MERCURY: I guess we should start at the beginning, how did you find out that you were out of the Shins?
JESSE SANDOVAL: It was almost two and a half years ago. We played our last Christmas festival run of shows for radio. It was in Atlanta, and in all honesty, I definitely remember walking offstage and calling my girlfriend and saying, "I don't know why, but I just have a feeling like this is it. I feel like this is probably my last Shins show." And it wasn't coming from my end, I just had this feeling.
So everyone came back home and about a month and a half later James [Mercer] sent an email. He'd mentioned that he wanted to take some time off. He wanted to do some acting, work with other people on their projects, and he also mentioned that he wanted to do his side project and he didn't know what [the time off] meant, but it was something he'd been thinking about. Actually I think I was kind of tipped off, like three or four months before, when I sat down with our business manager and our manager and we were just talking about the future and how should I approach this time off and they hinted, "Well you should plan for at least a year and a half off." They obviously knew something.
We took time off and in that email James said, and he's absolutely accurate, that we're lucky to be able to have that opportunity to do anything that we choose to do. Everybody can do music, someone can write a book—he just listed the numerous things we could do. I'd always wanted to do a food cart and my plan was to get it started and make it its own entity before we went back on the road. Usually when we have time off everybody scatters, does their own thing, and then every once in a while everybody reconvenes at a barbeque, or a party, or calls each other to go out and have a beer. This time around felt a lot different. My girlfriend reached out and invited James and his family to dinner. We always got the "James is real busy" answer. In all fairness, he was busy doing other things but there was a different air about it.
I'd caught wind from a couple of people that James was processing moving further along with the idea of working with other people but I never quite got the impression that it was going be an across-the-board change. So I contacted him. I probably hadn't really talked to him for about a year and a half or two years before I called him out of the blue and I think that my admittedly highly emotional phone call expedited things. About a week after that phone call he contacted me by text and said that basically, "I got your message, I hope you're okay. Let's get together tomorrow and catch up."
The following morning I got an email from management saying that there's a band meeting scheduled. I didn't respond to that email because, well, I needed time to process everything. Since I didn't respond right away, I got another email asking when would be a good time because our manager was going to fly from LA to be part of this band meeting. That's when I was like, the writing's on the wall here. The manager's coming from LA? I haven't seen James in a while, but now when I'm going to see him, it's going to include the manager?
Then James called me and we had a very brief conversation where he said that he was going to be working with other people. I could tell that he was really nervous. He's the furthest thing from a malicious person; he's not a prima donna. He's just not that. If he was, if he was the stereotypical lead singer, I think that I would have sort of expected this. So he called me and he told me he wanted to be inspired and he's getting to a phase in his life, a point in his life, where he realized he doesn't really want to be touring anymore. This whole process for him was probably excruciating, I mean, again, he's not a malicious person.
Well, if it was a matter of touring, you clearly have a business and a family, so I assume you would have enjoyed staying in the band and not touring?
Absolutely. There were basically two corporations, one of them was the touring corporation where everyone was playing their parts and everything is divided equally. James isn't a malicious person, he explained we're all blue-collar workers, we're all going on the road, we're all playing our parts every night, so everything should be divided equal. Which was fair.
One of the things that I really have a hard time with is how he categorically turned the page on me. Categorically. When I sit and think about that and try to approach it fairly and honestly—without emotion and being rational about it—I am extremely disappointed and it still hurts.
Although [Mercer] was the Shins and he probably did put in the most effort recording-wise at the early stages, I fucking loaded the van and I did all the driving. Before we had a tour manager, our record label contacted me. I put the legwork in. I was a blue-collar worker. I had a vested interest in this. It seems really petty when I start to do a laundry list of what I'm held accountable for, but in turn, I have a laundry list as well that I want to hold someone else accountable for. So I was really disappointed. All that invested to not make sure that I was famous or a rock star and got a paycheck, but that it ran smoothly. Some of the shit was shielded from James because that's why there's management, that's why there are teams around people who write songs because the last thing they should be doing is worrying about all that other crap.
