With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In this installment on Portland, OR, Travis Leipzig talks to local heroes Wampire about the city’s renowned indie rock scene and their new album.
Throw a stone any direction in Portland, Oregon and you’re bound to hit someone that’s in a band.
At least that’s been an ongoing joke for the past decade or so – a consequence of the massive boom in the city’s indie music scene. That isn’t to belittle any bands from Portland – in fact just the opposite. It means that for emerging bands looking to break onto the national or international stage, competition is stiff.
But in a town with such boiling talent, those occasional golden nuggets are also bound to splash out of our tiny melting pot. One of the most recent bands to take such a leap into the greater recognition is Wampire.
Creating a synth-heavy, dark psych pop sound with warm vintage tones and playful production, Wampire came a long way from its beginnings as a two-piece playing house shows nearly ten years ago – their backing band was an iPod tracking electronic beats. Today, in their current format as a proper five-piece act, has finds them touring both national and international circuits with such bands as Temples, Starfucker and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They most recently returned home from a two months touring in support of their recently released sophomore album, Bazzar.
I had the chance to sit down with core members Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps where we discussed the history of the band, their influences, the state of music in Portland, and behind-the-scenes dirt that you can only get here.
Can you tell me about the origins of the band and how Portland comes into that story?
Rocky Tinder: Well we’re both from Salem [Oregon], so our true origin is there. The move to Portland was more about moving away from Salem. When we both relocated to Portland [and not the other guys we were playing with], we just kind of started something new from there. We settled on the name Wampire after having three of four names at once, and everybody saying, “that one is the most charming and memorable, you guys should go with that one.”
What sets Portland apart from other cities for you? Why have you chosen to call it your home?
Rocky: After High School we had a buddy who moved up here, and we were visiting him almost every weekend, going to house shows and eating Voodoo Donuts. And all the weekends were so fun and jam packed with stuff to do every minute. Then we’d get home to Salem and no one wanted to go out. It was just like, smoking weed in my apartment with my friends playing video games.
Eric Phipps: I guess it’s still kind of cheap, even though prices are going up a lot. It’s something that we know, because we grew up around here. It was easy, [laughs], but we like it.
How would you characterize the current music scene in Portland, and how do you fit into that picture?
Rocky: We’ve been here for a really long time, but Eric and I aren’t really constant show-goers. Owen [Thompson, synth/guitar] goes to some shows. Thomas [Hoganson, drums] plays in a bunch of bands, and his brother is the guy who does the Fur Coats. Their house is where we practice and it’s a hub for a lot of different bands and projects. He’s out all the time supporting that scene that lives in his house.
Eric: These days it seems like when we’re at home we’re at work on music, so we don’t go out to shows as much, and then going on tour obviously cheats us of seeing any Portland bands. Sometimes we meet them on the road, which is always nice. But I really like some of the surfier bands in Portland. We don’t feel like we fit into that genre, but we fit alongside them. Bands like Guantanamo Baywatch and The Shivas, they are our go-to bands to play with. I like that aspect of the Portland scene, those guys are great.
Rocky: I’d like to know more Portland bands, but I’m not active enough. I mean, I’m no Bim. [Bim Ditson is a modern local legend in Portland music: Drummer for And And And, founder of Rigsketball, music coordinator for Red Bull Sound Select Portland, and known far and wide for attending more live shows than anyone in town].
Eric: The scene is all about the young bands in Portland though -that’s always been the way it is – the bands that are just graduating high school or whatever. I don’t know where those bands are, because I don’t know if there is a house show scene anymore.
I think that scene still exists, we’re all just about ten years outgrown from it.
Rocky: A lot of times when you go to a house show nowadays, it’s like, Oh fuck, I’m a creep, there are so many kids here. It makes me feel so old. And they’re all just young and still loving alcohol. I want to say, Dude, enjoy it, cause in a few years you’ll be dependent!
Who do you see as some of the most influential artist or bands from Portland’s musical history – past or present?
