It's earlier this year and I'm wading across a muddy, boot-pummeled North Portland backyard, eager to get out of the cold rain. But as I descend into the basement where local hardcore band Tragedy has already started playing, I begin sweating from the heat. As I strip off layers, I catch occasional glimpses of the band between frenzied punks ages 15 to 40, who jump, putting one hand on someone's shoulder and the other on the low ceiling to avoid hitting it. Some appear to be on the verge of tears because they are so affected by the tortured quality in the barely intelligible screams of guitarist Todd Burdette and bassist Billy Davis—already big men who make sounds that seem inhumanly thick. Drummer Paul Burdette's militarylike "d-beat" drumming combines with the alarm-like whine of the band's other guitarist "Yannick" to give the scene the drama of battle. As I cross the room, I'm careful to avoid treacherous 4-by-4 support columns, but I forget caution as I reach the crowd, raise my arm and start screaming along. It's so loud that I can't hear myself at all.
There are only about 60 or 70 people in the basement. Were we nearly anywhere else in North America or Japan, it would've been full—if this were Spain or Germany, the crowd could be 10 times this size. "There are a lot of bands trying to sound like Tragedy...all over the U.S. and the world," attests former Clorox Girls and Observers bassist Colin Grigson. But the fact remains that although Tragedy is arguably one of the most well-known bands from this city, and though the four-piece features former members of similarly esteemed bands including From Ashes Rise and His Hero Is Gone, there's a good chance you haven't heard of them. Satyricon club co-owner Jeff Urquhart agrees. "It's amazing to me how many people still have no clue about Tragedy," he marvels. "They're from here; they're pretty much pioneers; they have legendary status." But in an interview after an appearance at the IWW Hall last fall, Todd Burdette just shrugged it off: "We've never cared about hyping ourselves or promoting ourselves."
That's an understatement. The band releases all of its recordings internationally on its own Tragedy Records, which is largely maintained by Yannick. But there was no release party here at home when the band's much anticipated third full-length album, Nerve Damage, came out last May. Until I wrote about the group last fall (see WW, Nov. 16, 2005), Tragedy had never been covered in local press outside of zines. A show at Sabala's last year also marked the group's very first appearance in a Portland bar—only its 10th or so 21+ appearance ever. (Like most Tragedy shows, the band's appearance this coming Friday at Rotture will be all-ages.) While bars are often mainstays for well-known hardcore groups, of the hundreds of shows Tragedy has performed around the world since they formed in 2000, almost all of them have been in all-ages spaces or houses. Finally, Tragedy does not maintain a website or MySpace page—a decision most rock bands would consider publicity suicide.
Yet, as their three successful tours of North America, Europe and Japan testify, Tragedy's do-it-yourself approach works very well for them—and their fans, who have created their own Tragedy pages on MySpace and Wikipedia. A common line on the '60s icons Velvet Underground is that not a lot of people bought their albums, but everyone who did started a band. Tragedy seems to have had the same type of influence on its smaller, hometown following. Just a personal example: Every single punk or metal band that performed on a weekly live in-studio show I co-hosted on KPSU in 2005, from Curse of the Carousel Pony and Rhythm of '84 to Jackmove and Plan R, namechecked Tragedy or brought their records to play on the air.
So why is Tragedy a band's band? Even groups that don't play modern hardcore heavily influenced by British punk icons Discharge or release their own records can appreciate Tragedy's self-reliance. "Not that many DIY bands get that big," observes Adam Becker of the local punk band Autistic Youth. "I mean, people have their tattoo." Then again, not everybody is a fan—although he doesn't call Tragedy mediocre, guitarist Ian Kashani of the Portland band Clit Ripper warned WW that "mediocrity is encouraged [by]...admiration of bands...[based] only on their political ethics rather than their musical talent."
But many musicians are truly in awe of Tragedy's sound, which Ben Fogarty of the now-defunct local metal band Sumara described as "layered, and so heavy yet so clear." Dave Van Housen, who plays in local thrash band Status Quo, and who booked the show at IWW, says he's inspired by Tragedy because "you can tell that they're really passionate; you can tell it comes from the heart." Grigson also struggles to encompass the qualities about Tragedy he admires in words, grasping with terms like "huge," "brutal" and "epic."
Grigson ties Tragedy's hugeness to what he calls "haiku-style lyrics," in which the band paints "a picture that's quite bleak" but maintains an uplifting message as well: "There's a sense of hopelessness and there's a sense of hope," he says. Todd Burdette elaborates on how his lyrics—which touch on social issues like assisted suicide—create this paradox: "I think what burns a lot of people out is the realization that they're not changing the world in a way that they can see. Once you accept the fact that your actions aren't always going to be so visible, I think it takes you to a less selfish place," he explains. "You do things because you want to do them and you believe in them." These words could also be applied to how Tragedy's approaches what they view as a corrupted music industry.
Van Housen speculates that the band's following is small in Portland because "Portland is so spoiled" musically, explaining that in his home state of Wisconsin, he went to eight shows a year, whereas he now sees that many in a month. Tragedy's drummer, Todd's brother Paul Burdette—who works as a gardener when not touring and recording—offers a different explanation: "When you're from a town, you are 100 percent what you are, just some people playing in a band," he says. "It completely demystifies whatever it is that makes you popular in other towns."
That unlikely Tragedy appearance at Sabala's last summer was followed by more recent shows at Mississippi Pizza and the Know—both which were packed. That may be an indication that the band is making itself more available to be discovered. While packing up after our interview, Todd looked around at the score or so of mohawked and black-clad teenage hangers-on, and added a final comment: "In the last year, the Portland scene has gotten so much cooler. There're so many more young people. I really like the energy at shows," he told me. "Maybe it's because people are younger and not as jaded, but there's a lot more enthusiasm. I'm really excited about Portland." Perhaps Portland's hardcore scene is getting more exciting because so many of its musicians are excited about Tragedy.
Tragedy plays at Rotture on Friday, Nov. 17, with Skullsplitter, Order of the Vulture and Warcorpse. Doors at 8 pm, show at 9 pm. $3. 21+.