By Eric Evans
There’s a vibrant electronic scene in Portland right now, a handful of bands playing the kind of moody, post-punk electronic music that sounds both cutting edge and weirdly familiar. Right in the thick of it is Warm Hands, a duo made up of vocalist/guitarist Conrad Vollmer and programmer/keyboardist Taylor Gehrts. Like some other bands in the genre you’ll hear touches of Joy Division and, especially on their new EP Blurred, a strong hint of Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Unlike a lot of electronic acts the band’s emotional, melodic songs translate perfectly to the stage.
Black on the Canvas sat down with the band at The Savoy—a small trendy Portland nightspot with a midwestern aesthetic complete with animal heads and paintings of prairies—to discuss what they do, how they write, and the challenges of being musicians in the internet economy.
How long have you been playing together?
Taylor: Two, two and a half years?
Conrad: When Taylor started it was me and a guy named James Petro who was playing bass. Then Taylor started and we got a drummer but we only played one show with that line-up. PDX Pop was the only show we played with him drumming.
Taylor: That’s true.
Conrad: Then James moved to New York and the drummer moved to bass. We did a little west coast tour in October of last year and when we got back from the tour it became just the two of us.
Your music might be largely electronic but onstage, you’re performing. It’s not automated.
Taylor: We don’t set everything to 137 BPM and be done.
How often do you perform?
Conrad: At least once a month. We’re trying to work on new stuff. Putting out a record then taking a break from live shows to work on music is kind of a weird move but we’ve been playing the songs on the record and the other songs for so long, it’s starting to feel like we need to introduce some new stuff.
Taylor: We were playing a lot over the summer but slowed down in the fall. It’s good, because we have to start working on new material.
Are you writing?
Conrad: Yeah, there are three new things that we’re working on right now.
Taylor: Well, two new things, but—
Conrad: They’re changing a lot. Basically they’re done except for the vocals and… I just kind of wing it [both laugh] to varying degrees of success. It sometimes turns into me just deciding the song should be over, so I just decide not to sing any more. [Both laugh] “Let’s stop.”
Taylor: [The process has] changed a lot. Conrad actually wrote the song “Anxiety” on Blurred before I was part of the band.
Conrad: The original version was two guitars and vocals. That’s it. When we switched from a full band to the current line-up we sort of rewrote all these songs and that one just worked really well. Completely different. It feels more and more like we just get in a room and start writing.
Taylor: Without too much intention. We’ll just jam out a little bit and hear something. “Oh, I like what you’re doing right now.” Then you start to write around that.
Conrad: There’s no formula or order to the process. It could start with a drum sound or a beat or a keyboard or guitar line.
Taylor: It’s pretty organic. Oftentimes we’ll start writing something, get it to a certain point, come back to it a week later and start writing a second part to it maybe, and then just scrap the first part altogether. [Laughter]
Your music isn’t ambient but you don’t fill every nanosecond with something.
Taylor: The use of space is something I like about what we’ve been doing. A lot of the songs are slow; you could throw a ton of stuff in-between those beats, but not doing it has been fun and cool.
Do you play new stuff at shows?
Conrad: The show at Holocene is a good example: except for that New Order cover that we decided to do the day of the show—
That was good.
Conrad: Thanks. Otherwise, that show was no new stuff.
Taylor: It felt inappropriate to play the new stuff because it’s a lot dancier.
Taylor: Not full-on dancy but it’s faster. We should probably start thinking about a full-length…
ON THE INDUSTRY
How do you make a living as musicians with the internet training listeners to expect everything for free?
Taylor: Second jobs. [Laughter]
Conrad: That might be it. I don’t know.
Taylor: People can, I guess, become superstars and make a bunch of money doing music and hustle and get publishing and licensing deals. That’s how you’re going to make money.
Conrad: That’s the only way, publishing. I feel like people have been saying for 5 years, maybe 10, that the major label record industry is over. Well then, why isn’t it over? And those 360 deals… the safe haven for the artist used to be merch sales and money from touring, and now the labels are getting part of that. Which is crazy.
Taylor: In our situation we’ll make a little bit of money but it’s not enough to sustain normal everyday life.
Conrad: The solution for us is we have other jobs. And then we do this.
That’s probably the solution for a lot of bands. Unless you get a song on the Hunger Games soundtrack or something.
Taylor: But still, that’s only going to go so far. It would be very cool if you could have a career doing music but it never seemed like a viable option in my brain. I make music because I like to make music. Striking it big seems so bizarre. [Laughter] If we could make money doing it, fuck yeah.
Conrad: I just want the time to go tour…
Taylor: Less of a job. For, let’s say, a month. We probably wouldn’t lose our jobs…
Conrad: No. Probably not. [Laughter]
ON PHYSICAL COPIES OF MUSIC
Are you vinyl guys?
Taylor: Yeah. I mean, I listen to music digitally, I’m happy with it, but I like that I can buy a beautiful physical copy that you can listen to in your living room that’s going to sound amazing that you’re going to have to pay attention to because 17 minutes goes by and you have to flip that fucker over. They all have download codes so you can listen to them on the go, whatever.
I like the artifact. I like that friends can come over and flip through your collection, pull things out to listen to…
Conrad: Yeah. Yeah. Now what are they going to do, scroll through your iTunes? [all groan]
Taylor: I love spending a couple of hours in a record store, even the smaller ones. Every single time I say “I’m not going to buy anything, I’m just going to look.” and then I’m leaving with $65 worth of records.
A lot of newer bands aren’t bothering with physical copies, because why should they?
Conrad: It’s weird because I feel the visual aspect, the artwork, the photo…
Taylor: It’s all important. It’s all there for a reason.
Conrad: We spent as much time with the fucking cover as we did mixing.
Taylor: Not quite but it’s close.
Conrad: That’s part of it. It’s part of it. I want my records to have a cover that represents the thing. I want to read on the back, where did they record this? What were they thinking? All that stuff.
Taylor: Who wants to right click on that track to find out what’s going on? It’s terrible. [Laughter]
Conrad: It’s like the story of the record. If I like somebody’s record I want to see what their visual representation of it is.
ON SELF PROMOTION
How would you describe your music? The dreaded elevator pitch.
Taylor: I’ve been thinking about that.
Conrad: I think about it all the time. People ask, it comes up.
There’s that little sticker radio stations get on every release with the two-sentence version of who a band is, then three bands that are similar…
Taylor: Britney Spears, Fela Kuti, Joy Division. [Laughter] Electronic post-punk? I don’t know.
Conrad: I always want the word “pop” to be in there. When people ask me, I use that word. I want that word to be in the description maybe more than it fits.
A lot of bands shy away from that word.
Conrad: I want us to be making pop music. I feel like we’re making pop music but other people just don’t know it’s pop or something. [Laughter]
Taylor: They’re pop songs, not electronic tracks. They’re absolutely songs. It may not always be A/B, verse/chorus structure necessarily, but it has emotion. It has feeling.
Conrad: Electronic post-punk emo-pop.
Taylor: Obscure emo-pop. [Laughter]
Conrad: Oh yeah, obscure. That’s a good one. Out of focus…
Taylor: Blurred pop. [Laughter] Let’s bring it back to the record.
Warm Hands new EP Blurred is available on Portland label SINIS on either black or clear smoke vinyl and digital download here. You can stream the EP on the band’s soundcloud page.