Rocky: For me it’s our buddy bands. Like Starfucker got us on Polyvinyl. Black and white, they just like got us on that label. That was really cool, and I always really liked that band. And then UMO [Unknown Mortal Orchestra], they’re also buddies and they got us on our first major tour with them. Jake [Portrait, bassist for UMO] records our albums and is a good friend. So they are all influential as people that have given us a leg up. Then there are the Portland heroes, like The Wipers.
Are there any aspects that you dislike about the Portland music scene or things that you think could help make the community stronger?
Eric: I think there’s a little bit of something that I’ve picked up on, seeing how other cities work too. Maybe I don’t know enough about the small scenes in other cities, but it seems like the scene here is really small and people should be working together more. People kind of pretend like they’re working together but really they’re trying to one-up each other all the time and competing in really trife ways.
Our friend Jerry’s band opened for us and Temples at the Hawthorne Theater, and there was this vicious rumor going around that they paid to get the opening slo,t or something stupid like that. I just feel like that’s a weird rumor to start to try to get at a band that you should be proud of for playing a show like that. That sort of vibe I’m not a fan of, I think that could change.
Rocky: I feel like that happens a lot with band-dudes where they get this weird machismo competitive nature. We’ve experienced this a lot in the past, like when somebody doesn’t like our band, they’ll judge us as people. It’s such a weird thing when that has to happen because the way I see it, if you play music, we’re all kind of on the same team. Maybe people are just getting too serious in Portland.
Eric: It seems like it’s a budding city as far as music industry is starting to happen, but there’s never been so much of that, so maybe it’s just a kind of growing pain that the town is going through.
As the central and founding members of the band, you have been making music together for years. What helped you decide to move away from the grittiness of previously self released material and to boost production quality for Curiosity and Bazaar?
Rocky: I think a lot of it was just wanting to be a rock band more than ever. Before it was like enjoying the naiveté of making a project that was weird. Playing with hybrid drums and an iPod, the whole thing was really just about having fun and not giving a shit. Then after a while we were like well, it’d be really fun to do a live band. And that was right when we got a record deal. It was a good time to get signed and capture what we were doing, because it’s still where we’re at, playing with a live band and thinking that’s the best set up.
Can you talk a bit about the new album?
Eric: We did it on two-inch tape, which was fun. We had a big studio with a baby grand piano. It was just really nice to work in a space that was conducive to creating sounds that would be really memorable and very hi-fi but still gritty.
Rocky: This one was really fun too because we had a short timeline to do it in, so that kind of created this pressure to only enjoy the experience. With Curiosity, it was our first one, and I feel like there were so many micro-conversations: recording a song and then ditching it, and starting things over and trying out new stuff. This one was more like getting in the studio with Jake – we made a lot of demos, so we had already kind of picked out what was going to work – and then it was all go, go, go! For the most part we liked everything, we had a good time and didn’t get stressed out by the process.
You’ve just returned from a couple months of touring behind Bazaar. What are your plans looking ahead?
Rocky: The tour was seven weeks in support of the album. We’re doing another three weeks in Europe, and then don’t really have any plans for next year. I think we kind of missed the window to book for South by Southwest (SXSW) so I guess we’re just looking kind of beyond that.
Do you already have plans for a new record?
Rocky: We’re planning on it. I haven’t started anything yet, but once we get home from Europe, since we won’t have anything to do, we’ll start writing.
So do you guys typically write music separately?
Rocky: We usually just both write in our bedrooms and then collaborate closer to when the songs are complete.
Eric: In the beginning we would definitely write songs together, because we were scrambling to start the band before a house party. That was kind of how it started. But on this last one, we were just coming off of tour and got into our rooms and just started coming up with as many song ideas as possible. And when we got to New York, it was trying to pick through those and find the ones that blended well on an album. That’s kind of how we’ve settled on our writing.
Travis Leipzig is a Portland native and has been actively involved in the local music scene for over a decade. He is the editor in chief for The Deli Portland Magazine, as well as a staff writer for Eleven PDX Magazine. Travis plays the bass guitar and sings backing vocals for local experimental indie/psych bands Aan and The We Shared Milk. When not engulfed in music, he spends his time snowboarding on Mt. Hood, or skateboarding in Oregon’s various world-renowned skate parks.
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