Christina Aguilera wields too much power. A few weeks ago, the scrawny, over-painted tart all but held the Shins fate in her hands; the indie-pop band du jour was scheduled to tape a set for The Late Show With David Letterman to air Jan. 13, when Aguilera tried to pull the late-night talk show version of a cock-block by announcing that she was going to guest that night. But Letterman aint no dummy, and after a few frantic but swift switcheroos, the Shins became the first Sub Pop band to appear stage left of Paul Shaffer. And that, as they say my friends, is showbiz.
The Shins play the Showbox Sat., Jan. 31, and Sun., Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. $15 adv./$17.
Speaking of friends, lets get this disclaimer out of the way: The Shins latest additionreplacement bass player/ guitarist and exScared of Chaka and Broadcast Oblivion frontman Dave Hernandezand I used to live side by side in some shitty duplexes on Beacon Hill with four or five other friends. Once, when I busted my last sewing machine needle and became incredibly cranky, the New Guy located the nearest Jo-Ann Fabrics and bought me a pack of six. The memory still makes me smilea guy like him in a store like that. So yes, Hernandez and I are friends. Perhaps you and Hernandez are friends, too. He has manyespecially now that he has validated our collective, furtive desire to call the Shins a Seattle band and make them our own.
Actually, the bands home base has been the cause of mild confusion; in their newfound glossy mag glory, the Shins are often referred to as an Albuquerque, N.M., band. Yet since songwriter, singer, and guitarist James Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval recently relocated to Portland, the band is also frequently tagged to the city of roses. But in truth, theyre really a long-distance love affair, with keyboardist/guitarist Marty Crandall the only member remaining in New Mexico. Hernandezs involvement in the band actually does go back to Albuquerque, where the band originated in 1997; in fact, on the bands first Sub Pop release, a Single of the Month Club issue of New Slang, thats our friend playing bass. But that was years ago, shortly before the friends diaspora sent Hernandez up to the Northwest. By the time the bands debut release, Oh, Inverted World, crept into the quiet, unkempt corners of our hearts in 2001, the band, still in Albuquerque at the time, had replaced Dave with New Mexicos Neal Langford. But because Sub Pop was responsible for unleashing the Shins gorgeous John CalemeetsEcho and the Bunnymenmeetsquiet, shuffling, outsider folk art, the band graced our citys stages quite often, so we sort of felt like they were ours.
Im sure the folks at Sub Pop think of the Shins as family, too. Quoted in a recent article on the front page of The New York Times arts sectionthis time not pulling her infamous grunge-era hijinksSub Pop General Manager Megan Jasper said the label had hoped the bands debut would sell about 10,000 copies. Over the last three years, its sold over 115,000, and the bands must-have follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, is quickly closing in, at 100,000 copies shipped since its Oct. 21 release. For an indie label, those are significant numbershence Letterman, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and three nights in a row of sold-out shows in New York City.
To put the numbers in perspective, the Recording Industry Association of America stipulates that a record goes gold once it has sold 500,000 copies. But for a group with as basically modest a sound and public presence as the Shins to even hint at that figure makes clear what a precious commodity the band has become. But what is it that separates them from the seemingly endless stream of their indie-pop peers? Its that unglamorous modesty; the quiet, shy truisms in the humble lyrics. They sound like your parents old Simon and Garfunkel records, and, even in The New York Times, they look like the boys next store, and it works. Contrast the Shins image with that of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and check this out: The omnipresent hipsters have only shipped, via major label, roughly the same number of units as the Shins new album.
The Shins label is benefiting from the nonostentatious exposure as well. In fact, thanks to in-demand releases by the Postal Service, Hot Hot Heat, and comedian David Cross, Sub Pop, the label thats been going out of business since 1988! (as its slogan puts it) recently enjoyed one of its best fiscal years since you were last seen in your cardigan humming About a Girl from Bleach. In a town where too many of us were down and out and laid off, Sub Pops success was quite a boonnot least for Hernandez, who was manning the labels phone lines when his friend James called about nine months ago and asked him to rejoin his old band.
I used to have this theory about Hernandez, and, frankly, it worried me. Like many other gifted musicians (the guy can pick up any instrument and pick out any tune imaginablehe learned to play as a kid by copying melodies from cereal commercials), he seemed to not have a backup plan. It was either play music, or . . . play music, and when we met for lunch not long ago, right before he set off to meet the boys back in the Big Apple for another string of shows and the Letterman appearance, he confirmed it. I hadnt had the guts to confront him about his plans for the future back when it felt like none of us had any, but these days he admits this was his one and only dreamand now its not a dream, its his life. He plays music in front of adoring crowds with three of his best friends, globe-trots with a ghetto tricked-out van equipped with a DVD player, shares bills (and parties) with bands like the Rapture, andno shitgets invites from David fucking Bowie to stop by his upcoming L.A. show and help him polish off his Green Room crudit鳮
Dave, does anything suck for you right now?
Fucking New Slang. Fucking hate that fucking song. Hate it to death. It haunts us, he says.
As Creep is to Radiohead, New Slang is to the Shins. Even some of us fans couldnt help but play it over and over again, analyzing the cryptic messages about eyesore royalty and tracing the melodies that wound around tree limbs like lost kites. It just happens sometimes: We cotton to certain pop songs for reasons we cant even fully articulate and they become addictions. But we can eventually stop hitting the repeat button while the band must play on. The Shins, Im sure, will excuse us if we dont feel too sorry for them.
There was actually this time in Australia when [Iron and Wines] Sam Beam came onstage and did a duet of [New Slang] with James, and it was beautiful, Hernandez concedes a moment later. In the few times that hes been in town lately and Ive run into him at shows, he tells me how lucky he feels and how appreciative he is of all of it, however fleeting it may prove to be. Because if Portland gets two of them, Albuquerque gets to keep one, and we have the new guy, it seems fair to call it an even split. We all win. The Shins belong to us now, for as long as it lasts. And then some.