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Staying up late with the Shins

Insomnia is an ingredient in their new record

James Mercer of the Shins (above at a show in New York) says that he had a lot of sleepless nights while working on the songs for the band's new album, 'Wincing the Night Away.' James Mercer of the Shins (above at a show in New York) says that he had a lot of sleepless nights while working on the songs for the band's new album, "Wincing the Night Away." (samir hussein/getty images)

Here's what can happen to mild-mannered Albuquerque indie bands: You write a winsome pop song called "New Slang" and soon, thanks to a crazy little thing called licensing, anyone who watches "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," MTV's "Newlyweds," a McDonald's commercial, or the movie "Garden State" knows your group. These days the Shins are a mild-mannered Portland, Ore., indie band with a bigger-than-usual fan base and a fantastic new album, "Wincing the Night Away." In anticipation of the Shins concert at the Orpheum Thursday, we called singer and songwriter James Mercer on a tour bus in Texas to talk about sleepless nights, rhythm and blues, and Plan B.

Q "Wincing the Night Away" is a painfully familiar image for the sleep-challenged. Are you an insomniac?

A Yeah. During the time I was charged with having to do this record there were stressful things going on, and it led to sleepless nights working on songs. That's what the album title refers to.

Q Do you have any good mind - control techniques for getting back to sleep?

A I don't. I've been taking Lunesta when I desperately need to sleep. I was taking it nightly and found that when I stopped there was this latent anxiety, so I've really cut down.

Q The sleepless nights sound like a drag, but you got a great album out of it. It's a bit of a departure for the Shins.

A There are certain aspects that are different. "Sea Legs" has this dance-y beat. There's something a little more modern-sounding about it. Of course, some of the songs are very much standard stuff like we did on [previous albums] "Chutes Too Narrow" and "Oh, Inverted World."

Q Did you have a game plan when you went into the studio?

A I had the intention of doing something new. I wanted to have the album driven by the bass, the drums, and the vocals, which is how I think R&B music is done. It's hard for me to get away from the guitar, though.

Q Have you recently developed an affection for R&B?

A Back in the '60s R&B was really poppy, and that's probably my favorite type of music. Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, those guys, that's what I'm referring to when I think of R&B. It's really moving stuff to me.

Q How sick are you of talking about "Garden State"?

A It was a long time ago. But it was a big thing. It really helped us a lot.

Q Natalie Portman's character told Zach Braff's character that "New Slang" would change his life. Did that cinematic moment change your life?

A It certainly did change our lives. We made a dent in pop culture.

Q Afterwards did you feel the pressure of expectation? Was that attention a burden when you were making "Wincing the Night Away"?

A I didn't look at it that way. We ballooned into a presence in parts of society that really shouldn't even know about us, so in a way I felt like we could do some weird stuff on the new album and not have to worry about it. We don't want too many cheerleaders. And we didn't worry about taking our time. We were bloated and we were lazy.

Q Speaking of bloated, you and your wife are expecting a baby this spring. Are you going to take paternity leave?

A We'll stop touring for three months after the baby comes, and then when we commence again we'll take a few days off every couple of weeks.

Q How is domestic bliss going to factor into your songwriting, which is awfully melancholy and broken-hearted?

A Well, we'll see. I don't know. I'm a pretty cheerful guy, but it seems that I'm almost morose when I write. I'm kind of curious too.

Q You recorded much of "Wincing the Night Away" at home in Portland, Ore. Did you know when you bought the house that Elliott Smith had lived there?

A I had no idea. One day his ex-girlfriend, who was visiting friends in Portland, drove by the house and I was out in the garden and she introduced herself and told me the whole story. I wasn't sure what I should believe, but then she sent me pictures of him in the house and I talked to the neighbors about it. He recorded "Roman Candle" here. I think it's kind of special.

Q Everything seems to be going so well for you. What keeps you up at night these days?

A Besides figuring out how to play "Spilt Needles" and "Sea Legs" live? I guess dealing with the possibility that we might have reached a peak as a band. We may not sell as many copies of the next record. Eventually you have to deal with that, and it's possible that this is what's happening now. Either way, it's coming someday.

Q Do you have a Plan B?

A I'd love to do soundtracks. Maybe produce records. I probably won't go back to school and become a biologist.

Joan Anderman can be reached at For more on music, visit