It’s well after midnight on a Tuesday in August, and I am sitting on Drew Grow’s back porch in southeast Portland, chain-smoking with the songwriter and the other three members of his band, the Pastors’ Wives, and arguing about what descriptor would best suit the band’s frustratingly indescribable self-titled debut album of punk-rock spirituals about breaking up with religion.
“I think I’ve suffered because I was not able to invent…a new kind of music,” Grow says. “It just took me a long time to cut through the bullshit and embrace who I am.”
In Grow’s quest to sound like himself, he managed to sound like no one else.
Music journalism relies on comparison and compartmentalization—on hyphenated three-syllable descriptors that will give would-be listeners a vague blueprint for their expectations—and while most bands hope to land on a sound that’s “indescribable” or “unclassifiable,” few actually do. Using either of those descriptors in reference to a band is one of the biggest copouts in writing about music. And yet two bands from Portland have managed to cultivate new and unique sounds entirely their own. One is Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives, a fledgling band whose music has only recently begun to capture the attention of Northwest music fans. The other is Menomena, a longtime Pitchfork favorite whose brand-new album on Barsuk Records, Mines, has received glowing reviews from a smorgasbord of national and Northwest media outlets.
Like Menomena’s previous efforts, Mines is a hodgepodge of as many instruments as can be crammed onto a track, which Brent Knopf, Justin Harris, and Danny Seim cobble together into dynamic, surreal adventures in rock-and-roll composition.
While these two bands sound nothing alike, what they have in common is that they both possess a distinct, instantly identifiable sound that doesn’t fit under any existing genre umbrella. And it’s outside the confines of genre from whence the best, most groundbreaking artists have come: Sonic Youth, who helped usher in (and eventually define) noise rock; The Clash, who came to define punk rock by incorporating everything from reggae to rockabilly in their sound; Gram Parsons, who blended country and rock and roll to usher in the genre we call “alt-country.”
“When alt-country was becoming alt-country, it was people saying, like, some of the trappings of country music are still meaningful to us, but the genre no longer [is],” Grow says. Today, music does for him what the evangelical revival services of his Christian youth once did: “When you’re under the big tent and they’re telling you that they’re lengthening the leg of somebody in the front row, and people are, like, rolling over and speaking in tongues or whatever, the feelings I had in those services are the feelings I have at a punk-rock show.”
Watching Grow and the Pastors’ Wives play an unamplified version of “Bon Voyage Hymn,” the first track on the band’s self-titled debut (due Sept. 14 via Amigo/Amiga Records), in the living room of the house Grow shares with bassist Kris Doty, drummer Jeremiah Hayden, and labelmate Kelli Schaefer, it’s hard not to feel spiritual. When Grow sings unamplified, his voice is simultaneously wobbly and controlled, its emotional vulnerability tempered by his powerful delivery. The closest thing to Grow’s distinctive vocals that comes to mind is Neil Young, one of the past century’s most original and groundbreaking songwriters. Like Young’s, Grow’s tremulous tenor is uniquely his own.
Grow and company call their sound “alt-gospel”—the sum of the band members’ Christian upbringings; Seth Schaper’s intuitive, chaotic take on slide guitar; a churchy organ; Grow’s Young-ian vocals; and a melodic, pulsing rhythm section held down by Doty and Hayden. It’s worth noting that the rhythm section is the only place Menomena and the Pastors’ Wives intersect musically.
“Danny from Menomena plays really interesting drums,” Hayden says. Like Seim, Hayden played guitar before picking up the sticks, and this, he says, helps them both play a more active, melodic role instead of functioning as a human metronome. “When you listen to a Menomena record…you pay attention to the drums right off the bat, because he’s playing in that same melodic space. You can really connect with it, because it’s human in a way that you can’t connect with [hearing] somebody playing to tracks.”
When I ask Seim if he’s heard Grow’s record, he laughs and reveals that Grow’s former Christian band was a major influence; Seim came from a similar religious background. Seim’s first band with fellow Menomena member Justin Harris—named Bede, for a 17th-century Catholic historian—was a Christian band as well; in it, Seim was the frontman and guitarist.
“We probably played about 20 shows, if not more, with his band,” Seim says, “and all of the shows were at these dorky, kind of stereotypical Christian coffee-cottage kind of places, where one night a week they’d have the alternative-music night where we’d bust out guitars and eat granola.”
From the ashes of that Christian-music background, both Menomena and Grow have managed to craft individualized and yes, unclassifiable sounds. No, Mines and Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives don’t sound alike, nor were they recorded similarly (Grow and his bandmates record in a humble basement studio, while Menomena’s members put Mines together via e-mail, sending tracks back and forth), but both comprise intimately personal, emotive songs that discuss the dissolution of relationships—whether with other people or the Lord—with the sort of candor usually reserved for diaries and close friends.
“You don’t write a song because you want to say something to the world, necessarily,” Grow explains. “You write it out of what your world is doing to you.”