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May 1st, 2013 12:01 am WW Staff | Cover Story

Best New Band 2013

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

IMAGE: Megan Holmes

2. The Woolen Men

  • 52 POINTS
  • Formed: 2008.
  • Sounds like: A three-headed monster in your creaky old basement that’s still deciding whether to sing for you or eat your children.

The Woolen Men didn’t plan on sounding like the Woolen Men.

When Lincoln High School classmates Raf Spielman and Lawton Browning met up after college to play music together, their rehearsals resembled a songwriting club more than band practice. The two had disparate styles: Lawton’s songs offered playful nods to classic rock and New Wave influences; Spielman’s were more kinetic and abstract, a slightly nihilistic take on early Northwest garage rock and psychedelia. But mutual respect and common musical tastes, including Wire and Guided by Voices, were enough to keep the pair together.

When they pulled Spielman’s Golden Hours bandmate Alex Geddes into the mix, he brought his own songs to the table. Geddes’ tunes split the difference between Browning’s bouncy hooks and Spielman’s driving punk, and his more direct lyrics imbued the project with a previously absent sweetness. The songwriting club got bigger, but the rules didn’t change. Instead of forcing themselves to find a common aesthetic or settle on a single frontman, the Woolen Men did what came most naturally to them: They shuffled instruments and singers and played every show they could get.

“We played a lot of terrible shows,” Browning says with a laugh. “I had this idea that the more that we played shows, the better it would get. I don’t know if that was actually true.”

Turns out, the Woolen Men did get better through the sheer volume of their live gigs, but there were still obstacles to overcome—for example, no one in the band knew how to play drums. What proved most fruitful, though, were the band’s weekly practices, which have continued almost entirely undisturbed every Sunday for the past four years. Slowly, a consistent sound has evolved.

“We didn’t get together and say, ‘We love this record, let’s sound like this record,’” Spielman says. “It was just all of us coming together from different angles. It took a long time, but it has a shape now.”

Now settled into primary instruments—Spielman got drums, of which Browning seems a tad jealous—the Woolen Men are purveyors of a sound, full of minor chords and brute force, that is rare even in the city that first helped create it. The band is energetic, but not theatrical. They keep the banter to a minimum. For fans like Spookies frontman and Shaky Hands bassist Mayhaw Hoons, who has voted for the Woolen Men in the Best New Band poll for the past three years, that no-bullshit approach is immensely appealing. “To me, they are a band that lies outside the big fashion show of the music scene,” Hoons says. “It’s not [about] who they know or being seen at the cool shows or gear. It’s just about making music.”

Still, groups with no clear frontman and a penchant for lo-fi recordings aren’t for everyone. Opening a bill with the fuzzed-out psych-rock act Wampire and local pop-punk gods the Thermals last month, the Woolen Men, with their blue-collar aesthetic, left much of the all-ages crowd looking perplexed. “I’m glad I don’t have to write about this,” one teenager told me after the band’s set.

“People don’t know what to think about us,” Browning admits. This is true in Portland, where the band’s reputation has grown slowly but meticulously, and perhaps even more on tour, where its gloomy but melodic post-punk often lacks the context inherent in playing in the Northwest. “On tour, there will be a couple of people who are really excited about what is happening,” Browning says. “And a bunch of people who are totally mystified.”

Those in the excited camp—among them the influential Woodsist label, which released the Woolen Men’s excellent self-titled debut full-length in March—are relentless in their support. It’s easy to see why, not only because of the band’s strong songwriting, but because this is a fiercely independent group that takes full control of every aspect of its process. From writing to analogue recording to crafting album art, the Woolen Men seem genuinely inspired by creativity in all forms. One gets the impression this would be the same band even if no one ever bothered to listen.

People are listening now, though. After four years together, being recognized as one of Portland’s best “new” bands seems odd. The Woolen Men—whose members have an average age of 29—feel like veterans.

“We are a tent pole in a way I never imagined we’d be,” Browning says. “Now we play a show at Reed College, and there are kids with big eyes talking to us after the show. It’s like, ‘Holy fuck—I’m 10 years older than you.’” CASEY JARMAN.


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