At the North Portland warehouse where Blouse rehearses and records—a local ad firm's outpost occupied by commercial props and a half-pipe—singer-guitarist Charlie Hilton, bassist Patrick Adams and touring drummer Paul Roper give a rundown of their 2012 calendar.
"I've never been more excited for a year," says the casually mussed Adams.
Following its show at Doug Fir Lounge on Jan. 11, the band will tour the West Coast, hop the pond for 20 European dates, play SXSW in Austin, Texas, in March and record a second album in April. There are plenty of reasons to be excited.
Not that 2011 was unkind to Blouse: The band's star rose precipitously last year. Hilton, 30, and Adams, 31, had each put music on the back burner to focus on graphic design when they met in a course at Portland State University and started playing together after class. Adams, sensing potential, asked longtime friend Jacob Portrait—bassist for Unknown Mortal Orchestra and producer for the Dandy Warhols and Starfucker—to help get the nascent project on record. Adams posted "Into Black," a sparing song built around a slinky bass line and Hilton's ethereal vocals, to the music-streaming website Bandcamp.
âRight away, we started getting emails from smaller labels and people that had blogs and things like that,â Adams recalls.
"It felt really magical…that people were drawn to it so quickly," adds the mellifluously voiced Hilton. "It just kept picking up momentum."
Within a few months, Blouse had released singles on two influential labels, Sub Pop and Captured Tracks, and had been signed to the latter for their full-length. The band was blowing up—yet it was hard not to be skeptical of Blouse's early success. After all, Portrait is a well-connected producer, the band has friends in several acts that have found national success and the group's hazy, nostalgic sound seems to latch on to a recent resurgence of indistinct production and Reagan-era pop. Could Blouse be some studio-concocted test-tube baby?
It would seem so—if Hilton and Adams themselves didn't seem so genuinely surprised by their band's success, which they alternately describe as "magical" and "fairy-tale." Hilton, who writes most of Blouse's songs, says the band's style was far from preconceived: It started as a "post-punk, real dirty, Galaxie 500 kind of thing," absorbing flavors from her longstanding affinity for the "simple, beautiful, classic melodies" of artists like Nico, and only gradually yielded to what Hilton calls a "really nostalgic phase."
"It felt like it had a life of its own," she says. "It just landed in this place, and...we took that as this way to navigate the rest of the songs into that same mood.â
The resulting self-titled album, which came out in November, is a stylistically unified collection of '80s-inspired dream pop, wistful-feeling and gauzy-sounding, with brooding bass, shimmering synth and glazed-over vocals center stage, and Portrait's masterful production behind the curtain. Twinkling synth-pop songs like "Firestarter" and danceable post-punk numbers like "Time Travel" are studied New Wave tributes, and seduce as such. But the best Blouse tracks gaze forward and backward, Janus-like, to meld New Romantic aesthetics with more recent production sophistication. Portrait mixes "They Always Fly Away" beautifully, setting the sober meditation on transience in a bleak soundscape of eerie keys and vaguely menacing, steadily swelling bass. Elsewhere, his sound-board artistry reveals itself in glinting details, as when the opening bars of "Videotapes" slide in and out of tune—like a VHS tape in need of tracking.
The album's sound is, on the whole, vintage. Next time around, Hilton and Adams talk of a more contemporary feel—"clearer," "bigger" and sans the time-stamp of their Juno-6 keyboard.
âWeâre not, like, totally stuck in the past,â Hilton says.
Good thing, because the future looks bright. As it embarks on this tour, Blouse has played only 12 shows to date, all with a continually shifting lineup of backing musicians. But the band members seem, if humble, not especially concerned. "I'm excited to just play and see what happens," Hilton says. And why not? Thus far, Blouse's fairy tale has been all happily-ever-afters.