Across the country, Portland Oregon is known for its “indie-rock” scene – some might even call it the “indie” capital of the nation.
But what is “indie,” anyway? Indie might be defined as anything produced independent of corporate record labels, but some see it as an entire genre of its own – complete with a distinct culture. Iconic bands like Arcade Fire and Panda Bear, or Beirut and The Postal Service once defined “indie” with their unique underground sound and independent record label releases. Now, however, the term seems to have expanded, encompassing not only music but fashionable trends and the Do-It-Yourself persona in general. Portland has a certain indie-hipster culture, that much cannot be denied (enter flannels and Pabst Blue Ribbon). But is Portland rock really that “independent” sounding? And does this “indie” vibe interfere with the quality of the music?
Local acts often stick out by their names. Among the weirdest are “Ninja Turtle Ninja Tiger,” “And And And,” or “ONUINU” (try saying that last one aloud to make sense of it). It's almost as if choosing a strikingly odd name is some unspoken qualification for Portland bands – a way of boasting how far they dare go to be non-conformist.
The names may be overkill in the trendy department, but many of these bands' tracks are shockingly unplagued by this lame attempt at uniqueness. Call them hipster all you want, but Portland bands know their stuff when it comes to their instruments, and they have no problem writing catchy songs. Whether it be aforementioned Ninja Turtle Ninja Tiger and their spacey Killers-esque ballads, or Minden's mellow upbeat melodies, with falsetto crooning that rings of a tighter Shins or MGMT, one thing is for sure: these Portland acts dream of world-wide stadium circuits, and their songs show it.
However, no matter what stadiums these bands dream of playing, the reality of the Portland indie-rock scene lies in a sporadic assortment of the city's bars and small(ish) venues. These places range from tiny and packed to awkward and empty, so bands know they need a draw, and even more importantly, they need to entertain.
That's where bands like Adventure Galley and Radiation City shine. If frontmen in mascara and pirate hats are any clue, these artists are committed to making each live show an event worth your time and money. Many Portland acts are so geared toward live performance that they almost bleed energy into their audiences; every ounce of songwriting seems calibrated to make the gig a blast, even down to the lyrics. Case in point, the explicit chorus of Adventure Galley's hit Addict: “Energy upbeat, under my feet / under my feet, energy upbeat” – repeated over and over, until all you can do is dance.
Yet as some acts strive for originality and ardor, some lack this live zeal and creativity in favor of molding songs directly from established sounds. ONUINU comes to mind, an artist self-proclaimed as “disco-hop,” with tracks like Happy Home that seem ripped straight from a Neon Indian album, complete with barely-comprehensible vocals and over-the-top synths.
So is Portland really the indie-rock capital? It depends what you consider “indie-rock.” Portland bands have a decidedly hipster attitude, but if you can get past the amateur names and blundering bravado, the mass of cigarettes and mustaches and ironic Ts, you'll find that these artists aren't all that unique. They're “independent,” but they're far from alone in their sound. Maybe that's not a bad thing. Popular bands are popular for a reason: they're fun to listen to.
And if you delve beneath that surface layer of “indie,” with those quirky names and hipster trends, most Portland music sounds pretty good.