written by Cathy Carroll
It seemed like a simple idea: Pick our favorite of-the-moment Oregon bands and tell their stories. Once we began compiling a list of more than a hundred artists though, we were struck by the immensity of talent around the state. From Portland to Pendleton, Eugene to Salem and Bend to Medford, we found people making great soul, groove-funk, indie-rock, folk, bluegrass, country, country rock, hip hop, Latin and category-defying new genres.
In connecting with these musicians, what came through clearly was the importance of Oregon in the creative process. The state’s natural qualities—from valley mist to high desert sun—as well as the density of inspiring, supportive, culturally rich communities extending to the far corners of the state, are keeping the beat.
Chip Herter, a Los Angeles-based music producer with Crispin Porter + Bogusky, a global advertising agency, said his industry is increasingly seeking attention-grabbing music from bona fide artists. “Portland’s handle over the creative industry in general is undeniable. The town bleeds style in everything it produces, from fashion to advertising, and music is no exception,” he said. “It tends to be intelligent, refreshing and creatively genuine. I often look at Portland as a viable resource for spotting new and emerging trends in the music industry as a whole. They just always seem to beat everyone to it.”
Oregon’s distance from New York and California offers an escape for artists who want to achieve something new in the creative process, Herter said. In an atmosphere relatively free of pop culture, songs imbued with a fresh new sound emerge. Oregon’s isolation, however, limits the audience, despite online streaming and a musician’s connections.
“There’s no app for a good, old-fashioned Hollywood schmoozefest,” Herter said.
In the meantime, Oregon is growing into a more mature scene that supports and nourishes its musicians through festivals, bars and stages across the state. To that end, we put together our playlist of Oregon bands to share with you below. With summer upon us, most of these bands will be playing live at festivals across the state and beyond. See you there.
Socially aware acoustic
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, going to Catholic school even though he wasn’t Catholic, Vikesh Kapoor was moved by church hymns. When he happened upon a warped Johnny Cash vinyl record, he paid twenty-five cents for it, brought it home and played it on his family’s record player. It was his introduction to American folk music.
Three years ago, Kapoor performed at the Boston memorial service for historian, author, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn. Zinn’s lifelong battle against racial and class injustice inspired Kapoor to create his debut concept album, “The Ballad Of Willy Robbins.” The songs tell the story of a working-class man trying to get by in the world.
When he happened upon a warped Johnny Cash vinyl record, he paid twenty-fve cents for it, brought it home and played it on his family’s record player. It was his introduction to American folk music.
Kapoor, 29, moved to Portland about three years ago to write and record it.
“Portland gave me space without distractions, yet enough resources to record it,” he said. “Many talented musicians living in Oregon contributed to the album.”
He toured the U.S. after its release last fall, and is now promoting it in England and Ireland.
His only goal as an artist, he said, is “to capture something honest and universal. The rest will follow.”
Sexy soul with a backbone
Steamy, sultry fun comes to mind when listening to this songstress, and the Pacific Northwest is partly responsible for that.
Growing up in southwest Washington played a role in developing a strong sense of self that carries over into her music, said Reva DeVito. Only a thoroughly confident woman could pull this off.
“I grew up in the country, riding dirt bikes and engaging in other outdoor activities, so even though I have a very feminine artistic persona, there is still a tomboy inside of me who is not afraid to get her hands dirty and play hard,” she said.
After years working at restaurants and bars, the 27-year-old has just become a full-time musician.
She always carries a pen and notebook, and when melodies come into her head, she records them on her phone and works it out with a producer later.
“A lot of the music I make is instrumental, sent to me by producers that I like, which I then write to,” she said. “I write a lot to those instrumentals while driving. I would say that 85 percent of my tunes were written in the car.”
After years working at restaurants and bars, the 27-year-old has just become a full-time musician.
