James Mercer reflects on the Shins' Oh, Inverted World : 'There was this craving for some earnestness'
To mark its 20th anniversary, Mercer looks back at the making (and enduring influence) of his band's debut album
Oh, Inverted World, the 2001 debut from the Shins, feels like it marks a turning point in the zeitgeist, a time when American culture was still in the process of transitioning from the last decade of the 20th century into the first of the 21st. Songs like "New Slang" and "Caring Is Creepy" became defining touchstones of millennial indie rock, especially when they appeared on the iconic Garden State soundtrack three years later.
To mark the album's 20th anniversary — and a new remaster coming later this month — EW spoke with Shins mastermind James Mercer about the record and its legacy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hitting play on "Caring is Creepy" for the first time in years was a real Proustian moment for me, immediately taking me back to high school and college and young emotional feelings. What was the experience of revisiting this album like for you?
JAMES MERCER: Yeah, I mean, it did bring back a lot of memories. I think the whole idea of a 20th anniversary makes you reflect a little bit. It's been a crazy two decades for me, but especially that period of time after releasing Oh, Inverted World. Those early days were just really heady and very fast. Our lives picked up quickly.
This was your first album as the Shins, but the group had been playing as Flake and Flake Music in the '90s. What was that transition about?
Flake was very '90s in that we all kind of wrote songs together. We were pretty heavily influenced by bands like Superchunk; what were they called back then, power pop? And also Pavement and bands like that. We kind of had a blend of all sorts of things. I really fell in love with the Elephant 6 label and a lot of the stuff that was coming out on there, which was kind of hippie and classic songwriting stuff. I had also been listening to oldies radio and had this idea in my head that if I wrote songs in that sort of older style, I wondered if people would gravitate to it, if it would have any sort of engagement. So I was doing what I liked. The thing was, it didn't translate very well to that power pop, semi-punkish thing that we were doing on stage. I needed somewhere to put them, so I began recording in my little bedroom. That was the seeds of what ended up being Oh, Inverted World.
Did it make a big difference that Flake was more collaborative with songwriting, whereas the Shins songs were all you?
Yeah, that's a big difference. I did introduce a number of songs to Flake that ended up being Shins songs. They didn't go over well, it just didn't translate, so something new had to be done. I did enjoy having control over it. There's a certain aspect of that where you want to show people that you can do it, you know? There is a little bit of that, I don't know, strange ego boost that you might have.
That's interesting that you described Flake as very '90s because I in turn think of the Shins, especially this album, as very 2000s. It's the sound of the millennial indie rock that I really grew up listening to as I was going through school and learning about what good music was. To what degree do you feel like you guys were trendsetters and to what degree does it feel like your personal interests, like listening to oldies radio, happened to be in sync with this emerging zeitgeist?
Certainly there was no intent there to create some sort of trend or anything like that. So much of life I think is just slapdash, but I do see how what I was doing was a little bit of a departure from what was really popular in the '90s, and it happened to be successful to some extent. There is a zeitgeist thing there, because I think a lot of other bands were feeling the same thing. I think there was this craving for some earnestness.
Because the '90s were like the decade of irony, right?
Yeah, that's what it was. I think everything was kind of tongue-in-cheek the whole time, which was fun and cool, but I think I was longing for something that I had experienced back in the '80s with bands like the Smiths — things that were really touching and not trying to sort of poke fun at it, but actually being honest about it.
I was reading stories that were written about you guys at the time the album was first coming out and there's stuff about people like Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse sending cassettes of "New Slang" to labels. How much do you feel has changed between those days and our current era of young artists trying to grab attention on Spotify and YouTube?
It's obviously changed the whole lot. I spoke to our A&R guy at Sub Pop, Stuart Meyer, and he said that it was Zeke Howard from Love as Laughter who really handed over a burned CD that I had given him, and then Isaac also was in their ear about us. I appreciate both of them for helping. It's a different world right now. We were kind of on the cusp of this new thing, because I know that Napster really helped us out. I had burned these little CDs and given them out and sold them for like $5 at a couple of shows. A few months later I was told there were 30,000 computers that had that EP on them. So it was kind of cool, the fact that there was an audience being built without our touring, even that was a new phenomenon. I think that was also something that helped us get signed.
