In this month’s local feature, Portland songwriter, instrumentalist and label founder Johanna Warren discusses her labelmates Forest Veil and Indira Valey, getting inspiration from Anne Carson and Sappho and her new album due out Sept. 16.
A certain honesty as well as a naïveté swirls around Portland quartet Dirty Looks. Both in their music and real life personalities exist a genuine sweetness; a lightheartedness. While they stand before the early stages of their career, their purpose is endearing. They share words of treating each other as family and of a love for creating music.
Dirty Looks’ background is a bit of patchwork. Front and center features vocalist Kate Neal, previously known as local hip hop emcee Kritik, though the band dynamic doesn’t exude a rap feel. The three remaining members of the band, Erin Marshall (guitar/vocals), Jacob McCollam (drums) and Matt Radich (guitar), speak wistfully of late nights at the Landmark Saloon, longing for the country. Even though their first album, Only Have Eyes for New, debuts this month, the band has been honeymooning for about three years.
ELEVEN felt the need to satiate our curiosity about these lovely Looks, so we gathered with the band around a patio fire on a gently drizzly afternoon in SE Portland.
ELEVEN: Does the band have equal roles or is there a team captain?
Erin Marshall: Kate is our captain.
Jacob McCollam: The girls bring song, lyrical action, Matt [and I] boast the musical end of it. It’s a good co-mingling.
11: The fellas bring the rhythm and the ladies bring vocals and good looks?
EM: Definitely the looks. *laughs*
11: I know most bands love being put into boxes, so if you had to categorize your sound, what would it be?
EM: When people would ask us that, we’d be like, “Well, it’s sort of like pop, dance, surf, indie, rock… we would list everything.” We started asking people, “What do we say when people ask us that?” So we call it indie dance-pop now. It does come from a wide variety of musical interests, [and] encompasses a lot of different styles.
11: Tell me about the debut album.
Kate Neal: I think that the album is really the four of us trying to figure out how we fit together, and what our sound is going to be, and we knew that we had something really unique together, but it’s very true that we come from different musical backgrounds, different musical talents and experiences, so this first album is us bringing those things to the table and sorting out how it’s going to be in a cohesive, collective sound together, so there’s a bit of that discovery going on.
EM: I think all the songs [on the album are] fun and they share a kind of thread, but they are a little bit more disparate than I think our next project will be.
11: This album was a three year process, do you feel like you’ve honed in on your sound?
JM: [It’s] definitely progressive, we’ve progressed, especially the new songs we’ve been putting together, we’ve found that. This next one will be pretty epic. *laughs*
EM: Yeah, and I think that we’ve now [with the newer] songs, everybody brought a piece to the table that was more complete and we started really, actually writing together.
Matt Radich: I think the process has changed a lot. Kate and Erin had a bunch of stuff before Jacob and I joined and then we sort of augmented that and then I would add a few riffs, now I feel like it’s more all together. I think recording helped us decide on what our sound would be. I feel like if we had recordings of our live show before going to the studio, they would each sound sonically very different, even if we were playing the same song. Since then, I think we replicate a [single] sound live now.
11: You only get to make your first album once, how was that experience?
JM: Exciting, it was great.
KN: It felt so organic and [was] kismet how it all came together. We talked to Dustin [Mills] who recommended us to Nalin [Silva, Revolver Studios] who really took us under his wing and really helped us and supported us. We’ve all done stuff separately, musically and I think we’ve all recorded before but I’ve never recorded in that kind of professional studio setting with a full band. It was a big learning experience for us and was actually the first time too that we got to hear, really, what we sounded like together and that was an awesome experience.
JM: Revolver Studios and Nalin Silva, that was the best thing that could have happened because he took us in. At the very beginning he kind of sat back, but then he took the producer role for us and drove us to the place we all wanted to be.
11: Did he help tweak the sound? What did he do that was so helpful?
JM: As we settled into the studio sound and got to hear it like that, it was like, “Wow, we can do this, we can play with that.” It’s a pretty clean record, it’s not a lot of tweaking, it’s just more like, “We can play this instrument or we can add this. Sonically, we can build this up, you guys have got a lot of space,” It’s beautiful.
