Good ol’ hometown music

Despite the rain and depressing winters, Portland has a tendencyto foster artistic creativity. Independent music is prominent amongthe kinds of art that abound in our laid-back, reasonablyprogressive, mid-sized city. Innovation and blurred borders havebeen a common theme in Portland music, with bands from the past andtoday painting a unique musical portrait.

Point Line Plane
Piling blaring keyboards, dissonant synthesizer noise andaggressive, sometimes even dance-oriented beats atop screamingvocal melodies, Point Line Plane have created a unique noise-popblend that assaults both the eardrums and the mind. In therelatively few years since forming, synth/vocalist Joshua Blanchardand drummer Nathan Carson have played their fair share of showsaround Portland and throughout the country releasing a self titledLP and a few split albums and seven inches along the way. Recently,the group gained a second synth in Robert Gillam, adding anotherlayer to their frenzied confection.

Interview with Robert Gillam
Vanguard: What were your favorite records as a kid?

Gillam: “My parents were classic rockers (Mom saw Hendrix, Dadsaw the Stooges) so I was really into the Beatles, Yellow Submarinefrom ages 4 to 9, which was finally sunk by my total obsession withThriller, followed by years of Devo-philia. I used to listen to theYoko Ono b-sides of my Mom’s John Lennon singles and write down thewords. Local college radio played Birthday Party and Big Black whenI was in middle school. That’s when I bought my first Celtic Frosttape (for the nude demon women painted on the cover – now I’m areal fan). We stole the No New York LP from the local library andplayed it to death when I was in high school.

Corvallis was an insightful place to grow up. Scratch Acid andNeurosis and Mudhoney were the kinds of bands playing my hometownin the ’80s. It damaged me.”

Vanguard: What’s in your CD player right now?

Gillam: Ye olde changer has the underappreciated Throwing Muses,Limbo, the recent Rollerball masterpiece, Real Hair (my localfave), Khanate, Things Viral (heaviest album of all time), an earlyKomeda sung entirely in Swedish, and a Julian Cope festivalcompilation featuring Sunburned Hand of the Man, VibracathedralOrchestra, and my good buddies SUNN:0))).

Vanguard: What’s your favorite place to play? Why is it yourfavorite?

Gillam: Our friends have a bar that’s always free. That’s a goodtime. When I was in

a metal band, Ash St. was hands down my favorite spot. On tourlast year, I’d give equal props to Knitting Factory NYC and Ted andWally’s Ice Cream Parlor in Omaha, Neb. Variety is the spice oflife. I would never want to do a club-only tour; but I’d get sickof smelly basements every night too. Mix it up! Shout out towhatever club Chantelle Hylton is booking this year.

Vanguard: What do you like about living/working/playing inthe Portland area?

Gillam: Portland is cheap and easy. Everyone is lazy and it’suncool to try, so those of us that do have a very easy time of it.In general, it’s a very supportive scene where you can dress anddance like you’re handicapped and get away with it. It’s funny tomake noise music and be considered a pop band. Plus this is abeautiful fucking state. Sure the chicks are ugly, but hotties arepouring in from around the country as we speak.

Vanguard: What groups do you like to play with?

Gillam: Locally? Rollerball, The Planet The, Nice Nice, Jonny Xand the Groadies.

Nationally? Khanate, Yeti, Subarachnoid Space, Phantom Limbs…it goes on and on. Dream bill is still in the works: PLP,SUNN:0))), Wendy Carlos.

Vanguard: What’s your least favorite band of alltime?

Gillam: Sleater-Kinney. I was raised on a goat farm. I am tiredof hearing those sounds.

The Thermals
2002 saw the induction of what has since become a Portland musicalinstitution: The Thermals. Hailing from the Eastern banks of theWillamette, and with fingers in the pies of All Girl Summer FunBand, Operacycle and Hutch and Kathy, the Thermals present a uniquetableau of fuzzy feel good pop melody and grinding distortivepower.

