The asphalt shimmers with the reflected lights of shallow puddles. For now, the skies over Portland offer a brief reprieve from earlier showers, but even for October, the air braces, promising a deeper winter chill still months away. A few stars sparkle above the awning of the Artistery, punched through the clouds and left to compete with the metropolitan glow of downtown.
A house on Division Street, miles from any parking meters and the Willamette River which courses through the heart of the city, the Artistery is an all-ages venue as unconcerned with labels as are the artists it regularly hosts. Tonight, it’s White Rainbow in all its prismatic glory.
Downstairs,past the thrift store couches of the sitting room, the stairway covered in posters from recent shows, is the basement. Supported by steel posts and dimly lit, the din of myriad conversations scattered across the open floor, this is the essence of the city; the music, the people, the aesthetic, the culture. Suffice to say, I’ve burrowed my way deep into the rhythmic thumping of a vibrant underground that is Portland ‘s experimental music culture.
It’s here, amongst this opaque warmth, this multi-layered and faceted environment that at first seems, well, a little weird, that I meet Adam Forkner. Bundled in a light blue sweatshirt and blue jeans, with slightly messy shoulder length hair and the facial hair to match, Forkner is as welcoming as one comes to expect after spending a couple of days in his city, which is another way to say, profusely amicable. As we shake hands, he apologizes that his are dirty, explaining how his attempt to help a friend change the window in his car was met with little success. I tell him I don’t mind.
Adam Forkner vibrates at a higher frequency than most musicians. His Kranky debut under the moniker White Rainbow, Prism Of Eternal Now, is a mind-expanding journey into the ethereal realms of healing energy. Ambient, experimental, afro-beat; his music combines elements of all these genres without drawing the oft-maligned distinction as mere “hippie-jams.” To classify White Rainbow cheapens the experience anyway; fitting into a genre is of no concern to Forkner. Just ask him what he would say to those who might describe his music as “new age” and the answer you’ll receive is not one of distaste, but instead a rather emphatic, “Trip on it,baby.”
Twisting wires and checking plug-ins, Forkner tells me to meet him upstairs when he’s done arranging his setup. When he emerges from the stairwell, his hood is raised and a smile reaches across his face. Through each exhalation of visibly cold air, he regales me with the history of our surroundings, this venue and this city.
Owned by Aaron Shepard, the Artistery is the longest running all-ages venue in Portland. It’s a studio, an art gallery, a place to hear local music, and sadly, is up for sale. It sits in a mostly residential area, nestled between new luxury condos and a looming real estate sign, and is perhaps now a relic in an ever-shifting landscape of gentrification. Forkner assures me that Shepard already has a new place staked out. At least for now, the condos will have to wait.
He tells me about the city and its seeming propensity to harbor experimental music of all shades.
“In Portland we have a deep history of a very underground, experimental, noisy, psychedelic, straight-up weird and completely non-commercial music culture that exists and grows and evolves as time goes on. When people move here to play music, like I did many years ago, they may have been the one guy or band in their old hometown that did drone music with loop pedals. They get here and are quickly made aware that there are already a dozen people doing that in different, highly developed ways. So it makes people adapt and develop and get more detail oriented with their creations and get deeper involved in creating original things, original sounds.”
His involvement with music at the creative level dates back to the early ’90s, when he moved from a small coastal town in California to the burgeoning experimental rock Mecca that is Portland, Oregon.
“I think I was one of the only paying attendees for the Bugskull show I saw when I first got to town in `94. But seeing that show and experiencing what was at that point for me a totally new way of thinking about music and the world inspired me to start a band and make weird music and stay here,” Forkner says.
While earning a bachelor’s in philosophy from Lewis & Clark College, he joined various local bands: Yume Bitsu, Surface of Eceon, and later, World. Speaking with Forkner, one begins to wonder just how much geography plays into this musical fertility. Surrounded on all sides by towering evergreens, Portland ‘s scenic beauty offers a plethora of inspirational opportunities. Recent years have witnessed a migration of like-minded musicians to the city of roses. Forkner takes this in stride.
“Even with all the people moving here as Portland becomes a buzz-city for indie rock, I have extreme pride in the history of the city’s music culture. The underground is thick and awesome.”
Sitting in the foyer of the Artistery as show-goers trickle by, this couldn’t be more evident. Forkner greets those he knows by name, even says hello to the ones he doesn’t.
“I think that someone who lives somewhere where the music culture is about the broad-strokes, more of a pop music mentality or really a small scene supported by information gleaned from the internet and bigger touring acts coming through can be easily impressed by sub-par experimental music. The first guy that plays some sustained drones and some shakers and bells is going to blow minds!”
Amateur sonic manipulators aside, Portland indeed fosters some unique talents. Forkner’s live shows often exceed a mere auditory experience. An array of assorted devices spread before him, including a Big Muff, his “five string” Ibanez, an octave delay, a phazer, pitch shifter, loop pedals, shakers, bells, tablas, various pedals and (occasionally) a gong, he describes his acrobatic shuffling to keep track of it all “like spinning plates.” Each show is improvised, spontaneous. Adding layer to layer, Forkner is an aural mad scientist, churning out a mesmerizing alchemy of sound.
“It’s like painting something abstract. A blank canvas that you add tone and color to,” he says, describing the live show. “It’s synthesis, a process that shows time the way a painting shows strokes.”
Sometimes performing in what he calls “psychedelic vibe huts,” glowing domes constructed of loose draperies and lit from within, he attempts to create something beyond what sound alone can express. Accompanied by colorful visualizations, a fully-realized White Rainbow live experience brands its memory on the unsuspecting brain like a vibrant LSD flashback.