MR: Definitely little things. He would get this mad scientist look, and he’d be like “Oooh, we should try…” and then we’d always love [his ideas]. He’d be like, “You should play this amp on this part” and we’d do it and we’d be like “Yeah! Obviously that!”
11: How does all that translate to the live show?
KN: Matt bought a new pedal! *all laugh* It made a world of difference.
EM: Otherwise, I think just being tighter around everything. Just understanding the dynamics that are supposed to be going on (a lot more) was helpful to the live performance.
11: What would be your ideal frequency of playing shows? Every night? Once a month?
JM: I think we can start up around the 5 in Washington, maybe California, Idaho, and stick close because we have lives, and money in music… *laughs* is not what it used to be at all, there’s a lot of competition for that. Maybe mini tours to start.
EM: We’d love to be playing as often as possible while maintaining, you know, life.
11: So if a major label wanted to come in and buy you out of your jobs, would you be down?
KN: I set out to basically switch from a solo hip hop career to some kind of band and I had this idea in my head about what it would be, and then I met Erin and we started having this organic songwriting singing thing together and it was very different from what I had initially thought, but I was like, “This is cool, I’m just going to let it happen and see where it goes,” and then we brought Jacob into the fold, we brought Matt into the band, and its been definitely different than what I envisioned but so organic and so good and I just feel like the four of us are more of a family now than anything else and that feels really good to share this with people that I love.
MR: I would say that we have a lot of non-musically productive band practices, but always fun. It’s important.
EM: It was funny that Kate wanted to start a hip hop band, and she got three alternative country fans to join.
KN: But it works! I’m so glad I was able to be open to something different, because before, I was really set in what I was doing musically. Erin kind of opened my eyes a little bit to what could be, and I never really sang before and I just thought “I’m going to go for it” and it’s really turned out to be a good experience for me.
11: What are your favorite music venues in town?
KN: We have to say Kelly’s [Olympian], we love Kelly’s. We like playing at the [McMenamins] White Eagle.
EM: We really, really like to play Pride. It’s fun to play outside anywhere you can. I love playing outside.
11: You played at Pride this past year, right?
EM: We played the last two years, I think we’ll definitely play [again] this year.
11: And how have those shows gone over?
JM: It kind of led to our record actually. Getting started with the record, someone was like, “Where is your recorded music?” “I guess we should think about that now.”
KN: That’s true, Pride two years ago really did start the ball on the album. Now, we’ll be able to play pride and have the album! *laughs*
11: You just released your first video today–why should people go watch it?
KN: I think that it is hilarious. I feel like we’re the most adorable band around. The video is really funny, really cute, and pretty well done if I do say so myself! I’m pretty proud of it, yeah. It’s on our website, givemedirtylooks.com and it’s also on YouTube if you search “Pop Pop by Dirty Looks,” you’ll find it.
EM: And the video is for the first song that we ever wrote.
KN: Yeah, “Pop Pop” really is the first Dirty Looks song.
EM: And that song has evolved a lot since we first were playing.
11: Last question–it’s one that bands hate but readers love, where did the band name come from?
KN: This is actually awesome because we weren’t really sure what to call ourselves. We had a working name for a while, I mentioned I was coming over from hip hop, my emcee hip hop name was Kritik, so when I started this whole venture I thought it would be a hip hop band, so it was Kritik and the Beatz, but when this came together it was very clear that didn’t fit, it wasn’t just about me, it was the four of us organically putting our hearts and soul into the music that we were creating so we needed to come up with a name and we actually played a show at a bar that my friends own called Escape up in Northeast Portland on Sandy and Presecott, we love Escape, and on their bathroom walls they have chalkboards so we decided to promote the show by having this band naming contest, name our band, and on the chalkboards we just had different lines that people could write in, and by the end of the night people had written in tons of suggestions, and one of the suggestions was Dirty Looks, and it’s because we performed a song that we wrote together called “Dirty Looks,” and we fell in love with it and started calling ourselves Dirty Looks.
EM + KN: Eighties hair bands be damned! »
– Richard Lime