In Good Food, Rocks, we track down bands serious about their grub — usually because they’ve had jobs in the foodservice industry. This time around, Portland, OR’s The Woolen Men talk music, coffee, bagels and beer.
Why even listen to rock if it isn’t full of raw emotion, shredding guitars, ramshackle rhythms with drumbeats that sound like they might zap your speaker cones? I suppose there are reasons, like if your girlfriend just dumped you and you wanted to take solace with a soundtrack by Coldplay. If that’s you, sorry dude. If you’re really into rock, though, check out The Woolen Men, a trio from Portland, Oregon with a brand-new debut album (on the Woodsist label) that rollicks along like a ’65 Ford pickup on a dusty dirt road on a sunny day.
The band — Alex Geddes, Lawton Browning, Raf Spielman — can reference some incredible, mostly under-the-radar bands if you ask ’em too (and I did), but you can throw all that out the window because the songs on this debut have an instant-classic sort of recognition to them (especially “Hazel,” “Mayonnaise” and “Ode To An Hour”). Seriously, check out The Woolen Men.
And as if I weren’t convinced by their musical prowess, these guys also have food/drink chops: Spielman’s family business is Spielman Coffee Roasters, which has what are considered to be amongst the very best bagels in a city that supposedly has a few, ahem, foodies in it. Geddes and Spielman are also expert coffee roasters — yes, a band with more than one expert coffee roaster! Here’s what Geddes and Spielman have to say about all this, and more.
Why’s the first song on the album called “Mayonnaise?” And is the band mostly pro- or anti-mayonnaise? (Note: See below for a stream of the track.)
Raf: “Mayonnaise” is about suburbia, so I think Lawton was thinking about white bread sandwiches and that kind of thing when he wrote it. I am definitely pro-mayo. I used to make it for work and it was good on everything.
Raf, you work in a bagel shop — which one, and do you kettle boil? Any bagel-making secrets to share?
Raf: It’s the family biz — Spielman’s. An unboiled bagel is a roll, not a bagel, period. The only secret is that it’s more or less a 24-hour process to make a good bagel and every corner you cut takes away from the end product.
Ok, let’s talk coffee roasting. How do you get into it, what does it entail, is it work the work?
Alex: I worked in a few coffee shops and eventually got to know Joel who runs Courier Coffee in Portland. He provided coffee for a shop called the Acorn which was the sister shop of the Half & Half, a longstanding hub for art, music and culture in downtown. I expressed interest in roasting and basically bugged him until he hired me. It’s a bike-run business so I started out mostly doing deliveries around town and drank a ton of coffee. Eventually Joel showed me how the roasting process worked and I started roasting small batches in a one-pound sample roaster that basically mimicked the larger 25-pound roaster. After taking a lot of notes and getting a feel for the process, he had me roasting full batches. It’s been around four years (I think) and I’m still here, roasting a large majority of the coffee and at the moment doing all of the deliveries. It’s a lot of work but it’s really rewarding to hand a bag of coffee that you roasted to the people who serve it. Most of them are friends of ours and I love that.
Raf: Again, coffee is part of the family business. I’m the roaster for Spielman’s. That said, Alex is a much, MUCH better roaster than I am. Courier Coffee is the best coffee in this crazy, coffee-obsessed town.
And coffee brewing. Machines? Pour-over? What’s the band’s consensus?
Alex: I’m pretty hooked on a French press. It’s fast and easy and makes a good cup of coffee. I just got a La Pavoni, which is a totally manual espresso machine with a hand lever that controls a piston pushing water through the coffee grounds, and I’ve yet to get it working, but I have high hopes for that. There’s that scene in Down By Law when they are in the restaurant towards the end when she makes espresso and they dance to Irma Thomas. That’s the machine.
Raf: French press or the ol’ paper filter. I probably shouldn’t reveal this, but last time we were on the road, I think Alex and I were really enjoying using the Mr. Coffee machines we would find in the houses where we were staying.
What about The Woolen Men on tour? Any rider requests?
Raf: I think riders show up sometime after we sign to Interscope and sometime before we show up on MTV, i.e. they are not really part of our reality. Woolen Men on tour is mostly about cheap eats and trying to go places where the weather is better than here.
Do you guys drink beer/cocktails? If so, what are favorites?
Alex: I do drink a lot of beer. Right now I like lighter beers. One that I’ve always liked is Anchor Brewing’s Liberty Ale. Old Crow.
Raf: Yep, beer for us. Good new beer things; beer in cans — notably Fort George and HUB, but the cans of Sierra Nevada Torpedo are nice and crisp; the Commons Brewery — proof that there’s still room for another amazing brewery in what seemed like a saturated town; those crazy wild-yeast beers — not sure they are always good but always interesting.
OK, a few music questions. I know sometimes musicians hate when asked about influences, but it’s interesting to find out whether there’s a connection, and you guys remind me of some great old New Zealand bands. Were you familiar with Flying Nun and that whole scene when you started? Any other music that affected you guys growing up?
Alex: I was introduced to the Clean by Raf and Lawton, and as soon as I heard it I was in. It was a ‘why haven’t I heard this?’ moment. My friend in high school loaned me a bunch of Wipers stuff and it’s been in my brain ever since. R.E.M. was always in the background for me until like my mid-20s. Now it creeps in and I let it.
Raf: Definitely the Clean. Beyond that, the Xpressway stuff — Dead C, Alastair Galbraith — is probably closer to my heart although it has less bearing on what we do as The Woolen Men. Our influences aren’t too obscure: Wire, Guided By Voices, Dead Moon, Wipers. Also, early R.E.M. and a lot of regional American pre-indie music like Mission Of Burma, Pylon, Neo Boys.
How was the recording of the new album—any stories to share about the making of The Woolen Men?
Raf: We did almost all of it in our practice space, with a little mixing and recording in Alex’s basement. Listening back to it, I’m struck by how stark it sounds — very few overdubs or mixing effects — and I’m happy we went that route. Alex’s roommate at the time had an old piece of equipment from the 70s — the Roland Space Echo — which we used on a bunch of tracks.
Alex: It was the first time we started really isolating stuff on some of these recordings. Before we would kind of move stuff into another room but not really baffle any of the amps to keep them from bleeding into the other tracks, which I think can be cool sometimes. But for the sake of mixing it gave us a lot more room to kind of produce it rather than basically eqing a live room. As for stories, I don’t really remember…there was a lot of beer.
How is it in Portland these days? Is it a good place to be as a band or is it a lot of competition to play the best places?
Raf: It’s kind of rough at the moment. A lot of the bands that were around when we started The Woolen Men four years ago are no longer around and nobody is really stepping up to fill the gap. It’s hard because the house and D.I.Y. scene is really dead at the moment, and that’s where new bands have room to incubate and work out the kinks. There’s a lively venue scene but that caters to ready-made bands with a “sound” and an Internet presence and that aren’t really contributing to the community at all or doing anything interesting.
Alex: It feels like a lot of Portland bands that we have been playing with over the years are reaching a similar point where everyone is starting to put out albums and tour a lot. Nucular Aminals are in Europe, Sad Horse is always going out and making awesome stuff, Charts are heading to California for the first time. It also feels like there’s a lull for newer bands, but it may just be the calm before the storm.
Last question: How’d you celebrate finishing the album?
Alex: I guess we just started recording more. I think Raf a bought a six-pack but I don’t really remember.
Raf: Yeah, I think I brought some nicer than average beer to practice and we got back to work on the next batch of songs.
Listen to “Mayonnaise” by The Woolen Men:
More Good Food, Rocks on Food Republic: