A lot of people know where Aaron Colter and Louie Herr live. It's a nondescript white house in a Southeast Portland neighborhood they would rather not have publicized, even though, at this point, it's an open secret. In the past five years, more than 50 bands have played the Banana Stand, the Indiana transplants' recording studio, label headquarters and "all-ages pseudo venue," housed in their rental home's 1,000-square-foot basement. Initially, their only aspiration for the space was using it to throw "kick-ass house shows." And that's basically what they do. Except their shows live on past the single, glorious night in which they occur. Each one is recorded and made available to the public, through their website and a short run of CDs. Their shows kick ass in perpetuity. In a music scene as ephemeral as Portland's, that serves a crucial purpose.
As celebrated as Portland is as an incubator for independent music, the city doesn't nurture many long careers. Bands are born in great bursts, then often quickly vanish. Some leave behind albums, but that's not the way music is consumed here. By and large, bands in Portland exist in the memories of those who saw them live. By documenting the groups that play their house, Colter, 28, and Herr, 29, are doing more than capturing a good party: They're creating an archive of fleeting moments, and extending their lifespan.
Of course, none of that was going through their minds when they first laid eyes on the room that's become the epicenter of their lives. It didn't look much like it does today, with its bright lights, professional-looking mixing station and burgundy and navy-blue soundproofing mats lining the walls. It was dim, dank and littered with trash left behind by past tenants. But, like a lot of young Portlanders with little use for extra storage, they were stricken by visions of awesomeness.
"We were standing down here, looking over at it, and thinking, 'Man, we're going to do so much cool shit down here,'" Colter says. "Sometimes I'll be standing in the exact same place and thinking over all this time, and all these bands."
Growing up together in Plainfield, Ind., Colter and Herr cherished live records, from Zappa bootlegs to Counting Crows' Across a Wire: Live in New York City, the first CD Colter ever owned. When they started Banana Stand, however, neither had much of a clue when it came to recording music. After abandoning a short-lived podcast—in which they would "drink too much and talk about technology," Colter says—they used their cheap microphones, on a whim, to record their friends' project, Lonesome Radio Heart. It evolved from there, with the duo learning as they've gone along. (And they've returned to podcasting, hosting the local music-focused Good Band Is Good.) Fifty-plus live albums later, the Banana Stand discography covers the breadth of the past half-decade of Portland music, from forgotten names like Curious Hands and Please Step Out of the Vehicle to bands with rising national profiles like Radiation City. And it's allowed these two self-professed "band nerds" to engage with "the rock-'n'-roll music I've always wanted to be a part of, but don't have any kind of skills to be," Herr says, "and it could happen in a space we could control to some extent."
Like any house venue, Banana Stand has had to deal with the issues that accompany allowing strangers through the front door—fights, theft, public drunkenness—which have caused them to limit crowds by announcing performances exclusively by email list, and to look for more opportunities to get out of the basement: They've recently partnered with video production team Collective-47 to shoot bands in different settings. And if there's anything in Portland more precarious than the music scene, it's living situations. But Colter and Herr insist they're not afraid of eviction. They have a good relationship with their landlord, after all.
âHe sees how clean we keep the bathroom,â Colter says.
This is the first in a multipart series on Portland's musical infrastructure—the people, places and institutions that allow the scene to thrive.