The Shins – Little big band
If the United States of America had a Minister of Arts & Culture, he or she could have easily declared January 2007 to be National Shins Month. In the days surrounding the January 23 release of their third Sub Pop album, Wincing The Night Away, the band was everywhere you turned: on “Saturday Night Live”, “David Letterman”, the highly influential KCRW radio show “Morning Becomes Eclectic”. Three days after the album hit stores, the band performed at Amoeba Records in Hollywood; the fire department showed up, and hundreds of fans were turned away.
“There is a lot of giggling,” says multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson. Network TV green rooms are still unfamiliar territory for the band. “It is slightly surreal. Actually, more than a little surreal.” Crowning all the hoopla, the disc sold 118,000 copies in its first week of release, entering the Billboard Top 200 album sales chart in the #2 position. (Previously, the Shins had reached no higher than #86.) Not quite Beatlemania, but similarly seismic by the more modest standards of indie rock.
Countless groups dream of this kind of excitement. The Shins, however, did not. When their debut album, Oh! Inverted World, was issued in 2001, they had nary a notion of what lay ahead. “I can confidently say that [back then], the Shins had no idea that things would get to this point,” says bassist Dave Hernandez, who had actually stepped away from the band temporarily when that first record was made. “We were all from Albuquerque, and our vision was, maybe we can put out a record and play around town.” Save some dough, buy a van, do some cross-country touring. Nothing big. “Just be a working band.”
Sharing the small screen with an Oscar nominee? Not part of the plan. But now James Mercer, the Shins’ singer, songwriter, guitarist and leader, finds himself bumping into Brokeback Mountain star Jake Gyllenhaal even when an SNL appearance it isn’t on his itinerary. “I had a dream last night that my sister burst into my room, and she was 12 years old again; she’s really only a couple years younger than me,” says Mercer, 36. “Anyway, she came in, yelling, ‘Jake Gyllenhaal is here to see you!’ And there he was, pulling up in the driveway in his car.” Put it another way: The Shins may well be the first No Depression cover act your adolescent niece in the suburbs has heard of and cares about.
As well she should. On Wincing The Night Away, Mercer and his cohorts — Hernandez, drummer Jesse Sandoval, and keyboard player Marty Crandall — marry the experimental leanings of their 2001 debut with the immediacy of its 2003 follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow. The album eschews obvious pop gestures, yet proves inarguably catchy regardless, primarily because of the attention to detail lavished on each song, in the inventive melodies, arrangements and performances.
The first track, “Sleeping Lessons”, opens with just Mercer’s spectral singing and a rippling keyboard arpeggio, blossoming ever so gradually into a robust rock anthem. On the exquisite miniature “Red Rabbits”, pedal steel (courtesy Chris Funk of the Decemberists) and swooning strings dance a seductive pas de deux. Elsewhere, crisp drums and two-note bass figures punctuate “Spilt Needles”, while “Sea Legs” tacks down a bittersweet vocal with a woozy hip-hop beat.
It’s easy to appreciate why fans bond so powerfully with the Shins; at their best, these compositions sound as though they have been waiting for ages to be discovered, treasured, shared. In truth, while the creation of Wincing didn’t last a lifetime, it did stretch out longer than intended. Originally penciled in for summer 2006, it was postponed repeatedly, in order to ensure it was completed to its authors’ specifications, and timed for arrival at an opportune moment in the marketplace (i.e. not during the year-end holiday crush). But before the record was ready for even a tentative release date, there had been delays. Following the success of Chutes Too Narrow, which sold roughly 400,000 copies, Mercer’s life took on the twists of a soap-opera storyline.
There was a bad breakup. Denizens in the crack house next door to his Portland, Oregon, home decided he had called the police on them, and began threatening his life. Burglars busted in, ransacked his place, and made off with precious master tapes. Though the band was in constant communication, there were periods when Mercer remained relatively secluded. The others could only assume he was writing a new record.
