It was surprisingly easy for Tim Perry to write an album about a civilization on the brink of decay. Perry, vocalist and guitarist for Portland, Oregon-based band Ages and Ages, has witnessed warp-speed changes – for good and bad – in the city he calls home, and it’s apparent there’s a feeling that some innocence is lost with each new development.
“It’s been on our minds, because we’re watching our home meld into this different place,” Perry says from the passenger seat of a fifteen-person tour van. Ages and Ages are somewhere in West Virginia, en-route back to the Atlantic seaboard after a handful of shows in the Midwest. It’s early evening in late September, and the indie-folk band is bracing for the final leg of their tour: nine showsin eleven days, covering a bruising 2,400 miles. And while they’re gone, development in their hometown steams on, undeterred.
“If you haven’t been to a certain part of town in a while, next time you’re back there it will look totally different,” Perry says, wistfully. “They’re knocking buildings down and putting up new ones at a rapid rate. It wasn’t hard to write an album with this theme.”
A couple of trips to Latin America for several of the band members served to reinforce what they were already feeling: all empires fall, and all cultures go through boom and bust cycles. The message wouldn’t fully sink in, however, until Perry got back home.
“Literally they knocked down a house across the street right before we went on tour. I woke up one morning and heard a rumble,” Perry continues, with slightly incredulous laughter. “They were wrecking balling the shit out of it, probably to put up a quadruplex with some organic market on the bottom.”
As they drive through one of the parts of the country that has been most affected by economic collapse, it’s hard not to sense an eerie foreshadowing in Perry’s words. After all, West Virginia had many prosperous, quick-to-build towns that caved in on themselves when their ambitions clashed against economic sea-change. For a band known for their brand of uplifting choral indie-folk and gorgeous harmonies, the weight of their words hangs heavy.
You are now three albums into your career – an established band, by any measure. Do you feel a heightened weight of expectation? Is it mainly internal or external?
Yes, and both – but I think a lot of that is pretty normal for all of us, whatever our profession or status or relationships are. Ours just happen to be in the realm of music. There are people relying on us, and we’re relying on each other and ourselves to create these intangible things called songs, and get out there and play them publicly, and put ourselves on a chopping block, so to speak. To be judged, or be appreciated, or have glass bottles thrown at us or bras and panties – of both genders. [Laughs] That’s the way it is, and it’s a strange sort of experience that I think artists – or anybody in the public eye, politicians especially – have to put on this bulletproof emotional suit. I think the good responses can be harder than the bad sometimes, and you just want to keep yourself even balanced and not allow anybody to have too much of an impact on your own vision, if that makes sense.
Where do you draw your inspiration for your music? I know you guys talked about taking a trip to some ruins in Central America, which sparked the theme of this album.
Yeah – that wasn’t really a conscious thing for us as we went separately. It was coincidental as we were experiencing that sort of thing in our lives, which puts things into perspective in a certain kind of way – when you look at the ruins of old civilizations and think about how vibrant they once were, and how things worked and worked well, and functioned for generations and generations and generations – and then all of a sudden they didn’t. And how there are other civilizations that came after, and lived amidst it or were on top of it, and not to mention the natural course of events. So yeah, that had something to do with it for sure, and we chalked that up to living, and exploring, and experimenting.
I was in Guatemala, and Rob [Oberdofer, bass] was down in South America. I think when you travel, especially to parts of the Southern Hemisphere, it really draws out the chasm between the haves and the have nots – the income disparity, and how that impacts how entire communities, cities, and countries go about. I was in places where people get rid of their trash by burning it. They take it to one spot, and they burn it all. Plastics and everything. And that’s legal! And it’s how you do it.
I can imagine that wouldn’t fly in Portland.
[Laughs] Yeah, it wouldn’t, but a lot of things that fly in Portland are jaw-dropping in different ways.
How do you feel things have changed in Portland over the last years? I know you guys have expressed a sense that the city is overrun with commercialism – expressed throughout Something To Ruin – but do you see any positives to these changes? What are they?
You know, having lived in Portland since the 90s, I’ve seen it go through a lot of changes. I think that the one thing that a lot of people there appreciate are some of the aspects of becoming a bigger city; certain things are more accessible. It used to be that there really wasn’t a place you could eat in town after 10pm, which was always crazy to me, especially as I was kind of a night owl and wouldn’t get to bed until early morning, basically. It’s a lot different now.
Over the years there’s been such a creative culture there, and people gravitating towards the area for the same reasons that it has created this marketplace of ideas and creativity – which has been excellent and great! But I think it’s finally at that tipping point where it got so big that it became marketable on a pop culture level, and there are obvious symbols of that: TV shows named after the town, and all kinds of Food Network Guy Fieri coming out, and jizzing his little pencil-goatee-meathead-face all over everything, saying “Guy was here” and bla bla bla – you know, things like that.
