When a 24-year-old guy decides to take a two-month trip around Oregon in the summer of 2013 to play the same song in 185 different state parks and film each performance, what’s the first thing you’d think he’d take with him?
A smartphone would be a good guess. But it’d be wrong.
“I had a map booklet. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, so I didn’t have any kind of GPS,” said Slater Smith, frontman of The Weather Machine, a Portland indie-folk-rock band that will play The Belfry in Sisters tonight (see “If you go”).
“I just had a map to work with, which was kinda fun and kinda frustrating because it meant I got to get lost a lot,” he said. “Which is part of the adventure, but also some days you wish that it wasn’t part of the adventure.”
Smith’s epic trek — which lasted from late June into September — can be seen in short, fast-moving chunks in the new video for “Back O’er Oregon,” a beautiful, slow-burning song from The Weather Machine’s 2013 self-titled debut album.
Smith wrote the song as a student at Willamette University in Salem, while contemplating a move to the East Coast. Ultimately, he decided to stay in his home state.
The song “is a reflection on this place that I’ve lived my whole life,” he said. “I also just wanted to write a song about Oregon because I felt like it needed one.”
Rather than write about pine trees and rivers, like so many Oregon-song writers before him, he decided to write about his experience.
“I just made it a song about reflecting on home,” he said, “and instead of using the word home, I used the word Oregon.”
While recording “The Weather Machine” a year or so ago at band member Colin Robson’s Kiwanda Sound Recordings studio in Pacific City, Smith got the idea to make a video for “Back O’er Oregon” that showed him playing the tune in all of Oregon’s incorporated cities. A quest for funding led him away from that idea and to the state park system, which he figured would provide a cinematic backdrop for the video.
“I borrowed my mom’s Honda Element and I traded her for my ‘87 Bronco because it would just break down all the time,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of time to plan. I just gathered up whatever camping gear I could find or borrow. I didn’t even look at it, I just threw it in the car and just got on the road and filmed this thing.”
The video is five and a half minutes long. In it, you see images of Smith flash by, surrounded by rivers and lakes, mountains and canyons and more. Sometimes he’s wearing a T-shirt, other times a coat.
There’s sunshine and sunsets; at 2:14, you get a nice view down Greenwood Avenue in Bend from the top of Pilot Butte, as ominous clouds roll in above. Most of the time, it’s Smith solo on a folding chair, but each of his band mates appear in the clip at least once. Strangers dance through here and there, as well.
The video debuted on Soul Pancake, a popular website founded by “The Office” star Rainn Wilson. To date, it has more than 54,000 views on YouTube.
“Oregon’s got a big backyard, and I’ve never really ventured around it much,” Smith said. “It was amazing. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have this whole context for this place that I grew up in that I didn’t have before.”
The Weather Machine’s album, released last April, is a wonderful listen.
It takes Smith’s singer-songwriter style — something he honed as a student in Sisters High School’s Americana Project program — and filters it through the full band, which brings out his love of ‘00s alt-rock: White Stripes, The Killers, Modest Mouse, etc.
The result is a collection of songs that are sharp and introspective, but never lacking for momentum. They compare favorably to one of Smith’s biggest influences, the Idaho songwriter Josh Ritter.
“The idea for me was to take those two things and smash ‘em together, the sort of alt-rock aesthetic and this lyrical singer-songwriter thing,” Smith said last week after returning from Pacific City, where he was working on The Weather Machine’s next release.
“It’s hard to figure out what we’re gonna sound like a couple albums from now because we’re always trying to figure out what new noises we can make.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0377, firstname.lastname@example.org