Thank you basements, cheap rent, and Stumptown muhfuckin' Coffee Roasters: Portland, Oregon is the last refuge of the rock band in America.
Many people, in these pages and otherwise, have attributed the national uprising of solo folk musicians and laptop-based bands to a side effect of America's gross lack of affordable real estate. In places like DC, San Francisco, and New York, places which have made rich historical contributions to rock and punk (and invented entirely new types of music like go-go and, erm, hiphop), it's a Sisyphean task to find acceptable living arrangements, much less anything resembling a practice space. Thusly, in cramped and pricey cities, it makes more sense to simply create music with DJ tables, with computers, with instruments untethered by heavy amplification devices or bulky drum sets (especially considering that in places like New York, the circumference of your amp is probably greater than the circumference of your entire bathroom).
Thank you silicon chips, calculus, and Steve muhfuckin' Jobs: For musicians in a constantly gentrifying urban America, computers are a medium of necessity. This is one reason Portland, Oregon is the last refuge of the rock band. It is a place with ample and affordable housing (for now) that also offers the amenities of a city (or at least that's what the brochures tell me). Cheap rent, coffee, basements, and a proliferation of adorable puppies are only four of the reasons why every single one of America's favorite bands lives in, has moved to, or is considering moving to, the 972__ zip code over the past five years. Sleater-Kinney, the Shins, the Decemberists, Modest Mouse, the Thermals, Menomena, the Joggers, the Gossip, Viva Voce, Swords... the list is infinite. "Home is where I wanna be," sang David Byrne, "but I guess I'm already there."
In Portland, these are only some of the bands currently working that are vehemently adored by the rest of rock 'n' roll America. Portland, everyone wants a piece of you. Look at places like New York, where the rents are way too expensive and the freak-folkies flourish like the tiny crustaceans that make tap water unkosher. I mean, one of the only good newer rock 'n' roll bands from New York is the Hold Steady, and they only exist cause they have a special deal with Brooklyn that they get to practice in bars in exchange for patrons. (And yes, there is TV On The Radio, but they were a drum-machine band before they started caking enough to add more band members.) A band is an investment... and when your rent can be as low as $82 depending on whether you want to sleep on the floor next to the heater, it's rent you can afford by delivering papers and picking up one shift at the coffee kiosk.
But you know this. Portland is the last refuge for a rock community in America, and it goes beyond mere rent control. In addition, in no other city would something like PDX POP NOW! be enacted successfully, two years in a row, with accompanying CD, based on volunteerism and the vote of the populace. It's Portland's combination of idealism, energy, community vibing, and the fortunate living conditions in which young Portlanders rock, that have made it a weirdly clean utopia for rockers seven or so years running. Granted, this will also be its downfall—unless Portland's political leaders are carefully elected. Otherwise, some business developer creeps are going to continue selling the dream wholesale, and then all the indierockers will have to move to Clackamas (Clackamas... Portland's Brooklyn?).
But nothing lasts forever.
"Rock is dead!" the town criers will cry. "Rock, you will never die!" scream those who cling desperately to form. "Nothing dies, it just shifts shapes," go the Buddhists. Yes, there are still great rock bands, and will always be, even as rock's peak of authenticity tapers off—the same way there are fewer great bop jazz musicians and fewer great blues musicians. As a vestige of this phenomenon, Portland's laptop musicians are more closely tied to innovation than to necessity—because they choose to create computer music rather than be tactically forced to because of the confines of space. Not only does Portland laptopians' music tend to capture a more visceral, earth-tethered feel than, say, their counterparts in more "cosmopolitan" cities, but they are also inherent radicals, gone against a trend toward rock and sometimes butting up against audiences more interested in the trad guitar-drums amplification than throwing down heavy with Ableton Live. Clearly, the way to counteract the inevitable extinction of the rock band is to outsmart it.
And how to do so? Take advantage of your space while you still have it, Portland. I beseech the musical denizens of the city: Why not form one giant band? Form an orchestra of rock—drummers in one section, bassists over here, songwriters on stage left, etc.—and play something simple at once (with harmonies). You could probably get into the Guinness Book of Records, and more importantly, it would be the ultimate expression of community... and if it's all gone tomorrow, no one will ever say you squandered such a vast amount of space and resources... And for that one moment, you will be taking advantage of the most important thing: each other.