I want to be clear: it’s not a matter of “oh Portland isn’t cool anymore” or “it’s so commercial.” It’s not about that. It’s about when the thing that makes a town great becomes monetized and then sort of placed on a shelf and sold back to the rest of the country, and people come out to buy that product – what ends up happening is that the culture that originated or played a role in originating what was once very genuine and not driven by a capitalist agenda find themselves confused and looking for their place of it all. They’re sort of unwillingly part of the commercial, and they’re priced out of it. They can no longer afford the thing they created. This is not about some hipsters saying [affects whiny, mocking voice] “oh, shell art isn’t cool anymore.” It’s about practicality and what now? How can I afford my rent? I’m not sure I can stay here anymore. And the energy is changing – there are a lot of people moving in because they can buy “cheap” houses, and making it hard for a lot of other people to live.
A lot of these things resonate with D.C., quite a lot. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the rapid gentrification and whitewashing this city has seen in recent years, and in particular the neighborhood where DC9, the club you’re playing at, is in. It still has some remnants of being Little Ethiopia, Little Eritrea, but so many things have changed in the three-plus years I’ve been here. There’s benefits to it, but there’s definitely a sense of loss of what made this place special. Not saying I’m not part of the problem, in a way, but people come in and gut things. I mean, there’s a Warby Parker there now.
Yeah! It’s almost like you Disneyfy it or something. And you touch upon an important point: there are obviously many chapters of gentrification, and we – and the people in this band, and white people in general – come much later in the book in terms of the people who are impacted first and mostly.
In Portland it definitely started with the African American community in terms of who was getting house-picked first, and the media wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention until it started to branch out and affect outside of that culture. And we’ve been playing in venues where you can tell – it’s obvious that it’s a changing neighborhood. It’s strange. I think what it brings to the fore and what it puts out there is that somehow we haven’t learned to appreciate the beauty of our differences and what makes our cultures unique and wonderful without needing to make it more comfortable for us by taking things and putting in like, a boutique golf shop instead. Or sweep out all these trees and call it “Evergreen Lane” or something. We haven’t learned to live amidst it, so we replace it, and call it what it was. [Laughs sadly]
It’s kind of shocking. It’s strange. I’m not an expert on this kind of thing, but it’s almost the opposite of white flight, and folks are moving back into cities because it’s cheaper and there are more opportunities in certain ways. I guess people can’t really afford big houses in the suburbs anymore.
Did you guys set out to write a thematically consistent album, or did it settle into that organically?
Both. It wasn’t hard to make it thematically unified because that’s what we’ve been experiencing. Honestly, Portland has grown like any city has, but the last couple years have truly been insane – and I grew up in Seattle in the 90s, when all that was blowing up with Microsoft and Starbucks. Portland – wow. The last couple of years it’s seen the highest rising rent in the country along with Seattle, and it’s just strange.
You guys recorded this album at Isaac Brock’s studio, who is something of a legend in Portland. How did you guys connect with him originally? What was the working relationship – beyond him playing guitar on “So Hazy,” did he ever pop in to check on you guys during recording sessions?
Yeah, he would. He’s a workaholic, and the studio is his home away from home so he’d always be there working on something or practicing with Modest Mouse or on his own. He would often check in. There’s this part at the end of the song “Something to Ruin” where I was playing guitar, and he just kind of went crazy. There were all these pedals, and he got on his knees and started punching them all – sort of maniacally, Isaac Brock style. It’s not like he produced the record or anything, he just showed an interest in our band
Like I said, I’m from Seattle and lived in the Issaquah area, where Modest Mouse is from as well, so I’ve been a fan for a while and have been acquaintances with Isaac for years, as well as a couple others in the band. So yeah, that was cool for me, and it was neat to cooperate on that level. He was really sweet about it, and we stayed up until five in the morning working on his guitar and his vocal parts, messing around. He must have recorded about thirty tracks of himself playing guitar, because you can’t really call out chords to him – he doesn’t think like that, so he just has to figure it out, and he just goes for it. [Laughs] It was a great experience, and we had a great time.
What are your hopes and ambitions for Ages and Ages as you move into this “mature band” phase? You guys are defining your sound, defining your lineup – what do you want out of this project?
[Pauses] First and foremost it’s always to know how we feel and have that ability to be right with ourselves, and have that reflected in the music we make. As long as people who make music can do that then what they’re making is genuine and good. That’s an ongoing struggle, and it’s kind of fun and exciting. I think it’s the only noble and righteous struggle there is. [Laughs] The pursuit of honesty and having that reflected in your art – I know it’s kind of a heavy-handed answer.
I feel confident that as long as we can see clearly, we’ll be able to make music that we appreciate and hopefully other people appreciate it too, and we can have a good time. We just really want to bond with the people that are there, and party down – which is easier in some towns than others. [Laughs] Sometimes you play in some places and it’s pretty popping, and sometimes…not so much. They can’t all be Friday nights. [Laughs]