IN THE EARLY 1990s, a Portland quartet called Heatmiser quietly produced three albums in four years—all of which were virtually ignored in the hype-filled era of angst and noise. Two of the Northwest's most promising young singer-songwriters, Elliott Smith and Neil Gust, fronted the band, their yin-and-yang relationship yielding pop-perfect melodies that alternated Smith's fragile delivery and Gust's more aggressive vocals.
Strike apose, there's nothing to it: Neil Gust (center) and Paul Pulvirenti of No. 2.
Breakroom, Saturday, November 13
Despite such a rare dynamic, the members dispersed after releasing the well-received Mic City Sons in 1996. Smith began a rapid climb as a solo artist. Bassist Sam Coomes concentrated on his established two-piece band Quasi. Drummer Tony Lash accepted high-profile production jobs for acts such as the Dandy Warhols, while briefly anchoring the nascent Portland band Sunset Valley. All Gust had left was his guitar.
"I was sort of stranded," he says. "There was no label, no infrastructure to keep playing. I even lost my practice space—everything was gone."
He took a job stringing Christmas lights. "It was pretty miserable," he says. A year later, however, he landed a more challenging job with the respected Portland graphic design and ad firm Johnson & Woolverton. The company provided him the freedom to pursue music anew. "My employers are very enlightened," Gust says. "They're really supportive of creative people."
Adopting the name No. 2 because this would be his second-ever band, Gust enlisted drummer Paul Pulvirenti (of defunct bands Atomic 61 and Jr. High) to record a few songs and later recruited bassist Gilly Ann Hanner. (Hanner left during the summer to work on her new project Braille Stars and has been replaced by Jim Talstra of the Maroons for No. 2's current tour.)
With the lineup in place, Gust created a new repertoire of songs to distinguish himself from his past with Heatmiser. Despite his former band's affiliations with well-funded indie labels Frontier and Caroline, he decided to record first and worry about benefactors later.
"I really wanted to make a record," he says. "So we went ahead and worked on it without a label."
His old bandmates all signed on to help. Smith mixed most of the songs and sang backup on two tracks. Coomes played bass and also sang backing vocals. Lash mastered the album and played electric piano on one song. "They are old friends," Gust explains.
Upon the completion of the album, titled No Memory, Olympia's Donna Dresch agreed to release it on her Chainsaw label.
Despite the involvement of his ex-Heatmiser mates and the inescapable similarities brought about by his singing and sensibilities, Gust says he made a conscious effort to create his own sound. "I'm trying to get better, trying to change it up, trying to stand on the shoulders of the last thing I did so it is a process of moving forward," he explains.
Another old friend, Larry Crane, who oversaw the recording process in his Jackpot! Studio in Portland, suggests that Gust was looking to evoke the groove-oriented sound of old T. Rex records—evident in the heavy bass line that propels No Memory's "Never Felt Better" and in the spooky organ and jangling plucked guitar notes on "Just Answer the Man."
Meanwhile, the lyrics linger on dark, repetitive themes. "In general, the songs are about confusion and lack of resolution and trying to figure things out as you go," he says. "A lot of the songs are about being really lonely and isolated, and understanding that isolation is probably a self-induced thing."
In "Nobody's Satisfied," he sings, "Last call and I've a long walk home/but nobody wants to tag along/You try to divide yourself in two/but nobody's satisfied with either one of you."
"I guess I get drawn to conflicting things," admits Gust. "Maybe the next record should be straight-out joyful. I wouldn't want to get too boring."