There’s something happening in Portland.
Or maybe there isn’t. Portland, Oregon—population, 575,000, average annual rainfall, 43 inches—has been referred to as the “indie-rock Mecca” and, less flatteringly, the “indie-rock Epcot Center.” Home to artists as obscure as Jared Mees and the Grown Children, and those as famous as The Decembrists, The Shins, and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, Portland bridges the gap between financially-independent rock and its merely aesthetically-independent older brother. The Decembrists have now put out two full lengths on Capitol; the Shins were name-dropped in the movie Garden State; Modest Mouse has become faux-hipster choice of frat boys everywhere.
But where there’s smoke, there’s fire—or in this case, maybe the other way around. To the extent that Portland has a thriving underground scene—and I want to believe it does—we have the presence of crossover acts like Modest Mouse to thank. Without their success as encouragement, many equally great, truly indie bands would not have formed at all. Or would not have had the success, however limited, that they have had. Semi-famous bands got their starts playing in the same clubs as these smaller acts. Members left, new members joined. The old members formed new groups, some of their contacts still intact. Small acts open for larger ones. A general atmosphere of creativity is fostered. A scene is born. Not immaculately, like Jesus, but with all the placental mess of real, live birth.
Still, part of what defines a scene its insider quality. A true indie connoisseur wants to believe that he and he alone (okay, maybe along with a few good friends) is privy to the next big thing. I grew up playing music in the Chapel Hill area in the mid-nineties, just as the scene there was exploding onto the national consciousness. Spin and Rolling Stone both named the area as “the new Seattle,” a reference to the grunge movement that had taken MTV and disgruntled teens by storm just a few years earlier. Though no band from Chapel Hill and environs ever quite had the success of a Nirvana or Pearl Jam, groups like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five did register a significant blip on the radar. And acts like Superchunk, Archers of Loaf , and Polvo became indie-rock legends, even if you did have to stay up until three in the morning to catch their videos on M2.
Then there were all the bands that you’d never heard, great groups like the Pipe, Spatula, Trailer Bride, Picasso Trigger, and Tractor Hips. And the still more obscure Sorry About Dresden, the White Octave, and Bandar—all groups my high-school band played with at venues from The Cat’s Cradle (capacity 600), to Street Scene (a youth hangout located under the Chapel Hill post-office). Groups whose music covered everything from Minor Threat-like anarcho-punk to Sonic Youth-influenced noise-pop.
With a list this long and diverse, it was impossible not to feel like you were part of something special. But here was the paradox: while you wanted everyone to recognize what was happening—to run screaming about it from hilltop to hilltop, from hipster record store to hipster record store, spreading the good word—you didn’t want too many people to know. If everyone knew, it wouldn’t be cool anymore. It wouldn’t be yours. Contrary to what I said earlier, scenes are not born, not even messily. A true scene is always in the process of birth, head poking out. Crowning.
But what stuff is a scene born of? And how is it conceived? If the birth is not immaculate, then who is the mother? And what is the precise neo-natal formula that makes it grow up big and strong? In other words, what qualities do Ann Arbor, Portland, Austin, and Chapel Hill possess that Lansing, Michigan and Burlington, North Carolina do not?
First off, there are certain basic population requirements: a town like Abbot, Texas (pop. 300) will, for obvious reasons, never make the cut. In order to have a scene there must be 1) band members and 2) an audience. So, let’s say a minimum population of 10,000. All the above cities qualify—but then again, so do Lansing, and Burlington. So what’s the difference?
Higher education seems to be an important factor. UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of the Michigan, UT-Austin, and the University of Oregon—all respected institutions with large student bodies. Educated student bodies. Students from families of means (or at least means enough to send their children to college), with the leisure time and disposable income to spend their weekends soaking in local music and cheap beer. Add a liberal education, which teaches the value of the arts, and you’ve got the perfect audience. Throw in the sons and daughters of professors, young Beat-like drifters who migrate to college towns for their prosperous service economies, and dropouts from the university music department, and you’ve got your local bands.
The equation is the same in major cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, with only a few variables switched. Young people migrate to New York, not necessarily to attend school, but in search of opportunity; once there they meet other young people. They form bands; they go to shows. Audience + bands = scene. Large audience + great bands = kick-ass scene. Add in word of mouth and just the right amount of media hype (pitchfork.com = good, Rolling Stone = bad), and you’ve got something epic, the new Seattle.
You’ve got Portland.
