Blowing Up The Shins

Will Sub Pop's unprecedented push of the Shins' new album usher the indie darlings right out the door?

On Dec. 15, Steve Manning was out to dinner with his fiancée at the Palace Kitchen when his cell phone went off.

"I saw it was a 212 area code," says Sub Pop's national publicist. "I thought: It's New York, it's Saturday Night Live!"

Indeed, it was SNL's music booker Brian Siedlecki on the other line, saying he had just gotten out of a meeting with Lorne Michaels, who'd agreed to let Sub Pop's band of the moment, the Shins, play the show.

"I was jumping up and down on the sidewalk. I was shouting into the phone, just saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you!' recalls Manning. "[Siedlecki] says, 'How does Jan. 13 sound?' I said, 'Great!' I went back inside, [and] my fiancée ordered the most expensive bottle of champagne in the place."

Manning called Shins' frontman James Mercer, but he wasn't home. He then called keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Dave Hernandez. He also called his bosses at Sub Pop, Megan Jasper and Jonathan Poneman.

"When I got ahold of [Crandall], he just kept saying 'Wow! Wow! Wow!' over and over again," says Manning. "I told him SNL wanted the band to do the new single 'Phantom Limb' and [older number] 'New Slang.' He said, 'Piece of cake.'"

Poneman and Jasper racked their brains, trying to think of another independent label that had a band score an SNL gig (Sub Pop alum Nirvana was on Geffen by the time they played the show). The only one they could think of was the Arctic Monkeys last March, who are on Domino and whose debut was already established as a huge hit across Europe. Modest Mouse, who released albums on Northwest indies K and Up!, were signed to Epic by the time they played, and Death Cab for Cutie were on Atlantic. But the Shins are still on Sub Pop, and for Sub Pop and the Shins, playing SNL is like snaring the lead role in a major Hollywood blockbuster.

"In terms of publicity, this is like the biggest thing that could happen," says Manning. "Getting the cover of Rolling Stone is the only other thing that could be comparable."

While Sub Pop's past roster has boasted household names such as Soundgarden and Nirvana, the Shins have done as much to raise Sub Pop's profile as Sub Pop has to raise the Shins'. When courting new bands, Jasper says Sub Pop uses the Shins as an example of the label's marketing acumen. And because the Shins' prior releases, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, have sold about 1 million copies, Sub Pop has officially been able to leave grunge in the past, where it belongs.

On Jan. 23, Sub Pop will release the Shins' third album, Wincing the Night Away, an LP that could prove to be the label's most commercially successful release ever. But the celebration could be short-lived: Wincing also marks the Shins' last record under contract for Sub Pop, and the label is well aware of the major-label reps that have been courting the band.

"I really don't see any area where Sub Pop can't do for us what the majors can, except for maybe commercial radio," says Mercer. "There's just that weight that the majors can throw around still. But to me, Sub Pop is just as good as Capitol Records right now."

James Mercer is sipping roasted rice tea and slurping miso soup at Dragonfish Cafe on Seventh Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle. He admires the aroma of the tea, swirling it in the glass and sniffing the nose like fine wine.

"Doesn't this smell good?" he asks, rhetorically.

He's wearing jeans and a slate gray sport coat, his square jaw shaded by a couple days' growth of facial hair. His face is framed by dark-rimmed glasses and mildly tousled hair, the combination of which gives him the air of a young professor.

"I wanted to make a record that would kind of challenge our fans," Mercer says. "But I didn't want it to be completely alienating."

The record the Shins have made, Wincing the Night Away, is a boldly produced, sonically dense record that stretches the band's retro pop sound into broader, spacier territory. Anyone looking for the jangly, Brian Wilson–esque numbers of Chutes Too Narrow will need to check their expectations at the door. While the single "Phantom Limb" has been doing very well on the independent radio charts, folks who pick up the record unknowingly might be dazed by the synthesizer drips and organ whirls the band employs. There is a hip-hop backbeat to "Sea Legs" that recalls the Beta Band, and the space-pop interludes of "Red Rabbits" and "Pam Berry" are sure to please the Bonnaroo set.

"I think it's one of those records that people will put on and think is maybe boring at first," Mercer says. "But after a couple listens, it'll sink in and they'll get it."

