The Shins

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The Shins

Pop group

Nine years might seem like a long time to achieve national success, but in the case of New Mexico's the Shins, it was just the right amount. Developing out of the shards of the band Flake (or Flake Music, as they were later known), James Mercer (vocals/guitar), Marty Crandall (keyboards/guitar/bass), Jesse Sandoval (drums), and Dave Hernandez (bass/guitar) have formed an outfit that references everything from the Zombies and XTC to Nick Drake and Donovan. With two albums and a collection of singles as evidence, the Shins are among a new set of independent rock bands that ride the fine line between underground and mainstream, making music that is a collection of, as All Music Guide called it, "Retro pop nuggets that distill the finer aspects of classic acid rock with surrealistic lyrics, independently melodic bass lines, jangly guitars, echo laden vocals, minimalist keyboard motifs, and a myriad of cosmic sound effects." Their fans as well as critics have reacted to the band in a overwhelmingly positive way, as one reviewer for Magnet magazine noted, "You can pretty much sign me up for anything the Shins do."

Flake Music began as a collaboration between Mercer, Crandall, Sandoval, and bassist Neal Langford in 1992. Described by Mercer, in an interview with Ear Shot Online, as a "power punk pop" band, Flake and Flake Music released a number of singles, including a debut in 1993 on Resin Records, another on Headhunter/Cargo in 1996, and a split with the band Scared of Chaka in 1997, on 702/Science Project. A split 7" with the band Henry's Dress had one Magnet magazine reviewer proclaiming, "Rhythmically a galloper, Flake's 'Deluca' contains Superchunk-ish vocals and a curious, theremin-enhanced guitar line that's to die for." In 1997, Flake Music released its one and only full length record, the fuzz-pop statement When You Land Here, It's Time to Return, on Omnibus Records. Though its initial release didn't have a resounding impact, fanzines like Zum called the record "Fuzzy, warm, [and] lyrically intelligent." They continued by saying, "'Spanway Hits' starts things off talking about cultural artifacts that are the common things we share (e.g. 'posters of Simon Le Bon'). The singer sometimes sounds like Robert Smith; at other times he hits this falsetto high, and it's all completely charming. The music's not unfamiliar, but there's a freshness to the delivery—you can't help but like it." The band soon found itself touring with acts like Modest Mouse and Califone, but Mercer seemed to tire of the Flake Music's rambunctious sound.

In 1996, while Flake Music was still active, Mercer began to write, record, and perform as a side project called the Shins (named after a Flake Music song of the same name), along with Sandoval on drums. In an interview with Junk Media, Mercer said, "The idea originally was for me to have a vehicle for some of my more poppy writing. I was getting a little tired of the writing process that we had developed in Flake over the years." Elaborating a little in an interview with Ear Shot Online, Mercer said, "I knew that I wasn't happy any longer doing the things we were doing in Flake. I think I just knew I had control issues too with just my other bands. So I think from the get-go I knew that I was going to want to switch over…. This would be a more, sort of, old-fashioned pop combo. Like The Kinks or something." Mercer and Sandoval soon started playing out as a duo, opening for bands like Cibo Matto and American Analog Set. Then, the Shins added Flake's Crandall, as well as Scared of Chaka's Hernandez and Ron Skrasek to the fold, taking Mercer's side project into the realm of being a real band. Hernandez and Skrasek were soon forced to quit the band, however, due to Scared of Chaka's increased touring, so Flake Music's Langford was asked to fill the bassist slot.

In a strange turn of events, the original lineup of Flake Music had simply morphed into what was then known as the Shins. In 1998, the band released its debut 7" on Omnibus called "Nature Bears a Vacuum," including the songs "Those Bold City Girls," "Eating Styes from Elephants' Eyes," "We Built a Raft and We Floated," and "My Seventh Rib." Of the release, Shredding Paper said, "There's a real emphasis on songcraft, with overly dynamic melodies, reminiscent of the canon of great early 80's psychedelic songwriters." By 1999, Flake Music called it quits, as the Shins released another single on Omnibus in 2000 called "When I Goose Step."

