By the time you finish reading this article you will be enlightened. You will no longer be of the opinion that the best thing to come out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is Walter White. The anti-hero-science-teacher-meth-cook may well be the second best thing to transcend the vast plains of the Chihuahuan desert, so let us make the case for the indie-rockers you always assumed were Portland natives.
James Mercer [L] and 'The Shins'
The Shins started out life as a side-project for singer-songwriter James Mercer – a peripheral band playing second fiddle to the 43-year-old’s primary focus: Flake Music. With Neal Langford, Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval, Mercer had established the group on the thriving Albuquerque independent rock scene that had already spawned the likes of The Drags and The Rondelles and Flake Music went on to release numerous singles and a full-length album.
Such was the fervency of Mercer’s craftsmanship at the time, he had already begun writing a record for his side-project – a group of songs that would eventually form The Shins’ debut Oh, Inverted World. After releasing a 7” EP, Nature Bears a Vacuum, to a modest but not entirely disinterested reaction from the music press, Mercer set about forming a full band and enlisted the help of Crandall and local punk legend Dave Hernandez for a handful of early shows. After playing together for a year, the group lost Hernandez to the lure of New York City, though the groundwork had been done and Oh, Inverted World was already written – on it, the song that would define The Shins as one of the most innovative bands in America. 'New Slang'.
The Shins song 'New Slang' has come to define the band
In many ways, Mercer had Seattle rockers Modest Mouse to thank for The Shins’ early success. Isaac Brock and his group had offered the Albuquerque natives prominent support slots and it was after one performance in San Francisco in 2000 that Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman asked Mercer to contribute a single to the label’s Single of the Month Club. That single was 'New Slang' – an odd, melancholic and beautifully awkward song that Mercer himself described as being spawned from a deeply dissatisfied state of mind. During an interview with InDublin magazine, Mercer explained that at the time of writing the song he wanted to get out of is “hometown, job, relationship and life”.
New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries/Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony/Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall, never should be called/But my head’s to the wall and I’m lonely.
Considering the career trajectory that would follow for The Shins, it was hardly the most uplifting of lyrics, but then again, the movie to which it would become irrevocably fused was hardly the most of uplifting of movies. Zach Braff – the New Jersey native who had already become a global star on NBC’s medical-comedy Scrubs - had a script. And a good one. Garden State was a sombre, pensive, part-autobiographical comedy-drama about an actor/waiter who returns to his hometown following the death of his mother.
James Mercer [Centre] and The Shins, relaxing on the sea
Speaking after the movie had grossed over $30 million on a budget of just $2.5, Braff explained, “When I wrote Garden State, I was completely depressed, waiting tables and lonesome as I've ever been in my life. The script was a way for me to articulate what I was feeling; alone, isolated, 'a dime a dozen' and homesick for a place that didn't even exist. It didn’t take a psychologist to observe that both Braff and Mercer had shared a similar headspace upon creating arguably their finest work – a song and screenplay that would become so fundamentally blended that New Slang and Garden State would join history’s most indelible movie and music connections. There’s Simon & Garfunkel and The Graduate, there’s Celine Dion and Titanic, and there’s The Shins and Garden State.
Braff had contacted The Shins, Iron & Wine, Coldplay and others after creating a mix CD with the music that he felt had scored his life so far. Mercer agreeing to have New Slang play through Natalie Portman’s headphones in a doctor’s waiting room after being promised that the track would ‘change her life,’ would become arguably the most important decision in The Shins’ career. It was a crucial scene. It was the scene in Garden State and would propel a twee indie quartet band to pop culture heroes heard in dorm rooms across the land. Even Mercer was rocked by the explicit nature of New Slang’s use in the movie.
Kate Hudson [L] and Zach Braff [R] in 'Wish I Was Here'
During an interview with Speakeasy, the singer-songwriter said: “I did go see the film when it was still in the theater, and I felt like a strange sort of embarrassment. I didn't realize it was so blatant. It's just really this intimate moment where this beautiful girl [played by Natalie Portman] gives you the headphones. So, I felt sort of like, Oh my god, I hope I'm not seen sitting here. It's like, what a wanker sitting there watching a movie that’s basically just going to bloat his ego”.
Garden State was released in 2004, one year after The Shins released its second album – the critically acclaimed Chutes Too Narrow. However, three years would elapse before Mercer et al capitalised on their newfound status as one of America’s most important bands, releasing their first post-Garden State record Wincing the Night Away in 2007 and entering the Billboard album chart at No.2 to give Sub Pop record high sales. Inevitably, the music press referred to the group from Albuquerque as The Band Natalie Portman Said Would Change Your Life.
By this point, The Shins was effectively a James Mercer solo project in the studio and the singer-songwriter would swap and change the touring line-up for several years. Nevertheless, the band’s status continued to rise, perhaps unfortunately by the sad passing of Oscar-winning actor Heath Ledger whose funeral featured 'The Past and Pending' from Oh, Inverted World.
Zach Braff [R], Pierce Gagnon [R] and Joey King [Center] in 'Wish I Was Here'
In 2008, The Shins announced its departure from Sub Pop and signalled its intention to release the next album on Mercer’s own label Aural Apothecary. Relations in the band had begun to sour and Crandall and Sandoval were replaced by Ron Lewis and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse, with Mercer getting to work on releasing Port of Morrow – the band’s fourth album released through Aural Apothecary via Columbia Records in March 2012.
The album’s first single 'Simple Song' would be another important song for The Shins and wily fans quickly observed the complete contrast in tone to 'New Slang'. It was an optimistic song, full of bounce and buoyancy that encapsulated Mercer’s complex journey as a songwriter. He himself revealed that the track was “about my wife, our relationship and this whole new life we [had] ahead of us” Mercer had aired his concerns of waiting too long to release Port of Morrow – fearing the band would fall by the wayside in the same way that the Stone Roses suffered after waiting five years to release their sophomore record. Those concerns proved unfounded and The Shins entered the Billboard albums chart at No.3 following hugely favourable reviews.
Josh Gad [L] and Zach Braff [R] in 'Wish I Was Here'
In 2013, the wheels were put in motion for Zach Braff and The Shins to collaborate once more – this time on the follow-up to Garden State, titled Wish I Was Here. Braff launched a Kickstarter campaign in search of $2 million to shoot the dramedy from the script he wrote with brother Adam J. Braff.
The campaign made $2 million in just three days and the filmmaker began shooting his movie about a struggling actor, father and husband trying to find the purpose of his life at the age of 35. As with Garden State, Wish I Was Here unsurprisingly boasts a carefully curated soundtrack and Coldplay, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Paul Simon and Badly Drawn Boy feature throughout, however, Braff has once again called upon The Shins to provide the musical backbone for his existentialist, plaintive stylings and Mercer penned a brand new track ‘So Now What’ that appears in the movie’s trailer.
Zach Braff in 'Wish I Was Here'
The lofty acoustic song lies somewhere between the yearnings of 'New Slang' and the hopeful assurances of 'Simple Song' but the one thing that ‘So What Now’ most certainly is – despite all of James Mercer’s melodic pop discoveries with Broken Bells – is The Shins. ‘So What Now’ is The Shins. Wish I Was Here is Zach Braff. And long may their union prosper.
Wish I Was Here, co-starring Jim Parsons, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson and Ashley Greene, hits theaters in the U.S. on July 18, 2014.