The three piece band, consisting of singer and guitarist HutchHarris, singer and bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Jordan Hudson,have released a brace of albums, the most recent being this year’sFuckin’ A, released on Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop, and carved aspecial place in the hearts of many. While the influence of ’90slow-fi rockers such as Sebadoh and Pavement can be heard, and youcan tell these kids love themselves some Guided by Voices, there’sno mistaking the giant pop hooks embedded beneath the sandpaperysurface and there’s definitely no removing them from your headafterwards. All this is delivered with head-spinning energy andintensity that’s sadly lacking in many bands these days, andperhaps the most important ingredient of all is featured front andcenter: good time rock ‘n’ roll fun.

Essential Listening: More Parts Per Million, Fuckin’ A.

Interview with Hutch Harris, guitar/vox
Vanguard: What were your favorite records as a kid?

Harris: The Smurfs All Star Show, Huey Lewis and the News’Sports.

What’s in your CD player right now?

Sly and the Family Stone, Scientific American, The New Year.

What’s your favorite place to play? Why?

“Cleveland, because they shout and fall down drunk.

What do you like about living/working/playing in the Portlandarea?

It’s cheap and fosters creativity.

What groups do you like to play with?

Cerberus Shoal, The Hold Steady, Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

What’s your least favorite band of all time?

Most of ’em.

The Wipers
The Wipers are Portland’s own little piece of underground punklegend. Fronted by songwriter/guitarist/engineer Greg Sage, thisband’s influence and myth have grown to proportions that shatteredthe artistic Sage’s early intentions to avoid the publicity andspectacle that came with playing music.

The recording process for 1979’s Is This Real? LP proved sodistasteful (thanks to the studio’s lack of flexibility andunderstanding) that Sage learned how to operate all the necessarystudio equipment to record on his own. At the time of its releasethe record was highly unconventional, even by punk standards, andflew under the radar of most listeners and critics.

The album’s decidedly un-punk cover art hinted at the contents’nonconformity to genre standards, which kept the Wipers fromachieving more. There were no chunky three-chord sing-a-long punkanthems to be found here, only 14 tracks of hard-edged, angularguitar that shared some of Television’s penchant for fret boardgymnastics and Greg Sage’s alienated and rebellious lyrics. It’seasy to imagine them being written on a shitty, rainy, overcastafternoon in Portland.

Further releases saw them venture more deeply into the lengthyguitar ramblings that would come to dominate their later work,further distancing them from the louder-faster-shorter credo ofmost other punk bands of the time, but The Wipers always maintainedthe foundation of driving and catchy basslines, crunchyfeedback-laden guitar and darkly melodic vocals that made them morethan experimental underground legends; they were a great rock bandas well.

Not only that, but The Wipers epitomized the do-it-yourselfethic that would become so prevalent in the years to come, as GregSage was totally unwilling to cede any artistic influence over theband’s output. Sage would eventually leave Portland for Arizona,where the dusky environment crept into The Wipers’ output,resulting in a more spacey, sparse sound prone to extendedpsych-outs on guitar which, although still highly competent, lackedthe vision and intensity of the group’s early recordings. WhenNirvana’s covers of Is This Real?’s “Return of the Rat” and “D-7″ended up on a Wipers tribute album, the band began to receive morenotoriety, though still on an underground level.

By the time of the 2001 release of The Wipers Box Set on GregSage’s Zeno Records (consisting of the first three full-lengthreleases, remastered and with bonus material courtesy of Sage), thegroup was defunct. Despite this, Sage and the various incarnationsof the band left behind a body of work and musical legacy thatcontinues to influence musicians today.

Essential Listening: Is This Real?, Youth of America

Heatmiser/Elliott Smith
In a sense, the guitar rock quartet of Heatmiser has becomesomewhat a footnote in the career of Elliott Smith, its mostprolific member. This is too bad, since the Portland band releasedthree full length albums in the early to mid nineties that garneredthem critical acclaim and a major record deal with Virgin for therelease of their follow-up to 1996’s Mic City Sons.

