Did some poking around on the interwebs today at lunch, and came across a very interesting article about The Shins. It was published back in September of 2011, but I didn’t stumble across it until now.
The article was posted on the TwentyFour Bit website, just after The Shins returned to the stage at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival. But in the interim between The Shins’ tour for Wincing the Night Away and the summer of 2011, the entire band roster changed except for James Mercer.
Which begs the question – what’s in a band name?
The Shins certainly aren’t the first group to change a significant amount of band members while keeping the same name. Billy Corgan flushes Smashing Pumpkins like they’re made out of expired Tylenol. Robert Smith has had even more bandmates than hairstyles in The Cure. Mark E. Smith has kicked enough punters out of The Fall to fill a double-decker bus. And I’ve lost track of how many dudes Axl Rose has shit-canned from Guns N’ Roses (bucket-headed or otherwise). I suppose that’s your right when you write the songs, and (especially) if you’re the lead singer. A lot of a band’s identity is tied up in the front man.
At the same time, there’s an unwritten obligation to not destroy the BRAND of the band. Smashing Pumpkins fans are generally bemused whenever Grandmaster Billy brings in “all new guys” and takes off in a completely different direction than the ‘classic Pumpkins’ sound. Sure, it would be unfair of me to chastise an artist for wanting to try something new, to push the envelope. If every Shins album sounded exactly like their debut, Oh Inverted World!, life would get pretty dull before long. But fans will only give an artist so much leeway.
Once upon a time, Neil Young’s fans thought they had him sorted out. He was the guy who made some quiet folksy country-rock records (generally solo) and some blistering feedback-drenched heavy rock records (generally with Crazy Horse). But all of his albums were imbued with a similar identifiable style. Then Neil signed with Geffen Records in 1982 and everything careened straight into the ditch. Trans was loaded with synthesizers and vocoder-processed vocals. Everybody’s Rockin’ was a rockabilly pastiche without the charisma. Old Ways was a throwback to his folksy early-70s records, but mostly forgot to bring memorable tunes. Things got so bad that Geffen sued Neil Young, essentially for not sounding enough like Neil Young. Worse yet, Young broke his unwritten contract with his fans. Challenging your audience to follow you down shadowy new side streets is one thing, but intentionally crossing over into Bizarro World just alienates people. It took years for Young to win huge legions of his audience back.
All of which brings us back to the continuing Shins saga. The TwentyFour Bit article gives quite a bit of insight into why Mercer jettisoned his former bandmates. Drummer Jesse Sandoval was fired for not being able to play some challenging new drum parts to Mercer’s standards. Fair enough – Jeff Tweedy did much the same thing when he replaced Ken Coomer with Glenn Kotche in Wilco. It seems that bass player Dave Hernandez was similarly dropped off on the side of the road. Keyboardist Marty Crandall pretty much fired himself by beating up his girlfriend in a Sacramento hotel room (somewhat detrimental to the Shins’ nice-boys image, not to mention a total dick move). Hence – all new guys, but same old brand name.
We will see how it all works out in March when Port of Morrow debuts. If Mercer is smart, he won’t try to completely reinvent the wheel, at least not right away. If he does, he may rue the day that he put the Shins label on the cover.