Indie-pop group the Shins have been on a break for more than a year, but with a 16-date tour that kicked off on May 2nd in Bellingham, Washington, and approximately 30 songs written for a new album, the group is getting back to work — though they're not exactly the same group. Talkative keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval have left the band (on good terms, according to frontman James Mercer). They've been replaced by the Fruit Bats' Ron Lewis and Joe Plummer, who plays drums in the San Diego indie-rock group Black Heart Procession as well as Modest Mouse.
Mercer tells Rolling Stone that his batch of new tunes will be whittled down for an album to be released in early 2010. "[The album] is pretty much there," says Mercer. "I'm just waiting to sort out the lyrics as usual. That's like homework." Of those tracks, two of them are completed and the band has been playing those new cuts — titled "Double Bubble" and "The Rifle's Spiral" — on the road. " 'Double Bubble,' to me, has a sort of modish, new wave feel," says Mercer. "It reminds me of the Police. And 'The Rifle's Spiral' is more angular and arty. In a weird way, it sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen or maybe Television." As for the overall sonic direction of the next album, Mercer is hoping to put an emphasis on beats and grooves. "It'll be more rhythmic and uptempo," he says.
The writing and recording process hasn't been so easy. First, there was the lineup change. And though the group has released three records with their longtime indie label Sub Pop, with their contract fulfilled, Mercer says the next record will be released on his Aural Apothecary imprint and they'll use the resources of a label — which is still to be determined — to market and distribute the album. "We haven't made a decision to leave Sub Pop," says Mercer. "We could negotiate a new contract with them or we can negotiate with another company. I know some people are Warner Bros. that I really like. Maybe they'll give me a nudge, like, 'Hey, when's the next thing coming out? You've got to let us hear it.' It's nothing formal, though."
Mercer is also participating in Dark Night of the Soul, a multimedia album and movie project helmed by Danger Mouse and director David Lynch and featuring the Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas among others. Mercer contributed vocals to one track on the album. "They showed me this really freaked out sounding lullaby and my job was to write lyrics and come up with a melody," says Mercer. "I kind of scatted a melody into existence. I'm really excited by it."
Finally, Mercer, with the help of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, is writing the soundtrack to filmmaker Chris Malloy's movie 180 Degrees South, a travelogue documentary about Chile. "Isaac's got a crazy collection of exotic instruments and stuff, so we messed around with those little thumb pianos," says Mercer, adding that they also used a squeezebox and string arrangements for some of the songs. "I guess they sound like pastoral acoustic things. They're actually more like pop songs than they ought to be. So there's two of those songs that I think I'll keep [for the Shins]."