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Portland’s Daughters: Inside Neo Boys’ Record Release Event

on December 17, 2013, 12:00am

neoboys05 Portlands Daughters: Inside Neo Boys Record Release Event

Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Sam Lefebvre takes us along for his road trip to Portland, Oregon for the record release event of influential all-female punk band the Neo Boys, including a conversation with legendary K Records founder and Beat Happening songwriter Calvin Johnson.

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Record release gigs are typically soirees of unabashed self-promotion. Vigorously promoted, guest lists flush with desirable attendees, they’re launching pads built for rockets that may or may not even have an engine capable of flight. That’s why the Neo Boys’ release event felt so strange. The all-female punk quartet’s staggering output between 1978 and 1983 is now compiled on Sooner or Later, but the Neo Boys created a release party to reroute accolades and praise towards artists other than themselves. The compilation, overseen by Calvin Johnson and released through his K Records imprint, confirms the Neo Boys as prophetic forebearers of the Pacific Northwest’s legacy of feminism in independent rock, who set Portland on its trajectory towards becoming the countercultural hub it is today.

The show took place at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, a historic venue with a spring-loaded dance floor and elaborate passageways flanked by red curtains backstage. The Neo Boys selected seven acts, mostly comprised of women, to perform as an array of vendors peddled records and zines throughout the venue. Ticket sales benefitted Portland’s Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls. Young children did funny little dances, and a performer brought out vegan doughnuts from backstage to share with showgoers. Johnson darted around in white rain boots, camera outstretched. Performers were as likely to request photographs with attendees as the other way around.

Five members of the Neo Boys initiated the evening with a group speech. Guitarist Jennifer LoBianco founded the quartet, but Meg Hentges replaced her in 1979. Both guitarists stood alongside vocalist Kim Kincaid, bassist KT Kincaid, and drummer Pat Baum. Johnson saw the Neo Boys perform once at an art gallery in Seattle (they passed through his native Olympia in 1981, but he wasn’t old enough to attend), and he described their live presence in the ’80s as “austere.” Archival footage projected on a screen before their speech confirms the characterization, if austerity is a bundle of precision, focus, and chilling stares. Three decades later, the five women on stage defied a single descriptor, but their group speech was sharply pointed. They commended Portland’s small but intensely productive early punk scene for flourishing despite the region’s stiflingly conservative atmosphere at the time, but the speech reinforced another chief issue: “All of us contributed to what would become one of punk’s most valuable legacies—the deterioration of gender roles within rock ‘n roll.” The statement earned a massive applause.

The women returned to the stage to introduce performers, including Grass Widow co-conspirator Hannah Lew’s new act, Cold Beat. Lew covered the Neo Boys’ “Time Keeps Time” on Grass Widow’s Milo Minute EP in 2011, making it one of the group’s better known songs in recent years. In the track, Hentges’s guitar work extracts maximum effect from minimal notes. Her muted riffs feel percussive, but her serpentine leads squiggle between Kim Kincaid’s lofty vocals. The Young Marble Giants’ understatement comes to mind, especially Stuart Moxham’s guitar playing, but the Neo Boys always reconcile tension with ferocity or melodic resolution.

Lew testifies to the Neo Boys’ transformative power on Sooner or Later’s press release, saying, “They created a world I have taken refuge in during times when I felt the effects of narrow attitudes about gender and women’s voices in music.” Speaking candidly in the crowd that night, she recalled buying an original pressing of the Neo Boys’ first 7” EP from 1980, then having it break in the tour van. Her then boyfriend found her another, plus the follow-up 12” EP Crumbling Myths from 1982. “That’s love,” she said, with a smirk. “That’s why I married him.” Before Sooner or Later, those two EPs, plus live tracks on the compilation 10-29-79, constituted the Neo Boys’ entire discography. K Records’ new collection boosts the Neo Boys’ officially released material to 44 tracks.

sooner 260x260 Portlands Daughters: Inside Neo Boys Record Release EventThe day before, the band met fans at the record store Music Millennium and then converged inside Kim Kincaid’s present-day Southeast Portland home to interview. As the band dissolved in 1983 and the women moved apart, they remember accepting that their music was lost to history. When Riot grrrl exploded punk and feminism into the international consciousness in the ’90s, the Neo Boys weren’t looked at as predecessors like one might expect. It’s taken longer, but Sooner or Later’s release event felt like the afterglow following a political party’s sweeping election success. The Neo Boys weren’t asking for credit they felt due, but celebrating the entire region’s fundamental change, a social shift that Portland’s first-wave punk scene set in motion. Venturing into greater Portland today, it’s clear why the eccentrics and artists of the Neo Boys camp now feel victorious.

