Portland Rock Trivia

Twelve absolutely random things you didn't know about the Portland music scene.

1. MusicfestNW began as the bastard child of SXSW

Before MusicfestNW, there was NXNW. If that moniker sounds a bit familiar, it should: When North by Northwest first hit Portland in 1995, it was a co-production of Willamette Week and Austin's (now massive) SXSW festival, which did all of the booking. It was, as former WW Music Editor Zach Dundas remembers, a rocky marriage from the start. "There was a lot of angst in the scene in general," Dundas says. "It was perceived as being this outside thing…this kind of alien outgrowth." In his role as music editor, Dundas was flown to SXSW headquarters in Austin for a few days each year, where he would hunker down and construct a festival guide. For two years, he found nice things to say about every band on the festival bill—even the awful ones. But for the festival's third and final year, he changed his game plan.

"I resolved to tell the truth that year in the guide," Dundas says. "And no one stood in my way, which was to both Willamette Week's credit and short-term detriment. And I wrote some very uncomplimentary things about the bands in the guide. I can see now how this would be a slap in the face. This was the official guide." Shortly thereafter, relations between WW and SXSW took a turn for the worse. The third year of NXNW would be the last—the in-house MusicfestNW, which Dundas would initially help book, began in 2001—though WW Editor Mark Zusman insists Dundas was not to blame for the divorce. "It wasn't really an exportable commodity," Zusman says of the Austin-based festival. "But I'm forever grateful, because we learned how to do this at their feet. And, obviously, they do OK." CJ.

2. The (mechanical) ghost of "Louie Louie" still haunts Portland

Most folks know that the classic version of "Louie Louie" was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 in the Rose City. What's less well known is that the mastering machine used to cut that vinyl 45 is still here—and still in action.

The 1954 Presto 88 record lathe is owned by Portland punk icons Fred and Toody Cole, previously of Dead Moon and currently of Pierced Arrows. 

Originally the property of radio station KISN, the lathe was acquired by Fred in four separate cardboard boxes in 1987. He managed to restore it to working order and has used it to master his bands' vinyl releases ever since.

The massive piece of old-school gear is mono only, but it has compensating advantages. "When it's on, I don't have to heat the bedroom it's in," Fred says. MS.

3. Portland is an enclave for legendary punk drummers

A few months ago, a transaction took place at Revival Drum Shop in Northeast Portland that would've sent the heads of old L.A. punks spinning. Tim Leitch sold the banged-up set he thrashed for hardcore legends Fear to Bobby Schayer, who drummed for the equally iconic Bad Religion during the band's early-'90s prime. While the Portland punk scene has produced its share of well-regarded skin-beaters—including Andrew Loomis of Dead Moon and Sam Henry of the Wipers—in recent years the city has become a magnet for old-school road warriors looking to settle down. "I thought I might retire here one day," Leitch says. After relocating from New York in 2005, though, the former Spit Stix member didn't exactly plant himself on the porch. He began producing local bands, and eventually wound up back behind the kit, drumming for freak punks Nasalrod. "I find myself with kindred spirits," Leitch says. MPS.

4. Never been Kissed

Around Portland, Mel Brown is known as the "gentleman of jazz." He was almost a face-painted member of Kiss. The smiling, congenial accountant-by-day now moonlights as the city's most heralded jazz drummer. Some people know his résumé includes countless jazz pieces and a lengthy stint as a session player with Motown Records. But in the early '80s, when Brown was playing drums for Diana Ross, he got an offer too juicy to refuse—from Kiss. "Gene Simmons was dating Diana at that time, and he enjoyed my playing," Brown explains. With Peter Criss long out of the band—and a revolving door of longhaired rock drummers taking the stool in his stead—Simmons asked Brown to go on a one-month tour. Brown agreed, but when Simmons checked with his girlfriend, she refused to let Brown go. "She booked a one-nighter in the middle of the proposed tour, so that I wouldn't be available," Brown recalls. "Hence, my chance to be the drummer for Kiss was quashed.” 

Eventually, another Portlander would take the job Brown always wanted. Tommy Thayer, a graduate of Beaverton's Sunset High School and guitarist for Portland rock outfit Black 'N Blue, has been a longtime guitarist with Kiss. CJ.

5. Let's get physical, part one

In a time when record stores nationwide are closing up shop, Portland is opening new ones: Beacon Sound, Clinton Street Records, Boom Wow! Records, Little Axe Records and bar/record-store hybrid Record Room have all opened in the past three years, while longtime indie record stores like 360 Vinyl and Anthem Records have chosen to move to new locales rather than shut down or go digital. According to Music Millennium owner Terry Currier, Portland has as many record stores as it did in the '70s, and more per capita than any other U.S. city. "[We] could have the most record stores period," Currier adds.

