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May 9th, 2012 12:01 am WW Staff | Cover Story

Best New Band 2012

10 local acts that Portland’s music insiders think you should hear.


IMAGE: Mike Grippi

1. Radiation City

  • 165 Points
  • Formed: 2010
  • Sounds like: Jetsons-era doo-wop

Musicians always say their band is “like a family.” But Radiation City—a Portland outfit that features two couples and a particularly boyish-looking fifth member on bass—actually acts like one. And in the second hour of a three-hour marathon interview at Northeast Portland’s houselike Beech Street Parlor, the family secrets start to slip. There’s very little sex on tour, but plenty of booze. Most of the band members took ecstasy together after their recent release show at Rontoms. There’s a new T-shirt in the works—which, for whatever reason, seems more hush-hush than any of the band’s internal dramas.

And then there are the fights.

Last year, Radiation City co-founders Lizzy Ellison and Cameron Spies nearly broke up on tour. “We had this argument where [Lizzy] was like, ‘We’re done!,’ and I wanted to punch the window out,” says Spies, who is missing a bottom tooth from recent dental surgery. “We had to stop at a gas station to defuse the situation.”

“I will say whatever the hell I want to say. I don’t have a filter,” Ellison admits. Spies, on the other hand, “doesn’t have a backbone.” He also farts a lot.

At this juncture, the whole band embraces self-evaluation. Drummer Randy Bemrose is “the most stoic member of this band, and probably of most people that exist,” Spies says, but he’s prone to bouts of extreme intensity. Ever-smiling bassist Matt Rafferty keeps his secrets to himself; he annoys Ellison greatly on tour, “but that’s because he’s like my brother,” she insists. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Patty King is—well, she’s perfect. She sits back watching the madness unfold in front of her.

“I think that, and this is on the record, as much of a bitch as Lizzy can be, it’s actually really good for this band’s honesty and critical nature,” says a grinning Spies. “She will say the shit that nobody wants to say, but is actually really important.” He reflects for a moment, plucking a loose hair from Ellison’s shoulder. “And I’m not saying she’s always right when she’s a bitch.”

Ellison smiles tightly and shrugs in agreement: “He does say I’m a bitch all the time.”

This is Radiation City. To take the members’ playful infighting for weakness would be a mistake: When it comes to its music, the band has a work ethic that’s truly impressive. Songs are written and rewritten, recorded and re-recorded, scrutinized by committee and thrown out if they are not “Radiation City enough.” The group has an internal power structure (“I think of Cam as executive producer and me and Lizzy as co-producers,” Bemrose says) that is well-defined. In concert, the band members are obsessive about live sound to a degree that can infuriate sound guys. The group is so fiercely defensive of its sound that the members aren’t sure if they’ll ever work with an outside producer.

Radiation City’s handcrafted sound is harder to describe than its internal dynamics. At the core of the band’s first two releases—last year’s full-length, The Hands That Take You, and the Cool Nightmare EP released in March—is a collision of old and new. Drum machines mingle with bossa nova rhythms, and Phil Spector-style echo-chamber vocals fall over Pulp-esque guitar grooves. Always, especially in the voices of Rad City’s two female singers, there’s a healthy dose of soul.

“We all really like music you can sink your teeth into,” King says. That would explain recent live covers—the band knows a lot of them—of Ike and Tina Turner’s “I Idolize You” or the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” 

One of the most requested songs in Radiation City’s catalog is its gut-wrenching take on “At Last,” made famous by Etta James. It’s a song that’s hard to imagine another Portland band pulling off, and the Rad City version—which, wisely, the band plays only as an occasional treat—has been known to move fans to tears. 

But even in Radiation City’s staggeringly epic originals, there’s a soulful streak that most bands of its generation only dish out in small, ironic helpings.

The genesis of that soul influence dates to the early days of the band, when Spies and Ellison first met and fell in love under unideal circumstances. “I wrote some Aretha-inspired songs and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we started a soul group?’ to Cam. But to make that come across appropriately is so delicate,” Ellison says. “We’re not—black. We’re not churchy gospel singers. But that music touches something in you, and that’s our main goal.”

“We all know we can do it,” Rafferty says of finding the band’s soul within its complex, layered sound. “Because there are these moments where it’s happening—where you’re reaching this magical vortex. But we’re improvising. There’s no formula that we resort to, like, ‘This is the next winning step.’ Any minute it could blow up in our faces.”

Of course, Radiation City doesn’t call itself a soul band—its outdated MySpace page uses the genre “tape music,” an allusion to Spies and Ellison’s cassette-only label, Apes Tapes. If anything, though, the band tries to create a feeling. “And if it doesn’t hit that spot, we all freak out,” Rafferty says.

That feeling is surprisingly universal. “My dad is in the front row of our shows giving me high-fives,” Spies says. “That never happened with my old band.”

It’s become increasingly clear that Radiation City has struck a chord with Portland. Recent shows have sold out, and the band is increasingly in demand for national tours and after placing 12th on last year’s Best New Band poll. This year Rad City received more votes (by far) than any band in the poll’s history. That’s something that makes the group slightly nervous.

“We’ve heard from a couple people that this scenario can produce stress,” Ellison says.

“Yeah, just this kind of expectation that bands maybe aren’t ready for,” Spies adds.

But like all of Radiation City’s members, who have played in bands that were purely labors of love, Spies is ready for music to be a career.

“I think we’ve wanted these expectations for a while,” he says. “We feel really honored, but also really ready.”

“It doesn’t feel like an accident at all,” King says. “It feels earned.” CASEY JARMAN.

Willamette Weeks Best New Band showcase, sponsored by Miller Genuine Draft and featuring Radiation City, Pure Bathing Culture and Onuinu, is Friday, May 11, at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave. 9 pm. Free. 21+.

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