Turn on Tune In: Portland's Vibe Tribe
- Words: Michael Byrne
It was billed as the “24 Hour Concert and Vibe Zone.”
From five in the afternoon on Saturday through five the following Sunday, something like 15 artists–but likely much more in the end–set the atmosphere in a hand-constructed silver geodesic dome located inside a performance-art practice space called the Hippodrome. Strategy’s Paul Dickow played cassette tape loops. Jackie-O Motherfucker’s Tom Greenwood DJed odd records. Yellow Swans’ Gabe Mindell and White Rainbow’s Adam Forkner improvised together. Valet jammed to an almost empty dome.
This is the kind of thing that happens in Portland’s so-weird-it’s-normal psych-drone-vibe community. No matter how aboveground its artists get–White Rainbow and Valet have both released lauded records on Kranky in the past year; Jackie-O Motherfucker remains one of the most enigmatic, revered bands in psych-folk anywhere; Strategy has released a breadth of material since the ’90s, ranging from dubstep-y house hybrids to acid techno to dubby ambience–they never stop conducting strange experiments and cosmic séances in the underground.
It’s a formidable scene–one that also is home to something as awesomely ridiculous as Rob Walmart, an imperfectly perfect, impromptu node of Portland’s posi-vibe crew. The first time I saw this… band (collective? gathering?) was in the parking lot outside a New Year’s Eve indie-rock show headlined by Quasi. I’d heard about Rob before from Forkner, but could never tell how much I was being fucked with. Rob gets spoken of in the third person, always; Rob is concerned about lawsuits and would appreciate Rob details being left out of Willamette Week.
Sometime between 11 and midnight, something started thumping from the lot in back of the now-defunct art space Disjecta. A pale blue minivan with “Rob Walmart” written in soap or paint all over the windows was parked there with all of its doors open. Dudes–Forkner, Audio Dregs honcho Eric Mast (a.k.a. E*Rock), and others–huddled over sound gear, blasting out thick, crunchy off-time beats over mottled skronk and droning loops. Another gentleman, local poet Tom Blood, freestyled verse, almost as though he were rapping, into a microphone. (It should be noted that this display didn’t attract a crowd.)
“[Tom Blood] is like the visionary speaker psychic,” explains Valet’s Honey Owens. “The other guys are like the producers. I feel like Rob Walmart is kind of like the Wu-Tang Clan.”
“One person that’s a part of Rob put it well when they said, ‘Rob has no motivations to ever get better or to ever succeed. Just to stay weird,’” Forkner tells me from his home in Portland, adding, “Pretty much anybody can get in to play if they really want to. But usually Rob is something people try to get as far away as possible from.”
Rob Walmart is ill-defined and fluid–factors that make it one of the most resonant signifiers for a subculture that characterizes itself less by a sound than by a feeling. Styles of music range from the awkward-by-design out-folk of Adrian Orange (once known as Thanksgiving) to the new New Age ambient work of White Rainbow, from the crimson-hued drone-blues of Valet to White Fang’s teenaged basement punk. If it comes together aesthetically, it’s in the relentless positivism of the community. “There’s so much negativity in the world on so many different levels,” Owens says. “It’s [about] wanting to reside in so much more of a positive state. It just makes more sense.”
“Portland is not a scene in an ‘uber’ sense,” Forkner says. “It’s not a community of people all going for one sound. It’s a community of people that support each other’s creativity wherever it might go. I think it’s an important distinction. Everybody’s motivations are different but we all support each other’s absolute freedom to create whatever they have a vision of. I think that is really special here.”
“We are realizing we need to stick to together,” Owens adds. “We need each other. We don’t want to be divided and conquered. I have a feeling that people in general, in the past eight years or more, are sick of negative vibes.”
White Fang is one of the more charming stories of the tribe. As Owens tells it, they were a group of kids, literally, who would frequent shows by Marriage Records artists (Yacht, Dirty Projectors) that were held at an all-ages basement venue in southeast Portland called The Artistery. They became unavoidable and–however brash they are aesthetically–assimilated themselves as the punk little brothers of this community of veteran musicians. (Forkner has since taken them on tour, and occasionally refers to himself as their manager.)
Though White Fang runs their own cassette label, Gnar Tapes, this year marks their major-label (by Portland standards) debut, a full-length called Pure Evil on Marriage Records. They’re “just like little house-show terrorists of love,” says Owens. “[It’s] like love-terrorism. They have a similar ‘family band’ aesthetic [to Rob Walmart]. [Someone’s] job might be to, like, play percussion or dance around while they play. It’s really simple but really awesome. It’s like an energy experience watching them.”
Taken together, all this music is some of the most liberated, and critically successful to come out of such a small grouping of people in a long time. Forkner attributes this success to “an aesthetic appreciation for openness.”
“[That openness leaves room for] the mystery and danger of what can happen,” Forkner says. “It can open up the motivations and intentions of a project to a multitude of interactions. There’s not, like, a formed aesthetic. It’s about creating a place where there is complete freedom to do whatever you want to do.”
Pete Swanson, of the now-defunct psych-noise duo Yellow Swans (and a good friend of both Owens and Forkner) describes Portland’s underground in more tactile terms: “There’s a certain amount of restlessness that happens here–there’s that cliché about the [rainy] winters here and having a lot of time to yourself. And there [are] lots of inquisitive and informed people [in Portland].”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, these are post-everything hippies that have everything and nothing figured out at the same time, not to mention brilliant musicians and deep thinkers. (Poet Tom Blood, the Rob Walmart MC, won an Oregon Book Award last year.) You’d wonder why there isn’t a more noxious obliviousness to this vibe squad. Turns out they’ve just turned on and tuned in to the Portland that, as Forkner puts it, “allows you to create your own world.”
MP3: Valet "Kehaar"
Favorite Portland artist:
Adam Forkner: White Fang!
Honey Owens: Tom Blood. He’s the one that’s been influencing me the most since being in this scene. I feel like he is tapping into some sort of visionary vapor ethereal magic. Something that’s, like, beyond himself.
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