Strange Hotels Defies Expectations in the Best Ways

The beginning of a fresh new year seems like the perfect time for a brand new band to release their debut album. But Strange Hotels new six track EP, Mixtapes, defies what you’d expect from a new band- it has the polish and shine that usually comes from more experienced bands. That’s because the duo, consisting of multi-instrumentalists Ben Braden and Nick Sadler, has been playing together for years as part of one of Portland’s iconic touring bands, The Lower 48. Their new project, Strange Hotels, is a departure from the harmony-driven rock of the Lower 48. Strange Hotels style is hard to pin down, spanning from disco to world beats, with a consistent danceability that inspires booty shaking, dancing, and smiles. Their diverse influences include Prince, The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, St Vincent, and Sylvan Esso, but I also hear a touch of Michael Jackson and Hall & Oates.

Ben and Nick have both put out solo albums over the past several years, and helped each other with those albums. In an informal interview, Ben Braden explained that Strange Hotels has turned into the most collaborative thing they have ever done. Beginning with about 20 ideas, they boiled it down to the six best tunes, which also happened to be the most collaborative ones. In the first track, Ring Ring, Ben wrote the verse, Nick wrote the chorus. In Bad Intentions, Ben wrote the lyrics and Nick wrote the melody. He says that “it’s been so collaborative that it gets foggy.”

Listening to these recordings makes me wonder how they are going to pull this off with two people in a live setting. Ben explained that they are going to experiment, playing a lot of regional shows in the next few months. Nick will play drums and synth pads and sing, and Ben will play the guitar and sing, using a pedal to play bass notes with his feet. Whatever they do, it’s sure to be worthwhile because after years of touring they have a good idea of how to entertain an audience.

The next thing that defies expectations for this new duo’s debut is that the album was entirely recorded on an iPad Air. Braden shared his thoughts on this subject saying that “musicians are poorer than ever but can do more with basic equipment and that this is a really interesting time for inspired artists.” He added that “the songs are informed by the technological and sociopolitical craziness of the world”, and that they “didn’t set out to write about cell phones, but the theme seems to appear on every song. The songs are about how fast the world is changing.”

Check out their debut album on Bandcamp and stay tuned for upcoming events.

Secret Drum Band Evokes Nature and Humanity

Have you heard the soundscapes of nature? The buzzing and clicking of insects in a meadow. The wind through the forest punctuated by the sound of wood cracking. Or the cacophony of birds chirping in spring. Or even the human polyrhythms of respiration and heart beat and the deeper pulsation of autonomic rhythms that we are scarcely aware of.

It’s hard to imagine, but these are the sounds and rhythms that Secret Drum Band, a percussion ensemble featuring five drummers and two ambient musicians, evokes. Their compositions are often written in response to soundscapes, address environmental issues, and are inspired by specific physical locations in nature. The Secret Drum Band website describes their latest eight track album, Dynamics, as “inspired by the Mojave Desert, logging sites in Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon, and Hawai’i, where band founder, Lisa Schonberg’s, entomology work has helped the native Hylaeus bees attain endangered species status.”

The songs are carefully composed and performed by an all-star group of percussionists. It is a pleasure to hear the creativity and discipline when such masters of their craft come together. Recently the band played two sets at the Portland Art Museum as part of the Miller Family Free Day. It was an amazing setting for the sonic experience, with the band setting up facing each other in the middle of a large airy exhibit space, and encircled by a magical all-ages audience.

Learn more about Secret Drum Band on their website, check out a Portland Mercury interview, and follow them on facebook. Their next gig is March 15 at Holocene, but you can catch bandmates, Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway, at Mississippi Studios with another rhythm oriented band, Explode into Color, on Dec 30 and 31.


Secret Drum Band (Seth Lorinczi, Ali Clarys, Anthony Brisson, Allan Wilson, Sara Lund, Zanny Geffel, and Lisa Schonberg) perform their song “Robert Plants” at the Portland Art Museum.

Link to video

“It’s For You” Continues the Toads’ Tradition of Genius

The Toads are a formidable musical force, producing new songs with an unmatched sense of urgency. They have been killing it in Portland since early 2016, putting out five EPs and albums, totaling 32 new songs, in two years. “It’s for You” is their third release in 2017, which earns them the title of Portland’s most prolific and hardest working band. This is their first release with new drummer, Dylan Valentine, but the overall vibe is remarkably consistent. Four of the five songs on this newest EP were written by bass-playing literary blogger and philosopher songwriter Matt Dinaro, who wanted to be a priest in his younger days, but is now an atheist instead. On their previous 2017 release, Time, the majority of songs were written by sizzling wizard guitar player Matt Kane. While they write separately, both Matts write great lyrics that reveal modern-day existential angst and self-awareness. Their energetic tunes, which are typically about two and a half minutes long, are also perfect for the ADHD generation- quick and to the point, with no obligatory filler.

