As co-founder of Holocene, Scott McLean has played a big part in the thriving music and arts scene in Portland for the past couple decades. The man obviously has good business sense, and an appreciation for music, but he's also been writing songs of his own on the side. It’s not just a hobby. He’s even given this passion project a name, Contra Party, and has a debut album called Over Your Shoulder set for release this Friday, January 17.
While it may seem like he’s a little late to the game, McLean’s been writing and playing music since he was in high school. “I was never really proud of my songwriting,” he admits, but still kept at it through the years. He soon became overwhelmed with the massive effort of getting Holocene off the ground and had to put his own musical interests on the back burner. It took going through a dark period in his life to find the inspiration for writing songs again.
“The Contra Party stuff really picked up steam around the 2016 election,” McLean says, which also happened to coincide with the passing of his beloved dog. “I was spending a lot of time cozied up with the dog at home, and was so emotional about that, and the election results, I found myself bursting with ideas.” This might explain why the album's first track, “Hands Down,” opens with the lyrics, “Are we safe here?”
Working on Contra Party has helped McLean explore a balance he's been struggling to achieve his entire adult life. “I’ve always had what has seemed like one foot in making art and one foot in the business around art, and have felt insecure about not being fully one or the other,” he says. “Now I embrace the balance, knowing that that balance has given me Contra Party.”
It started out as a solo project, but his pal Luis Galdames, a sound designer for movies and television who’s based in Los Angeles, soon got involved too. “So now it’s more of a band,” McLean says. The two of them have been best friends since playing in bands together in the ’90s. As Contra Party started to take shape, McLean wrote and recorded songs on GarageBand then sent them to Galdames for feedback, who ended up also playing guitar on the album. “He played on the songs ‘Hands Down’ and ‘Final’ and would have played on more songs if we had been in the same city,” McLean says. He then sent the songs to his friend Dan Vidmar of Shy Girls for final mixing.
The result is a labor of love that McLean is quite proud of. While he says the music had no clear intention for its sound, Over Your Shoulder is reminiscent of the moody indie rock sound that made the Pacific Northwest famous.
“I think it’s that familiar trope about winters and holing up to make art,” McLean says. The album employs plenty of bass and distortion, along with McLean’s melancholic voice and lyrics that ease right through you. “Sonically we wanted some songs to really have a bite to them,” he says, but they’re also clearly unafraid of being melodic.
McLean’s adamant that Over Your Shoulder is only the beginning for Contra Party. With the debut album not even officially released yet, he’s already anxious to get more of their music out into the world.
“Moving forward, Luis will be more involved with writing and recording; in fact, he’s coming up to Portland this spring to work on the next album,” McLean says. They’d even like to play some live shows. Any guesses where they might play first?
While there’s no end in sight for his involvement with Holocene, McLean admits that he could see himself one day moving to a cabin in the woods and just making music all the time. It’s election year again, after all, so who knows what new inspiration might lay ahead.