It's not like the Shins weren't doing OK before director Zach Braff decided to prominently feature their music in his film "Garden State." After all, they'd achieved a modest level of success when McDonald's used their tune "New Slang" to pimp french fries ... which is kind of a dubious way to sell records.
"We did the McDonald's thing early on, when we needed money and were in debt and playing to 100 people at most," frontman James Mercer explained. "We don't regret it. It helped get us through the first years. The funny thing is, when you're just starting out and you're already in your 30s, you start to think, 'Am I going to regret not doing this?' "
So when Braff came calling with "Garden State," Mercer decided to give it a shot, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions he's ever made.
"It was more than a year before the movie came out that we first heard about it. We've OK'd usage of our music in lots of indie films and college films, for directors that are still in school. And most of them are under-the-radar things," Mercer said. " 'Garden State' started off getting great reviews, but it was only in New York and L.A. Then it started opening everywhere. First in 13 theaters, then 700 theaters, and we saw our sales increase right after that."
And even though the tunes Braff featured in his film came from the Shins' first album, Oh, Inverted World, it was their second record, Chutes Too Narrow, that rocketed onto the Billboard 200 albums chart. Suddenly, the Shins became known as "the 'Garden State' band," thanks in part to Natalie Portman's character in the film, who gives them a shout-out in one scene.
"We're so conspicuous in the movie, sometimes I wonder what Zach was thinking," Mercer laughed. "The whole thing was pretty crazy for a bunch of kids who grew up in Albuquerque."
With the onscreen props sending record sales soaring, the Shins realized they needed to strike while the iron was hot, so they hit the road for another round of tour dates (since Chutes was released in October 2003, the band has essentially been living on the road anyway). This time they played in venues twice as large, so Mercer knew it was time to get to work on another record.
There was only one problem.
"We tried to do some recording on the road, but it didn't really work out. The process of sitting down and writing songs is delicate," he sighed. "Sitting down with the acoustic guitar and spending hours trying to figure out chord progressions is such a task for me that doing it on the road is impossible."
So the Shins kept on touring — playing basically the same songs — for almost a year. But now, it's all coming to an end. After almost two solid years of touring, the Shins are finally ready to put Chutes Too Narrow to bed. They'll play two shows in their adopted hometown of Portland on May 15 and 16 and then retire the record. Then it's back into their studio to crank out a new album — their first since "Garden State" put them on the map — and Mercer knows he doesn't have the luxury to take his time.
"I actually learned that when we recorded Chutes. It was the first time going into a project where we had people waiting for it," he said. "And now there's even more people waiting for this one. It's pressure. It doesn't necessarily alter the way you write, but it makes you feel like you have to release it soon. Like, if we want to be smart, we ought to hurry it up and get something out."
But the Shins aren't going to listen to those voices in their heads. Mercer said he and his bandmates will make their new album at their own pace and take a bit of time to appreciate how far they've come. So as far as a release date for the new album is concerned, they're playing it pretty vague.
"Honestly, it's all kind of blurry. We'll say sometime in the next six months there will be a new record out," Mercer laughed. "But after the year we've had, we're taking everything in stride. We sort of look at it as like if you had a business, and it's doing really well, you had a good year."
But before he could continue his analogy, he was interrupted by bassist Marty Crandall, who smiled and added: "Rocking's our business, and business is good."