Few musicians have experienced the changing Portland music scene to the extent of Dave Berkham, front-man and guitarist for the psychedelic garage rock band The Reverberations.
Since 2008, Berkham has had his boots on the ground in the city. He has had the opportunity to front two of his own bands, play bass in the internationally touring power-pop act The Cry! and simultaneously stay true to his passion for sixties sounding garage rock. Having released a string of singles and their full-length album ‘Mess Up Your Mind’, The Reverberations exhibit an authentically sixties sound while staying true to the free and creative spirit of the time.
We had a chance to talk with Berkham about his experiences in the Portland music scene, his band The Reverberations, and where he plans to take them. You can order their latest single ‘Move Along’ (released on Valentine’s Day) here.
Tell me about your background. You are from Portland and have played in quite a few bands before forming The Reverberations.
I was born and raised [in Portland]. I spent a lot of my early days in Southeast Portland growing up. Once I was about twelve or thirteen my parents decided to move out to the suburbs. So it was a little bit of a change, but it was a good change. Being so bored in the suburbs, I picked up music and taught myself how to play bass guitar which lead to learning acoustic guitar. And I kept going from there. I had a couple of high school garage bands that never really did anything. Then when I was about eighteen I had my first serious band that was called the Midnight Callers with some high school friends. We started playing out a lot, making friends with other people in the scene. We were together for about four years. Then I joined this band called The Cry! and that was the first professional band I think I had ever been in. We were going on tour, doing all sorts of stuff like that, doing national tours and west coast tours. After about four and a half years in that band amidst line-up changes I decided to leave and start my own project. Musically [in The Cry!] I kind of drifted away playing with them, so I kind of went back to my roots and formed The Reverberations.
Tell me about what you have going on currently.
When we first got together we basically went into the whole idea of just recording everything live and trying to be as true to our sound as possible without it being over produced. We all record in the same room with minimal isolation and we really gel well that way. In terms of what we’ve been doing—right off the bat we had five or so original tunes that we wanted to record, so we went right into the studio and recorded those. Out of those five three of them got selected to basically be put out on 45s from this record label in Baltimore called Hidden Volume Records and it was a co-release between that and another record label in Spain called Kick out the Jams Records—they put out our first 7 inch. This then lead to people being aware of us over in Europe, which also lead to the LP which came out earlier last year, around summer time. For this new single coming out on Valentine’s Day, we had these songs recorded for quite a while and I had been talking to this gentleman who runs this label Beluga records, Trevor, and he said that he’s a fan of ours from the first 45. He was telling me that he was interested in releasing it. He emailed me shortly after our album came out and said that he really wanted to hear some new material, so I submitted the songs we had recorded that I thought would be a good single. He just kind of took it from there. For a while we didn’t know if it was going to be coming out still or if he just kind of went off on his own thing. Then in late December he emailed me and told me he had the test pressings and that it should be ready soon. So it kind of snuck up on us. We are putting this up for sale and Bandcamp and everything, available to order either a physical copy or digital download on Valentine’s Day. The single is called ‘Move Along’, backed with ‘Why You Gotta Be So Mean’.
It seems like leaving The Cry! had to have been a difficult choice, since they seem to have the backing to do things like tour the UK. Can you speak a little on that?
It was a tough decision. I still love those guys. We spent a lot of hard times together in the band, but we are all still friends. I try to support them as much as I can and I think they try and support me as much as possible too. It was very hard at the time. Being in a band for four years and being constantly busy can be draining in itself, along with having a full time job trying to pay your rent in this changing Portland vibe where rent is getting higher and the places you find to live get further and further away. Our original drummer, Evan Mersky, had left earlier that year. We had a replacement, the guy that’s playing with them currently, Joey. He’s a great guy and a fantastic musician, but there was something kind of magical about that original line up. At that point it was four years in and we had all of these opportunities and treading water. We weren’t really doing anything, it seemed like. Musically I think I was a little frustrated. I was tired of playing some of the same material. I also felt like maybe I didn’t have as much input songwriting-wise. It was just kind of that point where it was time to move on. I felt like my job in the band was done, and it was time for me to do other things—to make myself happy, basically. I needed some satisfaction for myself and to be happy with the material that I wanted to write. That was the main reason I left. Seeing them go to Europe and everything, that was fantastic. I was so happy that they were able to do that. If anybody deserved to be able to do that, they did. They work hard. Even when I was in the group we had a pretty good following in Europe, so it’s really cool that they were able to go over there and experience that. But I wish them all the best. I’m happy doing what I’m doing now, and hopefully we can build a following out in Europe. I don’t know [laughs].
I should mention that this publication is based in Bristol UK and Portland, OR, so you’ll have people in Europe reading this, just so you know.
Being from the greater Portland area, how have things changed since you started playing in bands? What are the pros and cons? Do you see yourself staying in Portland?
