On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Johnny Clay is eating lunch and he feels like it's about to start raining. He's on a break from his job fixing printers for Hewlett Packard in Vancouver, the gig that keeps him occupied when he's not serving as lead singer and songwriter for Portland's indie folk-pop outfit, The Dimes.
Clay, a Texas native, moved to Portland from Austin to follow a girl, the age-old story. Don't worry, he assures me, he married her and they are now expecting their first child, a little girl. In December, The Dimes released their second album, The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry, which if you didn't catch from the title, alludes to the Boston Tea Party. The concept album centers on the city of Boston and it's immense role in American history. You can toss those American history textbooks aside, as this LP is an audio guide through one of the most instrumental cities in America's development.
But why history songs? Clay, who recently returned to school as a history major, says, "I like to use history as my muse, because I like the realism of it. I'm crazy about my wife and I've found a great girl, so I don't have the tragic love story thing in my personal life."
On Saturday, March 27, Clay and his crew hit the Old Stone Church in Bend as part of the Portland Indie Infusion. Folk rockers and fellow Timber Carnival Records label mates, Norman, join The Dimes. Also on the bill is father-daughter, death-pop duo, Tortune. It may seem like we've got a little bit of everything in Bend these days, but what we're missing is some good ol' indie music.
But back to The Dimes' current obsession with Boston. The city is also home to Dimes guitarist Pierre Kaiser. Before Harbour was even a twinkle in his eye, Clay decided to try to write a song about Kaiser's hometown. He thought it'd be a fun challenge.
"I've never been there. And once I opened up that treasure chest of history, basically, it's like wow there are so many characters that I want to learn more about. I want to tell their story. So one song turned into five, turned into 10, turned into 30."
Of those 30 songs, 12 made the record and cover everything from the Great Boston Fire of 1872 in "Damrell's Fire" to the thoughts of a soldier dying in the arms of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, in "Save Me Clara." Often times, the lyrics lean on the sad side, given that history isn't always the happiest of subjects. The music behind the lyrics, however, doesn't always match that tone.
"We want to be in the first person, we want to get in the story, and really tell the story from what it must have been like, or try. But that doesn't necessarily mean the music has to go that way," says Clay.
If you're looking for songs where the lyrics are sad and the music is dark, most of the time you'll have to look the other way on songs by The Dimes. "Some people, I think, want a sad song to be a sad song. They're confused by the happy tones in a sad song. It's like, yeah, lighten up, it's music, it's supposed to be fun," Clay defends.
Harbour isn't Clay's first foray into the past for inspiration. The Dime's last album, The Silent Generation, featured songs based on articles found in Depression-era Oregonian Daily Journal newspapers recovered from under the floorboards of Kaiser's Portland home. The songs on that album took on a more narrative perspective, like in "Jersey Kid."
"I was the kid on the corner with the newspaper saying, 'Extra, extra, read all about it.' You can do that, you can say, 'The jersey kid got the chair' when you're selling newspapers. On this record, in a song like 'Clara', I'm the perspective of the dying soldier," says Clay.
What's next for The Dimes? Another era in history based in another American town? Not quite, according to Clay.
"It's funny how these things work out, we're just along for the ride. There might be a group of songs that end up having these connections and sometimes you find out about them later. It's wonderful when it works out that way."
Portland Indie Infusion
The Dimes, Norman, and Tortune
8pm Saturday, March 27. Old Stone Church,
157 NW Franklin Ave. $7. 21 and up.