We lost Neal Langford last week. He passed away at age 50.
While that name might not immediately sound familiar, his impact on indie music cannot be ignored.
Let me throw another, slightly more familiar name out there: James Mercer. Sound familiar? If so, that’s because Mercer is the frontman of The Shins and, in collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, Broken Bells.
How Neal Langford Influenced The Formation of The Shins
Yes, Langford was the original bassist of The Shins. This is important for a few reasons, which I’ll go into next.
Mercer broke the news of Langford’s passing via Instagram on Thursday, July 27, 2023. In this post, he states:
Just want to let you guys know one of the best friends I’ve ever had has passed. He was in several bands with me including The Shins. A very important figure in my life you could say. I mean this is the guy who talked me into getting over my shyness and up on the stage. He put me in front of the microphone!The Shins on Instagram
As he hinted, Mercer and Langford go back a ways. Quite a ways — as in Mercer’s band in the 1990s called Flake.
Neal Langford and James Mercer: In the Beginning
Formed in 1992 and active until 1999, Flake released a handful of singles and one album, the 1997 LP When You Land Here It’s Time to Return.
Sometime in 1995 or 1996 Flake became Flake Music. Around the same time — 1996 to be exact — Mercer formed The Shins as a side project to Flake Music. Originally, it was the duo of Mercer and Flake Music drummer Jesse Sandoval. Where Flake and Flake Music were collaborative with multiple members on songwriting duty, with The Shins, Mercer took center stage in that regard, crafting songs himself.
With the disbanding of Flake Music in 1999 or shortly thereafter, Mercer became a bit of a hermit. He holed himself up and crafted what would become Oh, Inverted World, The Shins’ debut LP. Around the same time — the late 1990s or early 2000s — Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse began slinging cassette demos to labels, and either he or Mercer got one in front of Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop.
The Shins: Signing to Sub Pop
Poneman getting his hands on early demos by The Shins was key. That led to the inclusion of The Shins in the Sub Pop Singles Club with the single dropping February 2001. It also got them signed to the label.
The A Side was “New Slang,” and it would go on to be a spotlight track off Oh, Inverted World, which dropped on Sub Pop in June of that same year, 2001.
The album would peak at 19 on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums chart. Fast forward 22 years to May of 2023, just a few short months ago, it was certified platinum, meaning the album topped one million sales.
“New Slang” also appeared in the famed scene in Garden State, the 2004 rom com featuring Natalie Portman and Zach Braff, where Portman states “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear,” and drops her headphones over his ears.
Look around the internet and some people highlight Flake Music and The Shins as two different bands — see Wikipedia. Others, like Discogs, note that Flake Music was renamed to be The Shins. I tend to lean toward the former given there was overlap in the tenure of the two bands. Still, most members of Flake Music joined The Shins, including Langford, and numerous lineup changes have happened since.
Ultimately Langford left before The Shins released their sophomore LP Chutes Too Narrow in 2003. But his impact on the band and indie music cannot be ignored.
The Shins Exist Because of Langford
To bring it full circle, as Mercer noted, it was Langford who helped him get over his shyness. It was Langford who put him in front of the microphone. And thus, without Langford there would have never been The Shins.
Langford had been out of the pseudo spotlight insofar as the national indie music scene for decades as of his passing, but his impact on it continues to resonate to this day.
RIP Neal Langford.
If you are a fan of The Shins, take a look at my video counting down the best albums turning 20 in 2023. You’ll find Chutes Too Narrow on this list. Where? You’ll have to watch it to find out.