Force Publique Found a New Scene and a New Identity in Portland

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Sometimes a geographical change is necessary for a band to find its own path. For Cassie McNeil and James Wayne, the Pacific Northwest felt like the right part of the country to re-root the duo’s work as Force Publique. Both musicians grew up in different parts of Colorado, eventually landing in Denver for a good half a decade before taking off for Portland two years ago. This weekend, the two will return to their home state for the first time since relocating, playing a show as part of the UMS — which itself acts as a veritable homecoming and Colorado-proud celebration for many local acts.

McNeil and Wayne are excited to be bringing Force Publique’s darker side of the experimental electronic world back to the place it all began, after spending a good amount of time soaking in the drearier sentiment of their newfound residence. “I think that we dwelled a lot on the Northwest vibes, as far as the music scenes that used to be here, and we're kind of trying to do a modern take on it,” says McNeil. “I feel like the Northwest was a real mecca for singer-songwriters in the ’90s, and we're really influenced by the culture that was here a long time ago, incorporating that with the music that we make now. It gives you a nostalgic feeling to go to a place like Seattle; the first thing that I learned about Seattle was Nirvana. I can't go to Seattle without thinking about that.”

McNeil notes that although Force Publique’s foundation is and always has been electronic in nature, this new phase in the band’s life has had the two musicians focusing on more analog sounds. Guitar is now a prominent fixture within the band, an element that McNeil says not only changes up Force Publique’s sonic aesthetic, but its visual presentation, too. “I think that sometimes with electronic music, if there is guitar, it becomes secondary. Our music really focuses strongly on singer-songwriting and equally on electronic components, like synth and drum machines. I feel like it is a unique [live] show in comparison to other musical hybrids of electronic and analog instruments.”

But live shows were something Force Publique didn’t immediately set its sights on after the move. A handful of appearances on local bills in Portland occurred, but then the duo went into hibernation to work on new music. Emerging a year later, Wayne and McNeil say, they had to relearn the ropes when it came to booking practices in their new home. “A big difference in Portland is that it doesn't seem like there are (specific) bookers for venues as much as the bands are booking their own shows and events,” says McNeil. “It feels a little bit different than Denver in Portland; it's more of a do-it-yourself community, where people are putting on their own events. I think it was quite a contrast for us, coming from Denver.”

This shift has also been a boon for Force Publique: Self-booking has resulted in well-curated events and shows where the band’s vision aligns with that of other artists sharing the stage. “The places that we've been playing at are all different sizes of venues with all different types of crowds,” says Wayne. “It's been a lot more, I want to say, DIY kind of shows.”

“You just have to do your research and go to different shows and figure out the different types of music being played and reach out to those people,” says McNeil. “I think at first it was more of a challenge for us because it wasn't what we were quite used to. It’s rewarding to get to choose the bills, and choosing everything they want to happen. It's fun to be creative, but it is also challenging, because you have to put a lot more effort into booking and promoting.”

With a new mindset and an evolved sound, Force Publique is happy to be heading back to its home state for a reunion with the scene it left not long ago. The duo is working on new videos to go with its recent self-released album, Bloom, a six-song recording carrying a guitar-driven, hyper-'90s feel the band pushes through its self-created synth and drum-machine filters. Like everything made by Force Publique, a gothic, witch house-like mood overwhelms the work: The limited-edition physical release comes on a lilac-colored cassette tape, its cover a simple, stark photo of a naked torso with a bouquet of flowers for a head. Shadowy, beat-heavy tracks like “Hopeless” and “Excess” are a treat for old fans and a great introduction to new listeners. But being able to see Force Publique play live again after such a long time away is the best gift of all.

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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