WW sat down with 24-year-old manager Drew Woods a few nights ago to discuss some new developments at the space. Woods moved to Portland a few years back from Anchorage, Alaska, and started hanging out at the then-new Backspace soon after. "It was one of the few coffee shops open late," the affable, bearded Woods tells me. "It had the best atmosphere and coffee...you always knew everyone who worked there and who came in. It had a real community vibe." Naturally, Woods went from regular to employee, volunteering as a computer tech until, eventually, Backspace offered him an actual job.
The shop was opened by brothers Eric and Chris Robinson back in '03, and their intentions for the bright, art-filled, high-ceilinged space have always been hodgepodge: Eric was interested in starting a gallery; Chris wanted to open up a coffee shop. So the two combined their visions (throwing in computer-gaming machines for good measure), and the oddball venue was born. Thanks to Portland (and its penchant for weird combos), it's been thriving ever since.
But recent changes in the area, namely Tri-Met construction and the moving of downtown's bus mall, have affected business. And the neighborhood's changing landscape spurred the idea to host live music: "We built the stage as another element to draw people in," Woods explains. "Backspace is now a neighborhood shop, but we want to get back to our status as a destination."
His vision for hosting concerts is reminiscent of Todd Fadel's now-legendary Portland all-ages venue Meow Meow, as well as other working models: the Che Cafe in San Diego, Vera Project in Seattle and the Smell in L.A., which incidentally is the cafe/venue that spawned recent Backspace performers No Age. In between explosive tunes on a completely packed night, the lo-fi duo's drummer, Dean Spunt, declared, "You guys are lucky to have a spot like this for real—way better than a bar. There's a treehouse in the middle of the room...epic!"
He's not kidding about the treehouse; it's a donation from one of the space's recent art shows. And it's a slice of reality—at least next to the epic digital worlds now accessible via Backspace's recently beefed-up computers. If the caffeine doesn't do it, hot new titles like Team Fortress 2 and Bioshock are more than enough to get gamers' trigger fingers twitching.
Thanks to Steve De Rosa, tapping feet and bobbing heads will soon join patrons' mobile body parts. When sometime-booker Chantelle Hylton split for New York City's Knitting Factory, 21-year-old De Rosa—who regularly threw shows back in his native Humboldt County—appeared on the scene.
As a teenager, De Rosa, saw a beach-house show by New England guitar-abusers Magik Markers that blew his mind down the path of outsider music. So, he's thrilled that his first Backspace lineup features the mighty Markers, along with two other ferocious, female-fronted weirdo acts: Liz Harris' sublime Grouper and recent Michigan transplants Little Claw. And De Rosa hopes to include all sorts of genres in Backspace's musical repertoire.
Like all-ages standby Satyricon down the street, De Rosa's helping to make Old Town look and feel a little younger these days. "It's all about this type of music being accessible to all ages," De Rosa says. "That's the bottom line: cheap as fuck, six dollars for three bands...it's win, win, win six days till Sunday, and everyone's smiling...."
Not smiling? You can always blow shit up on Bioshock.
Magik Markers, Grouper and Little Claw play Thursday, Oct. 11, at Backspace. 9 pm. $6. All ages. Photo: booker Steve De Rosa, bottom, and Backspace manager Drew Woods, in the cafe/venue's treehouse, taken by Darryl James.