“There are definitely those stretches,” admits Hernandez. “But there are also ones where we know he’s working hard.” Over the years, they have grown accustomed to Mercer’s methods. Besides, adds the bassist, even when the frontman thinks he isn’t cultivating new ideas, he is. “There are tons of bands that write material on the road,” Hernandez observes. “I know James believes he can’t do that. And that is kind of true…but half of the riffs on Wincing The Night Away were composed during tours. Not full songs, but the riffs. They just came up while we were hanging out, and we’d try them out during soundcheck. So it’s not like James is completely divorced from that creative process, even on the road.”
But fully finished, ready-to-rehearse, new songs? Those have to wait until Mercer is back on familiar turf. “James’ work structure is pretty together,” Hernandez continues. “He has his studio in his house, and he feels most at home there. Any distractions are detrimental to that process.”
Several new songs, including “Red Rabbits” and “A Comet Appears”, underwent gestation during some of those tumultuous post-tour, hate-thy-neighbor interludes. “I contemplated getting rid of some of those, because I was no longer relating strongly enough with the emotions required to finish the song,” Mercer concedes. But once he had polished them off and committed them to tape, he felt a strange rush of accomplishment. “There is something very rewarding about taking an experience that was not a happy one, and turning it into a positive.”
Eventually, as 2006 rolled around, the Shins’ fortunes began to turn around once more. Mercer married in April. He and his bride have settled into a new, safer nest; their biggest domestic concern now is remodeling. But the key musical turning point came when the group, which had already done some preliminary work with Chutes producer Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Modest Mouse) in Seattle, enlisted veteran engineer Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, U2).
“At that point, I had a number of the songs roughed out, so you could at least get some sort of feeling for them,” says Mercer. “Working with Joe cinched it.”
With Chiccarelli in charge of mixing and engineering (Mercer and Chiccarelli share the producer credit), Mercer could indulge his muse in full fashion. You can hear it in particular in his vocals, which are more adventurous and assured. “Joe is a great coach,” Mercer says. “He’ll get a really good performance out of you, and then he’ll suggest more things.” Although his winsome vocal timbre, particularly in his upper register, remains distinctive, Mercer audibly pushes himself to sing more expressively throughout Wincing The Night Away.
“Joe just managed the whole situation, so that I could spend a lot more time trying to be creative and think about the songs,” Mercer continues. “I wasn’t trying to constantly round people up and organize where we’re going to go to record. And that was huge. And I think [that decision] will show itself to be a big deal in the future of my recording career. I had never really co-produced, to such a full degree. I can really see the role of the producer now, and I’ve had a change of mind about that whole style of recording.”
No disrespect to Ek intended. “Phil is a great producer,” insists Mercer. The Shins simply didn’t have an opportunity to develop the same kind of relationship circa Chutes. “When I worked with Phil, it was only supposed to be for one week, and we were just supposed to mix. That ended up being extended to two weeks, which was nice…but then we were done. We never settled into our roles as producer and co-producer. It was just too little time.” Hernandez echoes Mercer’s praise for Chiccarelli’s hand in polishing the new record. “There is something very valuable about bringing in someone who has absolutely no expectations of what a song is supposed to be,” Hernandez says, noting that extra set of unfamiliar ears helped the band circumnavigate notions ingrained via repeated practices. “Occasionally, he’d just completely ignore something that we’d been obsessing over, and highlight some other part we hadn’t really noticed. But at the end of the day, you’d be like, ‘Wow, you’re right. That is totally how that song is supposed to be.'”
Most Americans, whether they realize it or not, have heard at least one Shins song: “New Slang”, a laid-back country-rock number featuring acoustic guitar and a cooed, wordless vocal hook (something of a Shins signature), has appeared in a McDonald’s ad and on the TV shows “Scrubs”, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “The Sopranos”. Kirsten Dunst included it on that fateful mix CD she made for Orlando Bloom in Cameron Crowe’s movie Elizabethtown. Perhaps most significantly, it was one of two Shins ditties that were featured prominently in the sleeper flick Garden State, wherein Natalie Portman insisted “New Slang” boasted life-changing properties. She was right, too. Just look what it’s done to the Shins.
