Settled in a sixth floor downtown practice space overlooking Yamhill Pub, Us Lights are relaxed. They tease lead vocalist Mike Young about his loud singing voice, discuss splurging on Blazers playoff tickets, and joke about their grammatically incorrect name.
With decades of collective experience playing in local bands such as Brothers Young, Iretsu and Hurtbird, the five longtime Portland residents came together with a goal of making accessible, groove-based pop music with an edge. What they found was a level of understanding and chemistry that’s become the foundation of an extremely fruitful, egoless creative process.
“There aren’t many cases in life where you get together with four other adults in a weird little club and get to communicate in your own language,” Young says. “It’s like a five part marriage.”
Fleshing out the metaphor to explain how well they’ve all clicked from the very beginning, he continues, “I like to think about it in relationship terms. You might meet someone and get along really well but don’t feel physically romantic towards them. Then you’ll find someone that you’re attracted to, but you live different lifestyles and it doesn’t work. When everything lines up, though—you just know. Everything makes sense.”
With their 20s behind them, all five members express a desire to produce a more professional, cohesive product than they have in the past.
To avoid repeating the mistake of pouring themselves into the creation of music that never ends up making it to the right ears, they've embraced an attention to detail that extends far beyond the studio. Understanding the importance of visual aesthetics to a young band’s success, they’ve collaborated with talented local artists Chris Bigalke and Nathaniel Praska to build a bright visual presence that’s just as stunning as their visceral recorded sounds.
“There’s a level of maturity,” explains Ryan Hayes, who plays keys and mans the sampler. “We could have started the band and practiced inside a moldy basement for two years and gone nowhere. With Us Lights, because we’ve all done so many things in the past, we’re more dedicated to the idea of getting a nice space to practice, having everything in line, and doing things right this time. Maybe, it’s because we’re a little bit older now.”
Emerging from that practice space is a dark pop sound that wisely marries Young’s powerful vocals with expansive atmospheric instrumentation. It’s the kind of music you’d expect to hear sweeping out across the open air of a large arena. They’ve encountered exasperated sound guys who couldn’t tell where certain sounds were coming from as Hayes’ samples, Glen Scheidt’s powerful drums, and Travis Girton’s self-described “doom metal” bass intertwined to form complex collages of sound. Naturally, the band took it as a compliment.
Although stadiums are the first thing that come to mind when hearing their music, Us Lights are more than willing to adapt their sound to smaller venues. “Some of the real small shows borderline more of a punk mentality,” Girton says, hinting at a surprising source of influence for the band, given their polished pop sound.
“People probably wouldn’t think this of me if they heard the music, but I’m always trying to make it more punk rock and raw in spirit,” Young adds. “Each show I try to get more punk. It often doesn’t come out that way, but that’s constantly what I’m thinking.”
The move towards a punk mentality comes from a deeper desire to share the connection they feel together as a band with the audience, striving for a unique exchange with everyone in the room each time they step on stage.
“I feel like at a lot of shows, people just stand around with their arms crossed because everybody else is in a band and their band is 85 times as cool as yours is, so there’s a lot of watching, judging, and arm crossing,” says Scheidt (who came up playing drums in punk and hardcore bands). “We’re in it for a shared experience with the crowd. There’s nothing better than watching a bunch of people dance to something you’re doing on stage. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Us Lights will have plenty of opportunities to achieve that feeling as they head out on a tour through Europe with Austrian band Dust Covered Carpet in September that’ll coincide with the release of their debut full-length album. Offering a peek at the new songs, lead guitarist Ryan Cross says, “They’re more spacious. We’ve started to carve rather than fill out the sound. We’re giving the songs more space to breathe and letting them be what they are rather than tricking it all out.”
After years of establishing themselves in Portland’s pop music scene, these five local artists believe they’ve finally found a home in Us Lights—and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Not that they’d ever consider doing anything else.
“I feel like I don’t have a choice,” Young concludes. “I can’t not do this. It gives my feelings and emotions validity. I guess it’s kind of a weird therapy for poor people.”