Oh, Inverted World
One of the defining albums of the 2000s was the result of a classic quarter-life crisis. A few years before Oh, Inverted World’s 2001 release, James Mercer was approaching his 30th birthday—and beginning to think that he might need to finally get his shit together. “I had a ridiculous life,” the Shins mastermind tells Apple Music, two decades later. “The fun of getting high and doing the stuff you do when you’re young had started to disappear. I would get so stressed out, just thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life? Why am I in this fucking living room playing video games again?’”
For much of the ’90s, Mercer had been living, as he says, “hand-to-mouth” in Albuquerque’s student ghetto, working an impressive variety of day jobs—amusement park ride operator, Southwestern-style sconce maker—and playing with Flake Music, a local outfit whose sound landed somewhere between Pavement and Superchunk. But that was far from what Mercer was hearing in his head: Inspired by oldies radio, Stuart Murdoch, and the psychedelic pop of Elephant 6, Mercer had been writing material on his own that didn’t translate with the band. Betting on himself, he gathered his longtime bandmates in a park and told them that his side project needed to become his focus: For The Shins to live, Flake Music would need to die. “It was very difficult,” he says of the decision to leave. “I jumped ship from the overall aesthetic and mode that everybody was in at the time.”
Lush and loopy, majestic and strange, Oh, Inverted World was recorded entirely at home on a newly purchased Hewlett Packard desktop. And by way of some early-internet word-of-mouth—a crude web stream here, a self-burned CD-R there—its songs eventually found their way to Sub Pop, a label that was also looking to reimagine itself in Nirvana’s wake. From the unassuming shimmer of “Caring Is Creepy” to the Kinks-ian swing of “Know Your Onion!” to the high-arching harmonies of “Girl on the Wing,” Mercer’s debut presented a vision of rock and pop that reveled in melody more than feedback—a softer approach that would go on to define the sound (and image) of 2000s indie music and its fans. Its haunting centerpiece, “New Slang,” is a song about escaping Albuquerque and moving on, but it would come to illuminate the sort of commercial possibilities previously unavailable to artists like Mercer: first as the backdrop to an ad for McDonald’s, and then, years later, as a pivotal part of actor Zach Braff’s directorial debut-slash-mixtape, 2004’s Garden State. But the funny thing about Natalie Portman’s character swearing that “New Slang” could change your life is that ultimately, it changed Mercer’s.
He’d leave New Mexico not long after the album’s release, and his former Flake Music bandmates would come along for the ride as full-time touring members of The Shins. His bedroom recording project had become a business. “At some point you have to be a little bit brave,” he says. “There was no real pressure on me then—I wasn't doing this stuff thinking that I was going to get a bunch of attention, but I made a lot of changes: I ended a long relationship; I moved out of the communal music house that we all lived in; I quit the dead-end job I had and started working part-time so I'd have more time to record. In the end, I learned that you just need to go for it.” Here, Mercer shares more of the wisdom he took from the experience of making an indie-rock touchstone, 20 years later.
Hard Work Pays Off “I think early on, writing material for The Shins, I realized that there was something especially rewarding about writing a song on my own and—it sounds bad—controlling the whole feel of the song. When that started to happen, it was motivating. I realized that if I found something that I was inspired by, I could work hard. That was a big lesson for me, because I hadn't been a very disciplined person before that; I didn't have terrific study habits in high school or college and I didn't have any real focus on a target until my mid- to late twenties. But through this I learned that I had a place in the world, that there was something that I could do that was worthwhile.”
Don’t Waste Time “I waffled about so much when I was in my twenties, whether it was being in the band or just with girlfriends. And then you come out of it and you're like, ‘Not only did I waste my time with that, I wasted this person's time. They could have, and should have, been off finding something more meaningful.’ But I had a hard time with confrontation and disappointing people. The Shins was the beginning of me taking control of my life and growing up. And it's not that I didn't continue to struggle with confrontation and some of the decision-making you have to do as an adult, but that was a big step.”
Keep It Simple “I had a girlfriend who introduced me to Leonard Cohen, and the first time I heard ‘Suzanne,’ I cried. That was power on a level I just hadn't really imagined—such a simple song, but so much strength coming from it. I wanted to affect people. We had this little web page and we could post songs on there. We had ‘New Slang’ up there, and that spread word-of-mouth around town, before there was any attention from outside of Albuquerque. People started coming up to me and just telling me, ‘That song is just amazing.’ They were really stoked, and I was chuffed.”
Kill Your Darlings “When I hear Oh, Inverted World, I hear myself being overly ambitious, just putting so much stuff in the mix. I would have a ton of melodic ideas and I would just cram them all in, and I think I should have edited more. One thing I've learned is that you need to let the best moment in a song shine. On ‘The Celibate Life,’ for example, there’s just too much going on, and I should have let the harmonica do what it's doing for a second, just to give it a spotlight. I should have let the guitar shine, too—you can barely hear there's a really cool guitar solo, but it's all in the mush of the rest of the stuff going on. You have to pick and choose, and you have to delete some stuff. I still have trouble with that.”
You Deserve a Break Today “Probably six months to a year after the record came out, our A&R guy at Sub Pop, Stuart Meyer, said they had an offer for a licensing deal, but he didn't want to tell me who it was: ‘It’s fucking McDonald’s.’ At that point, I think Modest Mouse had done a Volkswagen commercial, and that was acceptable—kind of classy in comparison. [Sub Pop cofounder] Jonathan Poneman actually offered, like, ‘You can tell people that we made you do it,’ which is generous of him, but I didn't feel good about that. I needed money: I was in debt from living off of credit cards. I do wish, to some extent, though, that I had known that there were going to be other opportunities. Blonde Redhead had asked us to tour with them, and they were a benchmark of coolness at the time—but all that type of shit pretty much ended. There was this girl in Boston I was interested in, and when the McDonald's thing happened she was just fucking done, no more. I look back on it with a little bit of regret, but also an understanding that I didn't really have a lot of options at the time. I just didn't know what my future held.”
It’s Okay to Say Yes “I didn't know who Zach Braff was—I’d been told that he was in a TV show, and that he wanted to direct an indie film. It was the first time that we had been asked to have our songs in a movie, and I said yes immediately. I don't ever recall talking about money, so I think we just allowed the usage without asking for any kind of a fee. Later, I went and saw it in the theater with my wife, and I just remember shrinking down in my seat when that scene with Natalie Portman happened, because it's so over the top. I remember talking to Megan Jasper at Sub Pop, asking her, ‘Are we jumping the shark here? Is there anything we should say no to at this point? Are we really an indie band anymore if we have that big of a presence?’ When the movie came out, we started getting all these offers from colleges and universities across the country, so there was this new market: young adults who were really excited to see us. For the first time we rented a bus with a driver, and we started touring again, basically supporting the movie and the soundtrack. Life is full of surprises. Maybe it's okay to say yes sometimes.”
Be Your Own Boss “I am not a natural manager of people. It’s very difficult to go from a friendship situation to a situation where I was the leader of the band and suddenly the center, to a certain extent, of the social fabric around me. I had not been that at all during my twenties. I felt like if I had just somehow been more charismatic and inspiring, to get people excited about being part of this and to remember that we're lucky to have this opportunity. I thought that I was grown up enough to manage it, to make it work, but it was difficult. For a while I was the manager of the band, too, so I was receiving the checks and doing the accounting and then writing checks to distribute the money we earned from record sales and from touring. In a way it was like suddenly I was the owner of a small business. I had no preparation for it. I did not know how to do that, and I had to learn.”