Ask Dave Depper how many bands he has played in since he moved to Portland nine years ago, and he answers quickly and simply, with a hint of a chuckle in his voice:
“Oh, a million.”
It's an exaggeration, of course, but perhaps less of one than you'd think. Indeed, the 31-year-old multi-instrumentalist — who spent his high school years in Bend, graduating from Mountain View in 1998 — has long been one of the busiest players in the Rose City's bustling music scene.
Depper's résumé is so extensive, in fact, that alt-weekly paper the Portland Mercury turned it into a gag last May, publishing “The Dave Depper Band Map,” featuring 30 band names ringed around his mustachioed, bespectacled face.
Depper's past gigs include The Village Green, Blanket Music, Norfolk & Western, Blue Giant and Musee Mecanique, plus stints playing with Jolie Holland and Mirah. He spent five years in the chamber-folk band Loch Lomond (headed by Bend native Ritchie Young) before leaving that band last year to join the internationally touring indie-pop group the Fruit Bats. (Depper has since “sort of rejoined” Loch Lomond, he said.)
Which is all well and good; the constant stream of jobs (and related income) allowed Depper to quit his job as a computer programmer and become a full-time professional musician in 2010.
But none quite scratched his itch to make his own music.
“I needed to do something for myself,” he said.
Depper grew up “all around the country” before his family landed in Bend two weeks before he began high school. A career opportunity brought his father, Joel, an allergist, and mother, Linda, to Central Oregon in August 1994.
At Mountain View, Depper participated in choir and played guitar for school productions. And by the end of high school, he had started a few garage bands: Hallucinogenic Slug, Balloon Therapy and Spencer's Field, which opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Deschutes County fairgrounds, he said.
After graduation, Depper headed to the University of Oregon, where he spent two years in the music program before becoming annoyed with the “pretentious, self-obsessed, capital-A artists” he felt were looking down their noses at him because he was a rock 'n' roll guitarist. So he switched his major to computer and information science and stuck his guitar in the closet.
“I sort of totally gave up on being a musician,” Depper said. “I was so soured on the whole music program experience that I stopped actually playing guitar or anything for, like, two or three years.
“I got a job that was very corporate, and I wore a collared shirt and went to an office and stuff,” he said. “But the musical bug kind of started gnawing at me.”
In the middle of 2003, Depper decided he wanted to make a record at home, so he bought a keyboard off Craigslist from a stranger who turned out to be Chad Crouch, the well-connected head of the Portland-based indie label Hush Records. The two hit it off, and Crouch asked him to try out for his band Blanket Music, which Depper did using a bass he purchased on the way to the audition. He passed.
Blanket Music led Depper to one of Portland's best-known studios, Type Foundry, and its owner Adam Selzer, who liked Depper's work on the bass so much he also asked him to join his band, Norfolk & Western. By the end of 2003, Depper was fully immersed in Portland's fertile music scene.
Fast-forward to early 2010, and Depper was an in-demand sideman who'd played in “a million” (or so) bands and toured all over the world.
“I was feeling really good about what I'd achieved musically and in terms of my ... career, but I kind of had this nagging feeling that I hadn't done anything of my own at all, and that had always been my goal,” Depper said. “That's the reason I bought that keyboard from Chad Crouch back in the day.
“I wanted to make a record,” he said, “and I still hadn't.”
One problem, and it was a big one: He didn't have any songs at the time and had no idea how to make a record in his home, without the help of a producer and a studio.
His solution: Record a note-for-note remake of someone else's entire album. Play all the instruments himself. Learn the ins and outs of home-recording via trial and error.
For source material, he settled on “Ram,” Paul McCartney's second post-Beatles album, released in 1971. It's a record with a shaggy, spontaneous feel, credited to both Paul and his wife, Linda, and relatively obscure, at least to the extent that a release from the Beatles family tree can be obscure.
“I had been on this McCartney kick and had become sort of an evangelist for his solo career,” Depper said. “I just felt like it was totally unfair that people thought he was just the cheesy one and he hadn't done anything of any value and people were always judging him by (the Wings hit) ‘Silly Love Songs.' And I knew he'd made these really cool records that were just totally weird and great, and ‘Ram' was always my favorite of those.”
Plus, Depper wanted to challenge himself, to maximize the learning experience of recreating “Ram” on his own.
“It also seemed like the most difficult, insane album to try and cover ever,” he said, “and that was appealing to me.”
At the beginning of April 2010, Depper holed up in his home and began working 10 to 12 hours a day on the project. He loved playing the bass lines, and hated recording the drums. He brought in Joan Hiller to sing Linda McCartney's parts. On the side, he was still playing gigs in Portland with Blue Giant.
“It was nuts,” he said. “I started looking crazy by the end of it. Not shaving. Not showering. ‘Gotta finish this.' ”
As he completed songs, he posted them on a blog. After he posted two, Portland-based indie label Jackpot Records called out of the blue and offered to release the album once it was finished.
“I was like, ‘What?!' ” Depper said. “I hadn't planned on anyone hearing it, really. I told them, ‘You might want to wait until it's done to see if it's any good.' ”
Reactions to ‘Ram'
Jackpot's instincts were correct. By the end of April, Depper emerged from his home with an extremely likable copy of “Ram” that captures the rollicking, ramshackle spirit of the original. He had it mixed by Beau Raymond — improving the sound immensely, he said — and called it “The Ram Project.”
When the head of the European record label City Slang heard it, he offered to release it overseas, too. That has made for an interesting dynamic in terms of critical response, Depper said.
“There have been many more negative reviews (in Europe) than here,” he said. “But I should say, I'm sort of impervious to bad reviews on this. For one, they're not my songs. And also I never planned on it coming out, so I'm just more interested in hearing what people think than anything else.
“The most common thing I've read about it is like, ‘OK, so this dude covered a Paul McCartney album, except he can't sing as well as Paul McCartney or play as well, but good job, dude,' ” Depper said with a laugh. “Which I don't disagree with at all.”
Negative opinions aside, Depper said he's “really proud” of “The Ram Project,” not only for the way it sounds, but for the accomplishment it represents.
“I don't think it's a masterpiece or anything, but I'm proud that I set out to do what at the time seemed like an insane thing, and I did it,” he said. “I feel like somebody that decided to scale Mount Everest and trained and did it. Maybe I didn't make it to the top, but I achieved what I set out to do.”
The process of covering “Ram” also, it seems, opened the floodgates on Depper's own work, which tends to fall somewhere near the nexus of acoustic pop and trippy electronics.
Currently, he's planning to record four solo albums of original material in 2012 (between gigs with the Fruit Bats and Loch Lomond), and is about halfway done with the first one, he said.
Depper's educational “Ram” experience, he said, paved the way for the new stuff.
“For my own (songs), I hear things in my head that I don't know how to make, so it was amazing for me to hear the guitar tone (on ‘Ram') and be like, ‘OK, I'm going to figure out how to make the guitar sound like that,' ” he said. “It was immensely valuable to me in terms of being able to translate what I want into what I get.”
As for his relationship with McCartney's original?
“It's a great record,” he said, “although I have to say I don't listen to it that much anymore.”