1. Shy Girls
- 100.5 POINTS
- FORMED: 2011.
- SOUNDS LIKE: A make-out session that started in 1989 with the radio tuned to a contemporary R&B station and has continued, uninterrupted, ever since—and with the dial untouched.
Dan Vidmar’s bedroom is where the magic happens.
On the second level of the Southeast Portland loft he shares with two other guys, through the tapestry that acts as his doorway, the 25-year-old singer-producer is showing off his workstation, which is just a desk, a synthesizer and a frustratingly slow computer. When the songs he recorded here two years ago first made the rounds online, local bloggers and journalists didn’t even know who they were coming from, let alone where. Vidmar, who uploaded a pair of EPs under two different names in late 2011 then basically forgot about them, left few clues as to their origins. He omitted songwriting credits from his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages, and took press photos with his face hidden behind a mask that made him look like a walking Easter Island statue. He insists the intent wasn’t to create a mysterious aura. He just didn’t think anyone would care.
Now that people clearly do, Vidmar—strong-jawed and steely-eyed, with a thatch of curly hair piled atop his head—has no problem revealing the details of his split artistic personalities: Federer, his slap bass-loving, piña colada-guzzling alter ego; and Shy Girls, his chilled-out, swollen-hearted retro-R&B project.
“In my head, there was a separation,” Vidmar says of the two concurrent projects. “Federer is the part of my brain that, like, RVs down to Key West and has a beard and goes to lots of Jimmy Buffett concerts, then comes home to a four-track recorder and is, like, ‘Let’s get down to business.’ Shy Girls is the preteen female side.”
That preteen female is Portland’s Best New Band.
It is also, by modern parameters, maybe the most uncool band in the city. Soprano-sax solos, earnest pillow-talk vocals and a production style best described as “dentist-office funk” aren’t exactly de rigueur. But that’s the appeal. Shy Girls—the side of Vidmar’s brain that’s grown beyond his bedroom into a full-fledged, seven-piece live act—is a band both of its moment and completely out of time. Plenty of artists Vidmar’s age are now reacquainting themselves with the mainstream pop of their youth, making music that taps into a foggy nostalgia for ’90s FM radio. Except, there’s nothing foggy about Shy Girls’ crystal-clear interpretation of the past. Instead of reproducing the feel of twisting a staticky radio dial, its music invokes memories of walking through a mall or riding in an elevator circa 1991. And while it shares traits with the dreamy, lightheaded R&B of Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, the group engages its influences with a lot more honesty. “Blue-eyed soul” is the hipper nomenclature, but if you were to use the term “easy listening” to describe it, the band wouldn’t take offense.
“A lot of music that’s coming out now alludes to that, but is totally fucking afraid of it,” Vidmar says, moving downstairs to his couch. “Like Kenny G. People just scoff at Kenny G, and people are afraid to go there. But there’s so much there that can translate to people’s ears today.”
“Taking that stuff out of context is really fascinating,” adds keyboardist Ingmar Carlson, Vidmar’s childhood friend and roommate, from the other end of the couch. (Full disclosure: WW music calendar editor Mitch Lillie also lives with them.) “What was once easy listening—there’s an implication there, that listening to this is easy. And once, perhaps it was. Nowadays, you listen to it and realize, no, it’s not.”
In the world of Shy Girls, soft is the new hard, smooth jazz is punk as fuck, and Kenny G might as well be Johnny Rotten.
And lest you think the band’s embrace of pop’s most featherweight textures is an ironic put-on, consider that its creator grew up in State College, Penn., a city where irony doesn’t exist. “It’s a completely unique situation, in that there’s no urban culture there at all, but there’s all these people, this academic environment, and a huge party scene,” Vidmar says of his hometown. “It’s like frat city.” The son of business-minded parents, Vidmar was raised in a house with maybe a half-dozen CDs lying around. Once he was old enough to start going to clubs, the only bands in town to learn from played classic-rock covers. By the time he began formulating his own musical ideas, he was basically working from scratch. “I had a completely blank slate.”