The city is a magnified petri dish of subcultural activity. There’s gothic yoga at an H.P. Lovecraft-themed bar on Sundays while crust punk aerobics takes place at a combination record store and venue called Blackwater across town (a space seemingly modeled after some long-standing punk squat in Europe). Musicians start plotting Halloween cover sets in February. There’s even a vegan strip club. Whether your preferred niche affiliation is closest to punk, new age spiritualist, modern primitive, or Marxist barista, there’s a scene tailored to your interests. Homelessness, poverty, and the steamroller of gentrification are severe issues, not to be trivialized whatsoever, but Portland is in many ways the reverse image of the city where four teenage girls formed the pre-Neo Boys group Formica and The Bitches in 1977. According to Jennifer LoBianco, their first original tune went, “I don’t like you! Fuck you all!”

Formica’s invective was directed at the region’s “rednecks,” as Johnson, KT Kincaid, and Jello Biafra characterized the city’s majority. Reflecting on the region’s pervasive social conservatism at the time, the Neo Boys are still moved by the memories of widespread prejudice against artists. They were denied service at restaurants for donning thrift store outfits and pancake makeup. Incurring persecution from not only adults, even peers in school treated the young artists with fear and disdain. KT Kincaid remembers hiding in the dark room of her photography class every day. When a teacher implored her to hang pictures in the hall, other students defaced them. As Calvin Johnson said wryly of the time, “Reagan did well there.” He went on, “There was a lot of urban decay, which may have been bad for business, but it was great for a burgeoning punk scene.”

Gus Van Zant’s first film, Mala Noche, was shot in such decrepit Portland neighborhoods in 1985. It chronicles the affection of a gay liquor store clerk, Walt (Tim Streeter), for two young illegal immigrants, complicated by language, class, and power dynamics. Police officers shoot down a fearful young man in one scene. In another, a shirtless Walt scribbles on a desk in his dingy studio while a cockroach scampers in front of him. It’s shot erratically, cutting between Walt writing or lunging for the toilet. During the feverish scene, the Neo Boys’ “Never Comes Down” fades in and out.

Formica and the Bitches was a short-lived predecessor of the Neo Boys formed by Kiska Von Schiller (Formica,) Jennifer LoBianco, Kim Kincaid, and KT Kincaid in 1977. Even this early incarnation of the group reflected the desire to subvert expectations of female musicians. As KT explains in the Neo Boys fanzine Town Phenomena, produced by editors Anne Grgich and Rob Collison to sell at the release event, “One night we were at Mildred’s Place, a queer underage disco and the only place that would play punk records at the time.” She continued, “There was a friend of ours who had a crush on Kiska. I don’t remember what she said or did to make him angry, but he said to her, ‘You’re as cold as formica, you’re a formica bitch!’”

Armed with a band name that extracted power from a man’s put-down, Formica and the Bitches became Portland’s first all-female punk group, but disbanded when Schiller moved in 1978. Then, the remaining members sourced the title of a Patti Smith poem, recruited drummer Pat Baum, and founded the Neo Boys later that year. With Baum on drums, Kim Kincaid clutched the mic, KT Kincaid picked up the bass, and guitarist Jennifer LoBianco completed the lineup. They opened for Television on its first headlining tour in 1978 and improvised to fill the required set length by expanding the song “Sooner or Later” to 15 minutes. As KT Kincaid recalls, “We learned how to play onstage. Everyone did.”

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DIY is a hollow term nowadays, reduced to a snappy catchphrase by professional publicists to highlight in emails. In the ’90s, it asserted autonomy from the music industry’s immersive structuring and aggressive management. For the Neo Boys and their peers working in music, film, and visual arts, doing things themselves was a practical necessity. Wipers leader Greg Sage helped record the Neo Boys’ first single in the Kincaid sisters’ living room and released it on his own Trap imprint. Sometimes they rehearsed in the backroom of the record store Renaissance, where Baum worked alongside a young Joe Carducci. The writer and SST Records honcho then hosted Portland’s first punk show on the radio station KBOO. On impromptu performances at art space Clockwork Joes, Hentges recalls, “We would roll our equipment out of the rehearsal rooms to play, and everyone would come out of their rooms to watch.”

