Englishman in Portland: phD candidate studies PDX pop music

Meet Sam Murray, another culture afficianado from across the pond studying Portland arts. Part 3 of a series.

Blame (or credit) Portlandia. Or Project Runway. Or The New York Times. Whatever the initial cause(s), our fair city has spent the past couple of years basking in the seemingly new-found and ever-wider-spread fascination of culture wonks and hipster hunters. Media types from Europe are also perking up to Portland and “crossing the pond”…where they’re quickly snapped up and interviewed by ArtsWatch’s cultural attaché.

Last summer, we introduced you to Samuel, the filmmaker from France, and Alexandra, the radio DJ from Austria. Now, meet Sam Murray, the PhD student from England:


Murray, a PhD candidate writing a thesis on Portland’s music scene, gets acclimated with some poutine from Potato Champion.


Where are you from?

I am from Leeds, which is in West Yorkshire in the North of England. I studied at my hometown uni for my bachelors, which was in Popular and World Musics, and I’ve studied a Masters in popular music in Liverpool, and now I’m studying at Cardiff University for my PhD, although I’m living in Leeds at present. Hope that makes sense!

Explain your field of study, your intended degree, and the project that brought you to Portland.

I’m in the field of ethnography, which, to put it simply, is the study of how people live cultures. For this project, I’m studying how Portlanders and transplants are living the Portland music culture. The project I’m undertaking at present is my PhD, which is in music. I also call it the PDX Music Scene Project to give it a more accessible name, and it does what it says on the tin.

My main method of collecting data is through interviews, where I’ve sat down and had fascinating conversations over cups of herbal tea, and heard incredible stories. That’s the perk to being in my field; I’m a sucker for a good story. I’ve made two trips so far in my first year. The first saw me live in Portland for three months, spending near enough every day either interviewing someone, attending an event they were putting on, or actually being involved in an event by playing or volunteering. I’ve just come back from my second trip, which was only two weeks. During this time, I caught up with previous interviewees, held the panel session, and found new people to connect with and interview. I have a good three or four days’ worth of interview material so far from a wide variety of scene members, all audio recorded with the consent of my interviewees.

In terms of findings, I don’t want to give too much away as I need to keep my PhD nice and original…but what I can say is that Portland does have a rich diversity of music. It has successfully managed to avoid becoming a one-sound city like other places in the U.S. I’ve also found the various nonprofits in Portland to be incredibly crucial to the scene. Without the likes of PDX Pop Now!, Ethos and Rock n Roll Camp for Girls, I’m not sure how the music scene would be maintained. During my second trip, I found that a fair few of my interviewees admitted to being quite stuck in their respective genres and not branching out, due to their social lives being with the same people they make music with. There’s a thirst for collaborations across genres, so hopefully some of these people will take a chance and test the waters, following in the footsteps of great collaborations such as the work Portland Cello Project does, or the forthcoming TxE album Versus Portland that connects the indie world with hip-hop.

What made you choose to study Portland, of all places?

Portland, your music is awesome! I initially listened to records from the more well-known scene members such as Pink Martini, The Decemberists and Laura Veirs, and after falling for their music, I connected the dots and was led to Portland. While digging around, I came across an online podcast of a Portland City Club talk about the music scene which included Jared Mees, Rachel Blumberg, Dave Allen and Laura Veirs. After listening to it, I felt there was traction in a PhD thesis on the subject. I was intrigued to come across a city that actually supported the creation of art—something you would never find in the UK.

What was your first exposure to Portland music? What band(s), under what circumstances?

I came across the aforementioned Portland based music in bizarre ways. I took a chance on Laura Veirs after seeing the cover of Year of Meteors in the back of a copy of the NME, a big music magazine in the UK. I remember thinking, “This lady looks cool; lets see what the music is like,” so took a chance and downloaded Saltbreakers (although I’m not sure if Laura was Portland-based at the time). After this, I followed Laura’s music closely, and thus her move into the Portland scene. I learned of The Decemberists through their duet with Laura, Yankee Bayonet on Cranewife—which came out just as I was becoming interested in all things folky. Pink Martini had appeared on Later… with Jools Holland, an important UK music TV show, and I dug their vibes. A few weeks later, I was on a school trip on a cruise ship in the middle of the Aegean Sea, and they were selling copies of Pink Martini’s Hang on Little Tomato. I had some spare Euros, so I took a chance on the record and wasn’t disappointed. I guess it seems all records led to Portland for me!

How is Portland similar to your home town, and how’s it different?

Portland’s fierce independence finds a kindred spirit in my home town of Leeds. Like Portland, we have small independent labels, a penchant for different music experiences and a desire for collaboration. Unlike Portland, Leeds lacks nonprofits in regard to music, and people aren’t as supportive of the scene. Leeds is a left-wing city with socialist tendencies, and historically has been a battleground between socialism and fascism in British politics, but sadly when it comes to what to cut from the city budget, arts is always on the chopping block first, and the city does not recognize the importance of music-making as much as it should. We have mainly exported indie rock, with our most famous bands of modern times being the Kaiser Chiefs and Pigeon Detective, who don’t really take my own personal tastes to soaring heights.

Can you share a few of your favorite discoveries in Portland, including but not limited to the music scene?

I am bound by the ethical requirement to be objective in terms of my opinions on music, which is hard considering I’ve just told you which bands brought me here. Without getting too specific I have found something in each genre I’ve personally enjoyed. Many of the various communities have welcomed me—with a particular nod to the blues dancing community, who taught me how to blues dance and gave me a unique experience of music in the city. I’ve also been excited by the diverse outputs, from indie rock to Bollywood and bhangra to vaporwave; the festivities of Cinco de Mayo, the various PPN! events and the house concert scene.

I was lucky for all my trips to Portland to stay with an amazing host family who I am indebted to who taught me how to make all manner of things and are truly in the DIY spirit. The place I stayed was near Tryon Creek which is incredible to walk around and Mt. Hood is beyond beautiful. I’m a big fan of Bingo and Bourbon with Brian Perez as it is a surreal experience that reminds me of a Yorkshire Social Club on a Sunday afternoon and there ain’t nothing like a Deschutes burger.

What about Portland (music scene or otherwise) has surprised you, or been different from what you expected?

I tried to come with no expectations at all about Portland and it has paid off as I constantly uncover more and more. I guess I didn’t expect the geography to be as it is. Portland has been the first place I’ve visited in the US and it has been a culture shock in terms of language for example remembering to call a tissue a Kleenex or rubbish: trash. Now I feel I know the geography pretty well so much I knew exactly where I was going on my return earlier this year.

Once you’ve completed your research, what will you do with it?

Well the end result will be a 100,000 or so worded thesis which hopefully will get me a doctorate which means I will be a doctor in Portland music which is kind of weird to think about. I’ve been already submitting my research to various conferences to share Portland’s story with other academics in various settings, I’ll most likely continue this. I tihnk it would also be awesome to create a book around Portland music as well. If I get my doctorate I’d love to move to Portland and lecture at one of the universities and perhaps continue and expand my research so if you know anyone who could help achieve this let me know!

What’s it like to let someone else play reporter with you?

Strangely therapeutic to put my work in perspective. It’s also a relief because when I interview I have to be on it with every response to probe participants into giving me more information and to follow through on new perspectives offered. Thank you for showing interest in my work. It’s great to be able to talk about this project which I am so passionate about.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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