Sure, Moda Center has its moments, but you haven’t seen the best of Portland until you’ve seen the underground. What’s primo stays on the down low here in the Pacific Northwest, and an impressive manifestation of this sentiment is Portland’s own Banana Stand. Banana Stand is known for being not simply a venue for shows, but a home for homespun production and video recording to showcase the local music of the area.
What was once an unfinished basement turned itself into body-smackin’ locale and has become a total cornerstone within the city's DIY community since its first show in 2006.
One of the original minds behind Banana Stand’s mission, Aaron Colter, talks about the project's roots while sitting in front of a poster of the most famous banana of all time — a print of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground & Nico album cover from 1969. While his elderly brown kitty meows in the background, Colter turns back the clock to reflect upon the show that started the path toward Banana Stand and what he learned from the journey that followed.
A group of sonic fanatics — Colter and his friends — made the move from Indianapolis to southeast Portland, and their love for music led them to transform their cozy home into a venue for crazy cool bands that passed through their new city, Colter said. The Venue found its name as Banana Stand, and Banana Stand found its place quickly on the local roster of places to play for up and coming artists. Once shows started rolling regularly, a Portland band called Lonesome Radio Heart asked a question that changed the game.
“They saw we had these really janky USB microphones on a laptop, and they didn’t have any recordings at the time,” Colter said. “So they asked if we could put two of the mics in the room to record their set and it would be their album.”
This was when the passions shifted from simply hosting house shows to immortalizing local legends through mixing and mastering their sets. With time grew skill, and with word of mouth came a team full of helping hands, Colter said. The gear got better, the space became more streamlined and, in around 2010, the Banana Stand group joined forces with a camera crew from New Jersey — Banana Stand was now a whole new type of operation, taking advantage of both the visual and audio aspects of translating a live show to a digital medium.
“I know a lot of bands loved playing at Banana Stand — because they were less than five feet away from their friends and their most enthusiastic supporters — but also they were packed into a tiny basement with really bright hot lightsand a camera person right up on their face,” he said. This double edged sword of a gig is what made the whole experience so incendiary.
“It was an extremely stressful situation to try and play but also really fun,” Colter said. “That's my favorite part of live shows, seeing the crowd interact with the audience and the band feeding off the energy.”
The operation now took on a whole new meaning. Banana Stand became a small label, providing audio and video services, while also producing events for the folks who dug and supported the scene. The Portland project has always been a nonprofit, and Colter even jokes that at times it was definitely a money pit. It was never the goal to blow up, he said. The dates, lineup and location of the shows aren’t ever announced; news always travels by word of mouth. This creates a definite respect for the space and regulars were always around to see who's next, he said. The key to pursuing a passion project of this size is to be in tune and inspired by the people on the team, Colter said.
“Because it doesn’t make any money, you have to love the people you work with and really love the artists that you want to record. If everyone contributes in a free way because they love it, it doesn't matter if it makes any money,” he said.
Colter looks back at where he was when the project got rolling. He was only 22 at the time of the first show, flipping his mattress up the wall in favor of creating extra floor space. He finds similarities in Banana Stand’s start to the youth-led heat hanging around Eugene’s house show scene.
“College seems really long because of all the structure, but when you are out of college four or five years really passes so quickly,” Colter said. “Hell — when you look around after ten years, it's like wow, you're one of the best in your field or the most experienced at this just because you kept at it. Don’t push yourself to a breaking point to be the best right now, keep doing it.”
Colter emphasizes that the music in the Pacific Northwest scene is what makes all of this possible for the community to come together in this capacity. Walking around the block with Banana Stand made it evident to Colter that a strong support from locals makes all the difference.
“Artists remember who buys their music, who comes to their shows, who pays to get into their shows and isn’t always asking to be put on the guest list,” Colter said. “Most artists that you meet are putting in so much time and money to make this stuff that isn’t likely to be financially rewarding to them, so it’s really a gift — maybe even art that you don’t love, someone probably put a ton of time into that so be respectful and be kind.”
Possibly the best bit of lowdown the folks at Banana Stand have for the budding creators is to push forward, even if they feel like they're walking blindly.
“We had no idea what we were doing and were still slowly keeping at it,” Colter said. “Just keep at it. Honestly the best artists and creators and sound engineers I know are just people who keep doing it. Play because you love playing; keep recording because you love recording.”