Why Portland is America's indie rock Mecca.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 11 2007 12:57 PM

The Indie City

Why Portland is America's indie rock Mecca.

Stephen Malkmus. Click image to expand.
Stephen Malkmus performs with the Jicks

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.

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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.

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.

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