It's not exactly a huge, secret list of ingredients that make up fame and success. Hard work pays its dues. That said, you're about to be reintroduced to the hardest working dudes (and one dudette) in modern music.
The Shins have always been "indie" – in their sound, their approach and their dedication. They may have caught a break with their soundtrack inclusion and mention by Natalie Portman in Garden State, but lucky breaks make for one-hit wonders, not staying power. What's helped build the band to where it's at now is nothing short of hard work and true musicianship. All it takes to truly unveil the Shins' collective talent is a little awareness as to what these incredibly gifted band members have done, and continue to do, in their side projects.
James Mercer, superstar frontman for the band, has produced a body of work (which has exploded in recent years) that speaks for itself. He's sung backup vocals for Modest Mouse; collaborated with über-producer Danger Mouse on the much-delayed and star-studded Dark Night of the Soul album, which was linked to David Lynch's wavering sanity and artistry; and finally put together the ridiculously impressive duo known as Broken Bells with Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) himself. "I knew I wanted to do something different," says Mercer. "The whole collaboration thing wasn't something I'd done in a long time. But he [Burton] is a very considerate person – very diplomatic."
Joe Plummer, with a rap sheet just as impressive as Mercer's, is the current multi-talented drummer for the Shins. As the full-time percussionist for Modest Mouse and fellow supergroup Mister Heavenly as well, he's likely pretty indispensable behind the drum kit. Richard Swift, the man on keys for the Shins, is an accomplished producer and short filmmaker. His solo career, which may not have garnered as much commercial success as it deserved, is most notably represented by the EP Ground Trouble Jaw. A spectacularly refreshing album from the multi-instrumentalist, he's proven his ability to stand on his own two feet. Yuuki Matthews and Jessica Dobson, the remaining members of the Shins, are of Crystal Skulls and Beck fame, respectively. As a "backing band", Mercer really couldn't do much better even if he canvassed the industry looking for an Island of Misfit Toys collective of talented session musicians. And in terms of pretty much everyone having his or her own side project, it certainly keeps the band sharp. "It does keep the relationship healthier," says Mercer. "It's not just them waiting on me."
An impressive lineup (which solidified a little under a year ago) obviously results in fantastic albums–or that's how it seems. And this has proven to be the case with Port of Morrow, their March 2012 release, which stands as a fantastic, multi-layered and impressive departure from what we've come to expect from the Portland quintet. Don't get it twisted; these guys still pull out impressive hooks, Mercer's whiney and high-pitched vocals still set the tone for their confusing yet introspective lyrics and the musicianship behind the group as a whole is mind-blowing. It just sounds a lot less indie and a ton more polished. "It's largely because of Greg Kurstin being involved in production and recording," says Mercer. "It's been a slow progression with me, away from those duties. I did a little bit of it at my home studio, then took the rest down to Greg."
Critical and commercial success – that's right, this wasn't merely a Pitchfork darling – accompanied the release, and the band that was once known as the golden ticket on the aforementioned Garden State soundtrack (which, whether you'd like to admit it or not, opened the doors for every big indie band of the 2000s) took flight on its own merits. "When I did my first record," Mercer says, "I had a whole year. And the second album always needs to be done in a few months. This time, I really knew I could benefit from an objective third party."
Of course, the band has seen industry respect in varying forms over the past decade – they were, after all, nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2008 – but 2012 has found the Shins in their own category of accomplishment. But that's not without losses of a different kind. Mercer, a dad now, finds it tough at times to be out on the road and away from his family. "I love being home," he says. "But that's easy for me to say, since I'm not. The average person is home each night with the kids."
Alas, showbiz has always been about balance. Take, for example, the diverse artistry that has been the visual accompaniment to three of the tracks from Port of Morrow. There's a fantastically hilarious Funny Or Die video capsule, titled Clapping Butter, that acted as a comedic music video of sorts for hit single "Simple Song." And in stark contrast to that silliness, the video for "Bait and Switch" captures the band in the studio – a representation of their hard work, not taking themselves too seriously, but with full-on dedication to their craft.
Most recently, the whimsical video for "The Rifle's Spiral" (the latest single released), has an otherworldly and somewhat Tim Burton-esque feel to it. Three sinister-looking gents (this is all animated, mind you), a color-changing rabbit and a magical little girl star in this offbeat video that encapsulates the feel of the track in a very eerie way. "'The Rifle's Spiral' thing was coincidental," says Mercer. "The producers paid for it. We didn't have to do anything. Things have really been rolling nicely lately, which is a first in Shins history. Nothing ever went this well before." | RDW
The Shins with The Antlers and Deep Sea Diver • 6/6, 7 p.m. • The Fillmore • 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit • livenation.com • $25-$45