the albany project

behind

by cory frye

PHOTO COURTESY OF TRENT JOHNSON

Many of us heard the sounds ages ago, when their source first blasted them into the wild.

A few, like my friend Josh Bonds, were lucky enough to own them on a burned CD — he had connections — and we’d tool in his car through the streets they covered. We laughed over that name: The Albany Project, like The Alan Parsons Project, like a full firm of zip-code devotees from some shared era of feathered hair, skinny ties, and pocket combs, a one-album wonder we dug as kids.

Every few years, some new stranger

discovers The Albany Project. Chuckles, posts a link online, draws attention to the music. Someone who understands the sentiments behind it yet perhaps isn’t at all acquainted with the Albany it documents nor with Trent Johnson, the 1989 West Albany High School graduate who single-handedly wrote and played every drop.

Johnson, as I recall him*, was a tall, talented, good-looking North Albany kid under perfectly disheveled hair with an extensive record collection and encyclopedic knowledge of myriad genres in a period when such attributes were regarded with suspicion by adolescent cognoscenti. Albany was less about individuality than it was about celebrating the beautifully similar, those who were blessed in other, more general directions: genetics, finances, stature, city-park pugilism, and a propensity to denigrate less-advantaged peers. The Reagan Years’ twilight in acid-washed finery.

My assessment of the teenaged Trent, however, turns out to be wrong.

“I was pretty awkward,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I had some friends, but I was not good at taking the initiative to make friends. I didn’t try hard in classes. I barely graduated. It was a lonely time, except for when I could hang out with friends after school. Actually going to school sucked. I remember just wandering the halls during lunch after I ate: ‘I hope no one notices I’m walking down this hall again.’ Or I’d stand at my locker, pretending I was waiting for a friend to show up. I was not confident in high school.”

He was also part of a much-maligned tribe of Albany youth: creative types, euugh, God fucking forbid. He played saxophone in the school band and pursued other instruments, too. He picked up the guitar and studied Beatles songbooks; he knew their stuff by heart, so he’d follow the printed notations and teach himself to play. But he loved electronics: the work of The Cure; Depeche Mode; and Nine Inch NailsPretty Hate Machine, the 1989 sonic head-like-a-hole that sharpened bottled-up teen rage to a razor’s edge.

 

“I had an early computer back in the day,” he said. “I wrote basic programs. And the idea that you could have an instrument you could program to do exactly what you want, even fix mistakes — that was mind-blowing. It was that early electronic stuff that put me on that path.”

So, during his junior year, he began experimenting with sound. By this time he had a job and disposable income to blow at pawn shops for equipment. He toyed with a massive Casio keyboard, touring its large menu of synthetic rhythms as he worked up chord changes. He put a four-track cassette recorder on layaway and used it to layer vocals. Then he bought a Casio SK-1 synthesizer, a small technological marvel used for sampling. He’d place it against a stereo speaker, capture an isolated drum beat, then tape a key down to repeat it in a rhythmic loop. “I’d add layers and layers to things with the drum loop in the background,” he recalled. “I thought I was breaking new ground, which is silly. But I was isolated in Albany, so I didn’t know.”

Those feelings flood back — the boredom, the restlessness, the kicks and cruelty — on The Albany Project's Livin' in Albany (2009), six tracks now a decade-plus old chronicling a city that hasn’t existed in 30 years. Here, Heritage Mall — opened in 1988, when such structures wielded immense socioeconomic power — is still just an idea, cleared, waiting ground. Celebrities and the Candlelight rule the middle-aged night. El Comedor has many dinner shifts remaining before deep-frying its last chimi changa, and the T&R sign over the interstate lights the way home.

Its teenaged denizens are represented in every group, from the loneliest outcast (“Out of Place,” the collection’s most affecting track — and the one with the longest reach) to the most brazen shitkicker (“Monteith Park (Kick Some Ass),” with its masculine cries of “My system’s louder than yours” and “My secret’s darker than yours,” calling to mind two yahoos arguing over who suffers the more significant shame), their preferred musical styles expertly replicated.

“Ride All Day, Play All Night” follows a metal-driven pulse through the heart of downtown, then flags to comical exhaustion up the slog of Gibson Hill. “At the T&R” opens and closes with studio chatter evoking old Sound Concepts spots for Gary & Merle’s Tires, which themselves were deliberate nods to the popular Bartles & Jaymes commercials of the ’80s, sharing the same spokesperson/silent-partner dynamic.** “Livin’ in Albany” tumbles on an early ‘80s punk sneer through a runneth-over melting pot before announcing, “This place accepts you all.” Which was true. Kindasortabutmaybenotreally.

Every Albany teen with more than workaday ambitions obsesses over eventual escape. Johnson was no different. Within a few years of graduating, he moved to Corvallis and partook of its vibrant music scene, moving from recording for his own amusement to playing bass and keyboards in local bands. There was Pöp Secret, notable for its umlaut and poppy guitars, and the wonderfully monikered Coos Bay City Rollers, a genre-throttling collection of dapper weirdos (“Eyes in the Back of My Head,” “Mystery Van,” “Reform School Blues”).

In this fresh atmosphere he met Jen Neitzel, the woman who became his wife. They married in Eugene in 1995, then relocated to Portland two years later. Their son, Oliver, was born in 1999, shortly before they took up residence in their longtime home, which boasts a personal “studio” space where Johnson recorded with his bands (Echo No Echo being his most prominent) and where The Albany Project oeuvre was born.

