Author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters) opens his paean to Portland, Fugitives and Refugees, by quoting another local author, Katherine Dunn (Geek Love):
“Everyone in Portland is living a minimum of three lives.”
It’s that kind of attitude, that kind of expectation that’s made the Oregon city a magnet for musicians of all genres, especially Indie Rock. It’s why Stephen Malkmus, Johnny Marr, Isaac Brock, Britt Daniel and so many others call Portland home. You can be a serious, working musician…and a stay-at-home dad, or an energy efficiency expert…or a dentist. Here, having a day job doesn’t turn your passion into a hobby. Both are respected and treated as equals.
“I like my job and have a lot invested in it,” Little Beirut’s singer Hamilton Sims says. “Honestly though, it enables me to make music. The worst thing I could think of is being a dentist where I worked hard all week with no outlet for creative expression.”
Guitarist Edwin Paroissien agrees. “I spend a lot of time thinking about our music and the endless quest to refine and improve it, ” he says. “It’s a compulsion, but a totally natural one that I’m ok with. Despite all the things I may have going on, many of my other interests end up being eclipsed by music. ”
The members of Little Beirut approach their time dedicated to the band with an non-jaded attitude that’s refreshing to see amongst rock ‘n’ rollers. The gratitude they have for still being able to pursue music seriously despite where they’ve come to in terms of lives, families and, careers is immediately apparent when discussing their band. “And the fact that you actually can be here and make a living as a musician, or whatever?” adds drummer Alex Inman. “You forget that you can’t do that everywhere.”
Being a Band in Portland
Picking up their name from an off-hand slight from former President George H.W. Bush, who called Portland “Little Beirut” after a visit to the city was met with massive protests, the four-piece is not what you might expect from the center of the Indie Rock universe.
“One of the things I tell people when I give them the album is to expect it to be a pretty big fat pop record, because that’s something that stands out here,” says Sims. “We’re not avant garde, we’re not trying to weird you out.”
Yes, Fear of Heaven is a big fat pop record…in the best way. Lush with melodies and choruses you can sing along to in your car, Little Beirut’s third album shows a band coming into its own. More raw and direct than 2008’s critically acclaimed High Dive, there’s a swagger and confidence in its embrace of the elements that make you remember the song, not simply name check the influences. The Posies-esque guitar drive and Nada Surf reminiscent harmonies that marked the last effort have not been ditched, but the orchestration has been stripped down here making a confident statement and allowing the songs to shine through.
It’s clear from the first track that Little Beirut has built their foundation on a respect for the bands that elevated pop music beyond what’s merely popular. These are songwriters who grew up on college radio listening to REM and the Smiths, and Fear of Heaven is filled with gorgeous potential hits devoid of any sense of irony or apology for what they are.
Tapping the Talent Pool
High Dive, garnered stellar reviews from USA Today, The Big Takeover, Under the Radar and many others—as well as cracked CMJ’s Top 200—and this time around the band decided to enlist much of the same team. Fear of Heaven was recorded, mixed, and aided in production by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Death Cab for Cutie, Menomena, Stephen Malkmus, Sleater-Kinney).
“Jeff mixed High Dive,” says Paroissien. “But this was definitely a step up for us to work with him more closely from tracking through the end.”
Little Beirut soon learned that Jeff Saltzman was a force to be reckoned with.
“I remember this one very simple guitar line that I would never have thought twice about and laid down in one take,” recalls Paroissien. “He made me play it maybe 15 times to get the right laid back, behind the beat feel. I was playing it fine technically, but the point was not to. It took me a while to get that.”
It made for some long days in the studio but the results elevated the entire band’s performance and contributed to the confidence you hear on the album.
“That's his strength in a nutshell. He's one of those guys who really has the end in mind from the beginning, and every part that’s added, every decision from choice of mic down to the sound of the snare, is a calculated means to the end.”
Also on board to co-produce was Portland singer-songwriter Chris Robley, sometimes known as "the Stephen King of indie-pop." “Chris is the coolest guy and we have a great working relationship with him”, says Inman. “Essentially we use him as a writer would an editor, and we bounce our songs off him when they’re in their infancy to get some interesting feedback from an outside opinion.”
Chuck Palahniuk was smart to quote a talented friend in the opening to his love letter to Portland. It’s a city where the creative community works together and supports each other and turns out the best music in America today…oh, and it just so happens that much of the Portland creative community are Sims’ patients. It would be fun to say exactly who, but hey – that would break the Hippocratic oath.
Hamilton Sims – Vocals, Guitar
Edwin Paroissien – Guitar, Vocals
Alex Inman – Drums, Vocals
John Hulcher – Bass