In the fall of 2003, The Shins released their second album, Chutes too Narrow, with a modest reception—normal for a small label band. They were doing the radio and TV circuit trying to boost their recognition and their “So Says I” music video was streaming across MtvU, but still they remained “indie,” which at the time had those fundamental connotations of “small” and “esoteric.” The normal marketing route for an indie rock release was producing an expectedly small number of record sales. However, all that would change in the coming months.
The beginning of 2004 saw the release of the film Garden State, which was a critical and box office success and raised awareness for that little band Natalie Portman’s character seemed so smitten with. The name and music of The Shins was projected to a national audience through Garden State, and as bassist and keyboardist Marty Crandall observes, a lot changed after that: “I would definitely attribute a lot of [our rise in recognition] to Garden State. That had a pretty huge impact. We saw double and triple sizes of crowds and sales of the first record. It multiplied our fan base immensely.”
The Shins were selling out amphitheatres, on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and they weren’t alone. Maybe it was that the boy bands couldn’t persist in the charade of sugary pop innocence when their five ‘o’ clock shadows and beer guts didn’t look so good on TRL. America craved some real “bands.” At the end of 2004, with massive sales of the Garden State DVD and soundtrack underway, an indie-invasion ensued. Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” and The Killers, “Somebody Told Me,” were in constant rotation on your mainstream modern rock stations (e.g. San Francisco’s KITS “Live 105”). And on TV, you’d hear some character on the The OC professing his love for Death Cab for Cutie. The days of Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit were a distant memory, especially in Los Angeles where a new radio station, Indie 103.1, broke the airwaves in the winter of 2004. The station set out to play good, underrepresented rock, and stole a nice chunk from LA’s modern rock station, KROQ, in the process.
But even with all these physical proofs of indie rock’s mainstream success and The Shin’s influence on that success, the definition of “indie rock” remains elusive. Thousands of bands happily sit under the banner of indie, but when more and more of these so-called “counter-culture” acts are signing to major labels like Warner and Virgin and thirteen-year-old girls are taking down their Britney Spears posters and replacing them with Rilo Kiley, it’s hard to tell what “indie” really is. Marty Crandall likes to steer clear of the word, but he can’t deny that The Shins are part of the movement, whether they like it or not. “I thought indie meant you’re on an independent label. That’s how I was introduced to it. I guess when you’re young, it’s hip to like things that nobody’s heard of. So indie rock, in itself, became a hip genre just because it meant independent. I don’t use the term and it’s been one of those random things that gets adopted by so many people: indie rock. But I guess we are indie because we’re on Sub Pop records, the definition of indie. We fit in there, I guess.”
But for any indie band, popularity can be a double edged sword. Along with a widening fan base come the grubby paws of music thieves: the new album was leaked to the Internet this past October, dampening the excitement and hype of the January release. On the leak, Crandall said, “I was fairly steamed when I first found out. My whole standpoint is, on its release date, anyone can have it. When it’s leaked, the certain few can get on the Internet and search and find it. I just don’t want it to be an elitist sort of thing. Plus, the version on the Internet is not the actual final master, which kind of sucks.” Although disheartening for both Sub Pop and The Shins, it signals one positive sign, that there is an audience out there for them—an audience excited and anxious for more intelligent and complex music rather than those packaged corporate products. The bottom line: if indie bands want the big stage, they’ll have to deal with the heckling riff-raff that dork up their cool.
Even so, The Shins seem to have navigated the indie-to-pop storm with grace, and their future seems limitless. The new record is a wonderfully layered, beautiful piece of art that only gets better with time. Crandall puts it nicely, “It’s a grower. Those are the best records. On repeated listenings you see and eventually get the feel of what the whole record was supposed to accomplish; it’s a wispy sort of spookiness. It’s subtle; more so than previous efforts.”
The record is definitely more nuanced and mature than previous albums, and right in time, as The Shins’ contract with Subpop is up and they’re ready to move on. In the future they see starting their own label. “For the most part, it’s just to have our own freedom—And plus, like typical recording deals, as far as royalties go, you’re not getting much. We could retire if it were our own baby instead of Sub Pop’s,” Crandall says. They’ve come a long way; the move would allow the band complete autonomy and, importantly, it would be a true signifier of their growth since they were that unknown camera-shy band back in the fall of ’03.
A lot has changed since the end of 2003, but thankfully not much has changed for the worse. The days of indie-rock = independent are fading, and the Shins have proved that “indie” is something intangible, something at the aesthetic core of good music. Whatever you call it, the music keeps getting better, the number of ears keeps getting bigger, and indie rock remains an evolving genre that still challenges everyone’s expectations of what it can do and who it can reach.