Alice Larsen's record store, the boxy, vinyl-only Mississippi Avenue MLK Blvd. shop Boom Wow Records, began 2½ years ago as a way to unload some 7,000 records she and boyfriend Tim Zagelow had boxed up in her dining room. The plan was to open a storefront for six months, sell all the LPs for $1 a piece, then shut down. But the store—originally called 99 Cent Records—turned out to be commercially viable. "We didn't even think about the economy or the fact that record stores across the country were closing," Larsen says. The couple tweaked their business model (though there are still plenty of $1 records), changed the store's name to Boom Wow and became a real-life record store. Larsen, who recently quit her bartending job of 10 years to focus on the store, is happy to see other stores opening as well. "I think we all have something different to offer," she says. "Maybe that's why it works."

6. Let's get physical, part two

Of course, record stores aren't the only way this city moves music. Portland's CD Baby—which claims to be the world's largest distributor of independent music—sold 343,000 compact discs through July, a 1 percent uptick in sales from 2011. It doesn't sound like much until you consider that nationally CD sales were down 13 percent for the year through Aug. 5, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Despite its name, CD Baby sells vastly more digital albums than it does CDs, but the uptick in physical sales is still surprising. "I don't think anybody else can say that," company president Brian Felsen wrote in a press release. “Not Walmart, not Best Buy, not the major labels.” 

Kevin Breuner, CD Baby's director of marketing, says expanded distribution (from about 2,300 brick-and-mortar stores to 15,000) and new partnerships—especially abroad—have improved the company's numbers. "The thing people tend to forget is that the whole world isn't walking around with iPhones and access to iTunes," he says. "In some pockets of the world, the CD is still the format of choice. We're not just talking about Third World countries, we're talking about [places like] Brazil." But CD Baby has another advantage: Fans want to support the independent artists it distributes. "People feel like they're buying a piece of the artist when they buy a CD," Breuner says. CJ.

7. The lady can surf

Susan Surftone bills herself as having the only female-fronted instrumental surf-rock band in the U.S.—and she's pretty sure it's true. "There's a woman named Ronnie Lake in the Midwest; occasionally she pops up as having a band," says Surftone—born Susan Yasinski—from her home in Portland. Though she has never surfed, Yasinski is inarguably the most prolific female surf frontwoman on the planet, having released more than a dozen albums over two decades in music. In 2000, she relocated from New York to Portland ("I love the weather," she says) and rebuilt her band, the Surftones, with local musicians. Slowly but surely, she has connected with—and in some cases unearthed—local surf acts, a handful of which are featured on a new compilation called PDX A Go-Go: Making Waves Up North. None of those groups, of course, have women playing lead guitar. "I just play because I like to play," Surftone says. "I didn't set out to cut a path or anything. But if some girls pick the guitar up with the idea of being a lead guitarist because they heard my stuff, that would make me feel pretty good." CJ.

8. Think of MySpace's band pages, but better

MySpace pages may have been ugly and clunky, but there's a reason just about every band had one: They provided musicians with an all-in-one portal to share MP3s, gig calendars, photos and videos in one place, free, with no Web design knowledge. Funny as it sounds, the decline of MySpace left a massive hole that has yet to be filled. Enter Portland-based CASH Music, which hopes to do for musicians "what Wordpress did for bloggers." Helmed by former Kill Rock Stars VP Maggie Vail and designer Jessie von Doom, with input from some of the city's top tech and marketing talent and musicians like Throwing Muses' Kristen Hersh and geek god Jonathan Coulton, the nonprofit is building a product that could not only pick up where MySpace left off but genuinely shake up the industry.

The free and open-source platform will allow bands to build sites where they can stream music, share tour dates, sell tickets, run mailing lists and competitions, and, most importantly, sell their music directly to fans with no middle man, keeping 100 percent of the profits. The CASH Music platform is already available to developers, and the full public hosted version is expected to go live in October. RB. Maggie Vail speaks at MusicfestNW's sister tech and music conference, PDX, on Thursday, Sept. 6.

9. The radio station of tomorrow is here today

Transplants to Portland have bragged for years about the great underground radio in their hometowns. Stations like Seattle's KEXP and New York's WFMU became legendary by focusing on independent music that mattered. In spite of its vibrant music scene, historically Portland has had nothing like them—unless you count dancing to public-policy forums on KBOO.