"I think [Mercer] could have just made Chutes Too Narrow again," says Manning. "But he didn't. He really dug in and brought out a lot of the band's strengths that probably nobody had considered before."

Because of the high demand for Wincing the Night Away, Sub Pop is aiming to ship 227,000 copies on its Jan. 23 release date. Considering the largest first-week shipment Sub Pop has ever attempted was 40,000 copies of Sunny Day Real Estate's 1998 album, How It Feels to Be Something On, shipping a quarter- million copies is a massive undertaking for a 26-person staff (Geffen Records, Nirvana's post-Sub Pop label, employs about 200).

"A ship-out of this size is large by any label's standards," says Poneman. "From a marketing standpoint, this project is four times as large as any of our other records."

Intuitively, Sub Pop has cleared their release calendar in the months running up to Wincing's release as well. Their final release of 2006 was the Oxford Collapse's Remember the Night Parties in October, and the next scheduled release after the Shins is Loney, Dear's Sub Pop debut in late February. This effectively has allowed Sub Pop three months' time to deal strictly with Wincing.

Good thing, too: Eager music scribes began bugging Manning and regional publicist Joan Hiller for advance copies as early as July, which they said was easier when the answer was still "No, we don't have any promos yet." But with a release as huge as this one, Sub Pop runs the risk of oversaturation. Sub Pop's publicity department could be extra anxious and grant access to every second-rate publication in the nation, only to discover that, three months down the road, everyone is so sick of the Shins, the band just drops off the public's radar. And they run that risk not just with print but with licensing. Vice President of Sales and Marketing Andy Kotowitz and Vice President of Licensing Jen Czeisler are working to make the Shins' music heard in such corporate retail environs as Best Buy and Target. Starbucks will display Wincing on their countertops as their featured release the first week of February, and MySpace, for free, will be pimping the record on the week of release. Even YouTube has prominently displayed the video for "Phantom Limb" on their home page since mid-December.

"The marketplace has just changed so much with places like iTunes getting exclusives regularly that every retailer wants their exclusive as well," says Kotowitz. "And it's not even a trend, I wouldn't say. I think that's just the way it's going to be from now on."

Mercer is also aware of the oversaturation factor. In marketing meetings with Sub Pop, he stressed his concern over becoming a flavor of the minute.

"I was actually worried about it, saying things like, 'I don't want the Shins to become the next John Mayer or something,"' he says. "I was even worried about it with Chutes Too Narrow, but it worked out because it seemed like we were everywhere all at once. But then it helped a lot that we sort of disappeared to work on the new record for the last couple years."

"In many ways," says Sub Pop President Jonathan Poneman, "I've been waiting for this release for 20 years."

Coming from a guy whose company is responsible for some of the most significant independent rock records of our time, that statement carries some weight. Now in his 40s, Poneman comes off as completely at peace with the work he's done. He speaks slowly and eloquently. His office is bare bones: just a computer, a desk, a calendar, and a print above his desk depicting Krishna and Arjuna Pendava on a battlefield.

"It's Krishna inspiring Arjuna," says Poneman of the image, which comes from the Bhagavad Gita. "Basically, Krishna's saying that the risking of everything is not a risk at all, because everything is an illusion."

At several points during the last two decades, Poneman probably felt like he was on a similar battlefield. Ever since the day in 1987 when Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil convinced Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, a local columnist and KCMU (now KEXP) DJ, to hook up with the then–concert promoter and fellow KCMU DJ Poneman, the little label that could has been a monolithic presence in the alternative music world. Aside from Soundgarden and Nirvana, Sub Pop has, at one time or another, been home to Sunny Day Real Estate, Sebadoh, the Afghan Whigs, the Pernice Brothers, Hot Hot Heat, and Jesus and Mary Chain, to name a few. But, as anyone with a slim knowledge of the company knows, it's been far from smooth sailing for the last 19 years.

"I remember telling [Jasper] at one point in the late '90s, 'I just want to put out one or two more records and just phase it out, call it a day,'" says Poneman. "I was just completely burnt out."

"You could just see it in Jonathan's face," says Jasper. "He was checked out, literally."

