Thank God for snow. It fell heavily enough on Portland, Ore., two weeks ago to cancel the Shins' afternoon rehearsal and thus lighten frontman James Mercer's load enough to fit in an interview at a moment's (or, rather, weathercaster's) notice.

"I'm happy to do it," the consistently polite, soft-spoken indie-rock poster-geek said. "We'll just have to work a little harder to sound our best when we get there."

With the Shins kicking off their tour next Thursday at First Avenue, Mercer's blizzard-like schedule was certainly understandable. The band played "Saturday Night Live" a couple nights before the interview and then started gearing up to promote rock's first big album of 2007.

"Wincing the Night Away," their third disc for Sub Pop Records, was breathlessly awaited by the half-million or so hip, young, bedroom-rocking Shins fans, many of whom discovered the band a full year or two after the Shins' last album, 2003's "Chutes Too Narrow." The band's sudden and impressive leap to stardom came via the hit soundtrack to 2004's indie film "Garden State," in which Natalie Portman plays Zach Braff a Shins song and tells him: "This'll change your life, I swear."

Things dramatically changed for Mercer at that moment.

Q: This album has been almost four years in the waiting. Why did it take so long?

A: Some of it was because of things I had to take care of in my life, like getting married and moving. But a lot of it was just due to touring. We toured for probably a year and a half for "Chutes." Then the "Garden State" thing happened, and we basically toured all over again behind that. And I don't really write on tour, so I came home with barely a scratch.

Q: Where does the title "Wincing the Night Away" come from?

A: I was going through some stressful times through all that. The whole nature of my life changed. Not only was it that this band I'm in started to do well, my position in the band had to change, and my relationship with the people around me and my friends changed. It's like I became a manager of my friends. That alone, especially for someone with a personality like mine, is difficult to go through. And then you probably read about the problems with my neighbors.

Q: Yeah, the crack dealers? [Mercer was threatened and burglarized after cops raided a crack house next door to his old home in Portland.]

A: Right. When you have bad neighbors, it's always there -- especially when they're like aggressive and not just trashy or whatever. It exposed me to that whole culture of aggression and violence that, you know, you hear as a distant thing in a 50 Cent song. It's pretty different when you're living next to it. It makes you ponder human nature. So, to make a long story short, that stuff along with the changes in my relationships had me wincing the night away.

Q: Did you feel extra pressure because you knew this record would get a lot of attention?

A: Yeah, it was pressure I put mostly on myself. It's the kind of pressure you get simply because there's a great opportunity, and you don't want to drop the ball. You want to nail it. It's a great privilege to have so many people out there waiting to hear what you're going to do next.

Q: There's more "production" on this record -- a bigger sound, more bells and whistles. Did you plan on that?

A: Definitely. I spent a lot of time on that end of things with [2001's] "Oh, Inverted World!" and did a lot of experimenting and messing around. This time, I did it even more, and had [co-producer] Joe Chiccarelli to do it with. With "Chutes," I wanted the songs to sort of stand on their own -- instead of doing production tricks, have it kind of Neil Young-ish. This one, I wanted it to be a little more freaky.

Q: The new song "Phantom Limb" has a good story. How'd that come about?

A: I had written the music, and there was this angst and frustration to the verse and chorus. For some reason, I felt right away that it was about love, and I came up with the idea it'd be two girls who fell in love and who were feeling alienated. I pictured it in a small town, kind of like Albuquerque [Mercer's hometown]. So I put together images in my head of the lives of these two high school girls, and I remembered the intensity of those years and those relationships.

Q: Your music has that kind of cinematic quality, which is why it probably matches up so well in film and TV. Where does that come from?

A: I have no perspective why, but it's definitely true. We get so many offers now [for movie and TV placement], none of it solicited. I guess the music is pretty accessible and universal, so that helps.

Q: Is it fair to say "Garden State" was the single biggest factor in making you guys nearly household names?

A: Yeah, I think so.

Q: Any regrets about that?

A: I haven't really seen a downside yet. I do sometimes worry that we could become a bit too ubiquitous and therefore annoying. I've had conversations with our management and Sub Pop about trying to avoid the tipping point. It's not all that easy for me to assess our presence in pop culture because I'm not really into pop culture myself, so I have to rely on other people to judge that. We try to rein it in. Like we just let "The O.C." use one of the new songs, but so far, that's all we've done off the new record.

Q: Any regrets about leaving Albuquerque for Portland?

A: I miss it, yeah. Albuquerque's an interesting place. There's a lot about it that I'm proud of. But I think you'll find that if you live there and leave, people get pissed at you. So there's that sort of response when we play there.

Q: I understand you and your wife are expecting a baby in May. How will that affect the touring behind the album?

A: We'll take May and June and maybe July off. If I have to, I guess I'll just turn off my cell phone after that. I love what I do, but there are more important things in life.