Tom Sinclair
October 31, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Think Portland, Ore.-by-way-of-Albuquerque, N.M. hepsters the Shins are jealous of the Strokes’ major-label success? Nah. Some bands, after all, like the less glamorous indie life. And to our ears, the Shins are the first small-label act since Pavement worth getting out of bed for. Their just-released sophomore CD, ”Chutes Too Narrow” (on Nirvana’s old label, Sub Pop), is a treasure trove of rarefied, off-center folk-rock songs. We caught up with singer-guitarist James Mercer, 32, and asked him just what it takes to make it ”big” in indieland.

What are the personality requirements for rocking in a bohemian manner?

”You probably had to have felt alienated in high school, lame as that sounds.”

What footgear should alt kids wear?

”Saucony. They’ve come out with a line of shoes that somehow taps into the 27-year-old indie-rock sensibility like nothing else. I actually don’t own any.”

How about socks?

”Argyles. Bring ’em back!”

Does being a vegan carry special cachet?

”Well, if you want to be hip at the coffee shops, maybe.”

As far as musicianship goes, is it more ”practice, practice, practice” or ”real talents are born and not made”?

”I don’t practice much. I remember hearing stories about this one kid in Albuquerque who was a really good guitarist and used to practice three hours a day. He never ended up doing much of anything with it.”

Does it help to be a college dropout?

”I don’t know. I originally went to school to study chemistry, and then left because I was gaining interest in writing songs and partying and stuff like that. It’s hard to do both.”

What are the five ”must” albums for alt-rockers to absorb?

”You have to get the Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’ or ‘Come On Pilgrim.’ You have to have Pavement’s ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ and Sonic Youth’s ‘Sister’ and Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Green Mind.’ What else? Maybe an R.E.M. record, like ‘Murmur.”’

Any other advice for wannabe Westerbergs?

”Don’t take it too seriously. I never did. I always thought, I’ll do this for a while and it’s gonna be fun but eventually I’ll have to buckle down and get a regular job, go back to school or whatever. I think eventually I will have to do that.”

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