Though Sub Pop's troubles started pretty much immediately (the company went bankrupt within one month of Pavitt's and Poneman's initial investment), the real problems began in 1995 when Pavitt and Poneman sold a 49 percent share of the company to Time Warner.

"After that the label had a lot of money," says Poneman. "There were a lot of new people in the office. I remember Bruce becoming very disenchanted when he came into work and didn't recognize all of the faces there."

The label was irresponsible with its newfound wealth, focus was lost, interoffice relations went sour, salaries were bloated, and Pavitt ultimately grew so disillusioned he stopped showing up for work, officially resigning in 1996 (though he remained invested until 2003).

Their problems mostly stemmed from what made them famous in the first place: grunge. Pavitt and Poneman spent so much of 1988–1990 identifying their label with the "Seattle sound" that when they started releasing records by differently oriented bands like Combustible Edison and the Blue Rags, the buying public didn't know what to make of it. Thus, Poneman refers to the years between 1995 and 1998 as "the dark years."

"There were a lot of relationships tarnished during that time," he says. "These are people who I have a lot of respect for. Emotionally, it was a very difficult time."

But something started to happen in 1998, to which Poneman credits the rehiring of Jasper as general manager. Jasper's roots with the company run deep. She was the receptionist/prankster who, in 1992, conned New York Times reporter Rick Marin into thinking there was, in fact, a grunge lexicon with words like "lamestain" and "wack slacks." And when she returned to the label as GM, Jasper had to drastically trim the label's staff, and operating expenses.

"It was very stressful financially," she says. "There were satellite offices in Canada, one in Boston, one in Japan. There were no budgets—they were just numbers pulled out of people's asses. We have a pretty sizable staff now for an indie label, but at that time there were about 55 people working here. We were in [downtown Seattle's] Terminal Sales Building, and if you'd talk about marketing people to sales people, they didn't know each other."

Over time, however, critics and listeners warmed to Sub Pop's newer signees, bands like Ugly Casanova, Love as Laughter, and the Beachwood Sparks. Sales were also good for Sunny Day Real Estate's How It Feels to Be Something On, and the tribute album the label arranged for Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, which featured Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Cash, and Los Lobos, among others.

"We were putting out a lot of great records and good things were definitely happening at that time," says Jasper. "But I really credit the company's turnaround with signing the Shins."

It goes without saying that without the Shins, Sub Pop's reinvention wouldn't have gone as well as it has. There would be no Wolf Parade, no Iron & Wine, no Dead Moon anthology, no noise terror from Wolf Eyes, and no Brazilian disco punk from CSS. There would be no Comets on Fire or Pissed Jeans or chances taken on locals Band of Horses and Tiny Vipers.

No one in the band or at the label could have predicted the level of success the Shins would have, nor the subsequent success of the label. Who could have foreseen going to see Garden State in 2003 and hearing Natalie Portman say the Shins' "New Slang" would "change your life"? Never mind that the same song would appeal to ad executives at McDonald's. It's even a strange thing to frontman Mercer, who recalls: "I remember being in Albuquerque, before we got signed to Sub Pop, and hearing about a Love as Laughter song being licensed for something. At the time, I just thought, 'Wow, you can write a song, and somebody will pay you to use it?'"

For Wincing the Night Away, Sub Pop is pulling out all the stops. They are putting the music into department stores and on popular Internet sites and trying to convince Rolling Stone that the group's cover-worthy, things they wouldn't do for many of their lesser-known bands.

"This is the largest undertaking in the company's history," says Poneman of the Wincing push. "Lucky for us, the record is worth it."

Josh Rosenfeld, co-owner of local independent label Barsuk, has been in a similar position as Sub Pop with Death Cab for Cutie, which defected to Atlantic Records and released their hit record, Plans, in 2005. Up until that point, Death Cab's final Barsuk record, Transatlanticism, had sold over 200,000 copies at a time when the label employed only six people. (The album has since gone on to sell over 500,000 copies, and Barsuk now has a staff of 10).

"A band that has sold a few hundred thousand records is at a point where a major label with ample amounts of cash might be able to do something for them," he says. "For a small indie band with maybe only one record, a major label is a terrible place to be. But if they have a track record and have sold a lot of records, a major label can sometimes be a great place for a band."