“It is not an easy job,” she said. “You need a team of people to help you get your work out … The ultimate reward though, is to perform for people who have an emotional connection to the music … It honors me to hear about couples who play my tunes while cooking dinner together, or girls that roll the windows down on a sunny day and sing the lyrics to my songs.”
Portland is her home, but she is also frequently in Los Angeles and San Francisco to work on music. Her career improved after getting management and support around her last two releases from record label Huh What & Where of Los Angeles. Expect some project collaborations coming out this summer.
Indie symphonic rock
Typhoon’s intricate arrangements layer violins, trumpets and more instruments around stripped-down indie rock vocals and percussion to achieve an ornate yet gut-punching sound.
Most of the Portland-based band grew up together in Salem. The Pacific Northwest’s wealth of artistic and musical talent has spurred them on.
“The pride that we take in our work is very much based on how much respect we’ve had for the work of our peers, friends and lovers,” said drummer Pieter Hilton, 26.
The band appeared on Late Show with David Letterman in 2011, signed to the indie record label Tender Loving Empire, and are on the cusp of leaving their day jobs, while taking pains to not go broke and maintain artistic integrity. “This is why I think you see artists as folks who tend to figure out creative ways of meeting their day-to-day needs in as frugal of a manner as possible,” said Hilton.
Harmonic indie folk
The Closner sisters, Natalie, 26, and 22-year-old twins Meegan and Allison grew up on a farm outside of Portland and make music they say reflects a core value of Oregonians: “Being authentic, sincere, grounded, we like getting close to our patch of earth,” said Natalie.
Their genetically perfected vocal harmonies are as clear as starlit skies over the Eastern Oregon town after which the group is named. Their songs typically begin as a “feeling in the pit of the stomach,” Natalie said. As they heard Joni Mitchell once describe, what follows is like peeling back the layers of an onion until an essential truth is revealed.
They recently quit their jobs to make music full time, and there’s a lot of sleeping on friends’ floors and struggles to pay the bills, but “it is the richest I think we have ever felt,” said Natalie. “It’s a new value system with more in our hearts than our hands, and somehow we never go hungry.”
Their debut album, “Native Dreamer Kin,” is out in May.’
There Is No Mountain
A harmonic convergence
This Portland-based husband-and-wife duo harmonizes with each other as well as the world around them, creating psychedelic swirls steeped in Americana. Kali Giaritta, 29, plays drums and Matt Harmon, 30, animates his electric acoustic guitar. Creative influences range from Claude Debussy to doses of Black Sabbath, Sorcerer-era Miles Davis, African rhythms, folk and the Oregon landscape.
“When we’re home, we can see diverse, inspiring live shows multiple times a week, and that really helps feed our own creativity.”— Kali Giaritta
“The drive from the Willamette Valley to Bend and back—where else do you get such easy access to such opposite ecosystems?” said Giaritta. “We take midnight walks in our neighborhood most nights and think the air out here has a magically refreshing quality that is unique to Portland, especially in the winter. Also, when we’re home, we can see diverse, inspiring live shows multiple times a week, and that really helps feed our own creativity.”
They met a decade ago in Boston, moved to Oregon on a whim in 2008, and fronted a five-piece indie folk group called The Ascetic Junkies through several years of regional acclaim and two album releases. When the couple decided to try a national tour in 2012, the stripped-down duo arrangement that they adopted for economy’s sake quickly afforded them a new creative outlet. They decided to pare things permanently and, last year, released a new album under the new name, There Is No Mountain (gleaned from lyrics of a Donovan song).
Earlier this year, they kicked off Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series in New York City, and are recording a new album of road-tested, somewhat darker material.
Despite the changing model for music listening and music distribution, the game is still the same for musicians, and they have to stay on top of progress to stay in it, said the duo.
“If you have good songs and work hard, then people will hear you,” Harmon said. “And if everything aligns at the right time, you might even put some money in your savings account. Has it really ever been different?”
