When James Mercer answers my video call, it takes only a few seconds before my attention is drawn past the acclaimed singer-songwriter of The Shins to the spacious design and layout of his custom recording studio. There are exposed ceiling beams and orb-shaped light fixtures; a sliding barn door with a giant sign that reads “Entering Yamhill, Population 500, Drive Carefully”; and of course, a variety of wall-mounted instruments and cables. The whole setup gives off the vibe that he’s retreated to an off-the-grid cabin.
“It was a carriage house,” Mercer explains. “Not quite a barn, but it had a hayloft upstairs that’s now a little apartment. Where I’m standing were stalls for horses.”
While a workplace to write and record indie rock albums may not have been on the initial owners’ bingo card of future uses when they first constructed the space in the late 19th century, the converted building, and the Victorian home it abuts on a quiet residential street in Portland, OR, has served Mercer and his family well since they first bought the property in 2007.
“It’s been over 15 years,” says Mercer. “The kids have grown up here. We like Portland a lot. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.”
The thought of reaching this kind of professional security, comfort and stability, coupled with the roles and responsibilities of a loving husband and father, were undoubtedly concepts that seemed unfathomable, if not downright impossible, when Mercer first moved to Portland over two decades ago. Back then he was simply trying to survive the making of his band’s consequential second album, Chutes Too Narrow.
The record that would cement The Shins as one of the most beloved alternative bands of the 2000s, and would also establish Mercer — with his idiosyncratic melodies over simple song structures and existential, anxiety-ridden lyrics — as one of his era’s most charmingly subversive songwriters, Chutes Too Narrow remains, at least to Mercer, the album that had to succeed.
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A social introvert, Mercer came to music as a means of engaging with other people without actually having to do so. “It’s the least awkward way of communicating,” says Mercer with a laugh. Despite his best efforts pursuing a life as a professional musical artist, learning to write songs in his then-home of Albuquerque, NM, Mercer says the majority of his twenties was “such a wash.”
“Even to me it seemed like I was wasting my time,” he says. “I was like, ‘What is this? What am I going to be, a songwriter?’ Certainly everyone around me thought that — my parents, everybody. I just kept at it because I didn’t know what else to do honestly.”
A self-imposed ultimatum was inevitably thrown on the table. “I told my parents, ‘I’m investing some money in some recording equipment, and I’m going to try and record these songs that I’ve been writing.’ I told them — I guess I wanted to assuage their fears — ‘I’m going to do this and either something will happen or I’ll go back to college. I solemnly swear.’”
Packaged under the name The Shins, the resulting debut album, Oh, Inverted World, with its collection of laidback, lo-fi songs, caught the attention of Sub Pop Records, who would sign Mercer and his band to its roster and release the LP to critical acclaim.
While the sought-after achievement that Oh, Inverted World brought should have provided Mercer the boost in confidence he needed when assessing the legitimacy of his life as an artist, it only succeeded in scaring the shit out of him. “You always have this imposter syndrome,” he says. “I was this kid in Albuquerque and I recorded this thing on this little Hewlett Packard Pavilion, and it sounded okay because I tinkered with it long enough.”
Overwhelmed by a combined feeling of responsibility and duress, as well as an imperative to do right by a label that was investing its money and resources into him, Mercer’s entire mindset going into Chutes was “Don’t fuck this up, Mercer. Let’s do this and make sure you don’t have any regrets. Avoid regret. Okay? You lucky fucker. Make it happen in a way where you can at least say, ‘Well, I fucking did my best.’”
“I remember [my friend] saying a long time ago, ‘Chutes Too Narrow — does it suck knowing that you’ll never write a better record than that?’”James Mercer, frontman of The Shins
Buying a house in Northeast Portland, “a little Craftsman bungalow in a rough part of town at the time,” Mercer and his band began work on the new album. Recording took place in the basement, featuring a setup that was hardly worth boasting about. “It was not decent,” says Mercer. “It certainly wasn’t decent. But I didn’t need that much. Since I knew it was going to be mixed elsewhere, I didn’t have to EQ everything perfectly. I just needed to get a good, faithful reproduction of the performance, arrange things as best I could, and then head up to see Phil where he’ll sort it out for me.”
“Phil” was producer Phil Ek, who would help The Shins finish the record in Seattle under its crunched timeframe. Not only did Ek provide Mercer and the band the resources and supporting instrumentalists to experiment with the songs’ arrangements, but he brought technical ability on the soundboards to lift the compositions out from under the hazy reverb that had anchored the atmosphere of Oh, Inverted World. The desire for such audible clarity came when Mercer was nearing the end of recording The Shins’ debut LP and was browsing through a thrift store next to his Albuquerque apartment. It was there he wound up buying a vinyl copy of Neil Young’s classic 1972 album Harvest.
“I only knew ‘Heart of Gold’ because it was on oldies radio,” recalls Mercer. “So every other song on that record was a brand new revelation to me. I was just so blown away by so many of the songs, and I got turned on to this new, very straightforward production style. So when I went into Chutes Too Narrow, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to try and see if I could just be like, ‘Okay, here’s the songs. We’re not going to decorate too much and just go for it.’”
Though the making of Chutes was not without its share of challenges, such as when Mercer wrote “Young Pilgrims” as a last-minute track substitute just days before the album’s completion deadline, spending the next several nights in a van “getting blood from a stone” and hallucinating from sleep deprivation, he also says there were times where he would be in the studio listening back to what he and band had captured and was surprised by how things were actually coming together.
“There were a couple of moments on the record where things that I hadn’t done before — and I guess assumed would be difficult to do — just kind of worked,” he says. “Like the piano work we did on ‘Saint Simon,’ we hadn’t really done anything like that before. I think I felt a new sense that you just need to get in there and try your hand at it and just stop creating this mythology of failure before you even try.”
When Chutes Too Narrow finally saw its release on October 21, 2003 it was touted as one of the best albums of that year. It garnered one of Pitchfork’s first “Best New Music” designations, calling it “not simply an excellent album…[but] a powerful testament to pop music’s capacity for depth, beauty and expressiveness.” Rolling Stone felt “it must mean something that the freshest indie rock boasts tunes more substantial that [sic] what is sold in the mainstream.” By the end of the aughts, Chutes Too Narrow would be listed as one of the best albums of the decade by numerous publications, including NME, Paste, Pitchfork, Uncut and The A.V. Club. To this day, even some of Mercer’s friends revere the record, if only to take him to task in the same breath.
“I recently went and had some coffee with some friends, and one of the guys I was with, he’s kind of a brash guy,” says Mercer. “I remember him saying a long time ago, ‘Chutes Too Narrow — does it suck knowing that you’ll never write a better record than that?’” Mercer laughs at such an unfiltered comment. “He’s like that. To him, that was the peak for my songwriting. And he might be right. I don’t know.”
However Chutes Too Narrow ultimately sits in your own personal ranking of The Shins’ discography, there’s little argument that the record accomplished exactly what Mercer wanted it to do, exactly when he needed it to, paving an honest-to-God path forward for his life.
“Chutes Too Narrow, doing that record and having it work out, where people were like, ‘This guy, he can write records, he can develop songs,’ it just felt like I was approaching legitimacy as an artist, as a songwriter, and even as a producer,” says Mercer. “I just really felt that if Chutes Too Narrow didn’t do well, if Sub Pop was unhappy with it, the first record meant nothing. It meant that it was just a fluke. I was always worried that that’s what Oh, Inverted World was, this thing that I really got into and got very fastidious and devoted a lot of time to, and achieved some success with. Chutes Too Narrow to me, it was just really important because I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m valid.’”
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