Were you given a definitive reason for your departure?
I don't entirely know all the reasons. We have not had dialogue.
His whole explanation in the press, it just rings, "It's not you, it's me, Jesse." [James Mercer's quote to Pitchfork is as follows: "I wouldn't say I'd never work with them again. I love working with those guys."] Anybody who has been in a relationship knows what that means. He has reached out a couple times by email offering to talk, but I have not responded. I expected a bigger gesture on his part.
I just think if he was reaching the point where he felt like he wasn't inspired, or I wasn't holding my end of the bargain, or he wanted to go a different direction, I certainly hope he would have imagined that there should have been some dialogue. Dialogue along the way. If he said, "Hey Jesse, there are some things that I want to do on this album that you don't do well, rhythmically, or I want to bring other people into the studio to record the album and after we're done doing it, would you be interested in learning all these parts and still go on tour?" At least give me a chance to still be a part of something that I am not entirely responsible for, but certainly helped create and anchor.
I think about it and I have to own up to my own faults. I definitely see why he was seeking outside sources. There were some drumbeats that he tried to do, that he asked me to do, and I just couldn't do them. I have a slower learning curve than polished musicians. In part, he could afford the luxury of sitting in front of his computer and do take after take until he got it right. With recording software the way it is now, you don't have to play the whole part start to finish. You can piecemeal things. Well, in the studio, I didn't have the luxury to take lots of time to execute drum parts, and you can't really piecemeal drums. So my weaknesses showed and I know that frustrated him. Recording time is ridiculously stressful for James, I understand how internally he started to problem solve how to make the recording process more streamlined. Working with Danger Mouse only exacerbated that fact.
I think part of the reason why he wanted to have the manager come down was to support his decision. This is a divorce. I saw the writing on the wall. So when he did call me to arrange the band meeting I asked him, "What is it, James? What is the band meeting about?" I mean I knew what is was going be about, and that's when he started talking about where he was in his life, what he wanted to accomplish, how he felt like he wanted to be inspired, and that he'd been playing with other people.
You could tell in his voice that it was really hard. He started to explain his thought processes and his reasoning and, of course, I'm shocked. Even though I knew it was going to happen, I was shocked. I felt like I need to take the opportunity to say something to him and I thanked him for what I learned from being in a band with him and just to hope that we're buddies here and we can talk about this. He sounded relieved and was like, "Thanks, man. Thanks for understanding." He said he was going to call Marty and we'll get together tomorrow and have a beer, talk and continue to catch up.
I hung up the phone and minus dealing with that whole reality setting in, things felt comfortable since we were going to sit and talk about it tomorrow. And then I get a text saying that the band meeting is cancelled, so the whole meeting we were going to have—drinking beers, catching up—was cancelled, and that he thanked me for being his old friend. It's not a malicious thing, but canceling the meeting was, I felt, well, shitty. For him to say thank you old friend, and go that far, that's a lot.
It's my understanding that as bands get successful, things tend to get a whole lot more complicated.
It definitely got more complicated. That's the hard thing. A complex web of relationships form when you start working with your closest friends. We are all terrible communicators with each other. It's hard when your boss is one of your best friends. I'm pretty sure it's even harder to be the boss of your best friends.
I feel like through this whole healing, processing part of the situation I've become a walking contradiction because when I talk about it to friends, family, and close associates, I'm usually the first one to defend James or at least try to help them understood how this came to be. But, yet, behind closed doors, I'm upset to the point where I'm livid, or I'm okay with it, or happy about it. That's why I feel like I'm a walking contradiction at many times.
I think part of the reason why I'm doing this interview is that when talking about the food cart, music questions keep coming up and I'm not answering those questions because the interviews are in context of what I'm doing now. But I guess at this point I'm kind of tired of not talking about it.
