2006 WAS THE YEAR Talkdemonic blew up. As bands everywhere clamor for press with all kinds of marketable gimmicks ("We write songs about 18th century noblemen!" "We dress like aliens!") and pull publicity stunts that have zip to do with their music, Talkdemonic got big by writing a great record. The Arena Rock-released Beat Romantic is the kind of immediate, tight, smart piece of music that speaks for itself. It races through instrumental hiphop landscapes where viola and banjo make things folky, while laptop electronics tie it up nice and modern. (The band calls its music "folktronic hop.") It's a distinctive sound, the kind of thing that only comes from a very special band, and people are paying respect where it's due. Crowds at last year's SXSW festival were all about them. Pitchfork gave Beat Romantic a 7.8—which for Pitchfork is huge. And locally, people are so down with the band that their love borders on cult-like. And why not? Here we have a band that's doing damn well for itself without kowtowing to the suits, signing to a major, or compromising its sound for the elusive college radio single. Put simply, Talkdemonic's Kevin O'Connor and Lisa Molinaro are doing the right thing.
MERCURY: What was Talkdemonic's 2006 like?
KEVIN O'CONNOR: The first half of the year was incredible, with the release of Beat Romantic in March and the two national tours we did for it alongside many great bands. The highlight for me was playing on my birthday in June at this sweaty roadhouse dive of a venue in Houston called Walter's on Washington alongside the Walkmen. For some reason, when we tour we drag the Portland rain with us; we've even had rainstorms in LA and San Diego. In Houston, they had flood-like rains on this day and the puddle outside was lake-like. The venue had a murderous edge to it, and the kids went fucking nuts that night! It was also very exciting to see how people reacted to the album. When you make an album you never really know how it will be perceived until it's actually out there. And the response has been good.
Why did this record push you guys to the next level?
Some people might say it was the maturation of the band. For me, it was a process of blocking out all other music, focusing only on recording, leaving the album devoid of any direct influences; keenly obsessing about certain sounds, and letting the ideas come out naturally instead of forcing them. If an idea is worth having, it will usually manifest itself quickly in a recording, leaving you wondering where it actually came from in the first place.
How far did you take that? Did you not listen to music or go to shows while you were recording?
The writing and recording happens simultaneously for me. This process was inspired by Rick White of Elevator to Hell and Eric's Trip. He would record songs the day they were created and refused to revisit them hoping to capture the idea in its purest form. I mostly avoided listening to any recorded music, but was exposed to live music on a daily basis since I was doing production work at Berbati's at the time.
Just how simultaneous was the recording? Was any of the stuff that made it onto Beat Romantic improv?
All of the guitars, banjos, keyboards, and electronic drum parts were done on the fly at home, whereas some of the drums and viola were carefully crafted at Jackpot and Miracle Lake Studios with parts in mind.
Did you have to go back to the record to relearn the improv'd parts to play them live?
It usually integrates into the way we play live, trying to continue to evolve the drum and viola parts to our liking at the time. Lisa's [Molinaro] viola parts are always changing. We sometimes have gone back to the record as a reference for what we did though, to help shape the part live. I like it when bands play songs a bit differently live than on album, since it tends to keep it interesting.
What bands in Portland are you liking these days?
I'm really into the new Menomena record and am excited for them. They've really stepped up on their latest. I have been seeing a lot fewer shows since I left Berbati's, but I also love Horse Feathers and am also stoked about the new Modernstate record, which Lucky Madison is putting out later this spring.
Portland got a lot of national press in 2006 and a good bulk of it was throwing around the whole, clichéd "next Seattle" thing. What's your take on this?
There is enough talent in Portland for that tag to ring true, but maybe not on a commercial level. The great thing about the music here is that it's incredibly diverse, all sorts of bands doing different types of music, not copping each other. In that sense we are the clichéd "next Montreal" or "next Seattle," but the big difference is that we have a bunch of awesome weird bands that will likely remain critical darlings but won't sell a shit-ton of records, in the end keeping the umbrellas shielding any national influx of musicians or industry types. I would love to see the scene blow up, because more bands would be able to do it for a living, but then we'd all have to move.
How long have you lived in Portland?
Five years this month.
What was the scene like when you came here?
The scene then seemed to reflect the unemployment rate, which was high. Nobody had jobs (at least musicians or my friends) so everyone had more time to play music and drink. I've always found the scene to be very supportive, even at that time. I first started to get a feel for it as a cook at the Blackbird, so I saw pretty much every band in town or at least heard them from the kitchen. I do remember watching the Decemberists play for 10 people on many occasions. It was a fun place to work, and to see shows. The Blackbird had a familial atmosphere, and people came out for random shows because they trusted Chantelle [Hylton, the club's booker] and felt comfortable there.
What bands were blowing up back then?
The Joggers were running the tables back when they were still called Stateside, The Planet The never disappointed, and 31Knots also come to mind.
There's a lot of talk about bands that "sound like Portland." Do you think Talkdemonic sounds like Portland?
Maybe in a more out-there kinda way. People outside of Portland associate musical weirdness or eccentricity to a so-called "Portland sound." So I guess in that sense we do. I do think Talkdemonic mirrors some of the moods of living in Portland though.
What kind of moods?
That's a tough one to answer specifically. For me personally, I equate the warm analog synth tones to that everyday gray we experience in the winter, and the banjo parts and more upbeat songs to the secret summer we have every year.
What's your favorite thing to do in Portland in the summer?
I love going out to the Washougal River to camp out with friends and swim way down the dirt road toward the mouth of the river. I especially enjoy being out there in late August when the salmon run through the river to spawn and die. At Big Eddy you can see a huge salmon jump into the air every four seconds or so. To get out there you have to dodge the sketchy fishermen who are trying to snag the fish from their pickups along the river. But once you do, you can witness a natural tradition older than dirt.