“When SNL asked us to do ‘New Slang’, I definitely rolled my eyes,” admits Mercer. “The song is now six years old, and I feel like it would be nice to do new material.” (Their other selection that night was their current single, “Phantom Limb”.) “But I’m pretty pragmatic about those things, too, and I understand why they wanted us to do it. We’re still on the margins, and for us to not do the song, or refuse to do it, would be a pretty big statement. I love that song, it’s a really good song. But in my mind, the Shins is more of an old-time rock ‘n’ roll band. That folky number doesn’t necessarily represent exactly what we’re about.” In fact, when originally asked to contribute to Garden State, Mercer submitted a previously unreleased track. “They were offering us a really good deal, and I had the hook, chorus and verse for ‘Girl Sailor’, so I finished the song, recorded a demo, and sent it off to Sony.”
The producers hadn’t insisted that he write a new song, but Mercer had his own reasons. And not just fiduciary ones. “When somebody presents me with some kind of a challenge, I have a hard time saying no,” he admits. “I don’t want to say no just because I’m afraid, so sometimes I wind up doing stupid things. I got roped into being on the track team in high school, much the same way. And I ended up not being a very good athlete, but I stuck out the whole season, just because I didn’t want to quit.” Mercer says the powers-that-be passed on his untested offering for Garden State. “They were like, ‘This isn’t a hit.’ That was their response: ‘This isn’t a hit.’ Oh … you wanted me to write a hit? This person who has never written a hit?” Ultimately, “New Slang” and another Inverted World fave, “Caring Is Creepy”, were chosen for Garden State. The refurbished “Girl Sailor”, with its hints of ’60s pop-rock, wound up on Wincing The Night Away.
As to the specific appeal of “New Slang”, Mercer has trouble pinpointing it. “You just assemble the songs,” he shrugs. “You sit down, and work with what you’ve got, and try to come up with something cool. And for some reason, that song has something that is accessible to people. That’s great. I’m glad that it does.
“But you always hope that some of that attention will be spread around to the rest of your work…and it has been. We have licensed other things, and we get a lot of great opportunities.”
Before “New Slang”, before the Shins even, there was Flake. Confusingly, Flake (later rechristened Flake Music) featured all four of the individuals — Mercer, Sandoval, Crandall, and bassist Neal Langford — who would go on to record Oh! Inverted World. Under the Flake monikers, they released several singles and an album, (1997’s When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return) before the Shins were even hatched. But for all the surface similarities, there was a crucial difference between the two bands. Flake wrote collaboratively, while Mercer calls the shots in the Shins. Initially a duo consisting of Mercer and Sandoval, the Shins eventually expanded to include Crandall, plus Hernandez and Ron Skrasek from Albuquerque punk act Scared Of Chaka. By 1999, Flake had dissolved, the latter two members had returned to their primary band, and Langford was officially in the Shins.
For all the overlap, Mercer makes a clear distinction between the two groups. “The Shins to me feels very separate,” he reflects. “It was something where I would take control of every little aspect.” He frets for a moment that expressing this sentiment will put a negative slant on his decision to branch out. “If you think about people who paint, they rarely collaborate,” he explains. “I just wanted to be able to create something and have control over the parts and the lyrics, everything.” Having spent his youth fumbling around, searching for an aesthetic and identity, Mercer was becoming increasingly sure of himself. “It was only in my mid-to-late 20s that I started to feel comfortable with who I was, as a creature,” he says. “Not even so much as how I compared to the people around me, or my place in the strata of society, but just as an organism: ‘This is me.’ People talk about Saturn Return” — an astrological period of challenges and developmental leaps, typically occurring every 29 years in an individual’s life — “and I definitely went through that. That change was the beginning of the Shins.”
The first Shins EP, the four-song 7-inch Nature Bears A Vacuum, only hinted at what was to come. Mercer was smitten with the bands of the emerging Elephant 6 collective (Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel), and aspired to mimic their mix of melodic beauty and four-track fundamentals. Soon after, though, he purchased a computer.
