With their unique dreamy pop sound, it’s no wonder Portland-based band, Radiation City, has won accolades from leading publications like TIME, Rolling Stone, NPR and Nylon Magazine. Willamette Week dubbed them “Best new Band” in 2012 – an impressive feat, considering how vast the Portland music scene is. Fans refer to them as “Rad City”, which is the perfect double entendre to describe the dynamic indie group. Their most recent album, Animals in the Median, features complex layers of synthesizers, haunting harmonies, midi percussions, and clean riffs – which culminates in a charming “doo-wop” sound that can be described as both forward-thinking, yet nostalgic.
Interview Conducted by Zara Zhi
Are you working on a follow-up album to “Animals in the Median”? Can you tell us about any new projects you guys are working on?
This record, yet to be named, is somewhat of a departure from Animals in the Median. As we’ve grown as musicians, producers, songwriters, and people, we’ve begun to understand our strengths and weaknesses more acutely. We feel that our pop sensibilities are a strength and have decided to bring them into focus on this record. Of course, we can’t get away from the strange and sublime, but we’ve found the crossroads between succinct song craft and our usual unpredictable approach. We’ve also gotten some flack in the past for burying the vocals, which honestly is a common mistake among young bands. In some cases, heavily processed vocals can be used to great effect (aesthetically it works for garage rock records, et al) but we don’t think it works for us.
As we finish mixing that record we’ve also been keeping our hands from becoming idle. We’ve worked on other groups’ records in various capacities; Chris Marshall, Pearls, the Saxophones, Jackson Boone and Jurassica are a few groups you probably haven’t heard of, but hopefully will soon; The Decemberists, Jim James, and STRFKR are a few you probably do know. Randy [Bemrose] has also been working on a solo record for ever and that should be coming out this year too.
What inspirations do you use when you create an album?
Lizzy Ellison: Initially we don’t think about “the creation of an album” per se. Songs are developed individually, and then compiled when the time comes to make one. What inspires the first glimpse of a song can be anything from cleaning my room, to baking bread, to walking around in nice weather. It’s when I’m not thinking about the music that it comes. Once I’ve caught myself ruminating on an idea for long enough, I’ll record the melody on my phone. If that stands the test of time, it will then turn into a song that still may or may not be on the next record. It could be on one we make 6 years from now.
Randy Bemrose: I like using instruments that pull my playing one way or another. A snare that’s tuned extra tight, or a sock hat stand with a lot of give. I like habits that pull my energy level around, like sleep deprivation or eating extremely healthy. I like vices that pull my brain in weird directions: coffee, cigarettes, weed, etc…
Cameron Spies: I draw inspiration from the pop music lexicon pretty regularly – whether it’s a particularly unique groove (Motown pretty much wrote that book), or an arrangement device like a classic string orchestral gesture (Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, et al). But a lot of my inspiration is more subconscious: a melody will creep into my head while we are in the van on tour, or a chord change or lyric will emerge out of the ether. My memory sucks, so I have to record everything immediately, or it will just as easily slip back into that same ether.
What is your song-writing process?
Each person will bring in song skeletons that they believe are a good fit, and then we will retreat somewhere outside of the city to focus on our ideas and build upon the songs. Sometimes our demoed versions will be the final versions of the tracking. In the case of the first two records, we saw them all the way through the mixing process. On Animals, we worked with a super pro mixer named Sonny DiPerri. He did an amazing job and has become a good friend, and even accommodated a lot of our stubborn ideas, even if they weren’t always the best. In recent sessions we’ve really tried to make our process less tedious and more about the core of the song. Adding layers can be fun and somewhat rewarding, but you can layer forever and never finish a song or completely lose sight of what was the initial intention, which is the most important part. Addition by subtraction has always been our motto, but it can be difficult to actually practice that restraint with so many good ideas to sort through.
Will Rad City be playing at any festivals this summer?
We have some show and tour announcements coming up that will take us away for a few months, but I don’t think any festivals are on the list. The system within the booking world is very dependent on having a record to market. At the moment we aren’t entirely sure as to when this next one will come out. There is so much pre-planning involved with the release of a record that this may even be a fall release.
What are Rad City’s hopes and dreams for the future?
I [Lizzy Ellison] think I can speak for the group as a whole. We without a doubt see music as an outlet for our creativity and only hope to share that with other people who enjoy what we do. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine. We will continue to make interesting records that are pleasing to us and fulfill our desire to make art. Hopefully we’ll be visiting other parts of the world in the coming year as well as collaborating with other artist communities.
Do you guys feel Portland is a good city for independent musicians?
Lizzy Ellison: It may not be for everyone, although everyone likes to think so. Portland at the moment is built on the idea that you can realize any ambition. For artists, that is the only thing you want to hear. This gives artists the power to become as successful as they want in this city, because success to a lot of artists isn’t measured with money. For people just starting out, that can be terrifying, and ultimately the reason they leave. We didn’t have any connections when we first started out, and it’s been a difficult time getting to where we are, but throughout all of it, the city has been very supportive. I don’t think it would have survived the way it did in any other city.
Randy Bemrose: No, it’s no good for that. Its summers are a dark crystal, beautiful and cracked. Its winters, a villainous skeksis, draining your will to create. Everybody comes here in the spirit of a gelfling, dream-fasting with the first winged beauty they come across. They’ve got this shard of an idea that somehow feels so important. The stars are aligning, it’s all happening! Soon enough they realize they are paddling like everybody else; simple, kindhearted, and soon to be relieved of their essence. Succinctly, it will rob you of the best in you and leave an empty potato skin. Do not move here under any circumstance short of severe pregnancy.
Cameron Spies: Yes and no.
If you guys could do a collaboration with any artist(s), who would it be?
Lizzy Ellison: At the top of my list is Air. They are my go-to artist when I’m by myself and I never tire of their music.
Randy Bemrose: I’d love to engineer on Mark Ronson’s next production credit, or produce Tobias Jesso Jr’s next, next record.
Cameron Spies: Yoni Wolf has been a huge inspiration for me. I’d like to make a weird record with him.
What was the hardest part of your musical journey? What was the best part?
Lizzy Ellison: The hardest part has been keeping our heads clear on what our goals are. It’s easy to get sucked into the popularity contest. Are we gonna be on “so-n-so”? Does that determine our success? Are we doing the right thing? Falling into that rabbit hole is dangerous, and ultimately not why we do this anyway. The best part is figuring that out and realizing that we love what we do, no matter what the struggles are. It doesn’t matter what some publication thinks of what we make. We know we are making a lot of people happy and that’s the best gift in the world.
Randy Bemrose: Being a prescient, if impatient man, I have the hardest time with the hurry-up-and-wait nature of this business. That waiting is worst for me. The best part is the long stoned drive through a clear rural night with just the right album on, and nobody has said a word for hours so maybe you’re the only one awake and the wind is in your hair – still damp and salty from the show and the sea you swam in today.
What are you guys listening to right now?
Lizzy Ellison: Bo En (remix of “It’s My Party”) and everything else he does.
Randy Bemrose: Candy Claws, UMO, Dorothy Ashby, The Versatile Henry Mancini
Cameron Spies: Morgan Delt, Caribou, Nancy Sinatra, Country Hits of ’70
Read more "An Interview with Portland’s Radiation City"