WHAT BEGAN as a lark between a couple of cello-heads in late 2007 to bring the traditionally demure aesthetic of strings to saloons and rock clubs has grown into a ubiquitous part of Portland's cultural landscape. Uniting traditional cello enthusiasts with rock, hiphop, and even heavy metal audiences, Portland Cello Project's ascent has afforded them adoration across the country and dozens of high-profile collaborations with regional and national artists like Laura Gibson, Thao Nguyen, and Eric Bachmann. But as the group of revolving cellists matures, perhaps their biggest accomplishment becomes more lucid: It's not a gimmick anymore.
Oh sure, their brand-new album, Homage, is chockfull of lush, epically arranged reverence to heaters like the Kanye West/Jay-Z banger "H*A*M," Talib Kweli's "Get By," and Lil Wayne's "She Will." But while the allure of perpetuating a ruse on stiff-upper-lipped cello purists may sometimes be tempting, PCP frontman Doug Jenkins and his ensemble aren't looking to rib anybody. For him, their targets are great songs that just happen to be ripe for classical arrangements.
"Our first cover was "Toxic" [by Britney Spears], and it was immediately, obviously a really good idea," says Jenkins, who admits he likes to confuse the cellists with some of his performance suggestions. "But I think this group would have died that first year if that's all we did. I saw right away that we had to start focusing on the quality or we'd be like the Vitamin String Quartet, or a gimmick that wouldn't last very long."
As a testament to one of the band's cornerstone goals of bridging musical communities, in February PCP tackled what was likely their most daring homage yet—performing the entirety of Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power in honor of the album's 20-year anniversary in front of a sold-out crowd at the Wonder Ballroom. Despite not knowing how an experiment like this would go over, Jenkins took the risk.
"I wanted it to feel like a heavy metal show," says Jenkins. "I wasn't really sure if heavy metal folks would show up. But they did!"
Potentially hazardous trials like exacting the guttural yelps of a young Phil Anselmo on cello notwithstanding, it's in their search for timeless pieces where PCP shines, transcending the novelty from which they were initially formed. Nowhere is this more evident on Homage than on the album's closer, "Lúa Descolorida," an utterly stunning composition inspired by a piece from Spanish poet Rosalía de Castro.
"You have to find what the essence of the energy of the piece is and really try to bring that to the performance," Jenkins says. "For what we do there's always going to be two sides of the aisle. There's always going to be the formal classical side, which is what we were all raised doing. But then there's the community side of it, which unfortunately is very different. Rather than pulling things across the aisle to us, it's been a lot of trying to push ourselves as far across the aisle as we can get to be part of that community and be part of those genres of music."