Photo credit: Heather Hanson

The first track, Landline, kicks off the album with the retro tones of a dialup modem and lyrics that wind their way through guitar jams and cymbal bashing while asking important existential questions: “What if I lose my cell phone, what if I live my life wrong, what if I need a landline”. The second track, Never a Good Time, describes the inconvenience of falling in love. “It’s never a good time to fall in love. Love takes your plans and it smashes them up. Nothing is safe from the break-in of love… I’m always in love.”

The final trio of songs were all written by Matt Dinaro in a single afternoon about a year ago and achieve a cathartic pinnacle in songwriting. The songs convey a sonic journey, mixing irony with reality, and are a description of our modern day social dystopia. The trifecta finale starts with “You Don’t Deserve Me”, which has a world-y swinging vibe and is about being tired of putting your best forward and getting nothing in return. “You don’t seem to care what’s inside of my mind… you don’t see seem to care, guess you don’t have the time.”I’m Sorry” follows with similarly relatable lyrics: “I’m sick of being clever I’m sick of being smart I’m sorry… I’m sick of being disciplined I’m sick of working hard, I’m sorry… I’m sick of puttin effort in, it doesn’t make a difference… what prize am I supposed to win?”

Photo credit: Steve Montague

It’s for You” culminates with its namesake track. In an informal commentary, Dinaro explained that the lyrics “Look at the stars, they’re for you, the planets, the constellations, and the moon, you can have anything that you want… Why can’t I love every minute that I have?” are about “how capitalism tries to tell you the world is your oyster and shames you for not seizing the day and making the most of every minute. It’s about that shame you feel for not living up to those ridiculous expectations.” This ironically uplifting song finishes off an album that is refreshing, relevant, and interesting.

Photo credit: Alex Why

The Toads are giving everything they have to give and are not afraid to share how they feel. The way they talk about themselves on and off the record shows that they observe their experiences in the broader context of what is happening around them, which makes them all the more lovable. Listen to them on Bandcamp, their website, and anywhere you listen to music. Their next scheduled gig is at O’Malley’s on Wed Feb 7, 2018. Join the cult, love the Toads, and stay tuned for more upcoming gigs on fb.

The Cabin Project Creates Symphonic Comfort

The Cabin Project consists of five women playing conventional instruments in an unconventional way. The band played at Alberta Street Pub last weekend, putting on a mesmerizing set full of layers and contrasts. Their music would seem appropriate in the comfort of a rustic hideout in the woods, as their names suggests, and also in the grandeur of a concert hall. The viola and 5 string violin played with distortion, reverb, and delay, along with spacious and dynamic percussion, and gorgeous vocals create an orchestral and modern feel. Their sound is unique, yet familiar to those who are fans of Bon Iver, The National, and Warpaint.


The Cabin Project with Katie Sawicki on guitar and vocals, Zanny Geffel on drums and vocals, Kelly Clifton on bass, Rebekah Hanson on viola, and Jean Mastaler on 5 string violin.

The Cabin Project puts on a stunning performance. Check them out next on Dec 22 at Turn, Turn, Turn, and learn more about them on their website and facebook.

Link to video

Evan Knapp – Keeping it Real

Photo by Jesse Newell

So, documentary lovers…tell me you don’t get all excited when you see “based on a true story” come across the screen…of course you do! Evan Knapp tells it like it is in every song, he’s an engaging storyteller, and keeps it real by writing personal songs that I suspect every listener can relate to. Knapp dropped by the Portland Notes studio to talk about his upcoming Sagittarius Birthday show (with Cairo Gylphs and Vega Black at Mississippi Pizza Pub this Sunday, December 10. In the interview, you will find out some juicy secrets about Evan and his songs, and when you listen, you’ll hear some exclusive live recordings!

My introduction is short and sweet, because I want you to hear Knapp’s story in his own words. He’s so much fun to talk with, and I know that if you come to an Evan Knapp show, you’ll enjoy his smile and conversation too. Inspired by John Mayer and Ed Sheeran, Knapp’s music is also very enjoyable and light hearted.

This very friendly and beloved Northwest musician has a few great videos out as well. He’s an open and accessible artist, and it’s so easy to identify with his very relatable songs. “Frosted Flakes” is a clever story about a date who kept cancelling and therefore missed out on Knapp’s very entertaining company…and pancakes. Please enjoy the interview, the live recordings, and check out his music for yourself December 10 at Mississippi Pizza Pub. Music is also available on his website.

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