The Shins’ Baggage

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The Shins, St. Louis, 2007. PHOTO: Todd Owyoung (more photos in the Photo Gallery)

Fighting in a Blown-Up Paper Sack with Dave Hernandez of the Shins
"There's a contrast between the negative lyrics and, like, chirpy birds and rainbows and sparkles. I think that's more of a menacing outlook than watching something really, really horribly depressing or listening to some really, really negative stuff that sounds like the devil. It's something more vicious."

 

Ever since the release of 2001's Oh, Inverted World, the Shins have spaced us out, put twang and Americana up against lyrical whimsy, charmed with lo-fidelity, and warped minds with their collected detachment. The combination of James Mercer, Dave Hernandez, Martin Crandall, Jesse Sandoval, and now Eric Johnson has defined indie-rock success. Mixing acclaim in the face of radio obscurity with the name-drop of all name-drops, they've reached a height few of their peers will ever know. With their third release, 2007's Wincing the Night Away, the deft Portlanders (via Albuquerque) have sold more albums in one week, and charted higher on the Billboard 200 (#2), than any other band whose album was released solely on the Sub Pop label. Yet, despite these corporeal accolades, this underdog—our underdog—has remained publicly diffident, preferring the intimacy of "otherness" over the living autopsy that is fame. shins2

It's not as though they've been relegated to recluse status, however; far from it. Indeed, the Shins have shown us that you can't reach indie-darling status with a business attitude, at least not after three records. As a conversation with Hernandez reveals to us, the band must always remember why they're a band, and everything else will be shaped by the shapers. And while their resources have grown and their shadows shrunk, it seems as though the approach has never changed from day one. With that in mind, here is the best of PLAYBACK:stl's discussion with the Shins' guitarist/bassist:

 

We'll just start off talking about the new album. The main thing that sticks out to me is the new expansiveness that it showsthe ability to be grand, yet still maintain this sort of intimacy. What do you attribute that to?

I attribute that to time. I think with Chutes Too Narrow, we were kind of rushed. Oh, Inverted World, with the contract, there were absolutely no expectations with that, so James just had an infinite amount of time to acquire a kind of lushness and room to it. When doing Wincing the Night Away we kind of tried to meet the middle ground of both of those records, like have the technical profession of Chutes Too Narrow, but have the roomy, kind of stony, psychedelic feel of Oh, Inverted World. And we were allowed more time to accomplish that. It took a while, obviously.

I guess there are more risks, in general, on it. Is the musical style, the vocal efforts, the productionis that all just time and having better microphones, or is it confidence, as well?

With songwriting, at least, there are risks. And I guess you're right about the production, as well. Essentially, people use the word "risk" when they're describing the songs off the record that aren't necessarily songs that they're expecting. 'Cause a song like "Sea Legs," for example, would seem weird to a lot of people, but it wasn't really a risk to us, because it's was just kinda something we've always wanted to do. It was really fun for us to work on that. James constructed this really crazy—essentially electronic—drumbeat by sampling sounds of a bottlecap on a tabletop, or crunching up a blown-up paper sack for a kick drum. It was weird; it was just really crazy. It was fun!

How do you guys figure stuff like that out? Do you just hear about it, or get a wild hair?

It's probably wild hair! We've really just been trying to play a lot of stuff together. I guess in a sense, there was a risk, but there never really was a time when we were kinda like, "Wow, this is too weird, we can't do this." I think maybe the essence of that makes the record a little bit. I think it's better for us, at least. There weren't any times like, "Whoa! We can't put this on the record. Someone will think it sounds like New Slang."

 

To define the essence of any band, it usually helps to ignore their fanbase. In the same respect, the Shins refuse to allow anyone to define the band but themselves. This is a reassuring notion when you start seeing the band that got you through those lonely times, those cynical times, or those happiest times—those times that were truly yours—on the cover of every magazine and at the forefront of every pseudo-hip celebrity's lips. The Shins have definitely proven that our changing perceptions of others often coincide with the changing perceptions we have of ourselves. As the band's music has evolved, so has their loyal following. Along the way, though, a new set of fans has invaded and, at times, offended the "true fans." The two sets are as different as the formerly conjoined music worlds we now label as "popular" and "indie." But, when exactly did the two splinter? And why would one change the way the music sounds to the other? Hernandez addresses this issue of "true fandom" and its tendency to lead to pride and posturing, as well as the band's organic evolution.

 

You guys definitely have an odd fan base in that you now have the ones who kind of latched on through word of mouth. Do you think that allows you to do songs like "Sea Legs"? Do you feel any obligations toward a certain group of fans?

Yeah, I know what you mean. We have fans and then we have fans. I know what you're saying; it's just one of those things. Honestly, I think our true fans are people that are kinda like us in the approach to the kind of music they enjoy. They're not gonna be shocked by things we do. There's a little bit more expectation that there's gonna be weird stuff. For some fans in the '90s, Oh, Inverted World was a complete and horrible shock on some levels, but I'm sure for certain people it was just like, "Oh my God, what an amazing exploration! This is cool, let's see where it goes!" Chutes Too Narrow didn't sound like Oh, Inverted World. It's just that thing, you know? There are a lot of people who just get really, really upset when we don't sound like we're supposed to sound for them. I guess you can't attribute it to a certain thing. Oddly enough, the Garden State fans I find to be most open minded 'cause they kinda have no idea who we are. Like, "That's what you sound like? Whatever."

