One could understand if it feels odd and perhaps a bit surreal for James Mercer to see the lavish praise his band, the Shins, have been receiving for their classic-sounding yet off-center style of pop over the past three years.
The group, which formed in Albuquerque, N.M., and relocated recently to Portland, Ore., has been billed as one of rock's best new bands by such high-profile publications as Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly.
For Mercer, though, it wasn't long ago that he was unsure if he even had a future in music. It had been nearly a decade since the singer/guitarist first played together with the other members of the Shins -- keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval and bassist David Hernandez. Mercer had decided the Shins' debut 2001 CD, Oh, Inverted World, would be his last shot.
"I absolutely was in that position," Mercer, the band's songwriter, said in a phone interview. "I was turning 30 while I was recording that and had dropped out of college probably six years earlier and was just sort of working odd jobs and stuff and playing in bands. I was going to give it up, basically. I was going to go back to school and get an office job or something, I guess, somewhere."
Instead Oh, Inverted World earned rave reviews and sold about 100,000 copies -- an impressive number for an indie band. Now the equally admired follow-up CD, Chutes Too Narrow, has solidified the Shins' place as one of rock's most promising newcomers.
Chutes Too Narrow is perhaps a bit more polished sounding than the first CD, but it again showcases Mercer's ability to write smart and catchy pop songs that sound sturdy enough to feel fresh for years to come.
"Productionwise, I see the sound quality being bigger and better on Chutes Too Narrow than on the other stuff," Mercer said. "And I think I did want to have a more sort of aggressive stance while working on the latest record."
Mercer admitted he's still adjusting to the Shins' growing reputation.
"I think it's still hard [to fathom]," he said. "We recently played with Morrissey in New York and it was apparently because Morrissey listens to the Shins. Things like that -- I'm constantly surprised that we are actually a part of the pop culture out there."
That kind of wonderment is understandable considering Mercer and his band mates spent most of the 1990s in virtual anonymity.
In fact, originally Flake was supposed to be the primary music project for Mercer and his band mates. That group, Mercer said, was an entirely collaborative unit that wrote many of their songs together during rehearsals.
But by the mid-1990s, several musical goals prompted Mercer to start the Shins alongside Flake and take the helm creatively within the Shins.
"I wanted to sort of stylistically have an identity," he said. "And it's hard to do that when you've got four people putting in on something. Sometimes our songs [in Flake] were just a little bit schizophrenic. Also, I think, as I was getting older and learning the classic sort of songs, structures and chord relationships, I sort of wanted to experiment with that, do something more traditional."
-- Alan Sculley
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St., Denver
Tuesday, May 25 at 8 p.m.
$13.25, 16 and up
520-SHOW or www.ticketmaster.com