When Jesse Bettis sings "the city life has got me down," he's not kidding.
In 2013, the veteran Portland songwriter got stabbed in the side by an uninvited guest at his own house party. It was a particularly inopportune time for Bettis to suffer a grievous injury: At the time, he had just wrapped up the debut album from his latest project, New Move, a set of meticulously crafted pop songs he'd labored over for the better part of the year.
Turns out, it was a blessing in the guise of a flesh wound. Laid up in a hospital bed for a few days, with nothing to do but think, Bettis reconsidered his rollout strategy, deciding to dribble the album out, one single at a time. In doing so, he managed to build a local buzz around the band that hadn't been there before, and eventually scored a deal with Tender Loving Empire sister label Bug Hunt.
Now that New Move is finally seeing release (read our review here), we caught up with Bettis to reflect on that fateful night two and a half years ago, his near-academic study of pop songcraft and writing songs while on pain meds.
Willamette Week: Can you walk me through the stabbing incident?
Jesse Bettis: I had just gotten off a shift. It was middle of July, around PDX Pop [Now]. I was working at Bunk Bar, and I had a friend visiting from the military. I got done there, went to my house. It's the kind of house where at any given point, people might have a lot of people over. That was one of those nights. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces. There was this guy, I think he was 20 years old. He just walked in off the street, which is not uncommon, and typically welcome, for the most part. But it was a thing where, as the night went on, it was like, "Who is this guy? Is he with your group?" He was acting a little bit weird. Fast forward to 4 in the morning or so, everyone was going home, and this guy didn't want to leave. He was clearly very high on some kind of drug, PCP or something. He kept trying to stay and play music on the speakers, and we were like, "Nah, man. Thanks for coming but everyone's going, we're tired and going to bed."
A couple of other friends picked him up and carried him out of the house, and I followed behind to make sure a fight didn't break out or something, which it didn't. And then the guy just kind of rushed me, and it felt like a little rabbit punch, and he backed down off the stoop. I was like, "Well that was weird." Then everyone was like, "Oh my God, you're bleeding." But I honestly remember it—maybe I was in shock or something—it was like, "Whoa, this is crazy," but it wasn't that scary. We closed the door and locked him out. We had this big pane glass window, and he was trying to smash it with the butt of his knife. He slashed the tires of multiple tires outside the house, and other people who were leaving the party, he chased this guy down and stabbed him and punctured his lung.
I recovered in a couple days, left the hospital, took some time off work and actually started writing material that will be on the next couple records. Because the record [New Move] was done at that point.
So if you recovered rather quickly, why did it end up being such a long setback in terms of getting the record out?
It wasn't so much a big setback. Ultimately, I re-evaluated everything, and decided to take a new approach, which was to release the album in singles. It was more a shift in my perspective, and made me realize that I shouldn't be in such a hurry to do things. The plan was once every three months have a big party, where New Move headlines and we release a new single, with a B-side and alternate versions of the single, just to establish New Move as a new band. And then halfway through is when I met Tyler [Ferrin]. He approached me and said, "Bug Hunt wants to put it out." So things kept getting pushed back, because of the turnaround on the vinyl. We had to get it pressed in the Czech Republic. The turnaround time was projected for the end of summer, so we conservatively booked a show for the fall. Then it wasn't ready, so we had to postpone it. I think we postponed the release date twice.
Your previous project, Oh Captain My Captain, had these multifaceted arrangements and a really kind of broad sweep, which is a lot different from the tight focus of New Move. What led you to want to write more classic-sounding pop songs?
Somebody told me this John Lennon quote, where someone asked him, "How come every song you write is a hit?" And Lennon's response was, "I write 100 songs, and one of them is a hit." So I really latched onto that concept, and took it literally. My goal was to write 100 songs and pick 10 to be on an album. For New Move, I was listening critically to a lot of pop music, and I wanted to incorporate things that I thought were important about a pop song. I got kind of obsessed with what goes into making a pop song, even, like, keep it under three minutes and make sure the chorus comes in before the one minute mark. I have lists of notes of that kind of stuff. I ended up writing 35 songs of various degrees of completion, and this album is the 10 that fit the best.
When you talk about studying pop songcraft, what specifically? It seems like a lot of these songs are rooted in 20th century pop, from the '50 through the '70s.
