It’s just before midnight and I’m riding my bike through Portland. It’s summer so it …
Live in Portland September 1 | American Legion Post 134
Lawton Browning and Rafael Spielman have been roaming the streets of Portland their whole lives, having grown up in this city before it was “cool,” and when the punk scene thrived in venues now unknown by the youth. Joined by Alex Geddes of Washington, The Woolen Men came to be in 2009, making a crash with a sound revisiting ‘90s indie rock nostalgia and a twist of old punk. Growing up listening to Wire, Portland ‘70s punk legends The Wipers, and (as Alex wants you all to know) The Toadies, it’s clear that their style shines true authentically.
While punk venues like The Know have shut their doors, the group appreciates The American Legion and Black Water Bar for keeping music alive and thriving, especially when all-ages venues are few and far between. Punk is still alive in Portland, but as documentary All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock will tell you, it ain’t what it used to be.
This is why bands like The Woolen Men are an awe-inspiring show. With influence from the old ages of punk and reference to ‘90s indie rock, their new single Brick Horizon floods reminiscent of The dB’s pop-rock track “Black and White” with a hint of Ramones. While the Portland scene is ever changing, The Woolen Men use the past to choke up the present, adding a refreshing sound to the Portland music scene. The full album release show is September 1 at The American Legion on Alberta.
Eleven: Where are you guys from?
Rafael Spielman: We’re from here, the two of us are from here.
Lawton Browning: Alex is from Washington.
Alex Geddes: I’m from Washington. Up north of Spokane, little town.
11: When did you move to Portland?
AG: It would have been… I think 12 years ago. I was actually dating someone at the time in Eugene who was going to U of O, I had moved down here to play music with a friend who was in school there and I met Eliza, who played in Golden Hours, which is how I met Raf.
11: Rafael and Lawton, how did you guys meet?
LB: We went to high school together.
11: What kind of music were you all listening to growing up?
LB: Like when growing up?
11: I guess… high school? Or… whenever you started being musically active.
LB: I listened to music in high school, but I didn’t really learn what music was until I was in college. But I listened to some real garbage and then I listened to Devo.
11: Garbage like the band Garbage?
LB: No! Like really bad music!
AG: I listened to The Toadies and Beastie Boys. I liked Medeski, Martin & Wood, someone turned me onto that as kind of…
LB: Oh wow, that’s where all your jazz love comes from. Raf was the cool one in high school, he had a music club that was cool. They listened to Weezer records.
RS: It was indie rock back then, that’s for sure. A lot of Built to Spill and Pavement and stuff like that.
LB: Well, you’re permanently in the good books for having that Pink Flag T-shirt in high school. Custom made–incredible.
RS: In high school I made myself a Pink Flag T-shirt. It was not very punk though.
LB: Wire was a big one for me in college.
RS: Yeah, I listened to Wire in high school.
11: I can see that influence a lot in your music.
LB: Yeah, a buddy named Carl Hughmeyer in college who played me good music, but it was like… it was still indie rock kind of, so like Yo La Tengo and Pavement.
RS: By the time we started the band, I feel like we were all listening to Wire, and The Clean was another big influence, and The Wipers.
11: I was going to say Guided By Voices.
RS: Yeah, Guided By Voices, GBV, yep.
11: Who puts together your album art?
LB: Depends on the record.
RS: We often work with friends. So our friend Jeff Hale just did the art for the most recent record, he did a great job.
LB: We like to work with artists that we admire.
11: Do you kind of collaborate on the idea? They’re all very different, but they’re still kind of cohesive in style.
RS: Yeah. There are certain design ideas that are important to us, just basic stuff like having the name of the band written on the cover, and legible. Simple stuff like that.
11: Even the style though, is reminiscent of the ‘90s rock you were listing, it comes out pretty clearly. So, let’s talk about the new album, when’s that coming out?
LB: September 1! Right now there are 3 singles, and there’s going to be a 4th one. It’s going to come out like right now. Like tomorrow. If this German guy gets back to me before we release our album, it will come out. Doesn’t really matter.
11: And the release show is at American Legion?
RS: With Mope Grooves and Table Sugar. Mope Grooves, which is Stevie’s band, and Table Sugar from Olympia.
11: Do you want to talk about Stevie (Pohlman)?
RS: Sure! Stevie’s great.
LB: Stevie helps run See My Friends, which is a record label we have a relationship with.
11: Are you on the label?
RS: The last record that we did was on that label.
11: So what is Stevie playing?
RS: Stevie’s playing keyboard on a couple songs.
LB: We have overdubbed keys on the record, but minimally, and it felt like a good opportunity to invite a friend.
