Modern Country Music with a Twist!
Portland master musician Thomas Dietzel has two new releases coming out simultaneously, one under his own name and one under the moniker of Sutherlin. The former, the short album Quadrants, is an existentially frenetic collection of keyboard-driven rock songs that chronicle love and despair in the big city, while the self-titled Sutherlin debut is a uniquely Pacific Northwest take on modern country music, produced by Chet Lyster (The Eels, Lucinda Williams, The Jayhawks).
Thomas was born in 1974 to a secular middle class liberal family near Buffalo, NY. He moved from New York City to Portland in 1998, joining his friend from college, Stephen Weis, who had made the cross-country trek a few months earlier. “The plan was for us to play music together, which we went on to do for years as the acoustic duo Shed Incorporated.” Thomas says. “Mostly the hippies liked us, which I found embarrassing, because I wanted the cool indie girls to like us.”
He found his parents’ hoary 1976 copy of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll early on in his youth. “I treated it like the Bible.” Starting in 7th grade, he dutifully went to record stores and bought the albums listed in the discographies at the end of each chapter. Around this time he started taking guitar lessons. His cousin Robby, who plays bass in the Goo Goo Dolls, “knew about barre chords and showed me how to play Rolling Stones songs on the guitar correctly. He also gave me an album called Let It Be by The Replacements, which I didn’t get for years.” Mostly he palled around with metalheads, and toward the end of high school he became friends with some skater kids who listened to the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys, but he still stubbornly championed the canon depicted in The Book. Add to that the waxing influence of LSD, “which I knew all classic rock musicians used constantly, and was also described in The Anarchist Cookbook, which my father owned.”
When the Portland duo Shed Incorporated collapsed in 2008 for the first time he founded the punk band Last Prick Standing. “We put out four albums, including the final double album Fairway to Hades, which I had to finish myself because everyone else quit.” All of his bands so far have been cult bands with small but very devoted fan bases. “No chart action, that’s for sure! My college band, Kindergarten, was in Maximum Rock and Roll and played CMJ and IMF in New York. Shed Incorporated played the last year of NxNW here in Portland. That’s all I can remember.”
Thomas Dietzel, Quadrants
Thomas played all the instruments on the first Last Prick Standing record, Zebra. For the new release Quadrants, however he reversed the beat and didn’t play any instruments at all, leaving it to a quartet of carefully chosen studio musicians to capture the eloquence and dynamic energy of his semi-autobiographical songs. This came about because longtime friend and advocate Nick Peets suggested recording some of his songs with professional musicians in a great studio, “and the result was Amsterdam. He worked on the songs with me, organized the musicians, booked the studio, and even sang backup.” This lineup itself, which would reappear on the Sutherlin record, consists of a gang of Portland indie-demigods that soundmaven Peets put together to help Thomas construct his songs and sound: bass player Arthur Parker (Love Gigantic, Nowhere Band), Anders Bergstrom on drums (Climber, Little Beirut), guitarist Chet Lyster (Jayhawks, The Eels, Lucinda Williams), and keyboardist Michael Nelson (Climber). “They’re folks from the Portland scene that Nick’s known for a long time,” Thomas says. “Nick’s my benefactor,” Thomas says. “He’s paying for everything until we get rich.” Judging from the talent captured on Quadrants (recorded at Portland’s Destination: Universe! Studios under the aegis of Point Juncture, WA’s Victor Nash), it looks like that investment is paying off.
“The songs on Quadrants were songs I had been working on for some future incarnation of Last Prick Standing that never materialized,” Thomas explains. “They’re all about the demise of an intense friendship. What also unites them is their sense of hopelessness and despair. There is no happy ending in any of these songs. That person I’m singing about is never coming back. So they are extremely bleak, even when they sound upbeat, like the song ‘Amsterdam.’ And there’s also the idea of two cities being superimposed on one another, somehow, feeling like you’re living in Portland and New York at the same time because your present loss and loneliness in Portland recalls earlier, similar experiences in New York. Or something like that.” In short, Quadrants is a stand-alone concept album, like a musical diary, intended for intimate consumption and without shows planned around it (yet).