“I was just so thrilled with it. I knew it had finally freed me from the four-track, which was kind of disappointing, but it was such a struggle to get anything to sound half-decent on it.” It also meant he didn’t have to rely on folks who owned tape machines, or studios, both of which were prohibitively expensive. “The computer was really a way for me to just kind of escape,” he continues. “When you’re recording, you really are creating another world.” Reverb, delay, echo and other effects allowed him to manipulate space, even if it was just in a tightly circumscribed universe. “I was just fascinated, completely obsessed.”
A 7-inch single, “When I Goosestep”, followed in 2000, and the band went on tour supporting Modest Mouse. It was during this stint that they met Eric Johnson, leader of the Fruit Bats and currently the ad hoc fifth member of the Shins. “I was in Califone at the time, and we did a six-week tour with Modest Mouse,” recalls Johnson. “And the Shins — who were pals with Modest Mouse from when they were in Flake — came on part of the tour as an opener. I liked them immediately, and I usually don’t like new music immediately. I hadn’t really heard anything like them. It was about the songs, not a big concept, and I really dug that.” Johnson wasn’t the only one to show such a strong, positive response. Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records caught the Shins at a San Francisco Modest Mouse date and signed them up to cut a single for the label, which quickly led to an album deal. It was a step up, but still not quite the big time: Oh! Inverted World would be recorded mostly in Crandall’s basement and Mercer’s loft.
When pressed to describe the dynamic between members, the Shins (including Johnson) speak of each other affectionately. “We’re kind of just like brothers,” Hernandez says. “A lot of it has to do with friendship,” he continues, apropos of their longevity and good nature. Throughout the ’90s, Flake and Scared Of Chaka were the leading alternative acts in Albuquerque, and a mutual admiration society, too. “Speaking for myself, I think I’m one of — if not the — biggest fans of James Mercer,” Hernandez says. “I’ve always loved everything he’s ever done, even when I was in a snotty punk band. And I remember wishing Flake, who, at that time, in my opinion, were just the greatest band out there, would leave the city more often.”
It helped that the members had all grown up in the crucible of a small city together. “They were the other hip kids in Albuquerque,” remembers Mercer. The ones you traded mix tapes with, and shared rides with to shows. “It is definitely one of those situations where you started a band with your friends. And now it has become this whole other thing. We’ve passed that tumultuous period, hopefully, in your 20s, and now we know how to get along, and maintain these relationships. How to not be too hurt by things, and take it easy, and stay positive.”
Not that there weren’t casualties along the way. Former Flake member Neal Langford was in the Shins for Oh! Inverted World but would not return for Chutes Too Narrow, and Hernandez was drafted back in to fill the vacancy. Mercer is diplomatic, but frank, about the split. “All I know is, [Langford] was miserable being in the Shins. He didn’t enjoy anything that was associated with it, but he wouldn’t quit. I think he knew the band was a good thing for him to do. He really was difficult, just in that he was always so grumpy about everything, so we pretty much had to let him go because of that.”
“Neal had come up with some great parts on Oh! Inverted World,” Mercer adds. “On Chutes Too Narrow, Dave filled that void.” And then some. “Dave is a songwriter, and a singer, and someone who has fronted a band,” Mercer points out. He had already toured Japan and Europe, and was used to the rigors of the road.
The Shins said one more pertinent goodbye during this period. In 2002, Mercer and Sandoval moved to Portland, Oregon. Crandall soon followed. (Hernandez lives in Seattle but keeps an apartment in the Rose City.) “Albuquerque is cheap,” says Mercer. “That’s great if you’re a musician. You can work half-time and still afford your apartment and beer. But I had lived in Albuquerque eleven years. All those changes were happening in the band, and it seemed like a good time to move out. Plus, we were the last ones to leave town. In the end, it was the Shins and nobody else.”
Describing the Shins discography in an abstract fashion, Mercer points to the Star Wars films. Oh! Inverted World is like the original 1977 Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope, for younger readers), while Chutes Too Narrow parallels The Empire Strikes Back (i.e. Episode V). “It’s the sequel, but you have to do it all again,” he says, “and you’re up against new enemies.”
