Updated: Dec 24, 2019
Art can be life-changing. In fact, it can often be the best way to talk about the things that change our lives.
Few people know this as well as Brian Hall, frontman of Portland indie-pop band TENTS.
A while ago, his whole life got upended, from his wife Amy undergoing intensive surgery to his own testicular cancer diagnosis. The bombshells forced him to evaluate what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
That’s the theme of Medicine, TENTS’ sophomore album that dropped on Oct. 11.
Hall had already made a career out of music before forming his band, building a portfolio of jingles and soundtracks for commercials, movies and videogames. But it wasn’t until he “stared into that void” that Hall realized there was something else calling out to him.
“I got sick, survived cancer and had some crazy stuff happen in my life and … just kind of had a moment of clarity,” Hall said. “I needed to spend less time hustling and spend more time being the musician and artist I want to be.”
He and his wife -- and bandmate -- Amy Hall were already parents when they formed the group a few years ago, which is a big reason why there’s a familial soul to everything TENTS produces.
The Halls provide dual vocals (and keyboards), and are joined in the band by Joe Greenetz on drums, Matthew Taylor on bass, and fellow founding member Chris Hall (no relation) on guitar.
The band just finished a sprint down the West Coast through Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland, returning to Oregon for a homecoming show on Oct. 17.
Brian Hall says that being parents limits just how long the band can stay out on the road, but the group’s meteoric rise into the indie scene has garnered TENTS tens of thousands of followers on social media and the ability to play these bigger cities and venues.
“It’s crazy because we can’t keep touring as much as we like to, so we just keep putting out albums,” Hall said.
TENTS released its first record, Deer Keeps Pace, via Badman Recording Company, in 2018 and Medicine is the newest release by that label.
Hall said he grew up listening to “straight-ahead indie rock” coming out of the Pacific Northwest, like The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie. But he feels that his band has “really found its own path within that framework.”
TENTS has certainly found its own success.
Hall credits Badman, founded by Dylan Magierek in 1998, for a lot of the band’s following. The Portland-based label, which has also released work by bands like My Morning Jacket, The Mother Hips and STRFKR, has garnered national acclaim while remaining a local outfit.
Medicine experiments with the same kinds of themes that brought Hall to form his band. The album’s title isn’t a veiled metaphor, he means it literally: this music is the way he heals, overcoming the wounds of the past and finding success in the struggles.
“It’s been 14 years since I stared into that void/But the heaviness is back in my heart,” Hall sings on an extremely personal track, "14 Years," off the new album. He vents about his journey from pain to hope, “This time I’m seeking thrills."
Hall says that these themes are a huge part of the art he makes surrounding TENTS.
“Life can be very difficult and it’s easy to lose sight of … how wonderful life can be,” he explained. “I think the arts have an opportunity to bring clarity. That’s the whole concept behind the record.”
This holistic songwriting creates what Hall says “is a very tender process” for making a record.
While he writes the majority of the lyrics, all of the band members contribute to the process, jamming for hours in Hall’s backyard studio before massaging a song into what it wants to be.
"I think the arts have an opportunity to bring clarity."
- Brian Hall, TENTS singer/songwriter
The Halls' voices compliment one another in harmonies, none better than off the album's title track. "Medicine" is the 'straight-ahead' indie single here, released over the summer with a killer music video featuring a choreographed performance by dancer Eirlin Souza. It's the kind of indie jam with a chorus that fits whatever mood you're in.
Crystal clear guitar grooves and bluesy solos are a feature of songs, like “Gold Teeth” and “Water Flowing Underneath,” while soulful bass shines on “Cashmere.”
Percussive layers fill tracks off the album, with new wave feels to “JOY!” and pounding tempos provided to the tribal “Hutah!” and youthful “Insert Some Quarters.”
This is why, despite having a defined sound, TENTS’ music still doesn’t fit neatly into just one box.
“You kind of have to follow the music,” Hall said. “You just have to write a bunch of ideas and allow the music to find its own identity.”
The spiritualism and natural themes of the band extend beyond the lyrics and sound. The band uses every component of its persona to pursue these creative avenues.
During this album cycle, for example, the band has taken to wearing rustic, handmade tunics purchased from “a small shop on Etsy,” Hall said. With plain, white Reebok sneakers to complete the stripped-down aesthetic, there’s a clear creative decision to the look and feel of TENTS.
“We wanted to create an experience for people,” Hall said. “It’s meant to be this social commentary of what we aspire to be: centered, whole people in this time that’s both really exciting and terrible. I don’t want to shy away from being a spiritually conscious person.”
Hall, who’s always been fascinated with filmmaking from the industry connections he built in his career, also takes a hands-on approach to producing music videos for TENTS.
“I sort of developed a crush on that aspect of the work later in my career,” Hall said. “After I got sick, it became sort of a new way to reinvigorate myself as an artist.”
The new music video for “Hutah!”, for example, was shot by him, with a handheld 360-degree camera that captured the performances of dozens of actors at once. Some of it is played in real time while other parts are shown in reverse-motion, giving the whole thing a meticulously organized bustle.
It wasn’t easy to pull off.
Hall said that the video had to be painstakingly stitched together by editors who dedicated hundreds of hours to working it into this finished product.
As with "Hutah!", the band often pulls the curtain back on the songwriting and filmmaking process, inviting fans to engage with vlogs and video diaries that aren’t just for marketing’s sake.
Many of the people who were in the music video, for instance, were at the band’s concert at the Doug Fir Lounge in late August. When the video was premiered at the top of the band’s set, the reaction from the crowd was huge and authentic since they’d shared in the experience.
TENTS invites all the fans to connect with the process of making the albums, evidenced by the “Making of Medicine” series that the band released leading up to the album’s debut.
The videos cover not only the making of videos, but the making of the songs themselves.
Everything about TENTS is an exploration of humanity and connective creativity. Hall says that his band, and all the ancillary things it creates, has allowed him to connect more to his own humanity and the parts of life that he feels are worth exploring.
“I’m intrigued by … being able to have a center and be a centered person, apart from the chaos of our culture,” Hall said. “A lot of my songwriting is trying to find myself and find meaning in the world.”
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