and the guitarist Hernandez released Wincing the Night Away, the strength of which put to rest any sense of the Shins having been a fluke, hot one day gone the next. Its title derived from both Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” and Mercer’s crippling insomnia, Wincing opened at #2 on the Billboard charts, a testament to the zeitgeist Abebe references, sure, but also to the enduring appeal of Mercer’s idiosyncratic yet easily lovable work. The songwriter tells me the Wincing sessions were far less pressure-intensive than those for Chutes because Sub Pop allowed him to work at his natural pace and that his nascent success had emboldened him in the studio. Mercer was more confident than ever, a trait he carried into Broken Bells, his collaboration with Danger Mouse.
In hindsight, it seems fairly obvious that the Shins were going to be a big deal. In the late ‘90s, indie was already turning away from its slacker rock posture toward one of “unapologetic prettiness,” as The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones once put it, so it makes sense that the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie (related: Postal Service), Sufjan Stevens, and later Bon Iver would do so well with centrist audiences. But one can forgive Mercer for taking so long to gain his mettle: The Shins came together well into his late-twenties after years of working dead-end jobs and struggling in Albuquerque’s music scene. Mercer achieved minor renown with Flake Music, which had toured with Modest Mouse, but the Billboard charts were understandably far from his mind. Indeed, turning the page on your twenties without clear and positive prospects for the next decade is haunting for creative types who haven’t yet turned art into sustenance. At what point do you throw in the towel? And will you be able to live with yourself if you do?
Fortunately Mercer never had to answer those questions. Growing tired of Albuquerque’s machismo-drenched punk rock scene, he started writing folk tunes, one of which was the now-mythic “New Slang.” The softer approach wasn’t quite right for Flake Music, so Mercer started performing with Sandoval on drums as the Shins.
"It was just a really heavy rock town, especially in the ‘90s,” Mercer says. “There was a lot of attitude about punk rock and what's punk rock and what ain't and 'you're not punk rock.’ Basically if you're not punk rock you suck. And I got really tired of that. I think by my late-twenties I was just feeling rebellious against that attitude. And so in my mind my punk rock statement would be to make something pretty and sort of folk influenced … I felt like I was giving the finger to the bands that were doing so well in Albuquerque.”
Mercer put it another, terser way in an interview with SPIN in 2012. “The most punk-rock fucking thing I could do in my life was something like ‘New Slang.’ … The Shins weren't anything when I wrote that song. There wasn't any hope for anything like a music career. It's that end-of-your-twenties thing. Before you knew it, my whole life was upside down: I got signed, I quit my job, I moved out of town, the big relationship I'd had for five years ended. All of a sudden my whole life was up in smoke."
“You couldn’t deny something was there,” Meyer recalls he and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman thinking after hearing the Shins three-song demo, which included “New Slang,” “Celibate Life,” and “When I Goose Step.” Originally the label planned to sign the band to a singles deal, but after hearing more songs they decided to re-issue the Shins’ lo-fi debut, Oh, Inverted World altogether. And the trip to the center of the zeitgeist began.
Now we’re back to Mercer deep in the weeds making Chutes Too Narrow. Released in 2001, its predecessor had been universally acclaimed and to this day remains one of the most lauded albums of the aughts. But Mercer wasn’t interested in making the same record to appease anyone. In fact, he wanted to toy with the production style significantly.
“I wanted to make a record that was really orchestrated and had a lot going on,” Mercer recalls of making Oh, Inverted World. “If you remember, this is the period of time when Radiohead started to record these really interesting records with Nigel. And the Echo and the Bunnymen stuff I liked was orchestrated and had a lot going on. Beck had done Midnight Vultures.”
“Then, as I'm going along,” he continued, “I find a copy of Harvest, the Neil Young record, and I’d never heard it. But I was blown away how simple the production was. Now I had this new production inspiration, so I didn’t want to sweat anything when I went into Chutes Too Narrow. I wanted it to have this kind of fidelity, and have everything just sort of there … I wanted it to be sort of dry and simple.”
From the outset, Chutes Too Narrow is a crisper, more playful, and less demure album than Oh, Inverted World, a feeling that only abates in “Young Pilgrims,” “Pink Bullets,” and the tender closer “Those to Come.” It’s clear that Mercer’s still wrestling with aspects of the relationship that fell apart in New Mexico (see the country-ish weaper “Gone for Good”), but largely he seems happier and more at ease, qualities that are somewhat hard to reconcile with the painstaking work that went into the album. The same might be said of the incredibly intricate cover art which earned the designer Jesse LeDoux a Grammy nomination. Nevertheless, Mercer sounds like he’s having the time of his life for most of Chutes, and yet the band had no idea what was in store next thanks to the Little Film that Could.
Interestingly, though we tend to associate Chutes Too Narrow with the Shins’ most successful years, Meyer tells me it’s the lowest-selling of the three Sub Pop releases. (As of my interview with him, Oh, Inverted World stood at roughly 688,000 sold, Chutes at 553,000, and Wincing the Night Away at 661,000.) And perhaps it’s worth remembering that the Garden State soundtrack contained two songs from Oh, Inverted, although it was released nearly a year after Chutes’ release. Strangely it seems the album was both buttressed and slightly muted by the success of the film: Oh, Inverted continued to be featured just as or more prominently during the Chutes album cycle thanks to the soundtrack and script appearance, while Wincing was perfectly situated to take advantage of the buzz, as well as the “mainstreaming of indie,” generally.
We’re dealing in very subtle margins, though: At over 500K sold, Chutes was only slightly less of a triumph than the two records which bookend it, and only by business standards. Speaking with Mercer, it’s clear he remains proud of the album, a sentiment recently affirmed by a notable peer.
“It's funny,” he recalls. “One night I was drinking with Courtney Taylor from Dandy Warhols, who’s a big Shins fan, and he was drunk enough to be very candid with me. He was like, [adopts slurry voice] 'You know you're never going to write a record as good as Chutes Too Narrow, right?” I was pleased he said that because I really like the record, but like you said, it never sold as well as the other records. So it was cool that he loves it more than anything I've ever done.”
Over the phone, Mercer conveyed a breezy temperament amid our ruminating, a far cry from the jaded folkie who wrote the song that would launch his career as a Hail Mary pass in his late-twenties.
“I just feel like as you get older certain parts of you mind mellow out and you're allowed to concentrate on other things,” he says. “I didn't have a lot of confidence in my skills or anything during that time. So there's been a lot of growth for me that has to do with accepting challenges and then being able to live up to them.”
The young pilgrims who implored him not to fail would be pleased.