Uplifting, experimental hip hop-rap
This hip-hop-rap-performance artist’s unifying and uplifting messages of love and peace are embodied in Jason Graham’s alter ego and music collective MOsley WOtta, a play on words that refers to humans’ aqueous makeup—hence the band’s signature line: “We are MOsley WOtta and so are you!” Take, for instance, lyrics such as these from the song Consolidate: “The more you love, the more you know. The more you know, the better you feel so let’s make love at every meal.”
On stage, Graham, the son of a statuesque blonde dance instructor, uses his expressive, lithe, six-foot-tall body (call it six-and-a-half feet with the hair) to interpret each piece.
Graham, 30, tapped into his background for his 2012 experimental hip-hop concept album “KinKonK,” which tells how he and his family moved from the Chicago suburbs to Bend about twenty years ago.
“Oregon is the background, and backdrop, and backbeat, and backbone to everything we do here,” he said. “Oregon leaks in, leaves a yellow pollen dusting over everything. Oregon gets into your lungs. I’m a transplant myself, but the other fellas all got bona fide river blood running canyons inside ’em.”
When asked to describe his creative process, the response is essential “MoWo.”
MOsley WOtta, a play on words refers to humans’ aqueous makeup—hence the band’s signature line: “We are MOsley WOtta and so are you!”
“No, we are no longer allowed to talk about our creative process,” said Graham. “But I will say, ‘Calliope calligraphy kaleidoscope epiphany,’ and if you’ve got the guts, you’ll say it, too, haha! Seriously, let’s say it out loud right now.”
Even more seriously, he added: “When people connect with this music we get to make, they are literally facing the same direction, no matter what they believe politically, religiously … they are all moving to the same rhythm. These are old methods, old ceremonies. This is old magic … Music is medicine!”
Graham also paints and teaches writing for nonprofits but said being a husband and father to three young children is his most important job.
As for the music industry, “WOtta” said it’s a watershed. “The music model is finding its equilibrium. The dams are breaking. The market is flooded and no one has the right to shackle your chit like they used to think they could. Amen!”
The band is appearing at many festivals throughout the summer and a new album is in the works, too.
Serendipitous string-infused bluegrass quintet
Fruition came TO FRUITION after fate brought together five musicians in Portland six years ago. Kellen Asebroek, 28, had moved from Vista, California, and Mimi Naja, 27, had come from Atlanta.
“Mimi introduced me to [future band member Jay Cobb Anderson] one day, which mostly consisted of Jay shredding my face off on the guitar and me being like, ‘Damn!’” Asebroek said.
While busking on Hawthorne Boulevard in Southeast Portland, they ran into Cobb Anderson and discovered that their voices stacked up naturally.
“Oregon is the whole reason our work as Fruition exists,” said Asebroek. “Something drew us all to Portland and to each other. A lot of our material deals with the idea of letting go of control and listening to your heart. We all came to Oregon having let go of whatever held us back and kind of dove into the unknown.”
A couple of years ago, they quit their day jobs to tour.
“We struggled for a while, played lots of gigs for real crappy pay, sometimes just free booze, toured crammed in my Ford Explorer, slept on floors (well, we still do that) and busked as much as possible,” Asebroek said. “It was challenging, but it was incredible. We’d roll into towns with no gig at all and, through playing music on the street, we’d catch peoples’ ears, land gigs, make friends and make some money. The challenge was the reward.”
Now Fruition tours constantly, with fans, skills, pay, songwriting and knowledge about the industry steadily increasing.
“We live in an age where the listener calls the shots, not the record execs and rock stars,” said Asebroek. “The industry is more of a direct relationship between the band and its fans than it’s ever been, and I like that. It may mean that fame and success are harder to achieve, and super-stardom is damn near nonexistent, but it also means that the music is just music. Not a commodity that can be neatly packaged by guys in suits who then make a fortune off it, but art made by artists and then handed directly to the fans. In other news, we’re still pretty broke so … buy our art!”