At the moment I see myself staying in Portland, although every time I see a club shut down or a house get torn down, or just seeing a neighborhood that is unrecognizable, it really does discourage me. You feel like you are a stranger in a strange land, even though you’re in the same place you’ve been your entire life. It’s been frustrating, but this sort of thing happens in small cities. Myself, I’ve been pushed out to the suburbs, just because it’s more affordable out there. I have a car, luckily so I’m able to commute and make it work for myself. Some of the pros are that there are people moving here that have the same interests. A scene that maybe had a small following now is maybe getting a little more recognition because there are people moving here that have that shared interest. The cons are that having all of these people moving here is driving up the rent, making it hard for artists to survive comfortably, and also it’s forcing a lot of clubs to be torn down or made into coffee shops [laughs]. And we have plenty of those here. So it’s kind of sad. It’s a bummer to drive down Division street and not recognize half of the block. It’s kind of wild and kind of a drag as well. It’s been a real bummer mainly because of the clubs, but it’s also been good because you can kind of establish yourself at one or two clubs. Some of our favorites are the Twilight Cafe and the Liquor Store. And then we strive for Mississippi Studios and the Doug Fir. There’s still some great small clubs run by great people and I hope that they are able to stay afloat with this very changing time.
I hear influences such as The Sonics and The 13th Floor Elevators in your sound. Can you talk a little about your current 60s garage rock sound? Do you intend to keep things that genre specific, or do you see yourself experimenting with different things?
That style of music has always been fascinating to me, especially the history and limitations that those musicians had at that time. Mainly, it’s just sort of cool to think about everything they did back then being recorded on mostly four or two tracks. Also just the experimentation. It was such a wild time to experiment. You mention the 13th Floor Elevators, and they had a guy playing the jugs [laughs]. Also, something about that time that makes it interesting to me is that I like the fashion. And maybe the hippie love-everyone-vibe more than the rest of the political shit that was happening at that time, like Vietnam and the Civil Rights Act. I think that we are going to stay in that sixties influenced sound but we don’t specifically set out to sound like The Sonics or anything like that. We don’t want to get stuck in a rut. We’ve actually added an organ player that plays with us from time to time, which has changed up the sound quite a bit. We are getting a little bit more into later sixties music with a little bit heavier sound like Blue Cheer or The Other Half, rather than staying strictly in that mid-sixties style of raw rock n roll. But we’ve also been changing up our style quite a bit because I’ve been adding a lot of twelve string guitar, adding a kind of jangly sound. Right now it’s an interesting mix. It’s got that early psychedelic sound with some folk rock tendencies and still kind of that snotty garage rock sound. It’s a cool blend right now, but I see us getting more psychedelic as we experiment more.
As a multi-instrumentalist, do you write everything and then assign parts, or is it more collaborative?
There’s two ways I like to write my songs. If I’m really envisioning something and in a very creative moods where I’m imagining all of the parts, I’ll make a very rough demo usually on garage band or something like that. I’ll play all of the instruments but I won’t be absolutely stern on the parts. It’ll be a rough idea. The other way is I’ll have an acoustic guitar and record a voice memo on my phone and send that to the guys and ask for their opinion. Once we get into rehearsal we listen to the song once or twice and try to get it off the ground. Cam, Ian or John will add their own personal thing to it, which is what I want them to do. Sometimes when I do demos I’ll play drums poorly [laughs], and I’ll just kind of make a draft of the song. Once we all get together I just let it go in its own direction.
Would you be open to having the other members bring songs to the table or do you see yourself maintaining the key songwriter responsibilities?
I would definitely welcome them to bring material. I know our bass player [Cam] and our rhythm guitar [John] play in side projects. It’s just a matter of them doing it and bringing it up. I would love to hear their stuff.
What are your goals for the next three to five years with the band?
For this year I would really like to get a European connection going. We’ve been talking a lot about it lately for some reason. A lot of people over in Europe have been emailing us, saying they really want to see us. Our main goal for the rest of this year is to successfully sell this new 45 and hopefully get over to Europe, to get a little more international. Three to five years is a little hard to think that far ahead, but I guess what I would like to see us be a supporting act for some larger shows as well as maybe touring with some bigger acts. I would be really excited about that. I love to do the short west-coast and DIY tours, meeting people that are like minded and dig our sound. That’s the coolest thing about it, just meeting people that like what you’re doing and are excited for you. I would just say more writing, more recording and more experimenting, meeting new people and getting a little more international. Those would be my kind of goals.
Do other mediums influence the band? Art, writing, film?
Not necessarily. Definitely sixties imagery and pop art, and optical illusion art. No pun intended, but I like stuff that messes with your mind. I like things that put you in another mind set. I like the fashion of the day, unique and colorful. I’m a big fan of Roy Lichtenstein and Klaus Voormann. Stuff like that. I like to read a lot of historical books about weird gurus and stuff like that. I read a lot of self-help books about improving your state of consciousness and improving your life, but I can’t think of any authors in particular.
What advice would you give to fledgling musicians with a passion for that 60s garage rock sound?
I would probably say just keep doing what you believe in. Don’t let anybody tell you that you need to change or are out of date because you like something from the past. For me the future is bright but the past influences our future, especially with things coming out the way they are. I think there is a lot of great art that is going to be made. I would just say to just keep going. If people tell you that you are out of date or not good enough, use that to push you to another level of creativity.
Check out ‘Move Along’ right here: