Last Weekend's Garbage: PHOME, Headstart and Why Bands Don't "Make It"

HELLO!  Did you miss me?  

Of course you didn’t.  I don’t even know why I would ask that and just make myself feel unloved.  Why you wanna treat me so bad?   Well, a lot has been going on over here at HTP World Headquarters.  Over the weekend my Administrative Assistant AND the Level 4 Warlock who does my landscaping both quit when they discovered that the champagne wasn’t Korbel, and my wine bra sprung a leak so I’ve been relegated to self-imposed house arrest until I can hire a new Warlock to patch the thing.  It’s been really tough, guys.

But!  Lucky for you, Portland has of late been turning out a slew of great local music and I’ve come back from the isolation and despair of the past 72 hours with renewed vigor to tell you all about it!  I missed the beginning of the week so we’re SOL for a weekday guide, but whatever, you figured it out, you know you can't rely on me because I am nothing if not unpredictable!

But before we talk about next week, let’s talk about Headstart.  Headstart played what was billed as their last show at Portland House of Music and Events on Saturday night.  Before I get into that show and that band, I have to touch on PHOME, basically the most underrated music venue in Portland right now.  PHOME is the Ford pickup truck of music venues.  It has everything you need, and nothing you don’t without feeling bare-bonesy or cheap.  In fact it’s really nice.  They have really nice bathrooms, which is like a huge deal to me, as a person who uses bathrooms.  The bar has exactly what you need or want at a rock concert - pretty girls serving you beer and basic mixed drinks.  Save the Martinis for another day, though they could stand to offer a little beefcake behind the bar.  Hey world, we ladies like to ogle too!

 I mean has anyone even  asked  Idris Elba if he needs a job?  THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT. 

I mean has anyone even asked Idris Elba if he needs a job?  THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT. 

The sound system is great.  The stage is the perfect height.  The seating and dancing areas are separated in the perfect way and there’s a little sort of loft thing that runs around the perimeter so you can watch without getting involved in the melee below. The merch area is located exactly where you’ll be when you’re thinking about taking off but maybe want to see the t-shirts first.  And it’s just friendly, like most places in Portland, but owner Ken Bell (owner of the former Big Easy) clearly knows what sells and what doesn't, and has tailored his venue to match the tastes of your average music-go-seer.  It’s great.  I bet the green room is the shit, it’s upstairs and has a window that looks down onto the venue, I mean I bet the musicians are treated really well here.  Hey bands, someone invite me to go smoke weed with you I mean raid your deli tray in the green room here.  But only if I don’t have to fold anything!!   

Anyway, so back to Headstart.  I used to work with a guy in maybe 2007 or 2008 who was very sensitive and super tall and skinny and had long bangs and sharp cheekbones and weirdly bad breath and he claimed that his favorite kind of music was “pop punk,” which is a genre that I think, by the aughts, was sort of a reclaimed misnomer - I mean “pop punk” was just super corporate pop music at that point, nothing too punk about it other than maybe borrowing a few simple aesthetics like short, high energy song construction and nasally vocals.  The DIY ethic of punk or Social Distortion era pop punk was sort of missing from this new mainstream pop punk, and I think that would be particularly evident here in Portland, a town where there is very much a real thriving punk scene.  Was there back then too?  I wouldn't know, I wasn't here.   

After being invited to Headstart’s final show, I did a little research on them (JOURNALISM, YO) to find out what I’d be seeing and hearing Saturday night.  I found this article written for the Phoenix by Sam Pfeifle (who is the best and has always been a supportive critic of my band over the years, thank you Sam!!) and in it he examines why Headstart hadn’t become the next Blink 182 or even the next lower-tier pop punk band like You, Me and Everyone We Know.  And he’s right, at least as far as I can tell ten years later watching them perform what I can only describe as an impressively energetic set at PHOME on Saturday night.  I mean I don’t know what those guys are eating, but they had more energy in an hour than I have all year long.  And they looked super happy.  I like that, I like it when I can tell a band is having fun.  It makes me want to have fun.  PRO TIP: bands, demonstrate enthusiasm when you’re on stage, it makes a huge difference.   

Ok so yeah, it’s all there, Sam is right - the songs are well-written and fit perfectly into that sub-genre’s parameters, their look is great (translation: they’re all bananas hot, again, is it like, supplements or something?  Are you taking fish oil and eating kale?), their playing is tight, the energy is high, they obviously love making music otherwise we wouldn’t be here 20 years later watching them play their last show, so what happened?  Sam points to the band having its at bat and taking a pass, choosing to keep their integrity and ownership intact, which so often seems to happen to “local” bands.  That chance at STARDOM being passed up for INTEGRITY. While I have felt first hand the sleaze of the music industry, it seems like that story is fairly common and I often wonder if like, the ghost of Kim Fowley and the astral projected spirit of Phil Spector are just roaming the country offering every little rock band it can find a contract for fame and fortune (and fagina!) if they could just, like, get a hand job first oh and also you don’t mind if we own your songs right?

So that might be it, or it might just be that things never crystallized in the right way at the right time.  Because Headstart offers music that was clearly poised and polished for mainstream consumption, like a pageant queen newly graduated from finishing school.  But that's the name of the game in music, isn't it?  Just making something ostensibly "good" doesn't mean people will like it or anyone will help you with it.  I just wonder if the support for the band 10 years ago at the height of the pop punk craze (one of their albums was, at the time, an all-time top ten seller in Portland) was driven by the mainstream media’s pushing of the Good Charlottes and Sum 41s of the world on us to the point that when a local band came along to emulate that sound, we jumped on their bandwagon with no questions asked.  Because the attendance at their show on Saturday was pretty low for such a formerly beloved act, and - though not really my thing - they were quite accomplished and enjoyable to watch.  I wonder if they suffered ultimately because the genre they were attached to became insufferable, probably somewhere around the time that Pete Wentz married Ashlee Simpson and Joel Madden started dating Nicole Richie.  I am fairly certain Green Day were the only ones in that category who came out of the time period relatively unscathed, and that’s likely because they were, at least superficially, connected with bands like Bad Brains or Rancid, decidedly more underground - and more punk - than most of the pop punk that Green Day inspired.  But the scars are there - who takes Green Day as seriously as we did when Dookie came out?    

I saw on their FB page that the members of Headstart each have or have had other projects going on and I don’t know much about them since I’m a total n00b, but I’d love to know more  because obviously Headstart incubated a lot of talent in their long run and had an impact on Portland’s music scene.  One might consider them a cautionary tale about being too entrenched in a genre as well - when tastes change, no matter how good your music is, the fickle public will be fickle and run with the herd.  And I think that’s even more true today than it would have been 10 years ago, what with how Twitter, Facebook and services like Soundcloud and Spotify have altered the musical landscape.  I mean, if your band sounds exactly like Death Cab for Cutie, you saw your biggest show numbers in 2009.  I’m just being real with y’all.  So, new young bands, hear me now: always work to differentiate and offer something new, and listen to critical feedback when it breaks through the fluffy insulation of love and accolades you get from your loved ones.  And don't get discouraged if nobody comes along to scoop you up and make you a star.  Music will always be there for you, so keep being there for it.  

Here's Headstart in 2011: