Portland wasn’t always a go-to spot for young creatives chasing their version of the post-hipster American Dream–it was more of an incognito dark industrial town somewhere between Seattle and San Francisco.
It was a tightly-knit artistic community that birthed a special brand of overcast rock ‘n’ roll. It featured bands like the Wipers, Dead Moon and Poison Idea, to name a prominent few. Sad thing is, if you aren’t a Portlander or a fan of that particular underground scene, you won’t really know what I’m talking about. It’s not the scene of the Shins or the Decemberists, bands that clawed onto mainstream charts in the early 2000s and into the hearts of now aged hipsters nationwide. . . It’s rawer, grittier and more in your face (and sometimes country western). There are still great musicians in this city keeping these old school Portland punk rock ‘n’ roll roots alive despite extensive gentrification and change–and from my perspective, bastardization and commercialization. Sorry Carrie Brownstein.
Kelley Halliburton and Jenny Connors (a.k.a. Jenny Don’t) are cornerstones of the Portland music scene, making the music and living the lifestyle that points back to the city’s gritty rock ‘n’ roll roots. And not to sound like a suck up, but they are also a pretty cute couple. Halliburton, who played drums in Pierced Arrows is currently the bassist for the hardcore punk outfit Problems as well as Don’t and the Jenny Don’t and the Spurs (pictured above with Connors and Halliburton on the far right), the latter two of which feature Connors on vocals and rhythm guitar. All three bands are on Doomtown Sounds, an independent record label started by Halliburton to release mainly his own music. The Know had a chance to speak with Connors and Halliburton about their past and current musical projects and their perspectives on the changing city of Portland. I was on speaker phone talking to both interviewees while taking notes and recording everything, so the composition of the interview somewhat reflects that.
The Know: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Fred and Toody [of Dead Moon / Pierced Arrows] and Sam Henry [of the Wipers]?
Jenny Don’t: I met Sam in 2008. When I moved out here, I moved into a house where Andrew Loomis–the drummer from Dead Moon–would hang out. I started playing in the band called Lady Of The Night in 2006, and we then moved the band to Portland. It was a darkwave punk band. Sam came to a show. He was playing with Morgan Grace at the time, but I think he was getting bored with that. He was like: “we should play together.” So we started playing just for fun and it worked out really well. We just built [Don’t] around that.
Kelly Halliburton: [Jenny and I] were basically introduced to each other through Andrew Loomis, which is a weird coincidental sort of thing. My relationship with Fred and Toody began back when I was a kid. My dad was in a band with Fred back in the early 70s called Albatross. They never released anything. It was a band that existed after the Lollipop Shop broke up and before Fred started Dipper, which was a 70s hard rock band. So they had this band, and they would practice in our basement. They were always just kind of around the house. I was a little kid at that time so my memories are a little vague, but after that band broke up I always knew: “this guy Fred Cole was in a band with my dad.” Fred was always around town and I just knew he was my dad’s old bandmate. It was kind of weird. I’d run into them over the years going to Dead Moon shows and stuff. I moved to Germany at the end of the nineties and I was gone for about seven years. I saw Dead Moon over there and reconnected with Fred and talked about my dad. For some reason that stuck in Fred’s mind. Fast forward a few years and I’m back in Portland and Dead Moon broke up. Somehow it stuck in Fred’s mind that I mentioned that I played drums. So out of the blue one day Toody gave me a call and they were saying: “yeah, Dead Moon broke up about six months ago and we are laying low. We are getting really bored so we were wondering if you wanted to start [Pierced Arrows] with us.” That happened in the spring 2007, so ten years ago exactly. And the rest is kind of history.
TK: Do both of you have history with Portland in that way?
JD: I don’t have as much history with Portland. I was born in New Mexico but I grew up outside of Bellingham, WA. I moved here just to play music. Luckily within my first six months of moving here I met all the people I needed to meet [laughs].
KH: I was born in Portland. I spent most of my childhood living in a small town on the Oregon coast a little over an hour away. I spent my formative years going to shows here in the 80s. Bands like Poison Idea. When I graduated from high school in ’89 I moved to Portland right way and started playing in bands.I spent most of the nineties playing in anarcho-punk and hardcore bands.
JD: I first saw Kelley at a Pierced Arrows show, and then I met him later at Dante’s.
TK: It seems like those Portland roots we are familiar with are disintegrating, and people that are moving here with more money and all of that. What is your perspective on how Portland is changing?
KH: It’s terrible. Although this influx of people has brought in a lot of different people with new ideas. People have come here and contributed a lot with their music and with their creativity. But at the same time there’s a lot of people that have come here simply because they’ve been priced out of California, and are coming in and buying up real estate. I don’t know, for whatever reason it is just changing everything and the price of living is going up.
