Audio Jacked

Does Portland have an instrument-theft problem?

LIVING ON BORROWED INSTRUMENTS: San Fermin performing at Turner Hall in Milwaukee in January.

As the members of San Fermin stood in the parking lot of the Red Lion Hotel near Portland International Airport last October, staring at their rented tour van, it took them a moment to process what was going on.

"The first person to say anything was our trumpet player, John," says Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the band's lead songwriter. "He goes, 'Does this look right to you?'"

The Brooklyn-based chamber-pop ensemble was at the tail end of a West Coast swing that brought it to Bunk Bar the night before. That evening after the show, as the eight musicians slept, someone used a blowtorch to remove the trailer holding nearly all of their gear. The band lost just about everything: guitars, a drum set, pedals, a baritone saxophone. Ludwig-Leone estimates the robbery set the group, which returns to Portland this week, back about $20,000.

"It was pretty remarkable how thoroughly it destroyed us," he says.

Holland Andrews can certainly relate. In January, the singer, who performs under the name Like a Villain, had several instruments burglarized from her home in Southeast Portland. Along with a tenor sax, a bass clarinet and three of her boyfriend's guitars, the thieves took a laptop containing recordings meant for her upcoming album. Oh, and a taxidermied bat, too. "It's like having a good friend move away or die," she says.

Many other Portland artists know the feeling. While music equipment accounted for less than 1 percent of total reported thefts in the city last year, according to the Portland Police Bureau, in anecdotal terms, Portland has earned a reputation as a place where musicians must keep an especially watchful eye on their gear. "A lot of bands I've met have had problems in Portland," Ludwig-Leone says, "which is really too bad, because it's such a great music city otherwise."

"It's a problem everywhere, but it does seem to be acutely terrible here," says Dewey Mahood, a manager at Trade Up Music on Northeast Alberta Street. He says hardly a day passes when someone doesn't come in looking for a recently stolen instrument: Moments before Mahood and I spoke on the phone, Paul Brainard, a Portland musician who's played on sessions with She & Him and Eels, came by the store searching for a lap steel taken from his car the previous night. Mahood feels these aren't just crimes of opportunity. "I think it's pretty well-planned and done methodically,” he says. 

Brent Bates, a former officer with the Police Bureau's Special Property Investigations unit, doubts criminals are specifically targeting instruments. Most thefts are the result of "car prowls," he says, in which thieves nab anything they can see through a window.

He agrees it's a problem, though. In 2005, Bates helped develop the Regional Automated Property Information Database, which requires secondhand stores, including Trade Up, in Multnomah and surrounding counties to enter a description of any expensive item into the database to check it against police reports before it's cleared for resale. When it comes to music-related thefts, though, RAPID has been an inefficient tool for recovery: Of the 239 cases of reported instrument theft in Portland in 2013, only 18 resulted in recovered property. 

That's partly because thieves like to use difficult-to-track markets such as Craigslist, but also because people fail to keep proper documentation of their valuables. A new component of the RAPID system, called Homewatch, allows users to store property information online, including photos and, most crucially, serial numbers, so that in the event of a theft, the information can be sent to an investigator. "The whole idea is to get better-informed victims," Bates says.

For San Fermin and Holland Andrews, though, their only recourse so far has been to hold benefit concerts and fundraisers to help recoup at least part of their losses. Andrews says she has "virtually no idea" how to recreate the songs on her stolen laptop, because they were largely improvised. Police did eventually find San Fermin's trailer, after the band had returned to New York. Nothing was inside except a case of warm Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“It was like adding insult to injury,” Ludwig-Leone says. “They left our shitty beer and took everything else.” 

SEE IT: San Fermin plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Son Lux and the Beauty, on Saturday, March 1. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+. A benefit for Holland Andrews, featuring Au, members of Typhoon and special guests, is at Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., on Sunday, March 2. 8 pm. $5-$20 sliding scale. 21+.

Top Five Notable Portland Instrument Thefts


OWNER: The Decemberists
WHEN: March 2005
WHAT: A trailer full of equipment, which was found abandoned on the side of a logging road in Boring. Stolen items included a vintage Martin guitar given to Colin Meloy by his sister and an Italian reed-style accordion belonging to Jenny Conlee.

OWNER: Thara Memory
WHEN: July 2011
WHAT: A custom-made trumpet, taken when the Grammy-winning jazz musician was moving out of a downtown condo. It was recovered along Highway 30 in Northwest Portland.

OWNER: Jennifer Batten
WHEN: January 2013
WHAT: A Washburn JB 100 electric guitar, autographed by Jimmy Page. It was found on East Burnside Street outside Casa Del Matador, near where it was taken from the Sandy-based session guitarist’s vehicle.

OWNER: Nick Jaina (pictured)
WHEN: October 2013
WHAT: A Blueridge acoustic guitar, half-stained purple with an “I Heart New Orleans” sticker, grabbed from the songwriter’s car.

OWNER: Allen Poole
WHEN: January 2014
WHAT: A 19th-century heirloom Martin guitar, a violin from the early 1900s and a rare LaPolla cello. Poole, an amateur musician, recovered the cello from a flea market and found it had some curious adjustments that could only be made by a highly skilled musician.

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