This weekends über-DIY music festival, Wedding in the Woods
, brings together a dozen local bands as well as three out-of-town acts: Minor Islands from the Bay Area, Lo & Behold from Redding, Calif. and Just Lions from Portland
We got in touch with the '90s-style pop rockers to chat about their upcoming gig in the forest of Central Oregon, the Portland music scene and their hatred of shark week.
Tell me a little bit about the band for folks who haven't heard your music before?
Chandler Strutz, singer and guitarist for Just Lions:
Just Lions is a pop/rock/jazz trio from Portland, OR. Guitar, bass, and drums. I sing and play guitar, and write all the songs, mostly from/about personal experiences, and tend to do the upbeat music and sad-bastard lyrics. Kind of a fun mislead, so you can feel whichever way you want to feel. (happy OR sad!). The lineup was my brother, my best friend from growing up (drummer Andy), and I, but my brother just got married and bought a house so he's taking some time off to be responsible. Our buddy Adam is filling in on bass for a while, his band is called The Breaking.
I chatted with Eli (Isles) and he said you have been buddies for a while. Tell me about how you ended up as one of only a few out of Central Oregon bands on the bill for Wedding in the Woods?
I've known Allyn from Isles (and also Evil Betty) since like junior high or high school. We had a bunch of mutual friends, and stayed in touch with music over the years. It was actually just really great timing when I emailed Allyn, asking about venues or bands I should check out—I'm playing out more as a solo act. Allyn mentioned he was putting together Wedding in the Woods and that there was a spot for me, but then the rest of the band ended up being available, so we jumped at the rad opportunity.
Eli and I were also talking about the reason WITW got started which is a serious lack of venues, musical diversity, and opportunities to play music in Central Oregon. I know you don't have that problem in Portland. Can you say a bit about the scene up there as opposed to a smaller place like Bend? Are you originally from Portland?
I grew up in the suburbs, but have been involved in the music scene over here since high school. The Portland scene has its ups and downs. We have a crazy huge array of bands/genres and a really wonderful and supportive music scene. Most shows I go to I run into fifteen or more people from other bands, and not usually bands that sound like the ones playing. That is great.
On the flip side, there are so many bands out there it's hard to distinguish yourself. There are tons of rad bands that have been around for five or more years that people are JUST hearing about for the first time. It's really easy to get discouraged when you're pouring everything you have into a project, and it's not catching on. We've been a band for 6 years now, and the last year or two have been more productive than all the others combined.
We also have a huge lack of all-ages venues, which is sort of an ongoing battle. I was lucky when I was in high school, and could go to a handful of places to see a cool local show, so I feel extra bad for the younger music lovers. If kids can't go to shows and get inspired, who is going to make the next round of weird/creative music?
Your list of influences on your website sounds like exactly what I would have named as my favorite bands when I was 17. But they're pretty generic…what does it mean to be influenced by these big sweeping trends? What elements from those iconic bands do you tease out?
They are probably my favorites from when I was 17 also! I actually kind of hate comparing one band to other bands, so we just list the bands that we never stopped listening to as our influences. It's that or list like 1000 bands that you like, since everything you hear and see is probably an influence. Not to say those aren't accurate—I mostly listenend to Weezer and Led Zeppelin when I was learning guitar (weird combo, I know). I always strive to write catchy hooks like the Beatles and take the beauty in sadness from Elliott Smith. Dude also has the raddest production, other than maybe Radiohead, who you might not hear in our set, but definitely have a huge impact on how I approach music. The dissonance and chaos, packed into a nice little song.
It's also hard picking out a band who you sound like, since most bands only have one or two good albums, or they change drastically from album to album. You can't just say "Weezer's blue album, and The Bends era Radiohead" even though that's probably the closest you'll get to our sound. Also it's nice to do whatever you want, and not be pinned down to one band or genre. We are pretty pop/rock though, I'm not trying to make a new ground-breaking genre up, just doing it in a way that I think is fresh and something someone might want to listen to. Rock and roll got labeled as "trite" or "cliche" for a while, but I think that's why it's cool to do guitar solos—nobody else is doing them anymore. Too many new bands just do "different" or "weird" and while sometimes it works amazingly, other times it's just a bunch of painful noises looped through effects pedals and not terribly thought out. The kind of music that's fun to make, but not fun to hear. But this feels snarky, and that's something I also hate about the music scene. Art is hard, and personal, and if you're doing it honestly I'm usually cool with that. Although I'm just in it for the babes.
Great. Okay" is possibly one of the catchiest pop songs I've heard in the last bit. How do you go about writing a catchy pop songs, what makes a song stick? Tell me about how "Great. Okay" the album is similar or different from your previous releases?
First off THANKS! (I think). I mentioned I love pop jams. Beatles did it first, and still hold up as one of the best/catchiest. But I also grew up listening to terrible/delightful '90s pop. Before I found out about jazz and shredding guitars and all that, I was listening to Spice Girls, N*Sync, Eminem—groups I was ashamed to admit I use to love, but have now come to terms with, and even embraced. I don't listen to TONS of current pop, but anytime a summer jam comes on the radio, I know some old guy who's been making hits for longer than I've been alive is pulling all the stops to make a shitty song sound super rad. I love that thought, and it makes sense that the music that gets stuck in your head fastest is the Beyonce or Taylor Swift single. Sure maybe you throw on the math-rock masterpiece way more often, but there's validity in a well-written pop tune. (I wasn't saying Beyonce is shitty, fyi. Go listen to "Crazy in Love" or "All the Single Ladies" and try not tapping your foot and smiling).
As far as how I made a catchy song? There are a million ways to go about writing one, but I try something different every time. Elliott Smith (who also loved the Beatles) was the first artist who showed me how little you had to follow the usual "verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus" formula—some of my songs don't have a set chorus, or lyrics during the chorus. Just something to make each song a different experience. It's probably pretty subtle, but I always notice when bands can write lots of different types of songs well. Plus you can pack a lot of punch into two minutes of music. You don't always need 4 or 5 minutes, or 4 or 5 band members, for that matter. Though sometimes that is a great way to go (that last part is cause we're a trio).
Anyways, if that's all long-winded, I guess I'd just say "I was fortunate and came up with a strong melody to repeat over and over in new and dynamic ways. And now you probably hate me for it."
The new EP, "Great. Okay" is the third in a planned series of 3-song EPs we're putting out. (following "Monsters" and "Paper Cage"). We figure people would rather have a few songs every so often than waiting two years for all 10 at once. Works nicely for short attention spans, too!
I liked how this latest one turned out—we had a little more time in an actual studio, instead of our usual DIY shoproom/bedroom approach, so we could be a little more intentional about production, etc. Things are a little more polished overall. I think the three songs are pretty different from each other, though every EP has turned out to have a nice spectrum of what we sound like—not just 3 super catchy 2-minute pop jams in a row. We also tried a different approach to "On the Road" than we have been—kept it pretty much the same as we play it live. Much more stripped back rock n roll, no featured instruments or anything. Forces the song to stand on its own a little more, without all the extra instruments and sounds that say, "Great. Okay." might have.
Are you afraid of sharks?
I hate sharks more than I hate cancer. And cancer is devastating, and will probably kill most of us. But cancer won't rip your legs off while you're already struggling to not drown. YOU CAN'T EVEN SEE THEM!!!
Just Lions plays at 10 pm on Friday at Wedding in the Woods. Full festival lineup here.