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The Shins’ James Mercer on ‘New Slang’ at 20: ‘I Was Able to Pull the Rabbit Out of the Hat’

This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2001 Week continues with an interview with Shins singer/songwriter James Mercer, as he looks back on the song that took him from a struggling Southwestern musician with an uncertain future to frontman for one of the biggest indie bands of the 21st century: “New Slang.” 

In the late-’90s, James Mercer was a twenty-something guitarist/vocalist, building tracks on a computer in a New Mexico studio apartment. Then he began The Shins, just as a side project to his band Flake, and something unexpected happened to change his entire career trajectory.

While Flake was touring with Modest Mouse, Mercer gave that band’s frontman Isaac Brock a CD that included The Shins’ “New Slang,” a humming, poignant track about wanting to break out of his hometown of Albuquerque. Brock passed the CD to Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, and the rest is indie rock history. 

Mercer’s side project-turned-career went on to achieve multiple Gold-certified albums, a Grammy nomination, and general indie rock immortality. What transpired between the late ’90s and 2001, when The Shins’ unveiled their debut album Oh, Inverted World, is a well-trodden but nonetheless fascinating account, especially when detailed by Mercer in his own words. “I had the song floating around for a long time, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Mercer, now 50, says of “New Slang.” The song took off, and so too did The Shins. “Things changed. I was able to pull the rabbit out of the hat.”

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As Natalie Portman’s Sam promises to Zach Braff’s Andrew in the 2004 cult dramedy Garden State: “This song [“New Slang”] will change your life.” Twenty years later, Mercer is still in awe over just how true that was for him — even though he was the one who wrote it. “Right off the bat I was like, ‘Sure, that’s awesome, it’ll be in a movie?! Whoa, how cool,’” he remembers. “But it wasn’t until 2004 that it came out…and suddenly, oh my God, Natalie Portman is in the movie — it was a totally different thing.”

This week, as Billboard pays tribute to the most iconic music to have emerged from 2001, Mercer, 50, spoke by phone about the journey “New Slang” took to become a stealth hit; he also discussed his memories of Oh, Inverted World, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and about the possibility of an accompanying tour.

A lot of the lyrics in “New Slang” are about Albuquerque. Can you explain the mindset you were in when you wrote this song?

I hesitate to come across that I don’t like Albuquerque or something. I have a lot of fondness for it, and my folks still live there and stuff, but yeah, everybody goes through a period of time — if you do live in that sort of smaller community — you kind of feel trapped. I was in my late twenties by the time I got out of Albuquerque, so I was really chomping at the bit to find something new and experience something new as an adult. Albuquerque became the symbol of my stagnant situation in life.

Right, if you’re from a small town, that’s a very relatable concept.

I had spent my twenties there [in Albuquerque], kind of struggling as most musicians do — you’re in bands that don’t appear to really have a future, but as far as you know, you have no future otherwise anyway, so you keep doing it! Then by my late 20s, I started to have that gnawing anxiety about, “I’ve got to grow up. Something has to be sorted out. I don’t want to end up being destitute and playing gigs on the weekends.” 

So I made a deal with my parents that I would spend a year working on music. I had a new computer that I could use to increase the sound quality and so on — and it was from that year of work that “New Slang” came.

In the line “new slang when you notice the stripes,” what are the stripes?

Prison stripes. When you notice the things that are permanent parts of your personality, that you’ll forever deal with, was my thought.

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How did The Shins end up signing to Sub Pop?

I was in a band called Flake. We had done a couple West Coast tours, and we developed a relationship with Modest Mouse. We opened up for them [as Flake] — literally at a sandwich shop in Chico, California. So we exchanged records, we traded, and a couple years later — it must have been ’98 — they hit us up again for Flake to come and open for them for three nights in Texas, because they knew we were from the Southwest. 

When we did that, I gave Isaac [Brock] a burned CD that I had of this side project I was doing, The Shins. And it had “New Slang” on it. He gave that to Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop. So that’s how they learned about it.

