by Sean Holohan
Colin McArthur, the bassist and vocalist of the Portland-based band Animal Eyes, appreciates the beauty of the small Alaskan fishing city of Homer. He once called it home, but he knows his music career would have been stuck in neutral if he hadn't left.
The “halibut fishing capital of the world" treated him well in his formative years, he says. But his dream was bigger than the "crazy little hippie, redneck town."
“It is this little fishing town south of Anchorage and a lot of people go there to get away from it all,” he explains. “And for whatever reason, people always want to shoot their guns, start bonfires and just hang out on their ranches.”
McArthur says Homer is full of natural beauty and calming energies, but the population of 5,000 means there was only a small handful of music venues. As a teenager, he had to resort to non-traditional spaces, playing shows at rented movie theaters and friends’ house. And since there were so few musicians, it seemed as though everyone in town played in a band together at one point or another. As a high school junior, McArthur was stuck in a kind of musical purgatory.
“It was a pretty incestuous scene. I played shows with various bands our now-guitarist was in all the time, and I played in various other bands with our now-drummer.”
But in 2007, a new record from the Portland-based band Menomena changed everything for McArthur and the rest of the band-to-be: Haven Multz Matthews, Tyler Langham, Sam Tenhoff and Tyler Figley. Once the friends listened to Friend and Foe on the recommendation of Matthews’ mother (who owned a record store in Homer), they felt they had to tailor their songwriting style with more grace and aggression.
“The first time I heard that record I was like, ‘Wow, I have never heard anything this dark but beautiful before,’” he remembers. “We were all like, ‘Whoa, where are these guys from? Oh, they’re from Portland?’”
McArthur says listening to Menomena turned him on to a whole new way of writing music and forced him to push his own boundaries as a songwriter. Three years later, the group of friends, inspired by their favorite band, moved to Portland and formed Animal Eyes.
With spacey, progressive rock instrumentation over McArthur’s and Tenhoff’s dueling and wailing folk vocals, Animal Eyes creates a more aggressive, angsty version of pop music. The band keeps their music unpredictable by straying from the 4/4 time signature and employing complex rhythms. McArthur calls it experimental pop music.
McArthur explains that moving from the Alaskan backcountry to the bigger Portland has absolutely influenced his writing style. On the band’s first release, 2011’s Found in the Forest, the newly-formed band was still fresh off living in Alaska and most of their writing revolved around nature and the sights and sounds that inspired them in Homer.
On band’s latest EP Ursus, released last September, McArthur says his lyric writing has shifted to more personal themes like human relationships and the business world of music.
“Songs like ‘Cold Coast Line’ still have a few nature-related themes to them, like walking on a coast line, but also the song is about walking with your friend as you talk about how far your life has taken you,” he says.
The title of the EP, which is Latin for “bear,” serves as an homage to the band’s hometown in Alaska, McArthur says. The name also represents the band’s new direction as they head toward a heavier style of music.
“This is a more aggressive, rock-based group of recordings, so the title reflects that they’re toothy jams,” he explains. “It’s not our deepest album name, but we all like how it sounded.”
For McArthur and the rest of Animal Eyes, Portland might be where they live right now, but their hearts will always remain in Alaska, he says. Though the music scene in Portland is more engaging and the big city took the band time to get used to, McArthur says seeing the landscape and layout of Portland reminds him daily of Alaska. Surprisingly, he says, the city bears a striking resemblance to his hometown: in a way, making him feel like he still lives there.
“In a lot of ways, Portland is easy for us because it feels a lot like a bigger Homer,” McArthur says. “There is still that same sense of community and the nature is just as beautiful. There are mountains and the ocean not too far away. It’s just like Homer. We say we all live in Portland now, but for all of us, it still feels like Alaska is our home.”
Sean Holohan is Hear Nebraska’s editorial intern. As far as he is concerned, Portland can do no wrong. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.