Why do you think that there wasn't an announcement? I get hundreds of press releases a day and band member turnover—especially an instance as newsworthy as this one—is definitely a topic usually addressed in press materials.
It was my understanding that there was, or two. There was an attempt but both were on opposite sides of the spectrum; one was melancholy, like, "Sorry, Marty and Jesse aren't playing in the band." Then there was another, like, "Guys, Shins are coming to your town with a new lineup! Let's get excited! Let's get pumped!" Knowing James, I think that is not his personality to make a parade of things. He is very considerate of how the press affects Marty and I, he's definitely conscious of it.
So there was an attempt at a press release. I think that the right person to ask is James, but that's my guess.
What do you think about Mercer telling Pitchfork that your departure was an "aesthetic decision"? I assume I'm not the only one that thought it was an odd comment to make.
A lot of people I've talked to—ex-Sub Pop people, those who have worked with us—were equally scratching their head, and I definitely feel it's an odd statement. Even some fans have come up to the cart two weeks ago and were equally trying to wrap their brain around it. I don't know. I can't explain that. [Other than] my feeling is that James really wanted to be respectful and not make it a circus. I guess I'm still out to lunch as to how I feel about how that went down. I guess I really don't think about that part too much.
I know that Nuevo Mexico probably takes up most of your time, but are there any plans for any new music endeavors?
I think so. I've talked to at least three other singer/songwriters here in Portland. But the thing is about James, Marty, and I—and even going back to Neal [Langford, former Shins member]—have always sent around a four-track and just recorded stuff for each other. I have about 45 minutes' worth of songs—I think everybody's doing a collective, "Oh great. The drummer's going to write an album!"—but they're just ideas. I've messed around with a couple of other people, but while I played with those other people, it's been hard. Ninety-five percent of my time playing percussions has always been with James. So I guess his style of writing has become second nature to me and has shaped me. Playing with other people and getting out of that comfort zone has definitely been a challenge.
Why did you agree to do this interview?
I didn't want to comment before because I feel my business is my business, and that's just my personality, and everybody around me knows that. But by doing press for the cart, having people come up to me, now I really can feel and understand just how much of an impact this stuff has had on so many people on so many different levels. I just wanted to provide some people with an understanding of the situation.
I'm really digesting and really appreciating how much of an impact this has made on people. I had my first experience where fans came up to the cart and they asked me for an autograph. I went out and took a picture, and I was like, why? Why would you want that? I'm not in the band anymore. I'm not in the Shins. And for them, it was like, well, we understand that, but, for us, you are the Shins. You were part of this album that I'm asking you to sign. And it just really left an impression on me.
In part, I was tired of answering everybody's questions, I wanted my answers to be out there so every time I do any sort of press for the cart and what I'm doing in my life, I don't have to repeat myself. Also something that's been bothering me is a lot of people have been saying, "I'm never going to buy another Shins album again! How can James Mercer do that?" And I have my reasons to be angry with James, but I don't want to be a part of any sort of movement where everybody's against the Shins. If you choose to not support the Shins because you don't like the music, that's fine. But don't do so because James fired me.
I appreciate everybody feeling so emotional that way, and supporting me, but when I think about it, this was all sort of already coming to a head. James had mentioned that he wanted to blow up this band a long time ago—he was frustrated. And I don't know if it was him being creatively frustrated or where he was in his space and mindset to say that, but when I reflect, the fact that I wasn't a slick drummer played a huge part in it. I did my fair share of beating myself up over whether or not I was a good drummer—and of course I have people on my side saying, "You're a great drummer!"—and I know James has people on his side, probably saying, "It's a good decision for your career."
When I think about this, probably if James really had complete say in it, he would have killed the Shins. I definitely believe management's like, "You know, you can't start over, you built a name, people recognize you—why would you want to start all over?" And so, the only thing he had left to do was to really make a drastic change, and I know working in Los Angeles with a bunch of studio people, he was able to find himself in a position where he didn't have to do 15 takes. Even himself, he could have someone play his parts, and that's a romantic idea. I don't blame him for that.
