THE FIVE MEMBERS of the Hague huddle around a sidewalk table outside the Bonfire in Southeast Portland on a sweltering afternoon. They're a black-clad, largely bearded crew sipping at beers and nursing a basket of french fries. The Hague's formidable exteriors belie the sprawling, extroverted mishmash of progressive rock, pop, alt-country, and math-jazz found on their first studio LP, Black Rabbit.
The Portland group has been touring, recording, and playing their fair share of local gigs for over three years, but you probably don't have them on your radar. The band hopes to change that with the release of Black Rabbit, a subsequent national tour, and their first real attempt to promote their music to a wider audience. Partly by virtue of their non-genre—violin-accompanied aural schematics—and its inherent bafflement to venue bookers and potential listeners, the band has gestated little local notoriety. They're mostly on the road.
"We've never really given as much attention to a record as we feel we could or should," says drummer Jesse Tranfo. "Because we're all over the map, it's hard to find—in Portland, especially—bands that we fit well with. We're not folky enough to be in the whole Portland folk thing, and we're not a metal band. It's not a dis on anything; it just is what it is."
Their song "Everyone" features the scathing lyric "Everyone in this town looks like everyone in this town"; another track, "I'm Sorry, I Thought This Was a City" uncovers a rather more self-explanatory perspective on the band's popularity plight in Portland. It's a regional dichotomy that the band has learned to accept, even if it's not entirely their fault.
The Hague decided early on that adhering to the strict blueprints of the spacey punk and hardcore groups they'd previously been in—like yesteryear growlers Songs from the Rodeo and Aristeia—wouldn't fly. "Charlie [Fisher, bassist] and I were in heavy punk-rock, hardcore bands prior to this," explains guitarist James Logan. "We found ourselves wanting to be more experimental and melodic. We weren't angsty and bitter and pissed off anymore." Meanwhile, Tranfo logged time with the barebones folk crew Fair Weather Watchers, and Fisher also toured with old-timey Portland crooner Emma Hill.
The Hague solidified a lineup in 2009—which includes guitarist/vocalist Shawn Steven, and violinist Travis Chapman—that would instead represent a collaboration, injecting each member's explicit influences into one big melting pot of prog-pop weirdness.
At its core, Black Rabbit—recorded and produced by White Orange's Adam Pike at his NoPo studio Toadhouse—swims within deeply textured pockets of austere melodic interplay between the guitar-violin tandem, each instrument giving and taking in measured ways to honor the song rather than the player. Chapman's enchanting string lines drive songs like "Valkyrie" and "California Curse" into Whiskeytown territory; somehow seamlessly, the remainder of the tracks on the LP hopscotch in and out, up and over fret-tapped post-rock jams ("An Open Book Conversationalist") and anthemic pop gems ("Everyone").
Despite their relative anonymity in the city they call home, the Hague appear every bit the tight-knit unit you'd expect after hearing all those interweaving musical influences.
"We're having a blast just the five of us hanging out," says Logan. "No matter what, we'll be together playing our music, and that's the most important thing for all of us."