Polyrhythmic world metal
Cellist Matthew Cartmill, 23, drummer Susan Lucia, 24, and vibraphone player Grayson Fiske, 28, went to the University of Oregon to study different styles of music and ended up living together in Eugene. The band formed last year out of curiosity about what their instruments would sound like together, and polyrhythmic world metal was born. The old “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” cliché from American Bandstand would likely not offend them.
“We had never heard a band made up of only cello, vibraphone and drum set,” said Lucia. “Our sound came out of our wide range of influences, our interest in rhythm—even our cellist played the drums at one point—and an interest in finding nontraditional sounds from our instruments, all the while staying palatable.”
Oregonians support art that pushes boundaries and that has helped the trio, Lucia said. Their debut album, “Power Baby,” is out in May.
The changing nature of the music marketplace doesn’t daunt them. They figure they have to grapple with it just as other businesses must, and for them, this means attracting larger live audiences while building interest in original and eclectic music, something they refer to as expanding “The Ottoman Empire.”
“The rewards are awesome,” said Lucia. “Nothing beats playing a show with a crowd that is there to have a blast with you.”
The music of Ozarks reveals Robbie Augspurger and Eric Lee’s serious devotion to record collecting, particularly ’60s and ’70s Italian and French soundtracks, and cinema-pop (think Ennio Morricone and Serge Gainsbourg), a love of all things late-period Beatles and Beach Boys, and early 1970s artists such as Badfinger and Harry Nilsson.
Augspurger, 36, writes most of the music and lyrics, and Eric Lee, 33, helps with production and plays drums. At shows, a five-piece band accompanies the duo. These perfectionists record everything in Augspurger’s home studio in Portland, where they moved in 2004, after graduating from Greenville College near St. Louis.
“If someone were to open up my brain, they’d see an alphabet soup swirling around, with plays on words and rhymes constantly being assembled and disassembled,”
“We’ve never really set out to emulate a time period or era of recording styles,” Augspurger said. “I think it just ends up sounding like it does because we’re obsessed with a specific guitar tone on a certain song by Badfinger, or a drum-fill we heard on a Morricone track.”
Overcast days prompt introspective, mellow piano sounds, while trips to the coast and the forests around Mt. Hood draw out peaceful, breezy tunes.
James Dean Kindle & The Eastern Oregon Playboys
Mutant Americana, weirdo country
From garage punk, to lo-fi folk, to The Eastern Oregon Playboys, singer-songwriter James Dean Kindle has been playing music in Pendleton since he was a teenager. “I really don’t write songs about pickup trucks and tight blue jeans,” said Kindle, 31. His subject matter is fueled by rural Oregon as well as the cultural richness of his Eastern Oregon home base in Pendleton.
The band’s third album, “Many Splendored Things,” out this summer, reaches back through the country canon and draws on Kindle’s personal experiences with heartache, while making forays into realms of psychedelic, chamber pop and rock.
Melodic Indie Rock
Seaons’ (pronounced see-ons) name arose from misspelling the word “seasons,” but now they seem to be doing many things right.
In 2012, the band opened at the Britt Festival for Huey Lewis and the News. Last year they released the album “Sun Gun,” produced by Ashland indie rock artist, Bret Levick.
Band founder, Sean Siders, 22, of Medford, is the lead vocalist and plays keyboards and guitar. Multi-instrumental bandmates who also contribute vocals are Micah McCaw, 20, of Eagle Point, on lead guitar; Alex Detweiler, 23, of Ashland, on drums and vocals; and Grayson Phelps, 19, of Medford, on bass. Their influences range from African marimba music to soothing, harmony-laden indie rock. The band is now at work on a second album.
Euphoric textural aural experience
Kevin O’Connor uses his collection of dusty Italian Crumar synths, pristine Moogs, rickety Baldwins and warbly Wurlitzers to explore new frontiers in sound. He also plays drums, with Lisa Molinaro on viola—and the result is Portland-based Talkdemonic.
