Holocene: The Lone Techno Bastion

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Five years ago, the stylish white cube that is the club Holocene stood out in Portland like a Vespa in a remote jungle village.This was before the L.A.-in-the-Northwest rock club Doug Fir Lounge opened, before the sweaty postage stamp of a dancefloor at Branx was there–before indie-rock Portland had really decided it was okay to dance. The sad archetype of Portland’s indie scene looked something like The Yardbirds show in Antonioni’s Blow Up–hipsters standing in front of a rock band like a terra cotta army.

“When we were building Holocene five-and-a-half years ago, the dance scene was really downtown, top 40, hip-hop on one side–and warehouse rave [on the other side]–and then some weird, David Chandler-in-a-Chinese-restaurant kind of stuff,” says Scott McLean, one of Holocene’s owners. “People were probably dancing and there were probably 18 of them.”

Co-owner JarkkoCain agrees: “There was a time a few years ago where I wouldn’t use the word ‘techno’ because it would freak people out.”

Portland’s landscape has changed in the last five years. An influx of newcomers has meant aggressive gentrification in many areas of the city–neighborhoods that were once gritty (by Northwest standards) now boast condo blocks and stylish bars, including the central Eastside ’hood that Holocene calls home. The club’s environs are at the boundary between the east side’s residential neighborhoods and the industrial districts that hug the Willamette River, Portland’s natural bisecting feature.

Chantelle Hylton, who ran Portland’s dominant promotions company, Blackbird Presents, for eight years and now manages booking at NY’s Knitting Factory, perfectly sums up what Holocene meant to the city. “Holocene happened to Portland at just the right time in the evolution of our greater subcultural awareness as a city just beginning to burst with immigrating artists,” she says. “In the physical space, they expressed a certain self-conscious artistic sophistication we hadn’t seen–and the music they brought with them stoked and cultivated an entirely new scene, sort of a mash-up of the Portland underground at the time with the global electronic scenes [that the Holocene owners] came from.”

Marius Libman (a.k.a. Copy), an electro-inspired 8-bit producer and local favorite, concurs: “It wasn’t really until Holocene opened that there was more of a focus on [dance music]. They started bringing touring acts. [Now], there’s a lot more openness to it. I think Holocene ushered that in.” He adds, “I owe a lot to them for helping me find my audience.”

The club was a bold move. McLean and Cain were both living in San Francisco when the idea was hatched, but they spared themselves the pain and near-certain failure of opening a new dance club there, where the scene was already soaked through. “In the beginning, no one was really sure if dance parties that were geeky about the music they played and arty electronic music was ever going to [draw] more than 50 [people] in a bar or a basement,” Cain recalls. “Now, that’s not even a question.”

Portland is still far from being a hotbed for techno music. (“Honestly, there’s really no techno scene here, except the DJs that are playing it,” Cain admits.) But the city’s thriving ambient and experimental communities have frequently found refuge at the club. And the club’s calendar reflects that Portland is still a rock (and folk) town: On any given night, you’re likely to find a guitar and a drum kit on stage.

Talking to Cain and McLean, it’s obvious this wasn’t Holocene’s ideal, but it has adapted and survived. “The city has turned into more of a dancing city,” McLean says. “There’s been a sort of circling back around the purest thing we were originally most interested in,” adds Cain. “People are into electronic music.”

Favorite Portland Artists:
Jarkko Cain: Corrina Repp

Scott McLean: Grouper