This sad state of affairs has come to an end with the advent of KZME-FM 107.1, a station whose stated objective is to follow in the footsteps of those awesome stations your new roommate won't shut up about. (Full disclosure: This reporter's band played a benefit show for the station in July.)

The station's focus on what KZME honcho Dennise Kowalczyk calls "music made here, heard here or discovered here" leaves plenty of wiggle room for out-of-town bands to find their way onto its playlists, but Portland acts still dominate its volunteer-staffed shows. "KEXP is amazing," Kowalczyk says. “We want to be Portland’s version.” 

With the backing of established Gresham nonprofit Metro East Community Media, KZME seems to have a fighting chance in the challenging world of community radio.

"We just want to keep growing and growing," Kowalczyk says. "We're just a baby station." MS.

10. Smoking-hot shows

When Oregon banned cigarettes in bars and restaurants in 2009, smokers immediately started looking for loopholes. One of those, cited by musicians and showbiz folk often enough to become a local urban legend, is indeed written into the law: "A performer may smoke or carry a lighted smoking instrument…while performing in a scripted stage, motion picture or television production." Comedian Doug Stanhope supposedly exploited it at a Dante's performance, asking the audience onstage to smoke cigarettes with him. "You're all part of my act," local music PR man Alex Steininger remembers Stanhope telling the crowd.

That's the same exception that Casey Neill's Pogues cover band, KMRIA, took advantage of while smoking onstage in a 2009 concert. "I don't recall the Doug Fir complaining," Neill says. "I do remember they were bummed that we ended the show by firing cans of Silly String at each other."

Considering that Oregon is a state whose Supreme Court ruled to protect onstage sex in 2005, the smoking loophole makes sense. Other states—Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Minnesota among them—make similar exceptions for performances. There's just one problem: While civilized smokers can argue over what is and isn't "scripted," the devil is in the details here. That ellipsis in the aforementioned legal mumbo-jumbo? We left out the part that says, "a lighted smoking instrument that does not contain tobacco."

Neill quit cigarettes and Stanhope no longer smokes onstage. "It irritates people," he told an interviewer in 2010. "Not the nonsmokers. Fuck them. But the smokers see you smoke and then they're just staring at your cigarette and not listening to the words." CJ.

11. A gathering storm…of metal!

With a few notable exceptions, Portland has never been renowned for its metal exports. That has changed in the past five years. "I do more work [in Portland] than I do anywhere else in the world," says Los Angeles-based super producer Billy Anderson. Can the man behind the board on countless albums by Sleep, Neurosis and the Melvins possibly be talking about our quaint little indie-rock town? Indeed. “There are more heavy bands here than there ever has been,” he adds. 

This year alone, Danava has toured Europe twice. Agalloch graduated from a van to a bus. Eugene-Portland doom metal band YOB has recently opened shows for Tool, Slayer and Ozzy. Portland hard-rock act Red Fang just toured Russia. Still doubting Portland's rep as an international metal capital? Pitchfork named Atriarch's Forever the End one of its top 40 metal albums of 2011, and NPR dedicated a podcast to the scene. We even have a heavy metal-themed pizza joint in Sizzle Pie. All of this has been enough to persuade Anderson to move here later this year. "It's a no-brainer for me," he says. NC.

12. Tom Waits leered here, but where?

Well before our sleepy burg achieved its renown as an indie-rock butcher for the world, we were widely regarded for our strip clubs. Tom Waits sings of ogling strippers and seeing "Portland through a shot glass" in "Pasties and a G-String (at the Two O'Clock Club)," from his classic 1976 album, Small Change. Local legend has it the icon had fallen for the charms of downtown mainstay Mary's Club. Not everyone agrees.

"I would find it surprising that he wrote it specifically about Mary's Club," says Lucy Fur. A favored dancer from 1998 to 2005—to signal her farewell, the marquee changed wording for the first time in decades—Fur is currently a burlesque performer in Los Angeles, but remains close to the bar's ownership. "I feel like it's more probable that it was written about the Carriage Room, which closed in '82 or '83. The Carriage Room was [owner Roy Keller's] other club, and it was much larger. It would've had room for a band, while Mary's only had a piano.

"Mary's tended to have the best strip-club music I've ever heard anywhere. It was something of a matter of pride for people, so the fact that lots and lots of girls danced to [the song] there doesn't necessarily suggest anything to me," Fur continues. "I know I've seen quite a few girls strip to that song at Mary's, but Tom Waits' music was popular in general—people would dance to 'Hollywood and Vine.'"

Mr. Waits declined to comment. “He doesn’t usually answer specifics about songs,” his publicist said. JH. 

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