But I also understand that I unequivocally got fired, and it kind of confuses me why he has a hard time saying that. I understand he's probably doing it out of respect for me reading interviews, it might be hard for him to say it, but... I got fired. There's no other way of looking at it. He turned the page; he wanted to do something else, and he's okay with that. And everybody, me included, can judge him, but no one's in his head. It's not a pattern that is new to him. Neal was into ballooning but he didn't choose ballooning over the Shins. He got fired. My phone call was very parallel to Neal's call back in the day. The way Neal got fired was no different from the way I got fired. And in a lot of ways, I guess that's probably what hurts the most. I thought I did whatever I could to not deserve that sort of ending.
So when I reflect, it always goes back to the idea of relationships, and the Shins, that dysfunctional family we had, was a very complex set of relationships and I think James didn't want to deal with the emotional attachments to those relationships. It's pretty easy to sever ties and start something new. From what I understand he's hanging out with his new band, and as much as he wants to let everybody know that we're on good terms and we're still good buddies, that's just not the case. He made this choice for his reasons, and you have to accept it. I can't allow that change to reflect who I am as a musician, and reflect on who I am as a person, because 90 percent of it is coming from his side. He chose what he wants to do with his life, and who he wants in his life. And that's okay, I accept that.
Were the Shins a victim of their own success? It seems that outsider opinions, managers, and the weight of being a successful band really weighed heavy on the shoulders of the band. If you were just the typical indie-pop band that sold a few thousand records, think any of this would have happened?
I think it's a little bit of all that. I know in my heart that James is just not the type of person that fits the mold of a lead singer that goes to LA with a bunch of people around him and is like, "I'm meant to be in LA—later, dudes!" But, with that being said, I know this about James: It goes back to when he started doing four-track stuff and reading Tape Op. He was fascinated with recording music. So, in some ways, it is sort of a natural consequence of success; now, in some ways, the people he's dealing with, he's in over his head. He's learning things. He's graduated to a different level, and how motivating, captivating and romantic that must be. So, in some ways, yeah, it is a consequence of our success. It has put him in a place where he has an infinite amount of resources and talent to work with and play with.
Now, would that have happened on an indie level? It's hard to say. I think the internal strife of our performance live and our performance in the studio existed before we were highly successful. I don't think I really have an answer for that, because I don't really know. But I guess my way of thinking, or my idea about that, is maybe those issues would have been there whether there had been a change, or a firing, or not—it's hard to say.
Think you could ever work with James Mercer again? Even if it's not as a member of the Shins, but maybe in a different project?
On my end, I guess from where I stand right now, I can't imagine collaborating with James—I think that he unequivocally turned the page. There was no dialogue, there was no conversation. So for me, I think about it as this relationship I have with him that's a business and a friendship; if there was a desire or a thought that our friendship might exist in the future, there would have been some sort of proactive dialogue along the way explaining his plans. Instead it was the "I've made a decision" business relationship that took precedent. And I definitely heard from management and friends—the phrase I kept hearing from people who were talking to James—is that nothing is permanent. But the way I look at it is, it's hard for me to look for a fence to mend. He removed the fence. I know he reached out to me a little bit by text and email, but for me, years of a relationship deserves a little more than an email or a text. I just don't know if I can fathom putting myself back in the position where, "Is he satisfied with what I'm doing? Is he not satisfied with what I'm doing?" Obviously I didn't meet his needs and that's why he removed me.
It's a pretty common feeling, when you're crafting or creating something. You put yourself out there and if it's unsatisfactory, you beat yourself up a little bit and you reflect. I find it difficult to imagine putting myself in a position where I'm going to be sitting behind the drums with James Mercer, and allow myself to feel insecure anymore, to be completely honest. That's not necessarily a knock on anyone personally; it's just a knock on a relationship. The communication had totally deteriorated and the relationship broke down.