Portland’s Forty Feet Tall Talks Experimenting, Expanding and Touring

“We have about seven songs in progress and about 45 ideas.”

“As someone not in the band, how would you describe it?” Forty Feet Tall guitarist Jack Sehres asks me.

I’m talking with the band via Zoom, where the four members sit on a couch in the home-meets-practice space of Sehres and the band’s bassist, Brett Marquette. We’re debating “Look Both Ways,” the opening track off their new EP Tunnel Vision (Magnetic Moon). I’ve asked about the song because it’s got quite a different energy than what I’m used to hearing from the band.

Forty Feet Tall is known as a post-punk, alt-rock outfit. They’re also famed for their dynamic, punky shows where people inevitably start crowd surfing—and, also inevitably, vocalist Cole Gann soars into the audience with the humble confidence of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and how to do it. The crowd seems to hold him up with pride, hands starstruck and reaching to support the still-singing dude above their heads.

“I would say it’s more like indie pop,” concludes Sehres of “Look Both Ways.” This comment elicits a round of no-it-doesn’ts from the other band members. Marquette is particularly vocal about the alleged misnomer, clarifying that he while does like poppy shit, “that’s just not what this is.”

I tell them my own answer is complicated. Comparatively, the song does tiptoe a little closer toward indie rock and maybe even pop than most of what the cuatro has produced thus far; the guitar borders shoegaze, the vocals are dreamier.

Then there’s the EP’s second track, “Cherry Blossoms,” which opens a little mournful then dives into straight-up grunge. The harmony on “Tunnel Vision” has a Beach Boys-y quality. It’s hard to describe Forty Feet Tall’s sound within a word or three. And that’s exciting.

Forty Feet Tall is exploring music beyond “screaming and shit,” as Marquette puts it with a laugh, going on to share that his basslines are heavily influenced by Motown tracks. Like Gann and drummer Ian Kelley, Marquette is a trained jazz musician. “I’ve always wanted to have a really fast song that has a straight-up jazz breakdown in the middle,” he says.

You can hear undertones of jazz influence in the drumlines as well. Kelley, who first learned the drums by studying the drummer at his “heavily musically induced” childhood church, stopped studying music in college because it ruined the fun and exploration (he went on to pursue a career in social work, which is “a story for another time,” as he puts it with a smile). On his own, Kelley continued learning drums in the jazz style (listen to “Tunnel Vision” to hear some of that influence shine).

“If we’re going to do this jazz breakdown, I have my homework set out for me,” chimes in Sehres, who spent 15 years studying classical piano. He’d be curious to explore some Bach-style touches on future tracks, referring to George Martin’s Baroque-influenced piano solo on The Beatles’ 1965 song “In My Life” (cue Beatles nerds nodding and referencing the recording speed-up trick for that track).

A great example of the kind of exploration the boys are getting down on now is the aforementioned title track. “Tunnel Vision,” after kicking off with a catchy guitar hook and undertones of unifying synth, mellows into an unexpected six-part harmony, a moment in which Gann says he was pushed outside of his comfort zone. The pusher in question was their longtime producer, Cameron Spies, whom they refer to as their fifth member when they’re in the studio.

Collectively, the songs on Tunnel Vision do more than sound sick. They address heavy topics. “Tunnel Vision” tackles climate change; “We Can’t Go Back to Normal” was written in response to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests against police brutality.

“We have about seven songs in progress and about 45 ideas,” Marquette says when I ask what’s in the works. They’ve got an East Coast tour coming up and another tour along the West; they just got back from recording a session at Audiotree in Chicago. The band is excited to get back in the studio with Spies where they plan to continue pushing outside of their comfort zones into some of the inspiring territory of genre-bending the band so admires.

SEE IT: Forty Feet Tall plays at Spoon Benders’ album release at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., 503-231-9663, dougfirlounge.com. 9 pm Friday, May 12. $15. 21+.

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