The Indie City
Why Portland is America's indie rock Mecca.
So what's luring them here? The rockers themselves have somewhat confusingly praised Portland as a city "entrenched in juvenilia" (Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein), a place with a sense of "calm longevity" (chief Decemberist Colin Meloy), and a home of "really great public transportation" (the Shins' Mercer, who, it's safe to assume, didn't come here for the bus routes). If there's any alluring indie mystique to Portland, it's most likely due to the late Elliott Smith, who attended high school on the west side of town and recorded his most-loved work here. (Mercer even owns Smith's old house.) Before Smith, Portland's primary musical contribution to the universe was the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie." But Smith, on albums like Roman Candle and Either/Or, sketched a virtual map of the city with his whispery voice, and he went so far as to adopt a local street name, Elliott Street, as his first name—his birth name was Steven. For fans like myself, Smith's music made Portland seem infinitely more romantic than it ever could be in real life. (Case in point: 45 consecutive days of rain = not actually romantic.)
After Smith came the deluge: first Sleater-Kinney and Malkmus in the late '90s, then Meloy, Mercer, et al. For a long time, my working theory on the indie influx was that these people wanted to live in a place where they could walk like gods among mortals. The city overflows with hipsters, artists, and independent-minded do-it-yourselfers, to whom someone like Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker is nothing less than a living legend. When I saw Spoon's Daniel at a local club with his girlfriend recently, people in the same room were playing it cool—but the next room over, the tightly jeaned scenesters were clearly psyched about the star in their midst. Would that happen in New York or Los Angeles? Probably not. I mean, Stephen Malkmus lives in a house that looks—quite literally—like a castle, complete with a crenellated tower. What kind of message is that supposed to send?
One could easily view the walrus mustache, short-shorts, and calf-high socks Malkmus was sporting last summer as evidence for such decadent, regal motivations—"I'm Stephen Malkmus, and I lengthen my shorts for no one"—but really, it's probably just proof that musicians like him moved to Portland for the same reason as the rest of us: It's easy to live here. In the words of a friend of mine who used to be the music editor at the local alt-weekly, Portland is like a resort community for indie rockers who spend half the year working themselves ragged on tour. You can venture into public dressed like a convicted sex offender or a homeless person, and no one looks at you askew. It's lush and green. Housing is affordable, especially compared with Seattle or San Francisco. The people are nice. The food is good. Creativity is the highest law. For young, hip Portlanders, financial success is a barista job that subsidizes your Romanian-space-folk band or your collages of cartoon unicorns.
And, crucially, indie groups always have good experiences here, because the city produces very enthusiastic rock crowds. Ask a musician why they relocated to Portland and, from Britt Daniel on down, the most common response is: "We came through on tour and I thought it was awesome." It might not be enough to lure the glitterati, but Portland's combination of affordability, natural beauty, and laid-back weirdness is an independent artist's dream.
Plus, I hear the public transportation is incredible.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Photograph of Stephen Malkmus by Karl Walter/Getty Images.