The risk bands run by staying on an indie label can be likened to a plateau, Rosenfeld says. A band reaches a certain point in terms of fame and sales, then levels off. Some bands are comfortable in that place—Yo La Tengo come to mind— but others might want to explore the rest of what the music industry has to offer. Specifically, they want a shot at megastardom.

"I think the indie versus major thing is a bit of a straw man," says Rosenfeld. "I think it has a lot to do with their resources and how they structure their deals. The Offspring's [1994] record Smash sold something like 9 million copies. That was released on Epitaph, an indie label. Sub Pop, on the other hand, has platinum records under their belt. They had Nirvana. So, yeah, they can definitely support a band like the Shins even after this record. They are a great record label, and [Jasper and Poneman] seem to have a good sense of how to support their records."

But as Poneman points out, most bands are on Sub Pop for a very brief time. Though the label's mission is to seek out cutting-edge artists and transform them into the next big thing, it's rare that Sub Pop is able to completely fulfill that goal. Either the band will break up, switch labels, or, in the case of so many of Sub Pop's early stalwarts, be seduced by a major.

Sub Pop's co-founder, Bruce Pavitt, predicted early on that the label would be a success because it's always capable, he says, of pulling "a rabbit out of a hat." The Shins, in many ways, have proven to possess exactly the same trait. Any other band with a hipster audience that licensed their tunes to McDonald's might have been strung up at the indie-rock gallows. Moreover, the Shins didn't just license a song to the WB teen drama Gilmore Girls— they actually appeared on the show. And their presence in Garden State didn't just bolster the film's narrative; it was akin to product placement. For a short while, accusations of selling out dogged the Shins, but the band stood its ground, renouncing the low wages and long hours required of working musicians. That paycheck from McDonald's, they argued, allowed them to become full-time musicians and not have to worry about finding someone to cover their shifts at the record store while they toured for a few weeks.

Looking at the current indie-rock marketplace, in which cool songs appear during dramatic moments on HBO series and the OC, it's apparent that the Shins have helped lead a march into a battlefield where, like it or not, artists nowadays take money from corporations without shame. While critics and fans alike panned electronic artist Moby for licensing tracks to automobile corporations in the late '90s (which he countered by donating the cash to progressive organizations), no one complained too loudly when, a couple years later, My Morning Jacket's music was used to hawk Coors or the White Stripes went so far as to pen a ditty for a Coca-Cola commercial.

"We only set a precedent because it allowed other bands to say, 'Well, whatever we do won't be as bad as what the Shins did. At least we won't give a song to McDonald's!'" quips Mercer.

Hence, the Shins walk a fine line between indie and corporate, as does Sub Pop, with its ties to Time Warner. Even today, magazines such as Punk Planet refuse to run features on Sub Pop bands because they aren't viewed in some circles as strictly independent. But all along, the label has remained steadfast in its mission of promoting talented, undiscovered bands. What the Shins represent is the fruition of that ethos: to take an unknown band and push them to the brink of mainstream success.

"We were talking earlier about Sebadoh, the early '90s indie rock, and the expectations placed on Sub Pop by the music community at large," says Poneman. "Those records back then didn't sell that many copies, comparatively speaking. The things that were supposed to be happening in our little sector of the music community, say, 15 years ago are actually happening now. Bands that are on indie labels are actually selling [records]. Now we have Death Cab, when they were still on Barsuk, selling hundreds of thousands of records. Arcade Fire: hundreds of thousands of records."

Anyone who attended early Shins shows can recall the immediate connection between band and audience. If you were at their show during 2003's Bumbershoot, you would think the entire city knew their songs by heart already. By the time Mercer cooed the opening "ooohs" of "New Slang," a packed Memorial Stadium was humming right along with him. And when they rolled back through town in October of that year, they packed the Showbox with mostly eager young women ready to throw themselves at the band, especially Mercer.

"They had something special very early on that was undeniable," says Jasper. "The music is smart and the lyrics are weird and dark, but the music itself is happy and uplifting. I think there is a vulnerability to James' voice, and whenever anyone reveals that vulnerability, people can connect so well to that."

