Wider popularity means a rise in quality for both live performances and studio sounds for the shins
James Mercer is an insomniac. The stream-of-consciousness thoughts that come in that netherworld between REM sleep and full wakefulness informs the music he writes for his band the Shins, particularly on their latest album, "Wincing the Night Away." But recently his twilight time has been shared with another, specifically his newborn baby.
With local opening band Satellite Grey
In concert: 8 p.m. Monday
Place: Pipeline Cafe, 805 Pohukaina St.
Tickets: $26, advance; $31, day of show. Available at club, Blaisdell box office and Ticketmaster outlets. To charge by phone, call (877) 750-4400, or visit www.ticketmaster.com
Note: This is an all-ages show, but those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Daughter Sabine's sleepless nights have just ended, Mercer says, "although she's learnt how to be cranky." He was speaking by cell phone last week Thursday while driving back from Seattle to his home in Portland, Ore., where he attended the wedding reception of band bassist Dave Hernandez.
Mercer said he and the band were looking forward to touring again, especially since the first stop is Hawaii. Then come performances at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and in the land Down Under, where the song "Australia" off the new album is sure to be wildly popular.
"Australia" is jangle-pop perfection and, along with fellow single (and equally Smiths-inspired) "Phantom Limb," has helped solidify the Shins as one of rock music's biggest and best independent acts.
The band's breakout came in late 2004 during a scene in Zach Braff's charming coming-of-age film "Garden State." Natalie Portman's character passes a pair of headphones to Braff and utters the now-memorable lines, "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life."
That "one song," "New Slang," opened up the Shins to a much bigger audience than they'd ever anticipated. Because of it, the band hit the road again. And "New Slang" introduced the wider world to the rest of Mercer's quality ditties from the debut "Oh, Inverted World" album and the later "Chutes Too Narrow."
That 3-year-old song grew so popular that the producers of "Saturday Night Live" asked the band to play it when they appeared earlier this year to help promote "Wincing the Night Away."
THE BAND'S arrival in Honolulu marks a return to Mercer's birthplace. He was born at Tripler Army Hospital when his Air Force dad was stationed here. But because the family moved to Kansas when he was 3 or 4 years old, Mercer doesn't remember much about the islands, "except for the beach and riding around in my dad's VW bus."
Along with a higher profile has come more attention to stage presentation, although the band has always come across as a genial lot, thanks to the easy, joking demeanor of fellow Shin Marty Crandall.
"I think there's been a change in attitude in the quality level of our show," Mercer said. "The added visibility we've gotten has meant some pressure to provide something solid and entertaining to go along with the rise in ticket prices. So we've incorporated some new ideas, like we have a guy who designs our lighting, and we even have a backdrop now."
The Shins have also filled out their lineup with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson, who has his own music project called Fruit Bats, and assisted the band in recording "Wincing."
"I asked Eric to join the band last November, not only to fill out our live sound, but because I felt we needed help in the studio, too. I look to Eric as somebody to come in and do everything. He plays piano, banjo and sings well. Eric's an all-round gifted guy."
From demo home recording to the studio, Mercer takes particular care with his songs. "Wincing the Night Away" is the Shins' best-sounding album to date, due in large part to the assistance of co-producer Joe Chiccarelli.
"Our working together started when I was complaining about the quality of my home recordings for 'Wincing.' I told him I was out of my depth, learning to use new software, all this while the guys in the band were waiting on me, doing their own things. So Joe said, 'Let me come over to your house and give you some pointers.' And to show me what he'd done, he produced this little reel of songs he had mixed, produced or engineered before. That's when I found out he worked with people like Beck and U2. I thought, man, this guy's like a ninja!"
The Honolulu audience will probably be regaled with, along with other "Wincing" songs, earlier fave songs like "Know Your Onion," "Caring is Creepy," "Kissing the Lipless" and "So Says I." "Plus we do a great version of 'Sleeping Lessons' " off the new album, Mercer said. That song usually kicks off their concerts and blossoms into an extended jam number.
"We may also do a new cover song. On part of the tour earlier this year, we were doing the Modern Lovers' 'Someone I Care About.' "
And you know they'll do "New Slang," no doubt about it.