It is to my everlasting shame as a writer dedicated to seeking out new, unheralded local music to love and champion that I first caught wind of the Portland-based band What's Up? by reading Pitchfork. The details are particularly humiliating. Not only was I scooped by the national press on a band from my own town but to add insult to injury, it was in the context of an interview with English electro-pop notable Max Tundra, who cited What's Up? in response to the prompt "One obscure band you think should be more popular?" How on earth did a fancy-pants European indie celebrity know of a house show-playing Portland band that I myself had never even heard of? How demeaning.
And it gets worse. Intrigued by what I heard on What's Up?'s MySpace, I resolved to see them play live. Due to some intractable scheduling issues, it was only in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest that I finally managed to catch them—and they were being featured in a showcase by the prestigious German label Tomlab. Again, as both a localist and early adopter, I'd been bested by continental music know-it-alls. I would be tempted to save my pride and simply keep this mortifying matter to myself, never to speak of What's Up? and their undeniably impressive live show again, save for one detail: What's Up? are the most exciting new band I've heard this year.
Of all the sub-genres that dominated independent music in the '90s, rhythmically complex instrumental rock music—whether you want to call it post-rock, math-rock, or anything else—is one of the few that has not seen a significant revival in recent years. Bands like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky that continue to truck in the melodramatic bombast of '90s post-rock largely seem like relics, and groups that have managed to explore new territory in instrumental music with standard rock instrumentation, such as Hella, have done so by going down the modernist rabbit hole of technical virtuosity at the expense of intelligible emotional content. But, as it turns out, there is a third and infinitely more satisfying way: the way of What's Up?
Consisting of a nimble power trio (excepting moments in which guitar is abandoned for keyboard, or the drummer plays a synth with his left hand while holding down a mixed-meter groove with his right, something that ought to give you some sense of the band's technical acumen), What's Up? have embraced the cerebral elements of the '90s instrumental indie rock legacy worth preserving while foregoing the lust for volume and scale that backed the genre into a corner. The result is something unique in the recent history of sophisticated instrumental rock music: joyous indie-prog whose makers intuitively understand the technical prowess invoked by the phrase "in the pocket," and can mete it out in doses under four minutes.
Why, then, have so few Portlanders heard of What's Up? in comparison to the international indie cognoscenti at large? The answer is that the band hasn't been here very long, but they're not exactly new to music, either. Multi-instrumentalist songwriter Robby Moncrieff—a fixture in the Sacramento music community, who has played with the Advantage, Marnie Stern, and Who's Your Favorite Son God—came up to Portland last July with the intention of staying a few days. The sojourn turned into a longer visit when his friends in Dirty Projectors enlisted his help to record their forthcoming album Bitte Orca, which they were working on in Portland at the time. Moncrieff took to Portland, decided to move, and lucky for us, his What's Up? bandmates joined him. Hopefully they're here to stay.
What's Up? play a free, all-ages show at Backspace on Thursday, April 2.