JD: A lot of the neighborhoods are changing, and it loses something. Everything is becoming more cookie-cutter and everything is the same, with a Little Big Burger in every neighborhood.
.KH: Portland has a history of constantly being in flux. The ethnicities of each neighborhood have changed over the years. But I feel like what is happening now is a really drastic change, and is kind of unprecedented. It affects people on our level a lot because we rent our housing. We are not a very high income bracket [laughs] so it’s really scary. I’ve been shuffled around from neighborhood to neighborhood over the past thirty years staying one step ahead of gentrification, but this time it’s looking like there is literally nowhere else to go. I’ve lived in every quadrant of Portland, but now there’s really nothing else. Even the houses in Gresham and the areas that were formerly low rent neighborhoods are expensive. A good friend of mine was telling me the other night at a show that he’s moving back to LA because he can’t afford Portland anymore. And that’s a scary thing. Moving back to California because Portland is too expensive. It’s not just our own financial inconvenience that concerns me, it’s the people around us and the people we care about, and that parts of our culture are being forced to move away. It sucks.
JD: And we don’t know where we’d move to if we moved. I mean, we’ve talked about it.
KH: My brother lives in Pittsburgh. He’s a financial refugee. He’s constantly sending me listings for houses that are like twenty grand. But I don’t know. We are kind of just laying low and seeing what happens.
TK: What do you think of the music that is coming out of Portland currently, financial and socio-economic issues aside?
KH: I have nothing but positive things to say about the music and how it’s been impacted by the influx of people. In the late 80s and 90s going to shows was cool, and Portland had its own sound, but it was so small that any soap opera or drama would spread through our tiny little scene like wildfire. That was terrible. It was a great little scene but there were drawbacks. All the bands were similar sounding, and it’s cool in hindsight. There were a lot of people who were really into the Portland bands and the Portland sound. But I think there’s been so many great musicians and great creative people that have moved here that the quality of music coming out of Portland now—I don’t think we could have imagined people making music like that back in the 90s. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about that [laughs].
JD: Working at the Liquor Store I’ve been able to see a lot of music that I might not have seen otherwise. It’s a wide variety of genres but consistently good. I think Portland has high standards of what’s expected of musicians. Even if it’s people that don’t know how to play that well technically, it seems like the quality of songs that are written are good.
KH: Yeah. I think we kind of lost something just because we used to have a more insulated quality. We were isolated and it was a small community. But I think what we’ve gotten in return has made up for that in a lot of ways. The 90s still stand as the 90s but what we have now—there’s a lot of really world class bands as far as I’m concerned.
TK: Care to name any?
KH: There’s just so many different genres. Just the other night Problems played a show with Long Knife and a band called Andy Place and the Coolheads. Long Knife is just a fucking amazing band in the first place. It was the first time I saw Andy Place and his band. They were awesome. They were doing this ’77 snotty punk stuff with a weird twist. There’s the Lovesores which are a really good high energy rock band.
JD: The Spurs played with Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners. They played in a 40s Western swing style.
KH: So there’s that whole scene too, the whole country scene.
JD: Roselit Bone is another one.
KH: Yeah, I mean a band like Roselit Bone is just amazing. I can’t even imagine somebody coming up with something like that 25 years ago.
TK: Can you speak a little bit on ‘Enough is Enough,’ the latest Don’t release?
JD: We are excited about it.
KH: We just recorded that a month ago at our friend Maus’s studio where we’ve done the last Problems LP, the last Don’t LP and the last two Spurs LPs. All of the Spurs records have been recorded there.
.JD: It’s called Red Lantern Studios.
Author’s note: Dave Berkham of the Reverberations (who I interviewed a few months ago for The Know) also recorded his albums at Red Lantern Studios with engineer / multi-instrumentalist Evan Mersky.
KH: It’s cool because two songs that we recorded for Don’t I had a hand in writing. It was about a year and a half ago. Jenny wanted to write some songs, so I sat on the drums and she tossed some riffs around, and I made some suggestions. We flushed them out a little bit and then they were added to Don’t’s [sic?] set. They didn’t get recorded until we went into the studio with our newest guitar player: Eric “Vegetable” Olson from Poison Idea. And that guy’s a shredder. It was pretty cool because it’s just another thing that’s a full circle.
JD: It’s nice too because we have a new line up, so I feel like having a recording of us all together makes the band feel more like a unit. Everybody that’s in the line-up right now, when we go on tour again in May, they can all be a part of the same sound we have recorded now.
