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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

Still Rock and Roll to Me

Portland mainstay Blue Skies for Black Hearts isn't retro—it's considering adding a laptop



Pat Kearns, songwriter, singer and guitarist for Portland-based Blue Skies for Black Hearts, is jokingly considering adding a sixth band member—specifically, a laptop, to put an end to the "retro" label that the band is often saddled with.

"Because of what I'm mining, we get tagged with the retro tag," said Kearns in an interview with the Source. Kearns is a longtime Portland producer who looks (and sounds) like a mix between John Lennon and Colin Meloy. A caricature from Portlandia, he is straight faced in all of the band's press photos in squared glasses, behind flowing brown shoulder-length hair and topped with a floppy, wide brimmed hat that might be found in the closet of a hipster Indiana Jones. "I'm not against the computer element, but I see too much of it these days. When shows become band karaoke it gets weird, and it's a bummer when someone's laptop goes down and they can't play their show. Ariel Pink doesn't get the retro tag, I think it's that laptop."

What Kearns means by mining is the highly referential nature of his song writing. Classic pop structures are his specialty—catchy choruses and bright warm guitar phrases, bluesy piano riffs, and hand clapping percussion. The songs are shaded by a tinge of the past, like modern photographs filtered with a muted color scheme.

"I didn't want to be a retro band where we sounded like Elvis, or '60s pop, but I felt those were important tools and markers as well as everything up to now, to use in my songwriting," explained Kearns. "My sources aren't too well hidden, but we're not ripping anything off."

It's easy to hear the Beatles and the Kinks boiling and bubbling under the veneer of Kearns' compulsively clean production value. Flawless balance and precise timing mark Kearns' recording style. After all, that is his day job.

Blue Skies for Black Hearts has been around in some incarnation since the early otts (their first album, This Black Heart is Gonna Break, was released in 2002). The brainchild and vehicle for his own power pop songwriting, Kearns has been at the core of the group through five albums, and a decade of lineup changes, including a complete turnover of the rhythm section.

The current incarnation is Kearns (guitar and lead vocals), Michael Lewis (lead guitar and vocals), Jason Russell (drums), Grant Law (bass, vocals) and Mark Breitenbach (keyboards, vocals).

His experience as the lifeblood of both sides of the sound booth has cultivated Kearns a quite discerning musical taste.

"There's a lot more interesting things going on than some of the critically acclaimed things," he said of the Portland musical community. "I encourage people to come here and dig a little bit deeper."

Recommendations from Kearns include The Don of Division Street, Avenue Victor Hugo, and the three-piece stoner-metal band Sons of Huns who surely don't rely on laptop drum machines, but rather crashing breakneck beats and Dinosaur Jr.-style guitar riffs and have their own referential flair to '70s basement rock.

"I swear, in a year or two everyone is going to be telling stories about how they saw them back in the day," proclaims Kearns.

Blue Skies for Black Hearts

9 pm. Sat., March 1

Volcanic Theatre Pub, 70 SW Century Dr.


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