Shelter From the Norm:
Radiation City’s Smart Growth
From the outside looking in, Radiation City’s decision to hook up with noted indie producer John Vanderslice (Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie) and record a new album seemed like a logical step toward becoming a stronger fixture on the international touring and festival circuits.
Formed in 2010 by boyfriend/girlfriend duo Cameron Spies (guitar, vocals) and Lizzy Ellison (keyboards, vocals), Radiation City spent its first three years nurtured by its hometown music scene in Portland, Oregon. Its first collection of dreamy pop pastches, 2011’s The Hand That Takes You, was self-released via Spies and Ellison’s Apes Tapes imprint. A repress that same year by local label and handmade good marketplace Tender Loving Empire secured a home for follow-up releases, culminating with stellar 2013 full-length Animals in the Median.
It was quite the start for an indie band – a relatively quick succession of releases treasured by local record collectors and respected by online tastemakers. Still, Spies and his bandmates sought something greater as 2013 came to a close. “We felt like a Portland band for a long time, and we wanted to be national and international,” he says.
The band self-funded studio time with Vanderslice when it came time for a bold leap of faith. “I don’t think (hiring a reputable producer) was ever something we dreamed of doing,” Spies says. “We are recording geeks in our own right, so we read a lot about different producers and engineers and different approaches. Because we recorded ourselves on the first three albums and for other reasons – sort of a creative gridlock – we wanted somebody to bring in a different perspective.”
Unfortunately, faith in the music and a chance to work with a name producer did not promise personal life stability. Tension between Spies and Ellison forced them to temporary break up. One member of the five-piece exited the band around that same time. On the flipside, such negative emotions sometimes fuel great music, or as Spies succinctly put it when summing up a period of creative and romantic distress: “The art is often informed by the struggle.”
Once the dust settled and the band moved forward, only half of the four remaining members travelled to San Francisco to record, with Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Riley Geare serving as session drummer. “We didn’t have a few people in the studio, and I think ultimately that was a mistake,” Spies says. “It’s a long story, but that’s kind of a political decision that I didn’t think was the best one. Now that we are back in the studio, we are all working together. It kind of heals wounds more than anything. It’s good to have everyone involved again.”
Compounding the band’s mounting problems was the amount of time it took to record its forthcoming album. Titled Synesthetica after synesthesia, a condition that allows Ellison to see colors when she hears music, the record finally sees the light of day on Feb. 12. “It definitely wasn’t because we wanted to take more time,” Spies says. “Part of that was just waiting to get in a studio because they have a long wait time. We were ready to go in the studio, and then we had to wait six months.”
After the Vanderslice sessions, Portland-based engineer Jeremy Sherrer (Modest Mouse, the Gossip, the Dandy Warhols) put the finishing touches on Synesthetica. Looking back, Spies was honored to work with and learn from a big name producer, even though staying D.I.Y. might have suited the band’s needs. ”After doing it, it was really good in a lot of senses, but we have a command of our production and we have confidence in ourselves,” he adds. “We don’t necessarily need to do that to make a record we want to make.”
Besides, picking and paying a producer can be stressful for a self-funded indie band used to networking within a local scene. “Unless you have a bunch of time and money to hash out the relationship, you are going into it blind,” Spies says. “You spend a lot of money and then don’t know how the relationship will be. You pick people based on someone else’s work or somewhat superficial characteristics. Not that other people’s work is superficial. You just don’t know how that’s going to apply to your own music.”
A major stressor all along for Spies and his bandmates was a lack of a label home for the new album. “It took a long time courting a label, and that was part of the stress – not feeling like we could level up and get to that point of surviving financially,” he says. “We are still kind of on the verge of that, but I think once the record comes out it’ll allow us to tour.”
The first sign that an arduous recording process was worth it came when a deal with Champagne, Illinois-based Polyvinyl made Radiation City label mates with Alvvays, Of Montreal, and Deerhoof, just to name three. “I think it came down to them seeing us live,” Spies says of the record deal. “We had been sending them the record, then they saw us live. That’s what sealed the deal.”
Synesthetica surely helped sway Polyvinyl more than Spies knows or admits. Lead single “Juicy” is pop-inspired indie rock with depth and soul. It’s the kind of song that’ll be on college students in the know’s mixtapes soon and backing a car commercial decades later – a respectable life cycle for a song in a post-Pylon world. Follow-up single “Milky White” strays from the band’s bossa nova roots, experimenting with fresher dance vibes. That’s not a bad career decision, considering that most of the indie rock that sneaks into the public consciousness does so under the guise of dance music.
For Spies and his bandmates, straying from earlier influences and embracing new ones remains key to the creative process. “The whole history of rock ’n’ roll has informed a lot of our stuff,” he explains. “We definitely kind of had a Motown and bossa nova-heavy influence we are moving away from. We love so much music that we want to try it all. Really the goal is to hone in on something authentic that’s ‘us,’ you know? Take pieces from things we love and make something that’s us and not anything else, which is kind of an impossible task.”
The band’s desire to be pop chameleons, and a press release that describes its sound as “space-age doo-wop,” conjures up images of the late David Bowie. While Radiation City and pretty much every other band in the universe falls short of Bowie’s greatness, there are some common threads when comparing the group’s approach to that of the Thin White Duke. “We heard about him passing while we were in the middle of a recording session,” Spies says. “It was a very heavy thing because I think he influenced everyone, whether they acknowledge it or not. The thing that’s amazing about David Bowie that we try to follow is that he was always changing, progressing, and trying new things. There are a lot of bands we also admire who kind of do the same thing, yet they have their own style while doing it.”
With a desire to adapt its sound, and a shot at consistent touring under the Polyvinyl banner, Radiation City may come out of a tumultuous period as a band poised to break the glass ceiling separating local acts that tour often from fixtures in the global indie rock community. If the group enters that sphere, it’ll do it as a unit solidified by life lessons that simply cannot be learned from rubbing shoulders with indie stars in the studio.
Photo by Holy Andres.