Best New Band 2009
Portland’s music scene insiders pick their favorite breakthrough acts of the past year.
Sounds Like: A long-lost psychedelic Elephant 6 band who stole Animal Collective’s gear and tripped out on The Wizard of Oz one too many times.
Last fall, psychedelic-poppers Nurses were in the middle of a grueling, monthlong national tour in Indiana when they realized something: They had forgotten to get directions to the next show. “I don’t think we’re very organized when we tour,” multi-instrumentalist John Bowers says. “It was so bad we had to [text] ChaCha everything—‘Where is the band Nurses playing tomorrow?’ Just go south and it will tell us!”
The band’s three members—Bowers, singer and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Chapman, and drummer James Mitchell, all 25—are so close it’s easy to assume they’re related. On a warm April afternoon in Alberta Park, all three sit cross-legged, nearly finishing each other’s sentences while sharing stories from the road. It’s a togetherness that has come from constant life on the move, living in confined quarters.
Bowers and Chapman, best friends from Idaho Falls who met in junior high school, have been roommates for five years. They started the group in Idaho and went through stints in Southern California and Chicago before taking to Portland and meeting Mitchell on a whim in late 2007. Until last month, they lived together in a decaying attic in Northeast Portland—a house with nine other residents and numerous couch-surfers. That’s where they refined their sound, one mouse click at a time, and recorded much of Nurses’ forthcoming full-length debut, Apple’s Acre (set for release in late July on respected indie label Dead Oceans).
After years spent as self-described Luddites, the band members’ Portland move and embrace of technology have infused their songs with a new sense of purpose. Much of Apple’s Acre—including the buoyant, echoing standout “Manatarms”—was written over three years ago, but not laid down until Chapman started experimenting with entry-level Mac recording program GarageBand on his laptop last summer. Despite the software limitations, Apple’s Acre sounds fresh and professional, brimming with clever songwriting and tinkly melodies straight out of The Wizard of Oz.
Chapman describes the band’s writing process as serendipitous: It was discovering GarageBand and experimenting with tape loops—often forged out of long, sporadic jam sessions—that led the band in its latest direction. “Even though we have electronics, fundamentally [our songs are] not that different than a folk song or a pop song,” he says. “We got in the habit of making lots of tapes where we just hit ‘record’ and see what happens.”
Nurses’ best songs take melodic ideas written on an acoustic guitar or piano, then dress the tunes up in psychedelic garb (much like the guys themselves, who favor pink tights, sun hats and, in Chapman’s case, his blue-and-red-striped summer “onesie”), padding the songs with a bright, colorful bed of electronics, weird noises and vocal harmonies. The effect often sounds like a 21st-century take on the Beach Boys—if they’d discovered Animal Collective’s bed of electronics and lived to tweet about it. The fun part of the process is in trying to create “sounds where you couldn’t really say what it is,” Chapman says. It’s an often exhausting exercise that effectively forces keyboards and sequencers to act out roles that a guitar or bass might play in a more traditional setting.
While there’s plenty unusual about Nurses, the band members’ interactions with one another are timelessly rock ’n’ roll—it’s evident the minute the trio takes the stage and locks into one continuous, pulsing groove. “We hang out almost every day,” Chapman says, pausing slightly for dramatic effect. “I think the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other is, like, a day. But on that day we definitely called or emailed or something,” Mitchell says, laughing, before chiming in with maybe a little too much information. “I barely talk to anyone on the phone except for them and my mom. I don’t even call my girlfriend [laughs again].” MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
SEE IT: Nurses play WW’s Best New Band show Saturday, May 9, at Berbati’s Pan. 9 pm. Free. 21+.