Six years ago, the last band anyone would've pegged to make it big outside of Portland might have been Wampire. First of all, there's that name. An inside joke goofing on the German pronunciation of "vampire," it doesn't exactly scream, "Take us seriously." Then there's the group's inauspicious origin story. Asked if they could provide music for a house party, longtime friends Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps threw together a set in less than a week, then continued playing those hastily written songs for the next few years. Its live shows, for a while reliant on prerecorded backing tracks streamed through an iPod, were marked by a loose zaniness, and often ended with Phipps and Tinder stripped to their underwear. It's not that the band didn't possess the chops to take its music to a broader audience. In fact, even its earliest songs—blissfully lysergic, synth-spangled, lo-fi dance tunes—displayed an advanced sense of pop smarts. But then, those early songs had titles like "Wooby Dooby." Lack of talent wasn't the issue. They just didn't seem to give a shit.
Until last summer, that was pretty much the case. "We'd almost given up," says Phipps from a bench at Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland. "We'd been really inactive, and just been content doing what we're doing, but didn't see it going anywhere." At the behest of Starfucker's Josh Hodges, the head of respected Illinois-based Polyvinyl Records came to see the band play live. Not long after, the label offered Wampire a contract. The opportunity reinvigorated the band. "I don't want to sound like being signed was my inspiration," says Tinder, taking a break from a game of croquet, "but it gave me a lot more energy to come up with new stuff."
That new stuff, which makes up Wampire's excellent debut, Curiosity, is the sound of a band finally getting serious with itself. Pulsing with new-wave grooves, surfy guitars, psychedelic organ and a wealth of murky hooks, the record recasts the group as a sort of shroomed-out Strokes. Curiosity doesn't come out until May 14, but the album has already made admirers of Spin and Rolling Stone. Now performing with a full band, and having played its first gigs beyond the West Coast—including nine showcases at South By Southwest—Wampire may have just stumbled upon a legitimate career.
Around this time in 2011, though, the band had ground to a standstill. It had planned to release a string of 7-inches that year, but after going on the road as tour manager for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Tinder grew disenchanted with Wampire's material. "I pulled up my laptop and all the recording we'd worked on and listened to it, and was not excited at all about what we were recording at the time," he says. Jacob Portrait, UMO's bassist, urged Tinder and Phipps to scrap everything and record with him in his warehouse studio. He encouraged the band not to overthink things—and not to get too attached to its ideas.
"He showed us that you can go into a studio and know how a song is going to sound, then go 180 degrees in the opposite direction with it," Phipps says. "It opened up my mind to going in with ideas so they can be destroyed.â
Allowing the album to come together on its own, the band says the sound of Curiosity emerged organically. They call it "spooky," but really, the vibe is more funhouse than haunted house: Songs like "The Hearse" and "Spirit Forest," despite their titles, are built on melodies too hazy-bright to be genuinely creepy. But even with Portrait steering its creation, the record is mostly a reflection of Wampire's split personalities: the introspective Phipps, who wrote the romantically anxious ballad "Trains"; and Tinder, who's more inclined to write songs about killing people and getting stoned in graveyards...among other things.
"The song 'Giants' was originally just about my cat, [imagining] if I lived in his perspective, with these giant people you're super dependent on," Tinder says. "Then Jake was like, 'Great idea. Bag that, and let's make it about being on mushrooms and feeling like you're a giant.'"
So maybe Wampire hasn't completely grown out of, in Tinder's words, "the don't-give-a-shit party stuff." Only now, the band knows a lot more people are coming to the party. And that has made all the difference. "That changes everything," Phipps says, "knowing our music isn't just going to be stuck in our own basement.â
SEE IT: Wampire plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Wild Ones and DJ Preacher Teacher, on Tuesday, May 14. 9 pm. $6 advance, $8 day of show. 21+.