That doesn’t mean the sound of Shy Girls developed out of thin air, though. There are precedents—like the time in elementary school when the principal allowed Vidmar to take over the PA system. “During naptime, we orchestrated this whole event where we played the Aladdin soundtrack for the last hour of school,” he recalls. It’s not just a cute childhood memory: The fluttery lightness of Disney movie scores, and the generational nostalgia attached to it, certainly influenced the band’s aesthetic. (Vidmar even nicked a sample of a snare drum from “A Whole New World” for the breathy “Under Attack.”) Attending college at Penn State (“It was my destiny,” Vidmar says), he and Carlson—who came from a more musical background, taking piano classes as a kid and listening to a steady stream of Mozart and Bach and his mother’s Beatles records—formed a Paul Simon cover act, allowing them to cut their teeth in State College’s bar scene while also getting familiar with the polyrhythms that gently roil underneath Shy Girls’ delicate skin.
But the project didn’t fully congeal until Vidmar relocated to Portland in 2009. At the time, he thought the move would help him develop the Animal Collective-style freak-folk experiments he’d filled his computer with. “I felt like moving to Portland I’d have an opportunity to do that,” he says, “whereas at State College, I couldn’t even play that kind of music on the street corner.” Arriving in town shortly after graduation, Vidmar discovered, contrary to popular belief, the city’s tourism bureau does not certify indie-rock careers at the airport. “I found it incredibly difficult, actually, to break into the music scene here,” he says. “I remember being super-frustrated. I couldn’t really get any gigs. I couldn’t get people to play with me. I came out here thinking, ‘I’ll go out there and meet a bunch of people and stuff will just start happening.’ Of course, it didn’t happen like that.”
With few other options, Vidmar went back to messing around on his laptop. For reasons that escape him, the soft pop and soul he’d absorbed imperceptibly in his youth—Michael McDonald, Luther Vandross and, yes, Kenny G—burbled to the surface. Federer, with its yacht-rocking, party-in-sandals vibe, came first. He envisioned Shy Girls as that project’s cleaner, chilled-out flipside. He didn’t have grand aspirations for either. “The only intention I had with it, aside from making something that I wanted to listen to or wanted my friends to hear, was to do something that was uniquely funky,” he says. “I felt like people, especially in Portland, were kind of afraid of funk.”
Ironically, it was when Vidmar stopped trying to get attention that people started paying it to him. Chris Cantino, artistic director for PDX Pop Now!, stumbled across the band online while looking for acts to book for last year’s festival. He was hooked immediately. “There was an air of mystery about them, and the sound had so much potential to explore,” Cantino says. “I got the sense we were on the ground floor of something big if the band could somehow just be exposed.”
With an actual gig suddenly on his calendar, Vidmar put together a band, recruiting Carlson and drummer Dan Sutherland, along with two backup singers, a second keyboardist and Tune-Yards saxophonist Noah Bernstein. Offers for more shows rolled in, and over the past year, the group has built a following around its swoony, unguardedly romantic performances. (Its secret weapon is Bernstein, who often seems to beam onto the stage, play a sultry solo, then vanish back into the ether.) Vidmar says he’s still unsure of just how popular Shy Girls actually is, but acknowledges there is a buzz, and they need to be careful about stretching it too thin. “I don’t want to become one of those bands that plays in Portland every other week for five years,” he says.
As of right now, Shy Girls’ total recorded output is four songs, though there’s a full album’s worth of material “up there,” Vidmar says, motioning to his room. Now that the proverbial (and literal) mask is off, Vidmar knows all future material will have to stand on its own, without the mystery that initially attracted listeners. A project like Shy Girls, no matter how sincere and well-crafted the sound, is always going to be dogged by accusations of misplaced nostalgia. But that’s not an issue Vidmar spends a lot of time worrying about.
“The whole idea of nostalgia to me—yeah, there’s some aspect, as we were saying, but all that music also draws from earlier generations, which also draws from earlier generations, and all that,” he says. “At the same time, it’s not really a concern of mine, if people think it’s a calculated, ironic thing. I’m just trying to make solid songs.” MATTHEW SINGER.
Who’s Got Next?
2013 Best New Band finalists Nos. 11 through 20.
11. Like a Villain 30 pts
12. The Pynnacles 28 pts
13. 1939 Ensemble 25 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Death Songs 24 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Fanno Creek 24 pts
14/15/16 (tie) Vinnie Dewayne 24 pts
17/18 (tie) Magic Fades 21 pts
17/18 (tie) Luck One 21 pts
19. The Satin Chaps 20 pts
20. Edna Vazquez 17 pts