Why Portland? By Moby Tenenbaum
Last fall, I went to see one of my favorite bands, Portland-based Viva Voce, when they came to my city to play a gig in a small club. A mediocre warm-up band was playing, so I meandered over to the merch table to see what was there, and then noticed that the couple standing behind the table were none other than Anita and Kevin Robinson, the married couple who ARE Viva Voce. I was pleased to tell them I was one of their biggest fans and so we had a nice friendly chat. Turns out they’re originally from Mussel Shoals, Ala., but transplanted themselves to Portland a couple years ago because, they said, they fell in love with the city while making a tour stop there and decided it was the place for them. They said it has a friendly, creative vibe unlike anyplace they’d ever been.
It turns out, as you may know, that the Robinsons are hardly unique as musicians who have moved to Portland. Britt Daniels of Spoon, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr all have relocated to the City of Roses.
This little city of fewer than 600,000 souls, the 29th biggest in the U.S., has become an indie-rock mecca. But why?
Back in the mid-1980s, when I visited Portland as a youngster for the first and only time, it was a jazz-and-white-wine kind of city seemingly untouched by the seismic musical shift that had taken place since 1977 in rock music. It seemed impossible that this city could ever become a major center for rock ‘n’ roll. Obviously, however, something happened.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is that something happened not far away, in Seattle, around 1990, and no doubt the grunge influence filtered its way down to Portland. But according to Portland-based writer Taylor Clark, who explored this phenomenon in Slate a few years ago (“The Indie City: Why Portland is America’s indie rock mecca”) the Portland scene is far more diverse than Seattle’s was during its heyday.
“Portland has neither a distinctive ‘sound’ nor a ‘scene’ to speak of,” he wrote. “Sonically, there’s not a whole lot that the twisty pop of the Shins has in common with ‘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.”
Clark posits that the real godfather of the Portland scene was the late Elliott Smith, who created the first real “indie mystique” that first attracted Sleater-Kinney and then Stephen Malkmus, and then the stone began to roll. Its reputation grew and it has now become a place where indie rockers go to live.
“Portland is like a resort community for indie rockers who spend half the year working themselves ragged on tour,” he wrote. “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.”
I’ve said all this to say this: I’m doing an all-Portland set tomorrow night during my 7-9 time slot. I’ve long thought about doing it and finally sat down to see if I could do two hours’ worth of good tunes from generally identifiable bands from Portland that are on my hard drive without repeating a band. The answer: I can do three hours’ worth.
Which is amazing.