Not Another "Beige Condo": RLLRBLL Talks Parallels Between Portland and Denver

Portland, Oregon-based experimental rock band RLLRBLL makes an appearance this Sunday, June 12, at Down Space in the Dona Laurita Photography and Fine Art gallery. Starting in 1994, the group, which completely resists any pat classifications, came together after Mae Starr, Monte Trent Allen and Gilles left Bozeman, Montana, and relocated to the City of Roses. All had toured through Portland in earlier bands, and the city's then-welcoming vibe, vibrant creative community and affordability seemed to offer more opportunities for living life as musicians connected to like-minded artists.

“We were walking to Satyricon all nights of the week and getting our minds blown by seeing a variety of music,” recalls Starr. “This didn't happen in Montana, so it was new and inspiring, the feeling we could do anything musically.”

Depending where on the timeline you choose to check in with RLLRBLL's prolific catalogue, there's a chance you're going to hear a very different band on a superficial stylistic level. In that sense, RLLRBLL has a bit in common with Royal Trux. RLLRBLL also has a warm yet alien quality to it that might appeal to fans of Magma or eclectic performance-art band Maestro Subgum and the Whole from Chicago.

At the time RLLRBLL formed, the cultural cachet was burning out of the alternative-rock movement, which made life, commercially speaking, more difficult for bands making adventurous music. And like many bands from the mid- to late '90s and beyond, the members of RLLRBLL held other jobs to subsidize the pursuits that really fueled their lives. RLLBRLL hasn't exactly paid its members' bills in recent years.

“Gilles has his own painting business, and I am a self-employed cosmetologist,” Starr explains. “Monte has always worked in record stores. We have earned these positions, and it allows more freedom to live life and play shows and tour. I don't have a nice retirement package coming, but at least I'm not trapped in a meeting from [eight to five]with a job eating my soul.”

Operating on a roughly DIY level, RLLRBLL has likewise benefited from the help of friends along the way. The band's Colorado connections run surprisingly deep. In Denver, the group got some help from an old friend in Greater Than Collective's Ben DeSoto, naming the song “King Benny D”after him. When RLLRBLL's van died in Denver a handful of years ago, DeSoto helped them get back on the road and get home. Former RLLRBLL member Shane DeLeon, currently part of Miss Massive Snowflake, knew Dang Head's Jamie Smith from school in Montana, and the band is playing at the art gallery where Smith works.

In addition to having personal connections in Colorado, the band has experienced urban development in Portland that's similar to what's happening in Denver. Portland, too, has undergone a radical transformation in the last several years, and now poses challenges for its own creative community.

“I find myself having to let go of being so angry over this new Portland that is destroying the beautiful people that made this city so great,” admits Starr. “Demolishing great venues and closing them because they can't keep up with the rent. Historical buildings and parks being plowed down to build another beige condo. Musicians and artists that could live here and create work [and have] a simple job [to] afford their rent are leaving because there is no affordable rent. There used to be a lot of house-show venues, and now those are far and few and have decreased greatly just in the last year. This gentrification started years ago here, and we have been pushed further and further out in our places to live. But this year has been the worst. There are still some pockets left and moments that you love more than ever because you know they won't last long here. But you can't give something too much power in your mind, or it will grow and destroy your thoughts. So it's good to try and keep art and music alive however you have to.”

According to Starr, the band's new release addresses the current urgent concerns around development.
“The people in charge here have lost all compassion for others that don't have as much,” she says. “Evil can only stay afloat for so long. I picture a lot of vacant condos eventually. The title of our new release was Winnebagins because in our neighborhood, there is a growing population of campers and Winnebagos in back yards with people living in them because of the rents. There is one right behind our practice space, and one night Gilles said, 'This one's for the Winnebagins,' so that title is an outcome of the gentrification that is happening all around us.”

RLLRBLL with Susuruss Station and Dang Head, Sunday, June 12, 6 p.m., Down Space at Dona Laurita Photography and Fine Art, 820 Main St, Louisville, CO, 303-506-2478, $5, all ages.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.