“The inspiration comes from wanting to create a different environment for my music other than a loud bar or club or even all-ages venues covered in punk flyers and duct tape,” Forkner explains.
“Something colorful that would represent visually what I feel my music might say aurally. So it is a way for me to control the environment surrounding me, performing and turning it into something more along the lines of what I would actually like. I do still play plenty of shows on a sticky beer stained stage at a bar with people getting drunk and talking and waiting for something exciting to happen. But I would much rather play inside a little tent and let people only experience the music and tent and lights and maybe video as a sort of sound sculpture.”
“I’m not a lyrics guy,” Forkner readily admits, “so the vibe-hut is a good tool to distract people from the absence of narrative structure.”
If this all sounds a little mystical, well, maybe that’s because it is. As advertised on the back sleeve, Prism Of Eternal Now is not only “more advanced than meditation” but also “faster than meditation, and above and beyond meditation.” While the claims seem in jest (and are in fact homage to the packaging of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap), they peel at the corners of a hidden spirituality contained therein. Informed by a background in improvisation and jazz as well as sound engineering and production, focusing on sound textures and improvised moods comes naturally to Forkner.
“Everything that was made on this record was me creating as I was going, letting the sounds and samples that I created with the various source material sort of lead the way. I try to turn the over-thinking part of my brain off when I am making music; the reflective part that is calculating things and predicting how it will make a listener feel or worrying about being boring or stuff like that. I ignore that side of the mind’s activity and hopefully shut it off completely. In that way when I play it is like meditation in that I come to Total Presence or the Eternal Now.”
For the new album, he says he drew inspiration from Terry Riley, Ash Ra Temple, La Monte Young, and Indian music. Prism Of Eternal Now is as close as music comes to being panacea, and for those mired in a maelstrom of substandard pop music, should come as a welcome relief. But to Forkner, it’s transcendence, pure and simple.
“Music is the outlet to my spirit. Making music brings me to a sense of presence and relaxation that I cannot otherwise attain and it feels good. I guess when you first start listening to ambient or long form sustained music as opposed to a pop song about a girl, you are activating a totally different part of your mind and body.”
Something certainly seems to awaken when listening to White Rainbow, perhaps a part of the spirit that, until the needle drops and the sound rushes out to embrace the listener, has lain dormant. At any rate, it helps to have friends who share such similar musical aptitudes. Portland makes this possible.
“I like interacting and exchanging ideas with and learning from all the deeply creative people in this town,” he says.
Forkner’s long-time girlfriend Honey Owens probably knows this best. She has contributed to Jackie-O Motherfucker, Nudge, and World (with Forkner), Portland acts all. Her current solo-project, Valet, recently released its debut Blood Is Clean on Kranky.
Owens wanders over and stops for a moment before heading downstairs, delivering Adam some leftovers to snack on before his set. The floor beneath us, it reverberates from one of the opening gigs. We talk over the shuddering vibrations.
“Everyone for the most part knows each other on some level,” Owens says. “Going to shows is kind of like going to workshops or something. Everyone wants to be intrinsically themselves musically and it shows. I often find people talking about how sounds are being made or what new pedal everyone is checking out. And of course lots of improvising happens here.”
Owens, a Portland transplant from the Bay Area, cites a love for soundtracks as one of the many inspirations for her own musical endeavors.
“On Blood Is Clean I recorded the songs as live jams in my house. It’s like those days when you just can’t do anything else. You come home and set up your stuff, turn the computer on record and just jam out for a while. I feel super blissed-out when the moments end up being something I want to listen to later. It’s like making the soundtrack to your own life.”
Blood Is Clean, which uses loose structures to conjure expansive distances of sound that are yet eerily intimate, was originally released on Yarnlazer, the couples’ self-run CD-R label, as a 100 copy limited edition complete with silk-screened art sleeves, before being picked up by Kranky. In addition to some of White Rainbow’s earlier material, Yarnlazer also releases work from other experimental artists around Portland .This is independent music in its undiluted form, what Forkner calls “music for music’s sake.”
“It’s very casual, almost non-existent half the time. We would be making more things if we didn’t have to work our jobs…it’s a fantasy label that exists in our minds mostly,” Owens says of Yarnlazer. ‘There’re a ton of things we want to make if time and cash would allow.”
Still,Owens and Forkner represent an aesthetically “Portland” state of mind when it come to making music, community based and supportive of their fellow musicians, and most importantly, creating without compromise.
“We are not rich people so the fact that we can make a run of records for little or no money is of the utmost importance,” Forkner says. “It is the most important thing for all artists to feel complete freedom to do whatever they want without outside influence coming in and ruining or cheapening the whole thing.”
If it can be said that no truly affecting art is borne of isolation, Portland and the musicians that call it home represent its most stirring proof. Or maybe there’s just something in the water. Like mescaline. Whatever the reasons, Forkner and Owens remain certain those who know will continue to make challenging music within a community that praises an ever-transforming and adaptive muse.
“I feel like creation is the reason that we are here and it takes all of us to make up a single pixel or sound,” Owens says.
Perching on the edge of his seat, Forkner seems to crackle with energy, like an ADD afflicted child whose Ritalin lies in the medicine cabinet, forgotten. Maybe it’s talking about his hometown that has him excited, or his pending performance.
“There is a much deeper culture here than Pitchfork will ever tell you,” Forkner says,and is quick to add, “keep Portland dirty, keep Portland weird, keep Portland crunk.”
Can you feel the vibrations?
* Forkner photo self-shot; Honey Owens photo by Rhys Balmer