"Any high-school kid graduating is looking to get out of Alaska," Nelson Kempf explains between sets by his two-piece folk act, the Old Believers. The baby-faced 19-year-old could just as easily be talking about any Alaskan band.
For musicians in most states, relocating to a bigger city may be a good career move, but it's hardly vital—after all, a band can always tour. But if you're a band from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, the nearest major American city is 2,350 miles away—about the same distance from Portland to Detroit! And Alaska's music scene isn't just isolated: A serious shortage of venues and the absence of label scouts mean one of the largest Alaskan music communities isn't in Alaska at all. It's here in Portland.
In the past year and a half, there have been at least 10 transplanted Alaskan bands based in PDX (though three broke up in 2006). There are also several Alaskan solo artists, a couple of predominantly AK bands (the late Konami Defense System was half Alaskan, as is Day of Lions), and a handful of bands with members from the 49th state, including the Joggers. Even here in the City of Transplanted Roses, that's a lot of musicians from one state—especially a state that has only about 100,000 more people in it than Portland itself.
For many Alaskans, Seattle comes off as an impersonal monolith, and between the landscape and the cultural differences, California might as well be another planet. But the greenery, temperate climate and laid-back populace of Portland seem just right. Since 1996 (when 36 Crazyfists moved to PDX after a fruitless year in Seattle), Portland has become the primary destination for young Alaskan musicians. This history provides a ready-made (if modest) fan base for new expat bands, and an existing social network, too. "For the first year, I probably hung out with nothing but Alaskans," says Dan Hall of the Lives of Famous Men.
Indeed, moving to "the Lower 48" has allowed many transplanted musicians to start the careers they've always hoped for: 36 Crazyfists and Portugal. The Man both landed deals with respected labels after their moves, and both have toured extensively. Of course, things don't always go as planned, either. The now-defunct Born Losers could pull in hundreds of fans in Anchorage and Fairbanks, but had a hard time drawing 30 people at Stumptown gigs. "When you move with your band, you have this weird expectation," says Losers singer Ryan Sollee, "like everyone will like it and your band is really awesome and novel."
But "awesome" and "novel" are exactly the kind of words people use to describe Sollee's new funeral-folk band, the Builders and the Butchers (four-fifths Anchoragites). And the break-up of transplanted two-piece Pennies and Patches (Emma Hill and Sally Gordon, little sister of Jenny Lewis) shoved Hill into a solo career: "It went from being like, 'Maybe I should play solo,' to having 20 shows lined up," Hill says.
The key to relocating to a bigger pond may be simple, as exemplified by Gena Gastaldi—who went from the top of the Anchorage scene playing keyboard for the Roman Candles to fronting her own band, Day of Lions, here. "I think I had a pretty good, level-headed expectation about [relocating]," says Gastaldi, "in which I expected nothing."