Thomas admits that as a kid “I didn’t really like country music because it was uncool. My mother listened to it constantly but my intellectual father scorned it as ‘prole-feed.’ She liked Eddie Rabbitt, Mickey Gilley, that kind of shit, and I heard it constantly on the radio until I went back to my hometown of Buffalo to go to college in 1991. I didn’t start listening to radio country again until 2015, and let me tell you: things changed a lot during that time.”
Sutherlin has its origins in 2015, when Thomas was revisiting some classic country records by Gram Parsons, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, all of whom are well-respected in hip Portland. “And then one day I happened to turn on the radio and turn the dial to the local modern country station, 98.7 The Bull FM, because I was curious about what country music sounded like. I was completely mesmerized. What the hell was this strange, slick, overproduced music with its enormous hooks? Why was every song about taking a girl to the riverbank? When did country music artists get so into Tom Petty, rap music, hair metal, and 90’s rock? Who were these strange singers whose voices had been polished and auto-tuned within an inch of their lives? I started to learn about Joe Nichols, Florida Georgia Line, Little Big Town, Chris Janson (currently blocking me on Twitter), and Chris Young.”
Thomas found all this to be very freeing. Writing country songs seemed to be much more like writing sonnets while rock music was “like being expected to write free verse all the time. Advance or die! But country music was fun. These guys were part of a tradition. Rock musicians weren’t part of anything, not anymore. I wanted to be included, to be part of something.” He started playing modern country covers with his then-girlfriend in the Portland acoustic duo Redneck Baby.
In September of 2016, however, he got dumped. “We [Redneck Baby] kept playing shows, but Nick Peets was encouraging me to write a whole pop country record, which eventually became Sutherlin, and I started to focus my attention on that project. With my broken heart and heightened pop sensibilities, how could we fail?” (Note for the curious: the songs “Falling Down” and “Jesus and Jack” from the Sutherlin record are are all about that romantic breakup and its aftermath.)
Thomas was working at a Portland pizza restaurant at the time, having recently quit his sales job for an environmental consulting company, and the lyrics for the album were mostly written while he was driving around delivering pizzas or working at the restaurant. “I was extremely high on weed coconut butter during this period, as I had obtained an enormous quantity of it in a manner I can relate some other time. So I would drive around and sort of visualize the songs and work on the lyrics that way. Endlessly. Or for four months, anyway.”
On the self-titled debut Sutherlin, featuring ten original modern country anthems, Thomas collaborated with pedal steel player Paul Brainard (of The Sadies, Richmond Fontaine, Alejandro Escovedo) in addition to the same quartet he had used on Quadrants. This time, guitarist Chet Lyster took over production duties as well, and he’s the one largely responsible for the album’s radio-ready pop sheen.
A lot of these songs, Thomas claims, are playing with the lyrical conceits of “bro-country music” specifically and country music generally, both as homage and parody. “I guess they’re kind of like little Quentin Tarantino films, or Don Quixote. I mean, I really love modern country music, but that doesn’t mean it’s not kind of ridiculous.” He pauses. “Especially in Portland.”
“Saturday AM”: “Not biographical, about trying to woo someone who has a different schedule than you”
“The Girl That Got Away”: “Not biographical — just because you see someone with a really attractive lover, don’t assume that they wouldn’t really prefer someone else.”
“Sick Day”: “Not biographical either – sometimes your partner just looks too good to go to work, really.”
“Broken Hearts Are For Mending”: “I wrote this for a woman I met online. She was having a hard time. We never met in person but this is the least cynical song I have ever written.”
Thomas plans to play these songs by himself at first, with only his voice and guitar. “The long term goal is to be touring with a band, and ideally harmonizing with female vocals again. I love that sound! Eventually maybe I won’t have to play guitar, even. I’m going to play a thousand shows as Sutherlin, whatever form it takes, and then we’ll re-evaluate to see if what we are doing is working or not.”