RS: The release show we did for the last record, Temporary Monument, we got our friend Griff to play. So same idea, once every couple of years.
11: What’s your songwriting process like? Is there someone who leads the way, or is it more collaborative?
RS: It’s becoming more collaborative the longer that we play together, but usually one of us will bring the main idea to the band. Usually the verse and the chorus, then from there we’ll work together to turn that into a song.
AG: I have the least kernels. I’m a little slower.
11: How long have you been playing?
AG: A long time! I guess since I was 17? 16?
LB: Yeah, 16 was when I played guitar for the first time. 34 now, so 20 years.
RS: I didn’t start playing drums seriously until this band.
11: So when did Woolen Men exist?
LB: 2009. These two were playing together in their band, Golden Arrows, with his then girlfriend at the time and then Woolen Men started.
11: I guess we kind of touched on this a little bit, but who are some of your favorite local artists to play on shows with or to Jam with?
LB: Well, we’re going to Europe with Honey Bucket. I love Old Grape God, he’s a rap guy in town–he’s awesome. Lithics, they’re our friends from a long time ago. Sad Horse.
11: Sad Horse is so great!
RS: Our second show ever was with them, early–like February/March of 2009 at the Fridge.
11: Where is that?
LB: Long gone… We’ve seen a lot of clubs and venues come and go.
RS: Now it’s cool. Lithics, those guys were all in bands, like when we started out 10 years ago. Those guys were all in separate bands that we played with. So that part, now it’s cool when things shift around.
LB: Music survives.
RS: Turn Turn Turn is great, it’s a great spot.
LB: The Know going down was pretty rough. The second time.
AG: The Legion coming up.
LB: Yeah, the Legion is a big deal.
AG: It’s all-ages.
LB: The Legion seems immune to gentrification on Alberta.
11: Is there a reason that that is the place you’re releasing your album? Did you pick it?
LB: Yeah, I booked the show there. I just love it. It’s gotten better too.
AG: Stevie really was the one who broke through and realized they were open to having shows there. And then she decided to be the one to open that door.
RS: It’s relatively cheap to rent.
LB: If you have a relative who is a veteran, then you can rent it for $50.
11: I didn’t know that!
LB: Now you do! Tell your audience! Make shows at the Legion!
11: There are a lot of bands that play there. It’s nice that they do all kinds of music there, I’ve seen some wild underground punk and hardcore shows there, and then you turn around the next weekend it’s a big name indie act. It’s diverse. Do you have any other favorite venues in town, or on the road? Do you tour a lot?
RS: We do a lot of weekend tours.
LB: I like to try new venues when we go out, to see if we can find our audience.
RS: We always go to Sacramento.
AG: I feel like the place we’ve played the most, The Knockout in San Francisco.
LB: You know it went down?
RS: It was like The Know of San Francisco.
11: Do you go to California a lot?
RS: When we can, as much as we can. So, we were just down there a couple weeks ago.
LB: The show was fucked over by the fires.
RS: The fires had just started down there.
LB: The bartender was very depressed, he got us free drinks.
11: Do you ever play the east coast? I feel like the type of music you guys play–not that it’s not popular out here–but I feel like there’s almost more of a scene for it on the east coast.
RS: Portland seems to like jam band music.
11: Psych rock.
AG: Either psych or soft.
LB: We have a small but loyal following.
11: So lyric wise, are they usually autobiographical?
AG: As the one who writes the least amount of songs–me–I tend to write more autobiographical songs. But there’s more variation between Raf and Lawton.
LB: I try to write as much as possible from the unconscious. I try not to think too much about what I write, it’s better. My wife is an expert at surrealism, and I’m not a huge fan of most surrealist art, but I do really like the way in which you’re allowed to not take ownership over what you make.
11: Like capturing a dream, kind of. That goes with your album art too, I think.
LB: How so?
11: It’s not necessarily coherent things, just heads or colors.
LB: The photo taken on the cover of Post was a photo taken by our friend Matt from Honey Bucket. People look at it, and they don’t know, they’re always like, “What is that?”
11: What is it?
LB: A sculpture. It’s the absence of a sculpture.
RS: It’s actually not a sculpture, the sculpture is missing. It was once a sculpture there, there’s a plaque about the sculpture, but the sculpture is gone.
11: Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know about you?
LB: Oh, I love this question. If you don’t buy records by bands, then bands won’t make music anymore. If you listen to music on Spotify, you are fucking musicians over.
AG: I want people to know how much I love The Toadies and Beastie Boys and to listen to our music and think about that. That’s all.
RS: This is what I want to say: I want to say that what’s going on in the music scene in Portland right now is probably the most interesting in the whole country and that people should go to shows and see it. Because it’s happening now, in their city!