When you were recording this album, was there a sense of the band evolving? Was the sound ever determined ahead of time?

For one thing, [Mercer] had a lot of the songs way more constructed than he's ever done before with any other record. I just think he had a lot more time to work on it. He had bass parts done for a lot of songs, a little more put together. That gave us even more opportunity to put weird stuff on. We kind of shy away from the idea of, "this is gotta sound like this." Especially after working with someone like Joe Chiccarelli, who just kinda brings stuff out of left field that we'd never really expect to hear. That's kind of lending to this attitude of the less you expect something, the better it's gonna be.

I get that sense that you don't possibly map out what a certain song's gonna sound like, because a lot of times I find the lyrical content doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the music or the instrumentation. Do you guys enjoy that sort of clash and conflict?

We're not doing exactly what James' lyrics are? [laughs sarcastically] There's a lot that's really weird, dark, cynical, kind of crazy… There's a lot of that in James' lyrics this time around. You know, I think there always was. It kind of stands out more, though, because some of the songs are even more lush and beautiful. Yeah, there's a contrast between the negative lyrics and, like, chirpy birds and rainbows and sparkles. I think that's more of a menacing outlook than watching something really, really horribly depressing or listening to some really, really negative stuff that sounds like the devil. It's something more vicious. It's like having a very negative outlook and having it sound really pretty.

Do you ever worry about alienating anyone through this process, like the people who really hung onto the sound of a previous album, or maybe the thematic intent of it?

I think that there are a lot of people that aren't "big" enough. I mean, we're not gonna alter our stuff because of some weird, preconceived notion. We can't take dictations from a lot of people. Either people latch onto something or they don't.

 

Hernandez' words are easier said than absorbed, yet the charm is not lost. At times, expectations and the weight of popularity can, blamelessly, deify a band. Still, the Shins make it a point on Wincing the Night Away to show that they are not programmable. Quite the contrary, they still have plenty to prove to themselves. They are not the spring chickens (and I choose "chickens" wisely) that record companies drool over. Nor are they relying on nostalgia to further their earnings. Rather, the Shins are on the cusp of critical mass, and whether or not they are able to reach equilibrium between their often opposing groups of fans has little to do with where they will stand when it's all said in done. The music will speak for itself. What's more is that Hernandez iterates that the music has yet to say everything it has to say to the band.

 

Is there something on this album that you guys are particularly proud of, that you didn't know you were capable of?

I really like "Sleeping Lessons" a lot. I love that first song! Like I said, we were gonna be doing a hundred different things. It was like, "Check this out. This rocks!" That's just, like, straight up weird.

You guys recently added Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats to your group. Was this move just meant to beef up the live show?

We wanted to beef it up; I will say that that definitely happened. I won't say that was our intention. Our intention was to just fill out a lot of the songs with a third guitar, so instead of just me and James, there's a third guitar strumming a chord in the background. He also has a really, really, really great voice. He's also a very accomplished keyboard player. He's a really good friend, too. He's just a cool dude. We've done stuff with him before. He's on the record, too. He's totally, totally beefed up our sound.

How well are you guys coming along in terms of performing the new stuff live? Do you guys get a big kick out of that?

Yeah, we're getting there. It's gonna be cool. We're really excited to hear the songs live, all the brand new songs. The goal was just to learn how to play the album from start to finish.

Do you put a lot of weight on the live experience?

Kind of. That is something we're definitely trying hard to do. Not necessarily replicated, but we're definitely wanting the live experience to be as great as possible. That's the one thing we do find ourselves obsessed with. We do want people to have a really good time at our show.

 

In terms of The Shins' live show, those who attended their February 11 performance at The Pageant would be hard pressed to deny that they have a really, really good time. While "beefed up" accurately displays the power of Johnson's addition, it's apropos of the band's confidence as well. Opening with the first four tracks off Wincing the Night Away, Hernandez and friends threw setlist tact aside and acted like they had something to prove. This was obvious in Mercer's voice and the rest of the group's hypnotic energy, who rarely missed a beat (except for one cutely polite do-over). A blend of all three albums followed, with the broadly anticipated "New Slang" bringing an air of restrained jubilation to the faithful and the curious alike. The band showed they could pump up a standard with a raucous version of "Gone for Good," and brains were stirred on one of the oldest-sounding new Shins songs, "A Comet Appears." What was more apparent than anything was that the band was having fun. What follows defines any good show: an uroboros of getting off. Such an energy and authenticity simply can't be argued with.

 

Do you think what appeals to you or to the majority of your fans is that it's an authentic pop? How difficult do you find it to write a smooth, melodic sort of music that's authentic in its own right?

I don't know; it's just one of those things that comes naturally. I know for a fact that a majority of the music we listen to in our free time is like, metal; it's just a weird hodgepodge of stuff. Maybe that makes it sound kind of authentic, because we're not really being influenced by stuff that's around us right now.

What are your plans for this year?

We're gonna do a lot of touring. We're definitely not gonna be able to record that much stuff. We're gonna try to just actually keep our heads together. My goal, personally, is to not have a nervous breakdown. Just to not have all this stuff completely overwhelm us and just remember why we're in a band.

 

Here's to remembering why we love a band. | Dave Jasmon

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