That’s a pretty classic story that doesn’t really happen nowadays, in terms of a physical CD getting in the hands of a label exec.

They were interested in us. I do remember Stuart Meyer, our A&R guy at Sub Pop, told me that shortly after that — because I’d given out a bunch of these CDs — somehow it ended up on Napster. And it was really successful on Napster! Young college students were sharing it. And Stuart told me that that was one of the reasons that they became more interested in us, was the fact that 30,000 kids had the record already on their computers.

They also initially signed you for a one-off single deal for “New Slang,” but then decided to sign the band overall, right?

That’s true. They signed us just to be a part of their Single-of-the-Month club. It’s the demo version of the song, actually, that’s on that single. It’s not the one that ends up on the record.

That 7” single has to be a rare item now.

It must be nowadays! The A-side was that demo version of “New Slang.” Which I didn’t consider a demo — I was like, “This is the ultimate, best recording I could do at the time.” Then the B-side was “Sphagnum Esplanade.” Which is one of my favorites from back then. I don’t know how many they made, even!

What was the first moment or thing that made you realize there was going to be more life to the song?

I remember one of the places that I put that song was on a website that a friend of mine had made for The Shins. It was the most basic thing, but there were a couple audio files. “New Slang” was one of them, and it was that demo version.

A couple weeks later, I went to a party in Albuquerque — and we were totally unknown and unsigned, Sub Pop had never heard of us at this point — but some girls came up to me and they had heard the song. They were immediately taken by it. They were saying, “It’s one of the most beautiful songs.” I had never experienced anything like that. I’d never seen anybody experience anything like that! That was a clue right there that something was special about that song.

That’s awesome that they even recognized you, since it’s not like there was social media yet.

It was strange. I was very introverted, and being at parties would be fun if I was drunk enough. [Laughs.] Which is probably not the healthiest lifestyle. But so I didn’t have a ton of social interaction, so I was thrilled by that moment when, you know, a couple girls talked to me! And they had something positive to say!

Outside of the fans, what was it like seeing the critical reception?

I don’t recall reading about it in magazines so much, but I started getting praise about the work that I was doing at that time from other bands. It was also a first, that something was happening — bands that were not from Albuquerque were noticing. us and sort of these social accolades started to build up. Which was such a positive time.

Was there any particular band who helped you out?

I remember the Murder City Devils — who were kind of like a heavy metal band, but really cool and kind of modern, a bit of punk mixed in, but the type of band you wouldn’t expect to be into something like The Shins — they liked The Shins, and I felt really honored by that. Albuquerque is a really heavy town, so most of the bands that do well in Albuquerque are either metal bands, or [have] really dark loud distorted guitars and stuff. It felt good to be appreciated by that scene.

The “New Slang” music video references a bunch of classic indie rock album covers. What was that filming process like?

That was a lot of fun. That idea to do that was the video director Lance Bangs’. We all got really into it. It was fun. Marty [former Shins keyboardist Martin Crandall], who was a bandmate at the time, worked at a record store and was a huge record collector, so he knew all the covers. One of the covers that I suggested was Sonic Youth’s Sister.

We went everywhere. Driving around in a VW Bug so we could do [Minutemen’s] Double Nickels on the Dime, and then going down to the Rio Grande and swimming to get another one. We went everywhere we could.

I also read that there happened to be a San Pedro street in Albuquerque, so you were able to do the Minutemen album.

Lance was really stoked when he saw that! Which was coincidental — we drove by it, and he was like, “Oh my God, we have to get that in the shot.”

Of course, “New Slang” makes a major appearance in the film Garden State. Natalie Portman says “this song will change your life,” which I have to imagine applied to you, too.

Oh, yeah. I mean, so true, for me, definitely. It’s funny, too, because Zach Braff had the TV show he was doing, Scrubs, and we vaguely knew about that [that “New Slang” was featured in an episode of the show], probably just from seeing ads for TV on it. But he was going to direct a film, and it was just going to be this indie film, and who knows what will come of it. 

