Most young acts would have little interest in writing songs about failed abolitionists, the great Boston fire of 1872, a 17th-century religious martyr or American Red Cross founder Clara Barton’s efforts to save soldiers on the battlefields of the Civil War. Yet that’s precisely the tack taken by Portland, Ore., band The Dimes, whose two albums to date—2007’s The Silent Generation and their current opus, The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry—mine such obscure historical incidents with pop precision and a sublime instrumental approach.
“I’ve always loved history,” explains singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Johnny Clay, “specifically the role played by the common man. In school they teach you about the big picture, but it’s just words on a page. Once you get beyond the CliffsNotes and learn about the personalities, you realize they were real people. They had the same aspirations, the same fears. So I thought it would be
interesting to detail their perspective.”
Former college rocker Clay first moved to Portland from Austin, Texas, to pursue his girlfriend (now his wife), Christi. There he hooked up with guitarist Pierre Kaiser, another former college chum. Kaiser introduced Clay to his roommate, drummer Jake Rahner, who in turn brought in bass player Ryan Johnston (with whom he played in a local outfit called the Silent Majority). After getting to know one another, the five musicians realized they shared a common musical sensibility and work ethic. “I grew up in the Austin scene, where you’re not a band until you actually play shows,” Clay says. “Nowadays all it takes to be a band is having a MySpace page.”
Adopting the name The Dimes on a friend’s suggestion, the band recorded three initial EPs prior to embarking on their first full-length outing. “We were trying to find our sound,” Clay recalls. “It’s sort of like trying on shoes that you have to walk in for a while. You try it out and you go, ‘Whoa, that’s not us.’” Clay initially nurtured the idea of securing a major label deal to broaden the group’s career possibilities. “I was in my ‘starry-eyed dreamer’ phase of life,” he chuckles. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to get a record deal.’ But lo and behold, the music industry fell apart. I was telling our manager the other day that there’s no way this record would have gotten made if we were with a major. I can just imagine telling a record label I’ve decided to make an album about the history of Boston.”
Indeed, it is hard to visualize an album like The King Can Drink the Harbour Dry—with its arcane scholarly narratives, immaculately crafted harmonies and subtle yet supple arrangements—fitting in with the commercial concerns of today’s music industry. Happily, the band has been supportive of Clay’s unorthodox approach. “I think that each of the guys realized that this record is my baby,” he reflects. “With The Silent Generation, we were still growing as arrangers and there were many times we’d say, ‘Well, let’s just do this or that.’ But for this album, the arrangements are definitely more confident and a lot riskier. We wanted to make this a total record experience, a sound that played as a whole and not just as individual iTunes downloads.”
– Lee Zimmerman