It was kind of everything. I was listening to a lot of Billie Holiday, because those song formats are standards. That's a different style, but there's a really clear formula, and there's something I really like about that formula. I didn't really set out to focus on an era, I just sort of listened through any era of music, to find songs I loved. Or I would listen to songs like "Magic" by Pilot— total radio hits from the '70s. Or like ELO. I was listening to anything and everything, and when I stumbled upon a song that had something I was going for, I'd be like, "Why does this work? Why is this good, whereas this song that's similar isn't as good?" I don't think I fully answered any of the questions, but what came out of it is, all these songs are attempts to write a pop song that fits into general guidelines.
So are these songs merely studies in popcraft or do they have a deeper emotional resonance for you than it seems?
Anything I write—and I think this applies to most people who make any form of art—you always aim for something, and then part of yourself comes along with that. Even if a lot of these songs were approached in a more analytical way and less of an emotional way, there's a lot of life experience and perspective in there, and at times more intentional emotional emphasis. But it wasn't my goal to make the most self-revealing, bleeding-heart record. The focus was definitely on making good pop songs. But I'm a human, I have emotions, I have experiences, and all of that spills out all over it.
It seems like where I hear that a little bit more overtly is "The City Life."
That was a time when I didn't have a bamd and I was writing a lot of music, and it was my favorite phase of songwriting in my life. I was a closing bartender, so I'd get off work at 3, 4 in the morning sometimes, and all I did was listen to music. That was my study room. I'd close the bar and listen to music. Maybe I'd listen to one song over and over again while I was closing up, then I'd put my headphones on and walk home. It was bizarre because, I'd be walking home, and sometimes it'd be so late, or so early, you'd see the line between night and day—meaning, I'd be walking, and on my side of the street I'd see someone in a hoodie tagging a building, then I'd look over and see a couple jogging with a stroller on the other side of the street. It was pretty surreal to live and create in those late-night hours. I'd come home and quietly work on music, or think about it and have weird dreams about it. I know it's kind of cliche, but I had a dream that song came on the radio in my dream. It was like a zombie apocalypse dream, and we were having a basement party when that song came on the radio. I woke up and realized, "Tthat's not a real song," and I tried to capture it as quickly as possible. But that's how immersed I was in that process, it was spilling out in all kind of ways. That song, "The City Life," was about not knowing what the new direction was going to look like, and working late nights and the grind of being a closing bartender. But really it's just representative of a very rich and fruitful songwriting time.
The other song that I feel like is the centerpiece of the record is "Don't Wanna Lose." That really feels like a pop songwriting masterclass, if any are.
For that song, I was listening to a lot of '70s R&B soul, like Jackson 5. All these songs have call-and-response lyrics, and there's always something interesting happening. Even if you listen to the Jackson 5 B-sides that are crappy—not crappy, but like, you can see why it's not a hit, there's still this intense focus on having always a musical hook or lyrical hook. Something is always taking the lead even when the vocals aren't. That song was definitely more of an exercise in writing a pop song than anything else. I was listening to a lot of '70s soul and R&B and ELO and Prince, and it's the bastard child that came out of it.
Is that song also a standout for you personally?
That's the one where I feel like I accomplished my goal of writing a pop song in the strongest way out of the rest of them. What's funny is that song I spent the longest time on, too. I had the verse written, and I spent six, eight months just sitting on it, trying different chorus hooks. I have maybe four versions of that song with entirely different music in the section with the chorus.
It definitely sounds like a lot of work went into it. Not that it's at all busy-sounding, but it seems rather meticulously crafted.
It goes back to having the time to be able to do that. Anyone can write an amazing pop song, you just have to want to do it. You have to be crazy enough to want to spend a year replacing and reworking stuff. I don't know if I'm going to write much like that in the future, because it's pretty intense. That was kind of a trial and error kind of song.
You said you already started writing songs for future records after the stabbing. Are they different from these, then?
The production so far has been kind of modern, maybe more modern pop influenced sonically, but I'm still working with a lot of older influences. A lot more electronic stuff and synth sounds. It's somewhat psychedelic. There's one song I wrote during my recovery, when I was pretty high on pain medication. That demo is pretty weird, but that's what I've been looking at as a head-runner for what this next album is going to be.
So like how some records are weed records or acid records, this next one from New Move will be a pain killer record, then?
[Laughs] Maybe, to some degree. There's at least one song dealing with that whole situation of getting stabbed and recovering from that. I think it's going to be a very different record.
SEE IT: New Move plays Rontoms, 600 E Burnside St., with Lola Buzzkill, on Sunday, Jan. 31. 8:30 pm. Free. 21+.