And so I was asked to contribute a couple songs. Right off the bat I was like, “Sure, that’s awesome, it’ll be in a movie?! Whoa, how cool.” But it wasn’t until 2004 that it came out, so this would have been in 2001 that he asked us, and it took that long. And suddenly, oh my God, Natalie Portman is in the movie, it was a totally different thing. And it [the song] was so featured! It was like, “Who gets advertised like that?!”

Did you go see the movie in the theater?

I did. My wife and I went, before we were married. I remember shrinking in my seat when she [Portman] says that, you’re just sort of like, “Oh, my God.” It just felt like a spotlight was on my face or something. “Please, nobody see me.” I don’t know why but I felt very self-conscious.

How else did “New Slang” live up to that life-changing quote?

It’s just been a song that people want to license for different things. We got so much attention from it. You can see it online, that many more people are listening to that song in particular versus all of our other songs. I feel really lucky that that happened.

I had the song floating around for a long time, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It had a different rhythmic structure. It wasn’t until a couple things happened — one day, I figured out how to play it better, one day I came up with that intro, the falsetto, lilting-voice thing. That kind of nailed it down. I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.” It was fairly easy to record, because it was just acoustic guitar, and I think I used — Dave Hernandez played the bass, and I used this really cheap keyboard to do the kick drum. It was very simple. Super DIY. I was in my little studio apartment.

You and The Shins were very open to licensing it, which had to help with exposure.

I know that it was unusual. By that time, at that precipice between youth and adulthood, I felt like I would regret not having taken the opportunities that were given to me, financially. The people around me said as much. People were just like, “You should do this, because this just doesn’t happen forever and I wish this was happening for my band.” Stuff like that. So we were open to that [licensing], but it was controversial, you know. The indie ethic and the punk rock ethic at the time was staunchly against that sort of thing. But then it started to loosen up, bands — TV shows started to use interesting music. There was just a lot more exposure going on. Things changed.

True or false: you also bought a house from the McDonald’s money?

It was definitely a down payment! It got me out of debt on my credit cards and it was a down payment for a house, yeah. [Laughs.]

When you think back to the overall 2001 music scene — you’ve got The Strokes and White Stripes, pop-punk like Blink/Sum-41 — were you listening to those acts?

The Strokes came out — I remember we were on tour, and the first time we really dug into The Strokes was on that tour. We played that CD [Is This It] over and over again in the van. We all just fell in love with it. So that was after we had been signed and had our record out. 

For me, the way I remember it was during the ’90s in Albuquerque, it was a heavy music scene, that grunge vibe from Seattle had really taken over, so the metal scene had become this grunge scene in Albuquerque. Then I think nationally one of the big things was this sort of slacker rock stuff. Like Archers of Loaf and Pavement and so on. 

How did you see The Shins fitting in (or being a reaction to) that scene — or was it all not really on your radar?

I was longing for music that was sort of a bit more earnest. It’s kind of cheesy to say that, even, but I had loved Echo and The Bunnymen and The Smiths in high school, and I was longing for that sort of thing. Something that was heartfelt and a real attempt at a musical connection, and work hard on the lyrics and so on. That’s kind of what I was trying to do. I know it [The Shins] doesn’t sound anything like that stuff, but that’s what I was acting in response to, was trying to break new ground in some way. 

Belle & Sebastian had come out with If You’re Feeling Sinister in the late ’90s, and when I heard them, I was just so impressed — because it was that. It was heartfelt, and the production was very straightforward — they weren’t using heavily-distorted guitars and things like that. It was very touching music to me. I felt pretty inspired by that, that “Hey, this can be done.”

Funny you mention them, because I just watched High Fidelity and there’s that part where Jack Black’s character yells at them to turn off Belle & Sebastian in the record store because he thinks they’re crap or whatever. 