Like many sequels, one of the biggest foes facing our heroes was a time crunch. “Compared to the making of Wincing The Night Away, doing Chutes Too Narrow felt a little rushed,” Hernandez admits. “Wincing involved a lot more thought, and more time and preparation was devoted to it. In hindsight, I would have done several things differently on Chutes Too Narrow. But on a lot of levels, it is cool that we rushed through it.” The performances on the record imbue the allure of Mercer’s songs with an urgency that rarely survives beyond a first or second take. Mercer concurs that working quickly on the second full-length was a mixed blessing. Of the three Shins albums to date, it is the only one that has no between-song ambient noise. There simply wasn’t room in the schedule for fine-tuning such minutiae. “On [Oh! Inverted World], I spent more time experimenting with sounds, and was more hands-on with the use of reverb and effects,” Mercer says. “Whereas with Chutes Too Narrow, I didn’t have time. But also, I was kind of rebelling against that, and trying to do a drier production. Something more straightforward, that let the songs speak for themselves more. And that was a challenge.”
So by this logic, Wincing The Night Away is the musical equivalent of Return Of The Jedi, right? Not so, says Mercer. “Making Wincing was more like one of the prequels, because I went back to that older style of production in a way, and was writing about darker things….I just wanted to mess around again. I missed the psychedelic sound effects and so on.” New bands such as Swedish psych-rock act Dungen also made him retool his strategy. “When they came out,” he recalls, “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re doing what I used to do: sitting around and experimenting a lot.'”
If using a cultural touchstone as influential as the Star Wars franchise seems ambitious for a young band, keep in mind that outsiders typically discuss the Shins using iconic reference points, too. Sift through their press clippings and you’ll find repeated references to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Kinks, Gram Parsons, Echo & the Bunnymen, and My Bloody Valentine. When pundits refer to the Shins in terms of other indie-label acts, the discussion usually centers around record sales, not musical similarities. Coincidentally, Mercer tends to illustrate ideas to the rest of his cohorts in a similar fashion. “James refers a lot to Motown and soul,” says Hernandez of the Shins’ musical vocabulary. “He uses a lot of visuals, and the words ‘spacey’ and ‘ghostly.'” On Wincing, Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound technique were particularly helpful. “That is definitely one of the big loves, and it’s interesting how that doesn’t translate for a lot of people,” Hernandez says. “To us, ‘Phantom Limb’ had the hugest Phil Spector sound. We did that whole track, and all we could hear was this” — Hernandez begins to imitate that trademark drum beat, then belts out the hook of “And Then He Kissed Me”. “It was just this huge, beautiful, lush, sparkly, colorful, vintage Phil Spector ’60s sound,” he gushes. “And then on top of it we put this My Bloody Valentine thing.”
Mercer’s lyrical heroes are also heavy-hitters. Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen and Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel rank right at the top. “In Mangum’s case, he’s such a romantic,” Mercer says. “Not necessarily in an erotic sense, but about life, and the sort of dramatic nature of existence, and I found a strong connection with that.
“On the other side would be Echo & The Bunnymen, who wrote some pretty erotic, romantic songs. I really loved them as well, but it was a completely different flavor.” “Phantom Limb”, a rumination on the joy and frustrations of two teenage girls in love — with each other — is a prime example of Mercer’s craft; “Be My Baby” it ain’t, yet it still tugs the heartstrings.
Mercer wants to know what his colleagues hear in their heads, too. “He is incredibly open to ideas,” says Hernandez. “And that is a very special thing. There aren’t a lot of people who are that gentle and open-minded about their process. I think that speaks volumes about his underlying confidence in his work. He can take criticism.”
Diagram the modus operandi, divvy up the timeline, crunch the sales numbers. In the end, after the french fries, movie trailers and late-night TV spots, the Shins’ appeal boils down to the quintessence of good pop: A weird fusion of the universal and the unheard.
“James is one of those people who isn’t trying to emulate an era or a style,” Johnson concludes. “There is an originality there. But it also isn’t a forced originality. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s not about, ‘I need to make this sound like such-and-such.’ It’s just songwriting. Very pure.”
ND contributing editor Kurt B. Reighley wrote about the Decemberists in ND #66. He first met the men of Flake in 1996. If he knew then what he knows now, he’d have started work on their tell-all biography much sooner.