A little more than two and a half years ago, Spokane, Wash.-based boyfriend and girlfriend Kent Ueland and Sarah Berentson went busking in Portland “for food money and stuff like that,” as Ueland puts it.
Playing the Portland streets went “really well,” he said. “We made 70 to 80 bucks a night, and we decided, ‘Hey, we should keep doing this.' We got our friends in on it, and the rest is history.”
They began jamming with their house mates, fellow students (and graduates and dropouts) at Whitworth University in Spokane. Before long, this assemblage consolidated into Terrible Buttons, whose sound is sometimes described as folk. However, this is nobody's Joan Baez, as another label affixed to the band, “horror folk,” clearly indicates.
In fact, the name Terrible Buttons hints at the darker tendencies.
Explained Ueland: “It's from a short story I read. It's immigrant literature about a Japanese factory worker who sews buttons on clothes from dawn till dusk, so she never really sees America in the daylight. As she's walking to and from work, she sees these people walking in the dark, and she just sees them as these terrible buttons ... because that's all she knows of America: buttons and darkness.”
That's kind of heavy.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he agreed.
Over the past couple of years, Terrible Buttons has played mostly regionally, venturing farther afield — as far as Colorado — over the course of four two-week tours. On Sunday, the band will play a New Year's Day show at The Horned Hand in Bend (see “If you go”). Ueland described the Buttons' live show as “raucous.”
“For a fairly new band, we've slowly become heavier, and that's kind of seen in the live show. It's really high-energy and we're all just really happy to be there. We hope that that comes across,” he said.
Terrible Buttons now tops out at seven members, although Ueland said there may soon be an eighth member joining the ranks. The band has made two EPs, “Brute Neighbors” (2010) and this year's “Plates of Ether” (check out www .reverbnation.com/terriblebuttons to hear samples).
Influences including David Bazan (of Pedro the Lion), Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Fleet Foxes can be heard, but there's one that springs to mind even faster: Tom Waits.
Ueland himself mentioned Waits first when asked about his songwriting influences.
“He's a genius,” he said of Waits. “He's a big one.”
The song “Smoke Around the Lamps,” with its disquieting, fun-house-from-hell atmosphere could be a lost Waits track: “Stumbling through the haze/ I come upon an empty grave/ And it meets my empty gaze.” Creepy, and it gets even more haunting when Berentson jumps in with her backup wail.
Speaking of hell, Ueland and Berentson duet on “Teams,” a Crooked Fingers-esque ballad whose protagonists seem on the verge of death. Ueland sings that he hopes his partner is right: “I'll take that fiery lake/ If you get the pearly gates/ And we'll both get just what we deserve.”
However, new songs from the band's forthcoming full-length recording, slated for release sometime next year, are the ones that seem to be going over best live, Ueland said. He credits the band's tightness and improved songwriting, forged by many hours playing together.
“All the new tracks that aren't on any of the records, I'm really excited about,” he said. “They seem to get a better response from the crowd than any of our old stuff. So I'm excited to share (them).”