Creating the (Holo)scene

Four years ago, Holocene Music co-founder Scott McLean was just another California transplant trying to make his way in the complicated Portland music scene.

Four years ago, Holocene Music co-founder Scott McLean was just another California transplant trying to make his way in the complicated Portland music scene. He wanted to open an electronic music club, and with his friend and native Portlander Jarkko Cain, he started scouting possible venues.

Instead of the tiny space he imagined they would acquire, McLean and Cain ended up with a cavernous building on Southeast Morrison that became Holocene, a music venue and lounge that routinely plays host to acts far from the purview of electronic music.

“So we kind of quickly turned from programming just electronic music to going to dance parties, indie-rock shows, whatever felt right and worked with the space,” McLean said. “We had no idea what to expect.”

Four years into running the club, McLean said he’s satisfied by its progress and place in the Portland scene.

“We wanted to become an institution and I think we achieved that,” he said, adding that the challenge is to now make the minutiae of running the club easier and to improve the venue’s sound during live shows.

With the club operating relatively smoothly, McLean had a chance to focus on another project he was interested in: releasing a compilation remix album. And so Holocene Music, a record label that now has three signed artists, was born late in 2005, finally coming together in January 2006.

“I always wanted to do a label,” McLean said. “As soon as we started seeing bands that we liked and were viable, it became a little bit easier to realize this as a working concept.”

McLean and his partner in the label, Holocene PR guru Matt Wright, said the label’s relationship with the club is “horizontal” at best.

“It is connected to Holocene, but it’s a separate thing,” said Wright, who also manages local band Blitzen Trapper and runs his own successful public relations firm, Matt Wright PR.

At first, the two entities also shared money. Profits from the club helped get the label off the ground, though now the two are officially apart, with separate books. Initially, Wright and McLean waffled over what to name their fledgling label, but they kept coming back to Holocene.

“It shares a name because it shares Scott and an aesthetic,” Wright said.

Having a recognizable name in the Portland area helped the label compete with the dozens of other tiny startups in town.

“It was easier to get distribution right off the bat because we had a story and a context people could put us in, which makes it a lot easier,” McLean said.

The label is devoted to “fostering boundary-pushing musical talent regardless of genre and geographical lines,” according to its website. In practice, all three bands signed to Holocene Music are local, but they couldn’t possess more disparate sounds.

Swan Island is an all-girl rock outfit with an eclectic, guitar-driven sound that takes inspiration from classic rock bands like Heart, and Riot Grrl offshoot and local favorite, Sleater-Kinney. Holocene Music released their full-length debut, The Centre Will Hold, in October 2006.

The Shaky Hands were just named Willamette Week’s “Best New Band” for 2007 and are defined largely by their energetic shows and wistful, happy sound. Their self-titled album was re-released by Holocene Music on April 10. The Hands will be on tour in May, hitting up dates west of the Mississippi including stops in California, Arizona and Texas.

Alela Diane, the Willie’s third-place winner this year, is an indie-folk singer who creates simple, beautiful songs. Diane’s The Pirate’s Gospel came out last October on the same day as Swan Island’s record. She’s also booked for several May dates in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.

“I think we all saw those bands live, first. Maybe that’s the one unifying thing,” McLean said. “It was kind of in the family.”

Despite all three of their acts garnering positive local press (Swan Island was a WW “Best New Band” last year), the pressure is on to keep growing the company.

“The challenge for us now is developing artists and putting out second releases,” Wright said. “A real focus for us is getting our bands out on the road. In very simple practical terms, [doing] second albums. We want to continue to grow and try new things.”

Both The Shaky Hands and Alela Diane are working on their second albums, “intense, next level” efforts that McLean estimates will be released in early 2008. While McLean and Wright are throwing a good deal of their resources into their current artists’ sophomore offerings, the search is also on for the next band the label will sign.

“We want to be able to listen to the music ourselves,” McLean said. “We’re interested in releasing music that has some commercial viability. There are so many great labels that are releasing avant music but it’s not something that we’re necessarily aiming at.”

Having commercially viable music, even in the niche indie scene, is vital. Holocene Music is “an expensive hobby” at the moment, even though they are making back some of the initial investment, according to McLean.

Other plans to grow the label include reaching out to other labels, including international labels. However, becoming a bigger label, even incrementally, requires a sizable investment. Instead of trying to expand too quickly, McLean said they would lay low for a while and work on developing the three promising acts they already have.

“It’s a really fun process,” McLean said. “It’s like you’re working on a project each time and you get to see the realization of the project each time. We’re working with artists that we really like personally.”