"At the time the Shins signed with Sub Pop," says Manning, "the Murder City Devils were considered our biggest band. Everybody at the label, including the Murder City Devils, fell in love with them. And you wouldn't think the Murder City Devils would be into a band like the Shins, but I remember [Devils keyboardist] Leslie [Hardy] pulling [Poneman] aside during a show when they played 'New Slang' and saying, 'You have to sign them. They're going to be huge.'"

And with Wincing the Night Away, all the pegs are in place for a monster hit.

"This record is coming at an amazing time in the arc of my company," says Poneman. "A lot of the people employed there have been doing their jobs for a long time now, and they're really, really good at them. Some people think that setting up a record like this would be easy because it's a good record and the band has a supposedly high profile. But being able to corral everybody and keep their minds on the record takes a lot of planning, a lot of talking, a lot of improvisation."

All of which puts the Shins at the jumping-off point for commercial stardom, a place Sub Pop has always wanted to see them, a place any band would love to be. From there, there would seem to be only one natural step: jumping to a major label. And Jasper notes that for years, in big cities like New York and L.A., it's been impossible to see the band without there being a swarm of major- label A&R reps on-site.

"We've been taken out to some fancy dinners," says Mercer. "But to be honest, [major-label reps have] always kinda creeped me out."

The suits at Epic, for instance, tried to lure the Shins via Mercer's friend and Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock.

"One time we were in Arizona with Modest Mouse, and Epic had flown a representative out from New York just to check on the band. But the girl was obviously fresh out of college and had no idea who Modest Mouse was. She came up to me and thought I was Isaac. I mean, that's who's taking care of your band? Someone who doesn't even know you? I consider a lot of these people at Sub Pop good friends. Some of them were at my wedding last year. You just don't find that very often."

If the Shins left Sub Pop, it would hurt. But free-agent bands leaving for greener pastures is something Sub Pop has grown accustomed to. Back in the early '90s, Nirvana and Soundgarden jumped ship, and even Mudhoney—widely considered to be the quintessential Sub Pop band— spent a seven-year interlude at Reprise before returning to Sub Pop in 2002. But, as Jasper notes, that was at a time when the majors really did have something to offer that Sub Pop didn't, such as good distribution, clout with MTV, and, of course, access to late-night television.

"Back then," she says, "we hadn't quite figured out how to make it work. At that time, the lesson we learned was that we were a company that had some limitations and were operating in a somewhat delusional manner. It made sense, at the time, to think that if a band had outgrown our services, that meant we had done our jobs well. If one of our bands was offered a contract with a major label, that was something we were proud of."

But nowadays, it seems even the smallest label can swing for the fences. Barsuk's Rosenfeld admits pondering where his label might have come up short in supporting Death Cab had they released Plans rather than Atlantic.

"I honestly think Barsuk could have supported Plans," says Rosenfeld. "It would have required some investment on our part, and the major labels' clout in the American marketplace is enormous, especially when it comes to commercial radio. So maybe we wouldn't have sold as many records as Atlantic, but I think we could have come close."

With this in mind, Sub Pop is hoping not to be relegated to the "what if" bin when it comes to future Shins releases.

"I would love, all things being equal, to continue working with the Shins," says Poneman. "But we are at a place where our agreement called for three records, and this is the third record. It'll be interesting to see how the relationship grows from here, because it has been incredibly symbiotic. And though it's never been articulated, we've all been working toward this point, this desire to make the Shins as popular as possible. So, reaching that point, it'll be interesting to see where it goes because, in many ways, this is uncharted territory for Sub Pop.

"They could have left and figured out a way to buy out of the contract, but the fact that they stayed is something for which I owe them a debt of gratitude," adds Poneman. "I think it makes us all try that much harder with this record. I predict that if the Shins do decide to leave, we'll have a few down years. [But] there are always down years."

Jasper adds: "The Shins do allow us to take risks on bands that would only sell a few thousand copies, but we don't rely on the Shins to survive anymore. If we were to do that, we would turn into Sub Pop [of] 10 or 12 years ago. That's a lesson we've learned. Don't get me wrong: To lose an artist like the Shins is a big deal. But our label is always looking out for something new and exciting."

"That's what we do," adds Poneman. "I'm always looking for the next big thing—the next Shins."

bbarr@seattleweekly.com

 
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