You know you’re a bona fide rock star when: You no longer have to record your album in your studio apartment; you can sell out more than one evening at the Bowery Ballroom in downtown Manhattan, and — this is the kicker — you start wearing women’s jeans.
After licensing a track from their critically heralded breakout album, “Oh, Inverted World” for a Gap commercial two years ago, James Mercer, the 31-year-old lead singer of The Shins, an Albuquerque-grown, no-longer-indie pop band, knew he wouldn’t have to mix any future records on his personal computer’s sound card. And earlier this summer, there was more evidence that The Shins, named after a character in “The Music Man,” were on their way when they sold out three nights at the Bowery in a matter of minutes.
But it wasn’t until the eve of the third New York show in September that the big moment happened. Mercer slipped into H&M with a lady friend and slipped out with his first pair of women’s jeans.
“I have a whole new department store shopping section now,” Mercer says, with surprising enthusiasm. “But, I actually hate shopping. It drives me nuts. I guess just the whole thing about having clothes is something I have to do rather than what I want to do.”
That’s where his more fashionable friends come in. “They seem to take pity on me. They pick stuff out and say ‘Wear this shirt.’”
That Mercer, who now lives in the more music-savvy city of Portland, Ore., is beginning to pay more attention to his image is no surprise. Though he insists The Shins “are still pretty obscure with the average person,” the band’s second album, due later this month, will likely change that. “Chutes Too Narrow” features the group’s trademark canny sense of humor and pathos with an added glossiness.
“We recorded this one with new equipment in my basement, so at least sonically it’s an improvement,” Mercer modestly admits. “The songwriting is also more refined. Recording the last record, I lived in this apartment building and my neighbors could hear me singing through the walls with no music. I was always a little bit embarrassed and self-conscious.”
And if wearing women’s jeans — à la Beck, Lenny Kravitz and Iggy Pop — doesn’t lead to permanent stardom, at least making music beats office bookkeeping, which is what Mercer was doing pre-Shins, in New Mexico. “It was just the most boring thing. Kind of miserable,” he says. “I think I’m enjoying myself a lot more now.”