Some indie band leaders like to boast about high-minded influences—evoking French pop music (in the case of the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt), Japanese folk tales (à la the Decemberists) or Harry Partch and Goethe (see the Books). But 29-year-old Michael Herrman, founder of local chamber-pop outfit Buoy LaRue, happily admits (without a whiff of irony) to a sweet tooth for Broadway musicals, Beck and easy-listening classical strings.
Which isn't to say Herrman's all fluff 'n' stuff. In fact, he's charting an ambitious and occasionally inspired course for his six-piece ensemble—half of which (himself, percussionist Steve Drizos and guitarist-pianist Adam East) hails from a rock-pop background, while the other half (violinist Keiko Araki, violist Adam Hoornstra and bassist Audrey Wang) holds top ranks in local classical orchestras.
But Herrman readily admits to "zero formal musical training." After surviving Beaverton High School and grunge in the '90s, he fronted a short-lived funk band before teaming up with his younger sister, Orianna, and touring Europe (as the experimental acoustic duo Oracle) in '05. With the taste of international musical culture on his lips, he came back to Portland fired up and ready to launch his dream project—a chamber-rock hybrid.
"I was getting up early," Herrman says, pausing dramatically. "Early...like I would set my alarm for eight in the morning." It was in these wee hours that Herrman began plugging away—for seven or eight hours a day, 30 days straight—recording his improvisatory outpourings, playing them back for himself and seeing what stuck. After writing a few dozen tunes this way, Herrman handpicked his Buoy bandmates, and the band was born in early 2006.
But with no academic training—Herrman doesn't use musical notation to write out tunes or charts—how does he work with musicians of such disparate backgrounds? "We've developed a way to, you know, deal with that," Herrman says unashamedly. "We're all in the same boat."
That much is evident on the band's self-titled EP. Though the saccharine, string-scented ballad "Just Like You Do" sounds a little anonymous, the twangy slow-step jam of "Colin Said," with its ghostly vocals ("Wash your hands, comb your hair/ Ship shape then go/ And do what needs to be done") and percussive rumblings, has become a crowd favorite. And the group finds its quirky, plucked 'n' brooding stride on tunes like the disjointed "Sunshine & Chemicals" or sweetly melancholic "Festival," which conjures the first moments of an orgasm-induced slumber.
Despite his pop breeding, Herrman prefers such cloudy soundscapes to catchy hooks or soulful choruses (though his melodies are fetching in their own dark way). He also prefers playing softcore venues—including theater spaces, when finances permit—to the clamor of chat-happy bar crowds. "There are lots of layers to our sound," he says. "In the typical Portland bar, our music would get lost." But in rock-centric Portland, it's just such delicacies that set Buoy LaRue apart.