Neal Langford, former bassist for the Shins who played on their indie group’s celebrated debut album Oh, Inverted World, has died. He was 50.
Langford was found dead last Friday, July 21, in a creek near a private dock in Bath, North Carolina, where he lived. At the time, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s office said it did not suspect foul play, but an investigation was ongoing. A rep for the sheriff’s office did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s request for an update.
News of Langford’s death only seemed to reach Shins fans Thursday night, July 27, when frontman James Mercer shared a tribute on Instagram.
“Just want to let you guys know one of the best friends I’ve ever had has passed,” Mercer wrote. “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! He was the catholic school kid who showed me how to sneak into the back of the old El Rey theatre and get a ‘free’ beer. An invaluable person!”
Mercer credited Langford with introducing him to bands like Dinosaur Jr. and the Cocteau Twins. He also remembered driving around in Langford’s dad’s El Camino, listening to music. “Driving when we probably shouldn’t have been. Where we shouldn’t have been,” Mercer said. “We were like that. A long time ago. There’s too much to the story but I loved him. And I owe him a lot. Neal Langford you were always loved and you always will be.”
Langford and Mercer first played together in 1992 in a band called Flake Music that would eventually morph into the Shins. Based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Flake Music released a handful of singles and one album, 1997’s, When You Land Here, It’s Time To Return. During that run, Mercer and Flake Music drummer Jesse Sandoval also started making music as the Shins. When Flake Music split in 1999, the pair brought in Langford.
After a couple of early releases, like their EP Nature Bears a Vacuum, the Shins garnered the attention of Sub Pop, which released their single, “New Slang,” in 2001. The band’s debut, Oh, Inverted World, followed in June of that year. Oh, Inverted World was an indie hit and earned high praise, ultimately landing at Number 35 on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. But the band really took off a few years later after “New Slang” and another Oh, Inverted World track, “Caring Is Creepy,” were featured on the hit soundtrack for Garden State.
By that time, however, Langford was out of the band. Sandoval, who was also ousted from the group a few years later, suggested in a 2009 interview with the Portland Mercury that Langford was fired because he was too into hot air ballooning. “Neal was into ballooning but he didn’t choose ballooning over the Shins,” Sandoval said. “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.”
In 2012, Langford and former Shins keyboardist Marty Crandall started a new band called Sad Baby Wolf, which released a lone EP the following year. But otherwise, Langford appeared to enjoy his life outside of music, remaining particularly devoted to hot air ballooning. Initial reports of his death in the local news referred to him as a “hot air balloon enthusiast,” and noted that he co-owned and started the company IBX Balloon Flights in 2018 after moving from Albuquerque to Bath.