“We make a soundtrack out of the life we live here in Oregon,” said Molinaro. “The outdoor beauty of this great state, our friends’ and families’ very powerful and sometimes bittersweet interactions with us, the struggles and victories of living through our twenties and now thirties here in Portland, all of that comes through to our music.”
O’Connor, 37, also writes scores for film (Birds of Neptune, Where Are You Go). Molinaro, 38, has also been recording and performing with Modest Mouse. “The music industry is still evolving rapidly, and I am excited to see a return to high-quality, in-your-hand music such as vinyl, high-fidelity recordings with real and independent record labels,” said Molinaro. “We don’t believe in giving up on them.”
Ural Thomas & the Pain
Ural Thomas, Portland’s pillar of soul, was in the national spotlight in the ’60s, sharing the stage with legends such as James Brown, Otis Redding, and “Little” Stevie Wonder and backing the Northwest’s biggest soul and garage outfits of the era, such as The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Now age 73 and living in North Portland where he grew up, Thomas is performing with a nine-piece band and some of the town’s most recognizable session and solo players such as Eric Hedford from The Dandy Warhols, two spot-on female backup singers and a horn section that packs a wallop. It all began last year, after Mississippi Records in Portland reissued some of his earliest recordings, and drummer Scott Magee got to know him.
“Ural’s a local, so when a conversation was struck up with a friend about my wanting to form a ‘real soul band,’ he mentioned their friendship and suggested I get in touch,” said Magee, 40. “I jumped at the chance. Portland’s music scene is all about being connected and supporting one another.”
The effect is that of being transported into Harlem’s Apollo Theater in the ’60s
The band revives Thomas’ original music and Magee (aka DJ Cooky Parker) fills out the set list by mining his vast collection of obscure R&B and soul tunes for them to cover. The effect is that of being transported into Harlem’s Apollo Theater in the ‘60s or possibly the Otis Day and the Knights nightclub scene in Animal House.
More than just nostalgia, Thomas, Magee and keyboard player Ben Darwish are writing an album of songs telling Thomas’s life stories. As for ambitions, the band is firmly grounded in the groovy moment.
“Ural is such a positive guy, and he is all about a good time,” said Magee. “If we can draw a crowd, play well and continue doing this, then we’ve already won. Ural stands a chance to cement his contributions to the world of soul music and will be loved and remembered for what he truly is—an amazing man with an incredible voice.”
Ramshackle country influenced by fishing
Over a ton of beers, whiskey and cigarettes in Southeast Portland, Mike Elias, Tom Bevitori and Birger Olsen started getting together to play what they call ramshackle country influenced by fishing. The three songwriters found that their distinct styles and voices blended well, and they trade off main vocals and harmonies. When they played their first show in 2009, Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper joined them.
“Our sound and style came pretty naturally,” said Elias, 32.
They eventually went from playing small venues to touring with James McMurtry, Shovels and Rope and Blitzen Trapper. This year, they are staying closer to home to record.
“The new album was pretty much dumped into the pot at the Type Foundry studio in Portland, and we figured it out as we went,” said Elias. “Most songs we hadn’t ever played as a band.”
“I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening with my bud than getting together and playing some tunes, whether it’s around the fire in the backyard, a tiny salloon or a huge venue.”
Having fun is still at the heart of the Denver endeavor. “I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening with my bud than getting together and playing some tunes, whether it’s around the fire in the backyard, a tiny saloon or a huge venue,” he said. “We’ve been lucky so far to be surrounded by great friends and musicians to guide us and inspire us along the way. We’re always looking for ways to get on the road while balancing our home and family lives.”
They all work day jobs, sometimes more than one. Elias and Olsen, 35, work as stone masons and landscapers for their good friend and musician, Darrin Craig of the bands Jackstraw, Meridian and Portland Country Underground.
The second album, “Rowdy Love,” will appear on the Mama Bird Recording Co. label, with a release show July 19 at Mississippi Studios in Portland. A yet-to-be-named album of cover songs comes out this summer, with all proceeds going to Crohn’s disease research.