Playing Pop: Radiation City

Connoisseurs of classic pop, report to Il Motore to catch this Portland band tonight.

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Radiation City

Selected last year by their hometown critics and scenesters as the best new band in Portland, Ore., Radiation City crafts timeless pop that echoes swinging ’60s girl groups, the refined side of Britpop, early electro wonderment and half-forgotten desert acid trips. Animals in the Median is their third LP, a beautiful piece of work that finds the quintet really honing what they do.

I spoke to guitarist/co-lead vocalist Cameron Spies about how being named #1 in Portland and having a band that consists of two couples doesn’t necessarily spell disaster.

Lorraine Carpenter: Congratulations on being the best new band in Portland. How does it feel?

Cameron Spies: It’s a great honour, obviously. But it’s kinda tough for a couple of reasons, one of those being that there seems to be a curse on the bands who win that. I mean, for the last five or so years, there have been break-ups, or people leaving the band, shortly after all sorts of misfortunes. We seem to have weather the storm [laughs].

But it’s just sort of a tough thing in a town where everybody’s trying to make music, and everyone’s working hard at it, and to have one or a handful of bands put on a pedestal like that feels a little weird. If it was L.A., it’d be one thing, but because it’s Portland, and there’s such a community vibe, I think it makes for kind of a, “Oh, them? Why them?” you know?

LC: [Laughs] Yeah, Montreal’s seen its fair share of that.

CS: There’s definitely some value in the kind of contest that the Willamette Week runs because music professionals are more… You know, it’s a gift and a curse. Some people say that it’s a scenester thing, so it’s only the cool bands that are popular or whatever, but it lends a sense of urgency to the scene that actually makes good bands better. Great bands don’t come out of a vacuum, and there’s a reason for that. Communities are really important for good music.

LC: The publication I used to work for had an annual feature called Noisemakers, putting a spotlight on people to watch in various scenes, and it’s been said that that was cursed, too.

CS: Wow, yeah. It kinda makes sense because they’ve had this pressure put on them and it kinda freaks them out, and so forth. But we were definitely ready for that pressure — we wanted it, so it wasn’t as tough for us. We had some trials in the last year, but that’s kinda what it’s about at that stage in any band’s career, you know — it’s like a fork in the road: decide to keep going after the honeymoon period, or not.

LC: So you’re a quintet, and there are two couples in the band, right?

CS: Yeah. When the band first formed, it consisted of Lizzy and I, who were a couple before, and are still. And then when Patty joined the band, that was the first time she had met Randy, and they quickly formed a relationship. And that’s how it’s remained. People make Fleetwood Mac comparisons all the time. But we haven’t broken up yet — the night is young, though, I guess. But, no, I don’t mean that. That’s so negative [laughs].

LC: Hopefully it doesn’t turn into ABBA.

CS: No, it’s good. I mean, when we argue about music, we kind of argue as couples would, so it’s, like, a very honest process. It’s a blessing and a curse — it’s hard to be away from a significant other when you’re on tour, so that is not an issue for us. But it’s also hard to be around your significant other all the time, so that is an issue [laughs]. I’m glad it’s this way and not the other, though.

LC: So how did you guys arrive at the sound you’re working?

CS: We had these two other projects that were electronic pop, or experimental electronic pop acts. So this was kinda born out of wanting to do something that was more restrained and kinda had the vibe of some of these old records that our parents had, or oldies radio that we had listened to as kids. So it was born out of the love for that aesthetic and those arrangements and that subtlety. That was the initial spark.

There was bossa nova influence in our early stuff, and like, kind of early to late ’60s British rock and R&B and psych, and late ’50s American rock ‘n’ roll, so all that stuff was influential, but we wanted the songs to be our own. We didn’t want to directly lift any of that stuff. And ever since then it’s been an evolution of, you know, just allowing our various influences to come out in subtle ways that make a greater whole that feels right. And there’s so much to draw upon in rock ‘n’ roll history that’s so wonderful, but there’s so much new stuff, new territory to be found. That’s the common thread in our sound. ■

Radiation City open for Typhoon at Il Motore (179 Jean-Talon W.) tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 9 p.m., $15

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