KH: That record is pretty much ready for the presses. It’s going to come out on a German label called Twisted Chords.
JD: I think it’s the most rock ‘n’ roll thing Don’t has done yet.
KH: Don’t has had a revolving door of guitar players over the last couple of years and each new guitarist has added a heavier sound. I guess with the addition of Vegetable and me it really is going in that direction.
TK: It sounds like a great combination for some good rock ‘n’ roll right there.
KH: Yeah it’s funny because I always liked Don’t in the beginning because they were very different sounding. So I hope I’m not ruining the band by doing my thing. [laughs] But it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. We are excited to have that record out, and we’re going to tour and go over to Europe for three weeks in May.
TK: I don’t know if I mentioned this but The Know is based in Bristol UK and Portland, OR, so are you guys going to be hitting up Bristol at all on your tour?
KH: Well you know, I used to tour Britain a lot in the 90s, but I haven’t toured there much at all recently. My last tour in the UK was 2003, and so out of all the touring that Don’t, Problems and even Pierced Arrows have done we haven’t gone to England at all. Pierced Arrows played at All Tomorrow’s Parties once in England but that was it. It’s such a pain in the ass to get in. When we were touring on the continent, the borders to get in were no trouble at all, but now to take the ferry to England—I’ve been grilled by Customs so many times. So we don’t even really bother. I haven’t tried since the whole Brexit thing, and I don’t imagine that’s going to make it any easier for touring bands to get into Britain.
JD: I think once maybe you get on a higher level to where the promoters are actually sending paperwork to the border with a visa to work there it’ll probably be a little bit easier, but just for our basic level touring it’s not that easy.
TK: How did the whole Spurs thing get started? It’s such a departure from everything else you two are involved in.
KH: That’s how it started, because it was a departure. Personally I felt like it was a good opportunity. Jenny and had been playing a lot of these songs as a solo act.
JD: Yeah, I worked at this crappy dive bar and they would have this golf tournament party every year and I’d sing at that, and Sam [Henry] would play the drums. And one time we played at this restaurant that’s not around anymore, and me and Sam both played acoustic guitars. We were playing without any microphones or anything and it was really awkward. We made a joke about them asking the two worst guitar players in Portland to come play a show. [laughs] But Toody knew that I had set worth of of country covers, [Fred and Toody] did a duo show at the Ash Street Saloon and they called us and said: “hey, we are doing this duo, and we booked you and Kelly to come play,” and I said “we don’t do that,” and they said “well you better figure it out because you are doing it.” [laughs] We got Sam to play with us.
KH: That was about five years ago.
JD: People really enjoyed it and had fun. So Erik from Mississippi Records had another BBQ party thing for his record store and he booked us for that, and we did it as a trio again. I’m not really good at doing guitar solos, so there was a lot of parts where it felt like we were missing something. We needed a fourth member. We wanted to keep it—part of the reason I wanted to start the whole band anyways was because—let’s do it to where we play no matter what. Whoever is available, if they’re not available we can still do it as a pair. So we were like shit—let’s just get four people because it sounds better.
KH: It just started off with Jenny and I on acoustic instruments—I had an acoustic bass and she had an acoustic guitar and we thought it would be cool to do this because we already play so much music together. But playing together, just the two of us with our instruments, we realized we didn’t sound very good without a drummer—someone there to keep rhythm. So that’s when we invited Sam on board and that’s when Fred and Toody booked our thing. We were just like “there’s no fucking way we can do this without making fools of ourselves if it’s just the two of us.” So we had Sam sit in on a snare with brushes and then from there we were like “Well, y’know yeah we need a lead player” so we kept getting these guest lead players and eventually it turned into what it is now, which is a full band with a full drum set, lap steel and all of this other stuff. It was cool. It was kind of a departure from our initial vision, which was just us, but we are totally stoked with where it’s gone and where it’s going. We just recorded a new album, and that’s going to be around the time summer rolls up, and that’s going to be a split release with our label Doomtown Sounds and Mississippi Records. We are pretty excited about that. It was just a nice break from the chaos and noise of our other bands.
JD: And we get to play really different venues for different people in different scenarios. We can play longer sets. We get opportunities to play private parties, or restaurants. It doesn’t demand as much attention as a punk band.
KH: That’s a really cool aspect of it too. It almost feels like we are under cover sometimes. The Spurs play some pretty nice places. The kind of places that, if Problems were playing, there’d be a real. . . problem [laughs]. It’s funny to be at these places, to be on stage and to get paid and lavishly fed and given drinks. It’s just really fun. And we think “if only you guys knew what we do the rest of the time.” [laughs] I mean we play nice places. We play rest homes. It’s just random.
