"Missoula's cooler than Bozeman. It always will be," says Monte Trent Allen, bassist of highly original—and highly unknown—rock band Rollerball. Rural Montana is the well from which this nearly indescribable group sprang. But it was an eye-opening show at the storied X-Ray Cafe back in '94, with seminal local acts Tao Jones and Caveman Shoestore (do your homework, kids!), that brought him and longtime partner-collaborator Mae Starr to Portland. Shortly thereafter, the pair coaxed friend and drummer Gilles (who's long gone by just the single name) to make the move. "I just had to get the fuck out of there," says Gilles, referring to Bozeman. "I came out with my drums, my clothes and my kit."
"It's like a family, with all the time that's spent," explains Starr, who sings, plays piano and paints (her artwork often doubles as album covers). The writing process for over a decade has been so utopian that each musician composes his or her own parts, and editing is done only when the albums are being mixed. These people are so humble, it doesn't occur to them that they ought to be lauded alongside local legends like Smegma, the Wipers and Yellow Swans. Musicians revere them. Many (including me) will tell you with a straight face that Rollerball has been the best band in town for a decade. Yet, the general populace doesn't seem to know it exists.
But relative obscurity hasn't deterred them. The band's set to release its 12th (!) album, Ahura, this week. And it just returned from its fifth tour of Italy. International jet-setting notwithstanding, Rollerball champions the Portland independent spirit: "We don't really aspire to sound like anybody," says Allen. "We like a lot of stuff, though!" As such, Rollerball's never been easy to categorize. Album after album, the group has drawn in elements from every conceivable source: rock, jazz, world, electronic, dub, folk, prog, noise. Name a style, and someone in the band could hip you to a record you've never heard before.
Even so, Ahura finds the band sounding its most distilled, focused and accessible. According to Allen, it's an entirely natural process: "We're not gentrified. You go through shit as you play about trying not to copy anything. 'Has everything been done or not?' You get past that and just start playing music that you like and you feel. I'm not afraid to be straight-ahead." Based on its catalog and history, no one in Rollerball seems to be afraid of anything.
This latest disc finds the band—which has been asked, "Where's your guitar?" more than a few times—whittled down to a quartet after a 10-year stint with recently departed madcap co-vocalist Shane DeLeon. Saxophonist Amanda Mason Wiles rounds out the lineup, adding her horn and voice as melodic complement. "We 'embraced the space,'" says Allen. "It seemed right to have more openness in the music." This album is their second for Italy's Wallace Records, "the best record label in the world," according to Allen. "[Founder Mirko Spino]'s one guy. He has 107 releases." Sounds like a good fit for a family band with 12 albums under its belt.
Proving just how much their partners mean to them, the name Ahura is a tribute to one of the first people to invest in the band. "It's our friend Will [Capel] who put out [1998's] We Own Lions," remarks Allen of his old co-worker at the original Ozone Records on Burnside. "He died a few years ago. And that's how he would sign his name. He was the first guy who was like, 'Hell, yeah, I'll put out a record by you!' [Ahura]'s not about him; it's to try to fulfill the potential he saw in the band."
Not surprisingly, Rollerball's members are kind almost to a fault. When asked about their favorite accomplishments, nostalgia and kinship reign: Gilles names an old song ("Stonecoldrhythmdog"); Starr recalls playing Satyricon with the Geraldine Fibbers; Allen—who says he feels a spiritual kinship with Sonic Youth, the Ex and Unwound, "bands that stick around for a long time and stay at it"—mentions their first tour of Europe and friendships with such like-minded groups as OvO, Art of Flying and Add-X.
When conversation shifts toward the band's post-Ahura plans, Starr gets right to the point: "start recording again." Perhaps it's that lucky thirteenth album that will finally make Rollerball local heroes. For some of us, they always have been.
Rollerball celebrates the release of
Wednesday, June 25, with Vialka and Powernap at Someday Lounge. 9 pm. $6. 21+.