Martyn Leaper is a cynic. No denying it—it's in his blood.
"I'm originally from England, and we tend to be a bunch of pessimists," he says, his voice unchanged from the one heard on nearly two decades' worth of records by his Portland band, the Minders. Leaper can't be faulted for looking on the dark side of life. Despite a pedigree palling around with the Elephant 6 collective—which birthed such critical darlings as Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, with whom the Minders toured last year—Leaper still takes pains to make this thing work. "We've always been pretty obscure," he says, comparing himself to the rest of his indie-pop ilk. "It was just a struggle to get anything really concrete out there."
He's mostly talking about the band's new record, Into the River, its fifth and first in 10 years. More expansive, but perhaps more traditional, than anything the group has released before, Into the River eschews the Minders' previously staunch allegiance to lo-fi for songs that, while still deeply rooted in a lineage of '60s and '70s Brit-based power pop—think the Kinks and the Zombies, sometimes roughed up by a Springsteen-salient penchant for escape—sound like Leaper trying to find a new voice among all his influence.
One assumes that would also explain his choice of going into the studio with longtime friend Larry Crane after earning a reputation for intimate, DIY recording techniques. In that case, though, Leaper stresses the pragmatic.
"Most of the stuff we do is home recording for that very reason—because we're broke. But I wanted to do something that was on a bit of a grander scale," Leaper says, adding that sessions with Crane were spread over three years, whenever he could get funding together. It was all worth it: "You have an idea, [and] you can't necessarily get that idea to come to fruition without a sort of technical structure in place. And he just has that. He has the ability to make those things appear."
Leaper knows his story isn't all that rare. Pretty much every band, especially in the saturated scene of music-inhaling Portland, has a lot of hope and noteworthy friends but no money. "I don't support myself with my music," he admits, as if it were ridiculous to assume otherwise, "and there's only been one period in my life when I came close to that, a long time ago. I wouldn't get so wrapped up in that being the goal. The goal is to make the best, most interesting music you can make, right?"
For Leaper, that means a sincere, unadorned breed of songwriting ("I hate to talk about the nuts and bolts of songs because then it takes the magic out of it," he says), shot through with a lifetime of looking back. "I think a lot of it has to do with homesickness," he says. "I left my home years ago to come to this country, and I think a lot of my songs tend to sort of deal with that homesickness."
Music is the only way Leaper knows to look ahead, mining nostalgia to uncover ways forward. He remembers touring with Neutral Milk Hotel, the success of its latest tour obviously fueled by the over-romanticized feelings of its fans. Upon release of its first album in 1996, the band "definitely had this promise. It sort of made everything else, Elephant 6, that much more alluring," Leaper says. But they never really got what they earned, never played the venues they deserved to, even though "the '90s was the era for independent music in a big way, and Neutral Milk Hotel had everything to do with that. So coming back and playing to big audiences, it was appropriate."
Which sounds optimistic, the idea that nostalgia no longer has to be about money, or about exploiting realities "that probably don't even exist, or didn't even exist in the first place."
As a self-proclaimed "cynical turd," Leaper relents. "I can't be that cynical about music," he says. "That's where it stops, really. Music is one thing that's off limits. You can't be cynical about everything."
SEE IT: The Minders play Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., with the Minus 5, on Friday, Oct. 7. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.