When most people think of the music scene in Portland, Oregon, they probably think guitars (and the beards that buff them). And it’s true: No disrespect to Nu Shooz, but, from the Wipers to the Shins, rock’n’roll has long been Portland’s brightest musical beacon.
In recent years, however, the sounds of classic house and disco have been bubbling up across town, both at established clubs like Holocene and also in dive bars, renegade warehouse parties and dusk-to-dawn gatherings on the banks of Sauvie Island, in the Columbia River. It’s a diverse scene comprising seasoned ravers alongside reformed indie rockers; as with many things in the Pacific Northwest, it’s resolutely DIY and not unaffected by the craze for all things artisanal. I had friends in the city who were painstakingly assembling a replica of the sound system from David Mancuso’s club the Loft in their very own warehouse space, one eBay purchase at a time.
Honey Owens and Rafael Fauria are emblematic of Portland’s analog-obsessed, family-oriented house community. Owens used to play in noise rockers Jackie-O Motherfucker as well as the experimental electronic group Nudge, but the Miracles Club, her group with Fauria, is an entirely different proposition: live house music played on vintage machines. They take their musical cues from the keyboard-driven jams of late-1980s Chicago and New York/New Jersey, and, in stark contrast to indie rock’s no-frills aesthetic, their stage show and their videos stress wild sartorial choices and elaborate dance moves. (A third member, Ryan Boyle, is the group’s resident dancer.)
Now, they draw a wider circle with a new compilation, Ecstasy, released on their Ecstasy imprint. (That’s also the name of a blog they’ve maintained since 2010.) Featuring artists from the Bay Area (Bobby Browser, Breath Control), Düsseldorf (Garben Eden) and Brooklyn (Alexis Blair Penney) alongside current or former Portlanders like Etbonz, Leech (Nudge’s Brian Foote) and Gemini Lion (Justin from Purple and Green), the comp casts a wide net, but the emphasis throughout is on Roland drum-machine patterns, lush synthesizers and extreme fealty to the house aesthetic developed in the late 1980s on labels like Trax, D.J. International and Nu Groove.
As with Los Angeles’ 100% Silk label — friends and allies of the Miracles Club and their Portland peers — there’s a certain curatorial sensibility at work, which has occasionally led these artists to be branded with the unfortunate tag of “hipster house.” But the reality is that a huge swathe of the house and techno community is currently preoccupied with retro forms. Artists as diverse as the Dutch analog maverick Legowelt and Boston’s 1990s-obsessed Soul Clap balance on the edge between paean and pastiche. And while the comp includes some seriously retro jams, like Emotion II Emotion’s “Night and Day,” songs like Leech’s “Edgewise” and Garben Eden’s “Feel Good Agency” twist up old-school machine vibes into sounds untethered from any particular era.
On my own trips back to Portland over the years, I’ve had some contact with the crew — several years ago, I DJed for one of Owens and Fauria’s first parties, at a grotty dive bar called Dunes — but, without being there, it’s hard to get a sense of what the local DIY house scene is like on the ground. (Surely it can’t all be like Portlandia‘s “Wanna Come to My DJ Night?” sketch.) I reached out to Owens to ask about Ecstasy, the Miracles Club and the state of underground dance music in town; she responded with a series of lengthy e-mails explaining the ins and outs of their community.
The genesis of the Miracles Club
I was heavily into electronic, funk, shoegaze, psyche, and I started getting into modern house music via Brian Foote. He and I always chat and share music; I have to say that he is kind of my personal record store. In 2007/8 I had opened a clothing store with some friends, so I’d be at the shop playing music for like 9 or 10 hours a day. I was like “Brian, dude, I neeeeed some new stuff,” and I had been going through the Grateful Dead archives a little too often, as default. Brian started sending me stuff by Runaway [the New York duo of Jacques Renault and Marcos Cabral] and the first Hercules and Love Affair before it came out. It really spoke to me. Then, about nine months later, I started to date Rafael, and on our first hang sesh, we both had the same house music on our iPods. He had been pretty much exclusively listening to rap at the time, which was fascinating to me. I guess his aunt used to work at Motown, and he was always really into rhythm and blues, soul, rap and such. House music was a very natural next step for him after wearing out the other genres, I suppose. He was the one who really went deep into the house vibes, and that’s when we started finding other people in town who had been into it from the get.
