Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, November 20, 2018

From 'Garden State' to 'SpongeBob,' the Shins explode

"I think partly I associate with SpongeBob himself quite a bit and maybe sometimes I have felt like Sandy the Squirrel too, a fish out of water or whatever," said the Shins frontman James Mercer.

It's been a strange road to fame for the Shins. The band from Portland, via Albuquerque, has ambled along at a healthy pace since its formation in 1997. The Shins caused a stir in various indie circles with their 2001 debut, "Oh, Inverted World." But to become a household name in the near future was definitely not on Mercer's list of things to do.

Then a little movie about New Jersey came and changed all that. "Garden State," this year's indie-movie phenomenon, brought the Shins to the masses.

And they weren't doing badly before. Their sophomore release, 2003's "Chutes Too Narrow," has sold quite well for an indie band, and thanks to McDonald's commercials, people across the country probably heard the Shins before they'd ever heard of the Shins. ("New Slang" was used to promote the chain's french fries.)

"[Everything] has changed so much for us," Mercer said in a phone interview last week. "'Oh, Inverted World' is selling more records right now than it did at its peak when it first came out, so it's ridiculous. ['Garden State'] being successful and then, of course, Natalie Portman actually referring to the band I guess is just more advertising than any band could hope for."

Now the Shins are everywhere you'd ever want them to be. They are - like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and Franz Ferdinand - on the very cusp of mainstream ubiquity, to the chagrin or approval of die-hards.

Now a new level of notoriety has hit. They have a song on the strangely cred-ridden 'SpongeBob' movie soundtrack. You scoff, but this kids movie has some of good music's all-stars on it: Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Ween and Avril Lavigne.

"The Avril Lavigne thing was the surprise I think," Mercer said. "We were told that ... it was going to be somebody who has just been a major influence on all of us. They wouldn't tell us who it was going to be. There were rumors that it was going to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and then it turned out to be Avril Lavigne."

The Shins' contribution, "They'll Soon Discover," is a bouncy number, perfect for a cartoon about a sponge.

"I knew that I wanted the feeling that I remember having as a kid when you were just totally carefree and, like, walking down the sidewalk in your neighborhood," Mercer said. "I was one of those types of kids who loved to walk around alone and just check stuff out."

The song had actually been partially written back in 2001.

"I remember it reminded me actually of a Cure song the way I had done the percussion and stuff," Mercer said. "I had that and I just really couldn't make it work. I think it sounded a little too bubblegummy and cartoony, which ended up being just perfect for the 'SpongeBob' thing. It's very different and probably very different than a song that I would be willing to really put on a Shins record I guess."

Mercer said he's watched the show every now and then, but the main reason he decided to do the project was family.

"I've got really adorable nieces who love SpongeBob," he said.

What a guy. Indeed, after all this new fame, Mercer seems to have a level head.

"I get really self-conscious if I start to think too much about how successful we have become and stuff like that," he said. "I just try and keep it sort of a private personal sort of thing."

But even after attaching themselves to a kids movie, the Shins can probably expect to gain some points among their audience. 'SpongeBob' enjoys a healthy following among adults, who enjoy the show for it's wit and charm, and little kids, who enjoy the fart jokes.

But an indie-pop songwriter does some things differently when it's for a cartoon.

"Well, yes, I decided not to curse," Mercer said. "I wasn't going to do any porn songs this time." Good move.

Mercer says to expect another Shins album next year. But until then, look for "Towlines," an "experimental documentary" about tugboats, with a score penned by Mercer himself, which "goes from sweet, little acoustic picking things to strange, atmospheric keyboard stuff. But melodic. I can't avoid that, it seems."

And it's about tugboats! Everyone loves tugboats.

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