In great contrast to the city's red hot hip-hop scene, or even its vibrant folk scene, Portland rock music has had a rough go over the last decade. The psych and garage scene here really dominated local press coverage for many years but has failed to produce any memorable releases, and absolutely nothing that resonated on a national level. Part of the curse of being a "cool" place to move to has also ended up being the loss of several promising young bands that the Portland music community really rallied around to larger cities for the promise of greater opportunities (and if nothing else, more effective social climbing).
Fortunately for those of us who still love rock music, we have Stoner Control.
The trio is releasing their next record Sparkle Endlessly this March on Sound Judgement, the label ran by longtime Portland rock steward Arya Imig. Recorded in winter of 2019 through spring of 2020 at NE Portland's Singing Sands, Sparkle Endlessly is an instant classic that reminds me a lot of Portland bands of yore like Heatmiser or The Exploding Hearts. Here at Vortex, we're happy to bring you the album's second single "Learning To Swim," which you can enjoy following this Q&A with the band. The track is anchored around a buoyant and catchy riff and features vocals from bassist Sam Greenspan—listen below.
When did you write most of the songs on this record? What has it been like to put an album out given everything else going on in the world right now?
Michael Cathcart (drums): Most of the songs on this album were written in 2018 and 2019, but "I Know I Slept" was actually written way back in 2014. In fact, when Sam moved back to Portland after grad school, it was the first song that all three of us jammed on together. Charley wrote that tune for a separate project we were working on at the time, called The Eye Rollers. After playing a few shows we decided to focus our energy on Stoner Control and most of The Eye Rollers' songs got left by the wayside. Luckily, I knew we had something special in "I Know I Slept" so I never let us forget about it. When we started working on songs for the new album, I insisted we give that one another shot and this time it stuck. After letting it marinate in the back of our minds for a few years, we quickly picked up where we had left off and turned it into, perhaps, the grooviest track on the record.
There were a number things that factored into our decision to wait nearly a year before releasing this album. But none weighed more heavily than our belief that there were far more important directions in which the listening public needed to be training their focus. The past year has been filled with so much anger, pain, struggle and loss that it just did not feel right, even in our own small way, to draw anyone's attention away from those issues. But with a new year, a new vaccine and a new hope for the future upon us, we felt like the mood might just be right for some living room dance parties again.
The title of “Learning To Swim” reminded me of the Superchunk track “Learned To Surf.” Any inspiration taken from them? There’s a lot of '90s college rock references here to my ear—do you listen to a lot of bands from that era?
Sam Greenspan (bass/vocals): I don’t think I have heard that track before, but I dig “Foolish” and their self-titled record. I’ve always been drawn to those kind of sensitive, smart-ass bands with unlikely singers, like Modern Lovers, The Replacements or Pavement. So of course we were stoked to have Mo Troper producing and helping us flesh out the vocals a bit more. This song has a lyrical trick I stole from Charley (from the song "Bum") where you take the same chorus but replace the pronouns, giving you multiple perspectives and meanings. My partner literally taught me how to swim and people were concerned about global warming at the time. I guess the planet is more or less the same on that front but at least I’m less likely to drown now.
Charley Williams (guitar/vocals): I love that song! I think that album is one of the great comeback albums. I agree with Sam though, “Foolish” is my favorite.
I really feel like this record can hang with some of the best Portland rock records like Guitar Romantic or Cop and Speeder. What are some Portland rock records you’ve listened to for inspiration?
CW: First off, thank you so much. Being compared to classic bands like those is a huge honor. I definitely love a ton of Portland rock, and just NW rock in general. For this record I wasn’t listening to as much local stuff, but I will say that Slender Gems was an influence on it. I love their first album and they have a lot of different types of songs on it. Overall, it's a guitar record but I feel like they touch on a lot different types of rock. So that was something I wanted to do on this album as well. I also love Mo’s music as well so that’s always an influence in some way.
SG: Guitar Romantic is definitely one of my favorite records. I was at one of the last shows at Green Noise Records and was sad to see that space go.
It seems almost unimaginable to put this much work into a record and have no release show. Do you miss performing? What about going to shows?
MC: There’s no getting around the fact that this is a completely abnormal time to release a new album. We actually wrapped up the recording process back in the middle of March 2020, just in time for the music world (and the rest of the world) to come to a grinding halt. At first we decided to wait until summer with the hope that we would be able to have an album release show by that point. But after it became clear live shows were not going to be possible again for a long time, the decision about how and when to put out the record got a lot more complicated. Our hope is that, someday, we'll be able to play shows again to support this album, but for now we'd just like to do our part to spread some joy by giving folks rockin' new tunes to help breakup the monotonous quaren-time.
That being said, all three of us would give just about anything to play our music in front of an undistanced crowd again. Halfway through recording this album, we took a break and hit the road on a West Coast tour with our buds and fellow Portland power trio Joypress. We had so much fun playing together every night that we returned home with heads full of big plans for a spring packed with live shows and a weeks-long summer tour to support the Sparkle Endlessly release. Of course, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry...
What have you learned during the process of making this record? How do you think it might inform the next album?
CW: Every record has been a learning experience, but this one especially so. Our past two albums were recorded very quickly, and fairly easily. The songs were a little more complicated on this one and I think we really had to push ourselves to get it right. We did it mostly live again, but we were a lot more deliberate with the sounds this time. We did a lot of amp and guitar swapping trying to figure out the best way to approach each song. Mo and Brian Harvey (co-producer) were pretty minimal with their production as well. Instead of adding things or making them more complicated, they would often simplify things or sometimes even remove them entirely. In a rock record it’s really important to have some dynamics in the arrangements and Mo and Brian really helped us in that department.