The complex anatomy of a band breaking up—a once-promising union gone awry, the hurt feelings and scorched earth—is akin to a painful divorce. And when indie pop band the Shins appeared onstage in Bellingham, Washington, on May 2, they were a mere shell of their former selves. Without a formal announcement or press release, the band that "will change your life" performed for the first time without longtime drummer Jesse Sandoval and keyboardist/bassist Marty Crandall.
Band members come and go, but the confusion surrounding the allegedly forced departure of Crandall and Sandoval only intensified when frontman James Mercer gave a rare interview to Pitchfork, stating their departure was "an aesthetic decision" and leaving it at that. Given that the two missing musicians were integral elements of the band's signature pop sound, no mere hired guns—Crandall and Sandoval first teamed with Mercer to start the Shins' first incarnation, Flake (or Flake Music), 16 years ago while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico—Mercer's odd comments only heightened the situation.
When initially approached by the Mercury to tell his side of the split, Sandoval was extremely hesitant to speak on record, politely declining and allowing Mercer a chance to voice his side of the story first. (As of press time, Mercer's management had not responded to our request for an interview.) Weeks later, Sandoval agreed to speak in a series of interviews, taking time away from a venture he started in the downtime following the band's last tour—Nuevo Mexico, the acclaimed New Mexican food cart located in downtown Portland (between SW 3rd and Stark).
Refusing to use this soapbox as an opportunity to strike back and berate former bandmate Mercer, Sandoval was remarkably polite, remorseful, and genuine. He touched on the extremely complicated nature of a band with humble roots that was left shouldering a world of success and expectations, how insecurities still linger for even the most seasoned musicians, and how a communication divide tore apart both the foundation of what many believe to be one of the premier pop bands of this generation and a long-running friendship as well. Wanting to clear the air, and resolve the mystery that still haunts the band's once-pristine legacy, he offered up a unique firsthand account of the complex breakdown of the Shins as we know them.
"We played our last Christmas festival run of shows for radio," Sandoval explains. "It was in Atlanta, and in all honestly, 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."
Following the grueling tour regimen promoting 2007's Wincing the Night Away, which dated back to 2006, the band took an extended break, as requested by Mercer. "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 my food cart and the 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."
But as time rolled by, the calls never came and the respective band members remained segregated, eventually triggering Sandoval to contact Mercer. "I'd caught wind from a couple 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."
Sandoval's attempt to quell rumors that the band's dynamic was changing led to few answers from the lead singer, other than plans for a band meeting that would involve their management flying in for the occasion. "That's when I was like, the writing's on the wall here," Sandoval explains, still devastated that a friendship which spanned nearly two decades dissolved so quickly. "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?"
The meeting never occurred, and instead Sandoval was dismissed via phone call from Mercer. "You could tell in his voice that it was really hard," Sandoval continues. "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." Bandmates are often dismissed in unceremonious ways—you might recall the legend of the Pixies breaking up via fax machine—but after helping nurture and expand the Shins from their meek beginnings in Albuquerque, Sandoval felt unsatisfied, not as much by his release from the Shins, as the sheer lack of communication surrounding it. "There was nothing. There was no follow-up. Management called after that, then our lawyer called—it's funny, the most conversation I had with anybody to that point was with our lawyer." So it was then that, for the Shins, the divorce was complete.
"I understand that I unequivocally got fired, and it kind of confuses me why [Mercer] has a hard time saying that," Sandoval admits. "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." Sandoval compares the situation to original Shins' bassist Neal Langford, who was cut free from the band early on in their initial climb to success. "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."
Despite the anger and remorse that lingers in the quivering wake of being dismissed from a project that he was so emotionally invested in, Sandoval directs no ill will at Mercer or the new incarnation of the Shins. "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," he explains, discussing his reasons for doing this interview. "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 at James, but I don't want to be a part of any sort of movement where everybody's against the Shins."
For a full transcript of our interview click here.