It all starts with the drums, an unprocessed racket that backbones the music of the all-female Portland trio Explode Into Colors. The drums boom and crash, the cowbells clatter, the rim shots snap. The drums breathe. Sometimes, Explode Into Colors—Claudia Meza, Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway—sound like a maniacal marching band, at other times, it’s like three white punk chicks who wandered into a drum circle in Senegal.
“We’ve definitely got that call-and-response, that very human thing,” says Meza, who sings, plays baritone guitar and chips in on drums. “It’s like caveman music that sounds somehow modern.”
Together for two years now, Explode Into Colors have benefited from strong blog buzz and a general sense that they can’t be pegged. Over the rhythm assault, they plaster primal melodic phrases, which Meza sings in an unmannered, from-the-gut voice. Schonberg handles the drum kit; Treadway ladles on more percussion and colors the music with synths, Farfisa organ and the like.
All three are alums of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, from which Meza has a bachelor’s degree in physics and Schonberg a master’s in tropical entomology. Both Meza and Schonberg have done their share of van touring, too, as respective members of art-punk band Japanther and Kickball. As for Treadway, who has a background in fashion design and studied African music in college, Meza says, “On our first trips, she was very uncomfortable. She had no idea what she was in for. She would complain a lot, which is one thing you don’t want to do when you’re stuck in a van with two other people. We finally told her, ‘You need to stop!’ The thing is, now she’s a total road warrior. She’s stoked, can’t wait.”
After a couple of years that included short jaunts, a SXSW appearance and a handful of gigs in the Midwest, Explode Into Colors embarked on their first proper tour in early March, opening several shows for fellow-Portlanders Quasi.
Despite their meager recorded output— their debut album is slated for a fall release on Kill Rock Stars—Explode Into Colors’ rep has grown. “What’s kind of crazy is the hype we’ve received despite how relatively unestablished we are as a band,” Meza says. “The kids, they get to us from the Internet. They know about us in Japan—and we have no album. I’m getting interviewed by a Japanese magazine next week.”
Meza took a circuitous route to joining a trio of primitive beat-mongers. She grew up in Los Angeles and, as a young teen, frequented the influential punk club the Smell. At the same time, she was also “obsessed” with legendary West Coast jazzmen such as Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon. As a guitarist, she was drawn to “technical, mathy-oriented music. I couldn’t stop tapping,” she says with a laugh, referring to the guitar technique made popular by supreme shredder Eddie Van Halen.
When Meza arrived in Portland in 2007, she hit the aesthetic reset button. “I had been immersed in this idea of how many different parts and moods you can create in five minutes,” she says. “When I moved here, I realized I was so tired of playing guitar. I was technically good, but I wasn’t into anything I was playing. It was just this weird disconnect.”
So what to do? Learn how to play drums, of course. When Explode Into Colors formed, Meza took to the baritone guitar—an instrument she had owned since age 16—because it effectively split the difference between guitar and bass, allowing her to pump up her percussive riffs with a fuzzed-out, low-end throb.
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The band began by playing local house gigs, at which the vibe was loose and sweaty and anything-goes. They then moved to playing clubs—although basement gigs are still not beneath them—which caused a shift in mindset. “If I’m playing a venue, I tend to get annoyed if the sound is bad,” Meza says. “There’s something about being onstage that makes you a little more anxious. ‘I hope it sounds good.’ I never thought that way before.
“The main difference in playing a bigger show, besides being paid a little more—or a lot more—is I tend to be more considerate of the audience in terms of what we’re presenting. Once I’m confident that everything is up to standard, I let loose, and it’s pretty much like another basement gig.”
Explode Into Colors perform with Quasi at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $10. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Blast Off! Portland’s Explode Into Colors create buzz in advance of their Kill Rock Stars debut."