By this time, songwriter/guitarists Elliott Smith and Neil Gust,drummer Tony Lash and bassist Sam Coomes seemed set to follow thepath of so many other “alternative rock” bands of the time and itseemed as if they could ride their pop-structured songs laden withjagged punk guitar all the way to the top.

It didn’t quite turn out that way in the end, however, asSmith’s growing involvement with his solo work ended upcontributing to the dissolution of the band later that year.

These records, most recorded by Smith on four-track tapes inSoutheast basements, are hushed, intimate, intricate melodiesdriven mostly by bittersweet acoustic guitar and poetic, narrativesongs that often involved Portland places and reflect the feel of acity that spends most of the year under a thick cover of clouds.Songs like “Condor Ave.” and “Rose Parade” reflect a songwriter whodid much of his composing on bar napkins in Rose City divebars.

After the breakup of Heatmiser, Smith was free to pursue hissolo material and 1996’s Either/Or interested his friend Gus vanSant, who ended up using a number of tracks from Elliott’s album inhis 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.” “Miss Misery,” Smith’s originalcontribution to the soundtrack, was nominated for an Oscar. Smithdisliked the publicity, however, and left Portland, first to NewYork then LA. He released two more albums before apparently takinghis own life in the fall of 2003 The case surrounding hismysterious demise remains open. Today, the remaining members ofHeatmiser are scattered over the Portland music community, with SamCoomes in Quasi and Neil Gust in Number Two.

Essential Listening: Heatmiser: Mic City Sons; Elliott Smith:Roman Candle, Cavity Search, Self-Titled, XO.

Quasi is the Portland-born pet of ex-Heatmiser Sam Coomes and JanetWeiss, drummer of Sleater Kinney. Since 1996’s Early Recordings,the duo has been pounding out a twisted cacophony of hard driving,darkly intellectual keyboard pop and wailing guitar blues.

High-harmonied songs ooze with malice under the relativelycheerful grumble of Coomes’ distorted keyboard. This instrumentforms the core of the sound of Quasi, and its half-step chordprogressions define most of the song’s melodic structure. Much ofthe momentum comes from Weiss’ precise and robust drumming. Soaringharmonies obscure bitterness and tension that underscores most ofthe divorced couple’s music, and incidentally gives the music muchof its edge live.

Despite Weiss’ full-time Sleater Kinney obligations, Quasi hasstill managed to release five more full-length records, each onelayering progressively more guitar than the one before, with 2003’sHot Shit full of six-string vitriol and a healthy dose of theband’s thorny love vagaries.

Essential Listening: R&B Transmogrification, Field Studies,Sword of God, Hot Shit.

Back in 1993, Seattle’s Sub Pop was the “grunge” label, havingbrought Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden out of the voids ofWashington and, as a result, Seattle eclipsed its smaller southerlyneighbor Portland.

However, that year, a band from that city (also on Sub Pop)released a self-titled album that was a far cry from the big riffterritory that the label was currently in. Pond delivered dark,melancholic pop songs driven by jutting and bright guitar riffssomewhere along the lines of My Bloody Valentine that stillmaintained the vocal melody and made for a surprisingly catchy tentracks.

Dave Triebwasser’s propulsive and powerful drumming supportedthe songwriting team of Charlie Campbell and Chris Brady and thelow-fi, tension filled pop nugget gained them some degree ofacclaim both in the U.S. and Europe.

Their next album, 1995’s The Practice of Joy Before Death, and1997’s major label Rock Collection, expanded on basically the samesound. Rock Collection in particular ended up musicallyforeshadowing the trend of emotional, tight melodies andcrunchy-sweet guitars that is a staple of many emo bands today.However, Pond’s distaste for touring ended up being a major causeof the band’s breakup after Rock Collection.

Afterwards, the members played in various other bands, includingthe newly formed Audio Learning Center, which features DaveTriebwasser. Charlie Campbell ended up releasing a lush, sorrowfulPet Sounds-ish record, Goldcard, and retiring from music. He nowworks in advertising, lending his talents to getting jingles tostick in your head as badly as Pond songs do.

Essential Listening: Pond, Rock Collection, Goldcard.