Whether it’s delving into soul music, bubblegum-pop or modern folk, Portland, Ore.-based Hockey is as diverse as their choice of sweets at Voodoo Doughnuts, and their first album, Mind Chaos, is as delicious and hearty as a bacon maple bar. It’s characteristic for Hockey singer Ben Grubin and bassist Jerm Reynolds to head to multiple directions at once, and that’s where they’re comfortable.
Grubin and Reynolds met at Southern California-based University of Redlands Johnston Center—an interdisciplinary, neo-hippie enclave where students create their own major. Back in 2002, performing as a two-piece, Grubin and Reynolds were experimental but limited to mainly electronic dance because of their size. “We just wanted people to dance. We’d do all kinds of insane things [musically], and it’s allowed us to dabble in different genres, whether we want to be that [exclusively] or not,” says Reynolds, by phone from the road.
After graduation, Grubin and Reynolds’ efforts as recording artists in Los Angeles never panned out much, so they moved to the Northwest looking for bandmates and found two additional members—guitarist Brian White and drummer Anthony Stassi. “We called it Custard’s Next Stand when we moved to Portland. If that didn’t work, we’d just go somewhere else,” Reynolds says. While they aren’t necessarily a “Portland” band—sounding far from beard-folk—he says the contagious Northwest crustiness and weirdness is creatively stimulating.
Once the foursome started playing together, they opened up a can of soul and funk by grooving to Curtis Mayfield and Al Green (while Earth, Wind & Fire is always a guilty pleasure). As they recorded Mind Chaos (Capitol, 2009) in the basement of their Portland house, they wanted to create a distinct sonic palette reminiscent of Mayfield’s Superfly—to be able to bite into the music. Listening to the intro to “3 AM Spanish” suggests similar musical strutting—the kind of groove you’d want to enter a room to. As is their fashion, they weren’t content with that strict style, and intermittently they added pop flares or recorded overt, in-your-face bubblegum pop (if bubblegum pop is ever in your face).
Hockey dips into the hipster-chic well and pulls out cupfuls of catchy hooks, lavish synth lines and inescapable retro electro-glam. Comparisons to bands like The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem are largely based on sound, not lyrical content, says Reynolds. Sure, Grubin’s voice is faintly reminiscent of Julian Casablancas of The Strokes—albeit, Grubin’s is more scratchy and scrappy—and they have similar dance production to that of LCD Soundsystem.
However, they differ in lyrical experimentation—hitting on thematic elements of religion, history and culture. “That’s what music is for: expressing things in another way, what’s at the very edge of everyday life,” Reynolds says. Grubin’s lyrical depth is derived from studies at Redlands as well as unconventional literature, from William Blake’s poems to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—fitting for an album called Mind Chaos.
In “Too Fake,” he muses the pitfalls of church and religion, while on “Curse This City,” he gets brainy about the psychological process and experience of religion—other pop acts like Lady GaGa don’t go there, for sure. Essentially, it’s just stripped-down honesty, not necessarily tongue-incheek, though Grubin’s voice can hint at confident, vergingon-overt swagger. In “I Want to be Black,” he relives the trials and tribulations of growing up white in New York City, wearing Fubu and listening to D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar.” Some things don’t change; Grubin said in a Vlog that he’s still doing that.
These lyrics interestingly juxtapose against the music’s layers and grooves. However, the lyrical content doesn’t overpower, and it’s not too heady to dance to. After all, that’s where they started, and they haven’t lost that. Watching their European concert Vlogs, teenage girls line the front rows and eat up Grubin’s every word and every hip thrust—perhaps only understanding his hips.
Hockey just got back from Europe, where they’re more popular than they are in the States. BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe started spinning “Song Away” and “Too Fake” last year, and they quickly became Euro sensations—unexpectedly, from the band’s perspective. “I’m glad that we’ve had that time. It’s like you’re the buzz band, and it’s crazy and hectic, and then you end up on the other side and you can go on.” After this tour, they will begin recording another LP, which will be slower, richer and even more experimental, making pure pop that’s as dark as possible.
Luckily, Hockey’s still romping around the country, because when the energy’s right, this tour’s intimate venues have all the electricity of a new-wave disco house party in full tilt.