The 10-29-79 compilation speaks to the necessary self-reliance of Portland’s nascent punk scene. Nine bands rented recording equipment, cajoled a venue into renting its space, and pooled door earnings to fund the LP’s production. It marks the first vinyl appearance of most groups, including the Wipers and Neo Boys. The participants’ involvement is stamped on every step of the process. It’s titled hopefully, like an audacious but ultimately accurate prediction that future archivists will look back on it as a telling document of Portland’s fiercely self-reliant ethos.

From a couch in the belly of the Crystal Ballroom, Calvin Johnson first stated that Sooner or Later was a decade-long archival project. As he went on, it became clear that releasing the Neo Boys’ music was closer to a lifelong desire. He first heard of the group in the late ’70s, when his peers in Olympia began returning from shows in Portland with Neo Boys badges. On his sole opportunity to see the band in Seattle, Johnson said, “You could hear Kim’s voice floating above everything. Her lyrics were very evocative, they told stories and presented pictures.”

In the early ’80s, he included Neo Boys tracks on cassette compilations that appeared as issues of the Sub Pop fanzine. When Crumbling Myths appeared in 1982, Johnson was surprised that it only included seven songs. “We knew there was lots of recording going on. So, we were waiting around for this album to come out, but then it was just an EP.” Then, the band broke up. As Johnson remembered of Crumbling Mythsreception, “It was immediately obscure. It felt like it disappeared, and at the time, I thought, but this is the Neo Boys record! It wasn’t fair that it wasn’t heard or known.”

Johnson never forgot the Neo Boys album that could’ve been. Baum helmed a cassette distribution company throughout the ’80s and remained an integral part of the Portland arts community (she’s credited with “sound” in Mala Noche) and became Johnson’s immediate contact regarding Neo Boys material. When she told him that local imprint Tim/Kerr Records was set to reissue the band’s work, Johnson was relieved. As he said, “I thought, great, I just want this music to be available again,” but the arrangement fell through and Johnson persisted. When the band agreed to work with him and K Records, a new obstacle arose: the master tapes.

According to one source, Tim/Kerr lost the original tapes in an auctioned storage unit, but Johnson remembered a box labeled “Neo Boys Crumbling Myths masterin the warehouse of local archivist and Crumbling Myths engineer Tom Robinson. The box boasted more track names than the EP, and Robinson explained that when the band first received the Crumbling Myths acetate, each member insisted on removing what they thought were subpar tracks. The album was quickly cut down to an EP. With Robinson’s original tapes intact and an archive of recordings that Baum found in her parents’ basement, the source material for Sooner or Later was complete. Johnson and the Neo Boys collaborated to cull 44 tracks from over 100, assemble them chronologically, and package the compilation with visual artist and musician Randy Moe’s illustration on the cover. Sooner or Later is a fitting title, and the fact that it’s named for a still unreleased song that didn’t make the cut emphasizes that there’s even more, that the Neo Boys history is ongoing.

The Music Millennium meet and greet was billed as a “signing,” but in an email, KT denounced the unequal footing between attendees and artists entailed by the title (“[It’s] not an ‘Autograph Session’—yuck,” she wrote). Over 30 years after the long-standing record store stocked the Neo Boys’ debut EP, the five women engaged young fans about their own bands and swapped contact information. As they raffled off merchandise (Full disclosure: I won a tote bag), the live track “Put a Penny In” from Sooner or Later rang out. In the song, a teenage Kim Kincaid flatly fantasizes about a machine to dispense artists’ needs for cheap. That day, she gave them away for free.

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Sam Lefebvre is a freelance writer for Aux.Out. based in Oakland. He has also written for SF Weekly, Spin, East Bay Express, Impose and contributed liner notes to several reissues. He sporadically publishes a fanzine called Degenerate and currently works for San Francisco archival imprint Superior Viaduct. He is on Twitter.

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Neo Boys’ Sooner or Later is available here