[Laughs] Yeah. That’s very Albuquerque. Jack Black would be the Albuquerque guy, you know.

For the record, I love them. Amid all of the grunge and heavy rock, indie rock managed to come up a little while after that time, too. Grizzly Bear and Band of Horses are some of my favorite bands…

Yeah, there’s a little crack in the pavement that we grew out of somehow. We love all of those bands and have played with them. There was kind of a whole scene that grew up and we were happy to be part of that.

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What did it mean to be an up-and-coming indie band in 2001 vs. what you think it would be like today?

Right, it’s so different today. We still had the infrastructure of record labels, and I think they still do have a purpose, but they were so important. Sub Pop and Matador and Merge Records were so critical for these indie bands. 

It was crazy — I remember Modest Mouse, that first record they did, coming out on Up Records. Seeing it, holding it in my hand, it was so professional. It looked like they were on a real record label, you know? While ours [our CD] was like, fused spray adhesive and then Kinko’s to print out the things, and we glued them on ourselves. We were doing that type of stuff. Then you see this, like, “Whoa, this is a real label, there’s money behind this.” So I think that was our experience — just that there was money in Seattle, and if you got signed to a record label out of there, you could really kick it up a notch.

Nowadays, I don’t know, it’s so vastly different. Bands make it on SoundCloud and stuff. I have no idea what that’s like — I really don’t.

It has to be harder to land tours now, too, in such a crowded landscape.

I suppose so. We really booked our own shows at first, and would end up getting tagged onto someone else’s tour. Then Modest Mouse hooked us up [with Sub Pop], and then we had a professional booking agent and things really changed. It was great. She was a bulldog and got us much better fees. I don’t know what that’s like now, to be a young band. Say you do well on SoundCloud, and you have a great Instagram following or whatever — how do you turn that into a tour?

Can you talk about the 20th anniversary plans for Oh, Inverted World?

We’ve been redesigning the cover. We’re inverting the color combinations. We didn’t have to glue anything ourselves [this time]. So the artwork looks really cool, I kind of wish we’d done it that way to begin with. Then we’ve got a booklet that has old photos of us from back in the day and all the lyrics. Using some of the artwork from T-shirts that we hand-made back then. Flyers from when The Shins were just a two-piece. 

There’s a couple photos from there — when we first started, we would play on stage but it was just Jesse Sandoval and myself up there — so it’s cool. It’s fun for me to look at, the little memory lane. It’s remastered as well, so it’ll sound a little different. We were hoping it would be more robust sounding, up against some of the new material that’s being played on the radio. So it’s kind of a boosted version.

Can you believe it’s been 20 years?

Oh, man. In some ways, yeah, it feels like 20 years. Outside of my band life, I’ve got children and just a lot has happened. But it’s funny how some of those early moments still feel so close to me still in my mind. They’re still good memories. Especially the early days, when things were so heady and exciting.

Do you plan to do an anniversary tour?

We’ve been talking about it. How cool would it be to perform the record, like you see bands do at an anniversary. It’s just: when? When does this all get back to normal? I’m not sure. There’s talk about 2022. People are starting to book shows, I guess. So maybe ’22.

The Shins released “The Great Divide” in September, and the “flipped” version on April 2. Have you been working on more new music during the pandemic?

I have been! I’ve had spurts where I’ve gotten a new song idea and recorded demo versions. I enjoy now recording with other musicians much more than I used to. So I kind of record these demo versions and I’ll wait for [current Shins bandmembers] Yuuki Matthews and Jon Sortland and Mark Watrous and Patti King and whoever else I can get, to get together with me.

The band has been off the road since 2018. I assume you miss it…

I do miss it. We have a good time out there. The people that I’ve been hiring to do the road work are all so great. There’s just a great vibe. We bring along a grill and so we’ll have a barbecue after the show outside the bus.

Do you work the grill?

No, not often. I’m pretty good now, though. Usually I’m lucky enough to have somebody else takeover.

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