How much of Oh, Inverted World's success did you feel immediately, and how much of it built over time? Did it take until "New Slang" and "Caring Is Creepy" appeared in Garden State a few years later?
We didn't feel much at initial release. We were still touring in our little van, and just kind of excited that we could actually go to the East Coast and have people turn up. It was a big deal for us, you know? We're from Albuquerque, where you kind of feel like you're living on the edge of the universe, not part of the rest of the country. So we were traveling along and I remember we got asked, "would you allow a couple of these songs to be in a movie? This guy who's in a TV show, he's going to direct it. It's going to be this indie thing." So Garden State ends up coming out and that's when things really shifted because we were done touring for Chutes Too Narrow, our second record, in the van. We were basically done with this tour cycle and then we got hit up by all these colleges to come and play. It was completely because of Garden State. And so we got a bus! You play at a lot of these colleges and you get quite a bit of money. So it was a big change for us.
I read a story that the master tapes of Oh, Inverted World got stolen from your home at one point. What happened there?
Yeah. I was burgled, and I just wasn't clever enough to have made copies. I think I didn't realize the value of those things. The computer that I had recorded them on, which was this little Hewlett Packard Pavilion, that's what I had used to do all the mixing and everything. They just took it. I'm sure they didn't get any money for it at all, cause it was a nothing computer. It was just my mistake of going on tour and not really having my house watched carefully.
Did not having those files affect the remaster process at all?
No, because we did have the original DATs that were used by the mastering company. What was taken were the original audio files. And so there's no remixing capability — except, strangely, for "New Slang." I had put that on a DVD and so I was able to recover that. In fact, we have a video game company that wants it, so I had to put together stems [recordings sourced from individual tracks] to send to them. So strangely that was the one that was recoverable.
Well, I guess if you were going to pick one that you were able to save, that's probably a good one to pick!
Yeah, exactly. We got lucky.
If "New Slang" is one of the most famous songs from Oh, Inverted World, what's your personal favorite?
I think "The Past and Pending" is my favorite. I just feel like it's, I don't know, lyrically really strong and it's got an interesting melody and some interesting chord changes. It just works on me probably more than the other songs do.
What are you proudest of from the remaster?
It was kind of my idea to do this whole thing, so I'm proud of that. It was a couple of years back that I brought it up with Sub Pop and thought we could do this and maybe there'd be some interest in it. And it seems that there has been! I never come up with like marketing ideas or anything like that, so I'm pretty stoked that this one actually came to fruition. It feels like something to celebrate. I mean, it was a watershed moment in my life and in my very dear friends' lives.
With this year being the 20th anniversary of 2001, it kind of feels like that late '90s/early 2000s period has come up in the nostalgia cycle, so to speak. Is there anything else in particular you've been thinking about as you look back on that time in general?
Yeah, I just feel thankful. During that period of time, especially leading up to getting signed and so on, I was in my late twenties and I didn't have really any prospects. I had enjoyed playing in bands and learning how to write songs, so I was having a lot of fun, but there were moments of real anxiety about, what am I going to do? I remember telling my parents that if I didn't sort something out in the next year with the band or with the recording, which I had really gotten into, that I would go back to school and get a proper degree and then just settle down into something. I kind of dreaded that whole idea. So it was just really thrilling to get the attention of Sub Pop and then get signed and have them put stuff out and be able to tour and make some money. It was huge.
Was there any particular moment when you finally felt like, "Okay, I don't have to go back to school"?
It's funny because it sounds silly, but we got a check from Sub Pop just as an advance. It wasn't a ton of money, but it was enough for me to buy the van that we toured in. Honestly I was like, that's it! Man, we got the band, we can tour. The shows are going well. I was like, I'm done, this is my life. That was enough.
Has revisiting this album made you think about doing new stuff? Should we expect any new music on the horizon?
Well, I'm always writing. I've got new songs that I've recorded. Sometimes I have to force myself to get out here in the studio and work, but yeah, there's been some cool stuff happening. I don't know when it'll come out; there hasn't been much pressure on us. We fulfilled our obligation with the last contract, so who knows what's going to happen?
For her just-released third album, 'Jubilee,' Zauner decided to reset her intentions and perspective. "I had really set out to write a record that wasn't about grief," she says.
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