Eight great bands from Portland you might never have heard (of):
- The Thermals
- Oh Captain My Captain
- The Dimes
- Laura Gibson
- Alela Diane
- Loch Lomond
- Bombs Into You
- Wow and Flutter
These groups have little in common besides a general innovativeness and their origins at the delta of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. If they are indicative of a larger musical trend, I do not know it. Rather, they seem to me to be representatives of the same kind of culture of creativity that made mid-nineties Chapel Hill the subject of a song by Sonic Youth. Chances are that somewhere in Portland right now, four idealistic teenagers are forming a band in their parents’ garage, inspired by the kick-ass Oh Captain My Captain show last night. With any luck, someday they will be Oh Captain My Captain. Maybe they will even be Modest Mouse, the ones who came along and ruined the scene. A band who the new generation of idealistic teens love to hate.
(No, there is no contradiction here. Or maybe there is—but it’s a contradiction that’s at the very heart of indie culture. Because a scene is like a raincloud: in its creation lies the blueprint of its destruction. Bands like Modest Mouse attract other smaller bands, like so many drops of water vapor, until the cloud becomes too heavy and it bursts. Then the scene is absorbed into the soil, where it lies dormant until the right atmospheric conditions gather once again.)
In 1999, for reasons not worth going into here, my high school band split up. A few members moved out to California and formed groups of their own. I remained in North Carolina, going to college and pursuing a passion for the printed word. Though I still had an interest in music, I barely picked up my bass and followed the latest in indie-rock only half-heartedly. Occasionally I bought a CD or stole (ahem, borrowed) music from Napster or other file-sharing networks. I was, for the most part, out of the scene.
But late last year I received a call from a keyboard player I knew. The bassist of his band—to avoid accusations of self-promotion, I won’t name them here—was on his way out. Did I want to join? I accepted. And just like that I was back in the scene. I began actively seeking out new music, the more obscure the better, in search of the next big thing.
But the next big thing has proven hard to find. Maybe I’ve been out of the scene too long and have lost my nose for indie culture. Or maybe I’m just too old. Maybe I’ve lost touch with the youth that make up indie-rock’s discipledom.
Or maybe it’s simply a case of “wrong place, wrong time.” Two members of my band live in Charlotte, NC and we practice and play shows there on a regular basis. Though the nineteenth largest city in the US (greater metropolitan population: 1,700,000), Charlotte is no “indie-rock Mecca.” It’s not even an “indie rock Epcot Center.” Maybe it’s the lack of real colleges: sure, there’s UNC-Charlotte and Queens College, but these are marginal schools at best, lost in a sea of freeways and franchise restaurants. Or maybe it’s Charlotte’s fundamentally unsexy identity as a banking town: most teenagers who grow up here move away as quickly as possible. Those who arrive are banking geeks or construction workers, displace Northerners or job-seekers from small towns with names like Mocksville and Reidsville and Salisbury. In this gray world of concrete beams and mortgage securities, it seems, there’s no room for indie-rock.
Structural linguists divide language into two basic categories: signifier and signified. The word chair is a signifier. The object it refers to—any given chair—is the signified. In this way, we construct linguistic meaning. We communicate. Poststructuralists, however, argue that there is no signified, only signifiers and signifiers of signifiers. Meaning is endlessly deferred. I say chair, and you nod your head in agreement, but we are not talking about the same thing.
In the language of critical theory, Portland is our signifier. Mention the city at the right kind of party, and you’ll receive a knowing nod of the head followed by something like “I hear great things about the place.” Signifier and signified, right? Because Portland, like Austin, Ann Arbor, or Chapel Hill, has a cultural meaning attached to it. But is this meaning the same for everyone? Is there a signified, or merely infinite signifiers? Does Portland—be it indie-rock Mecca or indie-rock Epcot Center or even just a rainy manufacturing center in the Pacific northwest—truly exist?
The first show I played with my new group was also Emily’s—our accordionist and backup vocalist’s— last. After the show, though we barely knew each other and had practice together only twice, she kissed me on the cheek. I told her how sorry I was to see her go. She said she was sorry, too, but that she was in love. She had to follow her heart. And where was heart taking her, I asked? First to Florida, where she would wait for her new boyfriend to finish his master’s degree. And then?
And then to Portland.
I nodded. “I hear it’s a cool place.”
“Yeah. It’s got a great music scene.”
If I’d had a cigarette right then, I would’ve taken a drag. We stood there in self-satisfied silence, happy to have shared this marker of cultural hipness. We were both insiders, witness to the scene. It didn’t matter that neither of us had been to Portland. We knew it existed and that was enough.