While the Shins were on the road supporting Modest Mouse, Sub Pop Records founder Jonathan Poneman caught a show in San Francisco, and offered the band an opportunity to contribute some songs to the label's Singles of the Month Club. But, as luck would have it, Poneman had a change of heart, and instead signed the band. The Shins' debut single for Sub Pop, "New Slang," saw release in 2001. That was also the year that the Shins' debut album Oh, Inverted World saw the light of day. Rolling Stone said, "Their pop songs jangle without being too sunny; there's a sadness that lingers on the fringes of songs…where spacey synth noises percolate amid strummy guitar parts and manicured vocal harmonies. Vocalist James Mercer's willowy croon sounds thin and dreamy, like a smoke ring floating around a melody. His lyrics have a way of giving psychedelic images a concrete beauty." The rest of the year saw the band tour with Preston School of Industry and Red House Painters. In 2002, they followed up Oh, Inverted World with a second Sub Pop single, "Know Your Onion!," which featured live versions of "My Seventh Rib" and "New Slang."

For the Record . . .

Members include Marty Crandall , keyboards; Dave Hernandez (joined group, 2002), bass; Neal Langford (left group, 2002), bass; James Mercer , guitar, vocals; Jesse Sandoval , drums.

Group formed in Albuquerque, NM, as Flake Music, 1992; James Mercer and Jesse Sandoval began to perform as the Shins, 1996; released debut single on Omnibus Records, "Nature Bears a Vacuum," 1998; signed to Sub Pop and released Oh, Inverted World, 2001; single "New Slang" was used in a McDonalds commercial, 2002; released Chutes Too Narrow on Sub Pop, 2003.

Addresses: Record company—Sub Pop Records, 2514 Fourth Ave., Seattle, WA 98121, phone: (206) 441-8441, fax: (206) 441-8245, website: Website—The Shins Official Website:

There were other significant occurrences for the band in 2002. Besides Flake Music's debut full length album being re-released by Omnibus, "New Slang" was featured in a commercial for McDonalds during the Olympics. The Gap also featured original music written by Mercer in a nationally televised ad campaign starring actor Ashton Kutcher. Mercer defended his choices in an interview with Pop Transit, saying, "It was a business decision. I worry that there's a certain number of people who disagree, who think we've sold out. To that I'd say that I've never subscribed to the belief that bands should never make money off of licensing. I wasn't somebody who got pissed when the Ramones did a movie. When I was in high school and listening to punk rock I was stoked when I'd get to see somebody [I liked] on a TV show."

In 2003, after a year of constant touring, the Shins released Chutes Too Narrow on Sub Pop. The album is the first to feature original Shins bassist Hernandez, as Langford left the band to pursue his career as a hot-air balloon pilot. Featuring a sound much different than that of Oh, Inverted World, Pitchforkmedia said, "On Chutes Too Narrow, the blanket has been lifted, and the complexity and grace revealed underneath possess a surprisingly depth. Every instrument is allowed to exist in its own space, no longer smoothed together by excessive reverb. Mercer's voice resides comfortably at the front of the mix, revealing previously undiscovered layers of emotional subtlety and expressiveness. Every sound and syllable is perfectly and distinctly articulated, granting the album a much greater capacity for detail and profundity."

Selected discography

"Nature Bears a Vacuum," Omnibus, 1999.

"When I Goose Step," Omnibus, 2000.

Oh, Inverted World, Sub Pop, 2001.

"New Slang," Sub Pop, 2001.

"Know Your Onion!," Sub Pop, 2002.

Chutes Too Narrow, Sub Pop, 2003.

"So Says I," Sub Pop, 2003.



Entertainment Weekly, October 17, 2003; October 31, 2003.

Newsweek, October 27, 2003.

Rolling Stone, August 16, 2001; November 13, 2003.

Thrasher, April 2004.

WWD, October 6, 2003.


"Chutes Too Narrow," Pitchforkmedia, (November 10, 2004).

"Flake Music," Omnibus Records, (November 10, 2004).

"From the Ether," Junkmedia, (November 9, 2004).

"Interview with The Shins," Ear Shot Online, (November 10, 2004).

"Live Review: The Shins," Magnet, (November 10, 2004).

"Oh, Inverted World," Pop Matters, (November 10, 2004).

"The Places of American Pop," Pop Transit, (November 10, 2004).

"The Shins," All Music Guide, (November 10, 2004).

"The Shins," Sub Pop Records, (November 10, 2004).

—Ryan Allen