The Indie City
Why Portland is America's indie rock Mecca.
I never paid much attention to the band-rehearsal squawk that used to waft through the open windows of my house in the early evenings. The leafy, artsy neighborhood where I live on the east side of Portland, Ore., is home to many a band, after all, and this squawk—though unusually loud and yelpy—sounded like a typical Pabst- and angst-fueled racket. But one day, as I was running in a park adjacent to the squawk-producing home, I realized how mistaken I'd been: That noise actually belonged to Modest Mouse, the hugely popular indie rock group whose latest album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in March. This was where band frontman Isaac Brock lived. I shrugged, and kept running—not because I dislike Modest Mouse, but because here in Portland, this sort of thing happens all the time. Our drizzly city is home to so many of these celebrated rockers that it's sometimes difficult to breathe, what with all of the indie cred saturating the air. Somehow, Portland has become America's indie rock theme park.
Allow me to illustrate. From Brock's house, drive—or bike, if you want to avoid hipster scorn—up Southeast Belmont Street for a bit and hang a left and you'll run into the residence of James Mercer, lead man of the Shins. Go about six blocks north of there and you'll see the palatial home of Stephen Malkmus, whose former band, Pavement, created today's incarnation of indie rock with 1992's Slanted and Enchanted. A few blocks west stands Beulahland, a bar where for years a team made up of Malkmus and the members of the all-girl punk group Sleater-Kinney thoroughly (and irritatingly) dominated the weekly trivia challenge. Follow East Burnside Street for a mile or so and you'll land at the Doug Fir, the club where newly minted Portlander Britt Daniel of Spoon recently unveiled his critically lauded new album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,at a secret show. Or, alternatively, you could follow Northeast 28th Avenue up toward the Alberta Arts District, where Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla lives. His place is just a few short blocks from the lovely home of singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, where I attended a party a few months back and met her boyfriend, Tucker Martine, who—aside from being responsible for the sound clip you hear every time you start up Windows Vista—produces records for Portland favorite sons the Decemberists.
And so on. This mini-tour doesn't even cover the entire highlight package. Portland also plays home to lesser-known acts like Viva Voce, the Thermals, Quasi, and M. Ward as well as more mainstream acts, such as Pink Martini, Everclear, and local punching bags the Dandy Warhols. What's more, the city may already be in danger of jumping the musical shark: There's been talk recently of bona fide rock stars relocating to town, like Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (recently spotted hunting real estate with his supermodel girlfriend and, according to scurrilous local gossip, driving a very un-Portland gold Hummer), and Gerard Way of the pop-goth group My Chemical Romance, who's been talking with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr about moving here. Marr, naturally, is another new Portland resident. (We're done listing the local rock heroes now, I promise.)
Why, you might ask, haven't you really noticed Portland's incredible concentration of musical talent before? Because unlike, say, Seattle's grunge boom in the '90s or the Bay Area's recent hyphy movement, Portland has neither a distinctive "sound" nor a "scene" to speak of. Sonically, there's not a whole lot that the twisty pop of the Shins has in common with the "hyper-literate prog-rock" (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert) of the Decemberists. And virtually none of these groups can be considered "Portland bands" since, with very few exceptions, they all moved to town after gaining some level of fame. (Generally speaking, it's rare to meet a young, creative Portlander who's from Portland.) You might see Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss parking her Volvo station wagon in front of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, for instance, but you seldom feel these luminaries exerting any influence on the local musical landscape. They all just kind of live here. Which is why it's often quipped that Portland is the place where hipsters go to retire.
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.