Spreading the Ecstasy
We have been doing a night called Ecstasy for the past couple years. It started as a few of us DJing at Valentine’s once a month. Rafael and I along with a couple friends would bring a few records and just hang out. After a while, we started booking live acts and DJing, so we moved it to Holocene. It’s pretty fun so far. There are artists who set up elaborate video stations and trips. Then we have the core group of DJs that support a live act or another group of DJs, the most recent being Honey Sound System and Robot Hustle from SF. We also had Midnight Magic play along with Dan from Cut Copy DJing. People have been really digging the night, and we’re hoping to get more people to come play. All of the local people on this compilation have played our night or some version of it, and they are all live performers using hardware and working with singers.
When we personally started playing, there weren’t any active house-music bands playing live here in Portland. I feel like when you buy vintage drum machines and keyboards and then you add a four-on-the-floor beat, house kinda happens. (Now that’s a bumper sticker!) Our first show was a basement party at our friend’s house. It was extremely fun to play music that people danced to. And likewise, our friends really enjoyed dancing to us making the music. Something seemed to click on both sides. I feel like this moment at this one house party was probably happening at other houses simultaneously, or something. Around this time, I started to notice that other people were getting into live hardware again. Drum machines and such. I feel like, being a musician, as soon as you learn how to dance and make music that makes you dance, it becomes addictive.
Waxing (and blogging) ecstatic
Ecstasy [the label] was started and run mainly by Rafael and myself, but over the past year, Brian Foote (who has been a contributor to the blog and done remixes for the label) has been involved with label stuff as well. The artists that are on the label are also DJs and blog contributors — Spencer and Scott from Operative (one of the first releases) as well as Avalon Kalin (Finesse/Temples), and of course Rafael and I who put out our first Miracles Club record as the first release. Rafael has also produced for Alexis Blair Penney and Boy Joy; he also does a project called Emotion II Emotion that has a release coming out on Skylax, a deep house label out of Paris. The basic gist is that we founded Ecstasy as a way to put out our own music and to talk about what’s happening in Portland with the electronic dance scene. We’re not trying to become a music magazine per se, just more like a curated place to hang out and put stuff out. I’m doing an offshoot of Ecstasy, called Freee, that will release stuff that is not necessarily dance but has ecstatic elements and presents the more psychedelic side of things. It should have a couple releases out by the end of this year and will be connected to the Ecstasy blog.
It can be confusing, because people who don’t live here are like, “What is Ecstasy?” Even our own friends who are doing the same kinda thing asked us that! I’m like, “We’re a crew, man!”
People have been asking me “Why?” in regards to the surge of house music coming out of here. Quite honestly, there is a teeny, tiny scene that probably makes up about 20 people. In fact, on Friday and Saturday nights at Holocene, if a DJ starts to play house music, people leave. If you play 50 different versions of a Lady Gaga and Rihanna song, you’ve got a packed house of dancers and people buying drinks, acting loco! It’s really so interesting to me! Ryan, our dancer, bartends at Holocene a lot of weekends, so he gives us the reports. Also, I noticed that the house nights all got moved to weeknights and to occasional monthlies. They don’t seem to last, though.
[At our first parties at the dive bar Dunes] I remember the audience being a mix of old Portland people who don’t really dance, new (at the time) Portland people that were transplanted from Chicago and survivors of the early ’90s rave scene. That vibe isn’t really what is happening around here nowadays. Our city has quite possibly doubled in population since then, with a slightly more worldly crew of people. More clubs, more nightlife in general. Also, college kids. The old crew that were holding down the micro dance scene are still around, but continuing to do it in one-off clubs around town. We don’t always hear about it, because the papers aren’t hip to it. There is a board that our friend Spencer (who contributes to the Ecstasy blog) is on. That’s how we found out about a Ron Trent show, last minute, just a couple hours before. Which was reeeally awesome! He took us deep and had these really trippy ambient parts with long filter breakdowns. We also just missed a Chez Damier show for the same reasons. I heard it was amazing.