JD: We played a German diplomat’s house for an annual musical gathering he has where all of his retired friends come out.
KH: I think the average age for that show was about eighty [laughs]. It’s just kind of a branching out. It’s real fun. A lot more texture than some of the other styles of music we play.
TK: Definitely. And having the versatility to switch between genres would help you to obtain a variety of gigs How do you manage to survive as musicians in the current economic climate in Portland?
KH: You know that old saying, don’t quit your day job. We never did. [laughs] We have flexible jobs. I’m self employed as a general contractor and so there’s no shortage of people who need things built in this town, right now especially. So if I’m not on tour I’m doing that. I don’t think there is any way either one of us could have real steady normal jobs with the amount of time we spend on tour and the level of commitment our bands require. When I’m home I work a lot.
JD: And I work at the Clinton Street Pub and bartend shows at the Liquor Store, and also do some of the booking there. Unfortunately I think I’m going to lose my job at Clinton Street with this next tour, but there will be another bar job available when I return, I’m sure.
KH: I’ve been making music since I was a teenager and I’m in my mid forties now. Money has never been much a motivator, or even a factor. I just love to play. If money comes, I mean, at this point I would love to be able to support myself with music, but on the other hand–
JD: Nothing will change if we can’t.
KH: Yeah, I’m going to play regardless. It’s funny because the Spurs actually do make money. That’s the band where we get into those kind of venues and those kind of places that actually do pay us. Probably if we did the Spurs every weekend and played full time we probably could be living off of it, but you know, that’s not our primary goal. We just want to make music and live the free and creative lifestyle that comes along with that. I’ll spend my time building people’s porches and shit [laughs] if that’s what it takes.
TK: Can you tell me a little more about your record label?
KH: Doomtown sounds—kind of named after the Wipers song, which was always kind of a reference to Portland. I started that label in 2009-10. It was basically started so I could put out Problems records. I’m a record collector and I just like having them around. I like the whole record trading scene and selling them and all that stuff. I ran a record label through the 90s and kind of stopped it after I put out 22 records on that label. I thought “that’s enough. I’ve wasted enough time and money,” well not really wasted time, but I just kind of put it aside. It took about ten years.
JD: This next Spurs record is the seventeenth release of Doomtown Sounds.
KH: It’s kind of funny because I guess I didn’t learn my lesson the first time around. I’ve always had bad experiences with other people putting out records of my bands. I never feel like the distribution is as good as it could be, or that the attention and promotion is there. From the beginning, all of the Problems records that we’ve done except for a few singles have been on Doomtown sounds. And all of the Don’t records except for one have been on Doomtown Sounds. All of the Spurs records too. It’s mainly there to put out our own records. We did release an Exacerbators single, which is the only thing that we’ve put out that isn’t one of our bands.
JD: We tried to put out a record for the band Pushy but they didn’t want to put out the songs that we had, and there were some artwork disagreements, so that kind of got stalled. But if we ever have enough money that’s something we would start doing–putting out other band’s records, because that would be really fun.
KH: The original reason I called it Doomtown sounds was to release records that were just Portland bands. Eventually, if the label takes off and becomes a little more self-sufficient, I’d still like to do that. At this point it’s been primarily our own bands.
TK: I guess my last question, just generally, is what advice would you give to up and comers that want to get out there and get in the scene and play music?
KH: Perseverance is key. If your heart’s in the right place and obviously if you don’t have expectations as far as money goes, that’s really important. Just follow your heart and if it feels like you’re meant to do this, do it. And just keep at it. Don’t let yourself be discouraged. I mean, shoot, you’re going to play to ten people or five people or no people. You’re going to waste tons of energy and tons of money on dead end tours and records that sit in boxes in your bedroom. But those are all peripheral things that don’t really matter in the end. What matters is that you’re doing it. If you’re doing it and you feel like you should be doing it, that’s the main thing.
JD: You can do it. Even when it gets hard. One my struggles was just depending on other people for a band which can get really frustrating. Especially when people get flakey or you can’t practice because the drummer doesn’t show up or whatever. If you really want to do it and somebody is making it to where it isn’t possible just keep meeting people and keep networking with people until you find the right ones to do what you want to do. The struggle is real with [finding the right people]. It’s really discouraging, if you teach somebody all of your songs or whatever and they just drop off. The last thing you want to do is go through that teaching process again with another person, and always feeling unsure on whether they are going to bail. And then you might get somebody who is dedicated but not quite the right fit and they drive everyone in the band crazy. Then that’s tough too. It’s like a marriage with multiple people so you have to try and make it work, and it can be pretty difficult.