Declared “America’s indie rock theme park” by Slate, Portland’s music scene is a charismatic mix of homegrown headliners and rock-star transplants. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at these local melody-makers’ roads to stardom:
Known for eclectic instruments, elaborate attire and lyrics laced with obscure historical references, the Decemberists don’t just embody the Portlandia aesthetic — they helped mold it. These iconic indie folk rockers funded their first EP by playing a gig in a McMenamins hotel hallway in 2001. The next year, the band was playing at Lola’s Room for a few dozen friends, crooning lyrics that referenced the Multnomah County Library and other local landmarks. By 2005, the Decemberists had sold out the Crystal Ballroom, Portland’s historic rock ‘n’ roll palace, and signed to Capitol Records, the same label that recorded tracks by the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.
The band of local darlings is still going strong. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales declared Jan. 20, 2015, “Decemberists Day” to celebrate the release of the band’s seventh album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.
“How emblematic the Decemberists are for us as a city,” Mayor Hales said. “We’re brainy … we’re quirky … and we’re serious about good music.”
When he’s not touring the world with his band, bearded and bespectacled frontman Colin Meloy kicks back at his South Portland farm, where he lives with his family, eight chickens and two llamas. Really, have you ever heard anything more Portland?
A decade before creating the TV comedy that launched Portland into the national spotlight, Portlandia co-star Carrie Brownstein rolled into town from Olympia, Wash., with her Sleater-Kinney bandmates. When they weren’t revolutionizing the punk rock movement, the riot grrrls attended local shows, volunteered at Portland’s Rock & Roll Camp for Girls and dominated weekly trivia at Beulahland, a local bar. Most recently, the power trio wrote and rehearsed No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney’s first album in a decade, in the tiny basement of Brownstein’s tree-shaded Northeast Portland home. The new record may be called No Cities to Love, but after 15 years rocking ‘n’ rolling in Rose City, there’s no lack of affection between Sleater-Kinney and their adopted hometown.
In 1994, while dabbling in city politics, Portlander Thomas Lauderdale found himself routinely dismayed by the lackluster music at local campaign fundraisers. In response, he founded Pink Martini, a mini-orchestra whose repertoire includes many genres of global music. With its portfolio of pop, jazz and classical hits in dozens of languages, Pink Martini has toured to rave reviews on six continents, but Lauderdale still calls Portland home. The bandleader is known for throwing extravagant parties at his lavish downtown loft; star-studded guest lists typically include local notables ranging from Nike’s Tinker Hatfield (designer of the iconic Air Jordans) to the von Trapp family. (Yes, that von Trapp family.)
Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock remains the only indie rocker to occupy the Portland mayor’s office — in portrait form, at least. In 2010, former Portland mayor Sam Adams proudly displayed a painting of Brock sporting lederhosen, playing guitar in front of a boar. (Only in Portland, we know.) But Brock’s roots are far more humble. The singer formed Modest Mouse in a Seattle suburb and moved to Portland after a stint in a small Central Oregon logging town. Of course, Brock brought his bandmates with him, even enticing legendary British guitarist Johnny Marr (of the Smiths and Modest Mouse) to purchase a second home in the city. Since founding his own record label, Glacial Pace, Brock has produced albums for local artists like Mimicking Birds and Talkdemonic, launching them onto the national scene and helping solidify Portland’s reputation in the indie music scene for another generation.
These indie pop darlings were catapulted into the limelight when their hit “New Slang” was featured in 2004’s hit film Garden State. Originally based in Albuquerque, N.M., Shins leader James Mercer headed westward in 2002 after touring with Modest Mouse, and built a recording studio in the basement of his new Southeast Portland home — incidentally, the same house where another iconic Portlander, the late Elliott Smith, recorded his 1994 debut album. The home studio has since birthed records like the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and Port of Morrow. These days, Shins concerts are few and far between, but Mercer still makes headlines as half of Broken Bells, an indie rock duo with producer Danger Mouse.
Looking for more local tunes? Here are five bonus tracks:
Elliott Smith – This late, soulful singer-songwriter’s meteoric career began in a series of Portland cafés, clubs and boulevards, and peaked with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song in 1998 for his musical contributions to Good Will Hunting, directed by Portlander Gus Van Sant. Smith’s songs are laced with local landmarks, like “Alameda” (a Northeast Portland street) and “Rose Parade.”
Esperanza Spalding – This bassist, vocalist and composer was the first jazz musician in history to garner a Grammy for Best New Artist. Spalding grew up in Northeast Portland and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon by age 5. The prodigy was mentored by a Portland jazz legend, trumpeter Thara Memory, and spent a stint in Portland State University’s music program before transferring to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and eventually went on to perform for President Barack Obama at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, among other accomplishments.
Stephen Malkmus – Best known as the lead singer of influential indie rock band Pavement, Malkmus moved to Portland following the band’s break up in 1999, and now lives only a few blocks away from the Shins’ James Mercer. He currently fronts Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, a band of longtime Portland musicians.
She & Him – Local singer-songwriter M. Ward teamed up with Hollywood actress Zooey Deschanel to write and record several volumes of indie crooners in a Portland studio. When he’s not performing as the “Him” to Deschanel’s “She,” the native Portlander shares the stage with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James in indie folk supergroup Monsters of Folk.
Blind Pilot – The members of this folk-pop band made ends meet waiting tables and brewing coffee at Portland eateries before embarking on an epic bike-powered tour of the west coast and making it big with their debut album, 3 Rounds and a Sound.
“Portland has an incredible music scene and the best thing about it is how encouraging it feels,” said bandleader Israel Nebeker. “I get the feeling most people just want bands to succeed, honestly.”