By Harriet Kaplan
Portland, Oregon’s Radiation City (link) started out as a duo and has evolved into four-piece band creatively collaborating on musical arrangements and lyrics that manage to challenge convention sounding edgy and experimental yet feel very familiar echoing influences from a bygone past, absorbing them to create something new and different, with an original twist. The result is a colorful and sometimes carving a bright pastiche that encompass everything from lounge, dance, boss nova rhythms to bliss-out pure indie pop. Comparisons as dissipate as The Velvet Underground to Van Dyke Parks to The Beach Boys have used to describe Radiation City. Lush, creamy, shimmering vocals rest comfortably atop of this eclectic sonic landscape. They both smooth, soothing and hypnotic. Within the lyrics, reside a dark, brooding undercurrent laced with sadness and disappointments, but conversely the songs can be more upbeat, and feel and sound sunny and chipper. Radiation City recently spoke to Black on the Canvas about their inception, the changes that occur over time and experiencing growing pains as a band and how they deal with and use it to their advantage to stoke the creative fire and to maintain their goal to do what they love and preserve the purity of that more than focusing on the bottom-line outcome.
The band has been together since 2009. How has the group evolved and changed thematically and in terms of the sound in the last almost six years?
Radiation City: The band began in 2010 actually. We began songwriting as a two piece so the creative pool has grown since then, which has certainly changed the process. Collaboration has been really important for the band, as we never want to make the same album twice, and we are continually pushing each other outside of our respective comfort zones. One focus of the new record (out some point in 2015, if all goes according to plan) was too exercise more restraint: simpler compositions and more groove oriented tunes; let the melodies, movement, and textures speak for themselves without gumming up the works by cramming too many ideas into one tunes.
What is the songwriting process? What comes first the music or lyrics?
Radiation City: It really depends. In the past, someone might’ve brought just a riff or a groove to the table, and the group would build on it collaboratively. There were more complete ideas brought in for this new record, but there was still a decent amount of dismantling, reassembly, and rearranging that happened collectively. Often lyrics come last, but sometimes someone will have written some lines independently of the music, and they will fit magically with whatever musical idea we are working on at the time.
I read you are influenced by the music your parents liked. It’s quite an eclectic selection. Can you tell me more about it? What was the motivating factor in you becoming a musician and was it encouraged by your family?
Radiation City: All of us were fortunate enough to have parents, and more importantly, school systems that fostered musical growth in us. It’s a shame to see the Portland public school system, in which Randy and I grew up, have its music program ravaged by budget cuts. Thankfully there are non-profits like PDX Pop Now who are doing their best to keep the dream alive, but it’s bleak out there.
The group is multi-instrumental. Was that the plan originally? Or did the band grow into that from something different in the beginning? Can you give me the first and last names of the members of the band and what they play?
We all come from other projects and diverse musical backgrounds, so it makes sense that we share roles. All of us have fronted our own bands prior to Radiation City. So it’s natural that we mix it up when we record. We switch instruments some on stage, but that can be more of a hassle than it’s worth, so it’s more of a functional necessity rather than a novelty.
Lizzy Ellison: live – lead vocals, keys. On our records, she’s played bass and guitar as well.
Cameron Spies: occasional lead vocals, guitar, and bass. On record, he plays keys, makes sequences, and produces.
Randy Bemrose: occasional lead vocal, drums. On record, guitar, bass, keys, sequencing, producing.
Patti King: vocals, keys, bass, guitar. On record, violins.
How did you find the band members that are in the group? How do you audition musicians? What exactly are you looking for when you picked someone to be in a band?
Radiation City: We all met through friends or playing shows, which has been fortunate, because we knew each other’s skill sets without having the awkwardness of an audition. There are million things that can make band chemistry difficult and only a few situations that can make it work. I’d say that’s probably the main reason very few bands become successful. Also, the music industry is mostly soulless and exploitative, but that’s another story for another day.
How much music has been released and in what format?
Radiation City: We’ve released three records officially, two full-lengths and one EP. The Hands That Take You, our first LP, came out on Tender Loving Empire in 2011, we followed it up with Cool Nightmare (EP) in 2012, and Animals in the Median came out in May of 2013. We are almost done mixing our next LP. All of these releases have come out on vinyl, CD, cassette, and digital formats.
How did it feel to win award in 2012 for best new band in Portland?
Radiation City: It was a great honor. Willamette Week works hard to make the poll as objective as possible by collecting votes from a wide cross-section of Portland music community people, from bands, to talent buyers, and everyone in between, so it was wonderful to know we were respected by our peers. It’s also been interesting to see that such an honor does not ensure continued success, as we’ve had to fight tooth and nail for every bit since then, and still struggle to pay the bills. Such is the life of a musician though, and we accept our fate gladly.
How much input do you have in conceptualizing your videos? Do you find it more challenging than writing songs or a more interesting outlet than music?
Radiation City: The video we did for “Find it of Use,” directed and shot by Andrew Sloan, was Randy’s concept, as I recall. We collaboratively worked it up together, and did all the heavy lifting (literally AND figuratively) as a band. The video involves destroying an old piano, in case you haven’t seen it.
Do you enjoy and like touring? What have been the best and worst experiences touring and the funniest?
Radiation City: We enjoy some tours more than others. Our first national tour was a wild experience: we made it safely through two hurricanes, an earthquake, wild fires, and lightning storms striking the ground on either side of us. Since then, obstacles have been occasionally inter-personal as we’ve grown to know each other more intimately over time, and financial as not every tour pays for itself. Our last tour, thankfully was one of our best. Hilarity usually ensues no matter what but mostly in the form of stupid inside jokes.
What is the most memorable thing a fan has ever said to the band? What don’t your fans know about Radiator City that isn’t common knowledge?
Radiation City: We had a couple fans say that they danced naked to our songs in their hotel in Southeast Asia. Another fan once told us our music got her through medical school.
What are the plans Radiation City in the future?
Radiation City: Keep making music that inspires us, and hopefully others.
Does the band want or strive to get a major record deal? Do you believe you can get by on word of mouth and social media and performing alone to sustain the band?
Radiation City: If the right deal comes along, we will take it. Admittedly, I haven’t seen a lot of major label deals with my own eyes, but a lot of what I’ve read and heard leads me to believe that major labels are looking out for themselves and not artists. We’d rather work with a label that cares about our music and developing our career as much as it cares about its profit margins. I think there are some artists who can make it by self-releasing, but we haven’t been that fortunate so far. Usually, that involves having some viral thing, but we’ve been content to grow incrementally. Having worked with Tender Loving Empire has been enlightening, as it’s shown us that there are labels who genuinely care about their artists. It appears to be pretty bleak for sustainable careers as musicians, but there’s nothing we love doing more, so we will do it for as long as we can.