Johnson doesn’t dabble in music much these days, opting to spend time with his family and collaborating on various endeavors with his former colleagues at the Weiden + Kennedy advertising firm. (He was laid off in 2019, and he certainly wasn’t alone, as evidenced by the professional company he keeps.) His wife, Jen, enjoys her own collaboration with friend and business partner Anastasia Corya: the Starry Night Inn, an “art hotel” in Seaside, which displays locally produced works in each of its six rooms. So he’s surrounded still by creativity should the muse return.

Yet he was happy to reflect on The Albany Project and bygones with a fellow old-timer, though he admitted he was done setting the town to music. “People used to ask me, ‘When’s the new song?’,” he said. “But I think I’ve written all I need to write about, as far as Albany goes. I think I got it all out.”

Which came first: the idea for a song cycle about Albany, or did you just happen to write songs here and there, then come up with the concept of an Albany Project?

I first got an idea for it around 2004. I had the idea to do a song first. At that time, I was still active in bands and still making music. It was just a way to exercise that muscle without having to worry about how good the song was. I think it came up at a party: “I want to write a song about Heritage Mall.” In my experience, in Albany, that was a place we’d hang out. Usually, nothing would happen. (laughs) Then we’d go to the next thing.

I recorded it pretty quickly. I don’t really play piano, but I wanted to write a song on electric piano. So I came up with some chord progressions and lyrics. I never finished it. Originally, I wanted it to be an epic, 30-minute song; by the time it ended, you’d be bored. Because that’s what it felt like going to the mall sometimes, right? I haven’t listened to it in a while; it’s probably no more than a minute-and-a-half. It just kind-of ends. But it was a good song topic, and Albany was fresh enough in my memory that I had material for it.

Then I came up with the idea of pretending to be an actual band. I never wanted everyone to know it was just me. It was fun to pretend there was an entire band singing about Albany, who knows why.

For me, it was always an exercise. That first song was piano and maybe some fake strings. Then I’d do one that was more of an AC/DC-style rocker or a circus-like Mr. Bungle song. I felt like creating something using Albany as material.

 

When did the other songs come?

I did one a year or every six months. They were all random. I never sat down and thought, “I’m going to write an Albany Project thing.”

The song that ultimately became “At the T&R” was for another of my bands. It never quite jibed with them because it was country, and that wasn’t what we were doing. It was originally called “Me and My Dog.” I changed it to “At the T&R” and it fit. The lyrics were already there.

 

I wanted to sort-of poke fun at Albany, because those weren’t the greatest years of my life. But I also didn’t want to piss anyone off, so I kept it subtle. I didn’t want a bunch of “shithead rednecks” or anything literal. It was more metaphorical. “At the T&R” is simply about a guy down on his luck. His wife left him; his dog left him. Rent’s due at the trailer park. So he goes to the T&R and finds people he can relate to. And I went to the T&R as much as I could, saying, “Do I belong here?” and never quite fitting. So I wrote that from the perspective of someone who does.

How about something like “Out of Place”?

I was working at Nike at the time, so this would have been around 2005-6. There was an email group of IT people like me who were also musicians. We all wrote and recorded songs to varying degrees and of varying abilities. They would throw out challenges, like “Here are five notes in this order. Write a song.” That’s how the chord progression works on that one.

I hadn’t done any electronic stuff in a while. I was learning to use a program called Ableton Live. It was a challenge to use those notes and come up with something. The Cure is my favorite band, so I went for that kind of vibe. And the lyrics are true. You grew up in Albany, so you have an idea. I remember that back then, for two weeks, I tried to do messed-up Robert Smith hair at school, and thinking, “This is not a good idea.” (laughs) I wanted to dress outrageously, but I’d never have the guts to do it. So the song was taking that and feeling out of place, not being comfortable in your own skin.

I redid that song in another band, so it’s not as specific to Albany, and it’s better-produced. There are a couple of songs like that. “Cruisin' the Gut” was an early Albany Project song, but I never wrote lyrics for it. I don’t have that posted anywhere — at least, not that version. But it had the right groove, so I repurposed it for another band and fleshed out the lyrics. Even though I don’t mention Albany, if you knew what cruising the gut was, it makes sense.

What I admire about The Albany Project is that despite the novelty aspect, there’s a genuine sense of reality to it: it accurately depicts life in the city in the late 1980s, long before instant connectivity to the world at large. All facets of the Albany teenage dynamic are here: the false bravado, the ass-kickings, the pride in one’s loud stereo. You’re making fun of it from a retrospective distance, but there’s a wistfulness as well for something lost, places that don’t exist anymore.

Yeah. By the way, I’m glad you picked up on the stereos at Monteith Park. (laughs) Those were kind of inside jokes for me. I wrote that song from two perspectives. I never went there to kick someone’s ass, but there were people there who showed off their stereos and if you looked at them wrong, they’d straighten your shit.

I graduated in ’89, so these songs were 10-15 years later. I’ve done this with other songs from time to time, but it’s my way of documenting those memories and then moving on. I don’t give a shit about someone showing off their stereo or wanting to kick my ass now, but it sure felt real at the time. That happened. If anyone finds that interesting, that’s great. And it is kind of wistful: “Aw, man, remember the days when we could ride a bike without our helmets, and it would suck on the way home, but it was worth it?”

I really like how the tempo slows in “Ride All Day, Play All Night,” when you’re trying to ascend Gibson Hill.

That was very intentional. That was hard, too, because it was all programmed. So I had to tweak the drum tempo. Those are all programmed drums, but I used deliberately shitty drum samples so they sounded as trashy as possible. That was very deliberate. Gibson Hill — I couldn’t do it now, but I could barely do it then. I’d ride to Fred Meyer, buy a record, stuff it down the back of my shorts, and ride up that big hill.

What was it like being into this stuff in a town where creative endeavors were kind of frowned upon? Or at least they weren’t going to get you invited to certain parties or access to certain groups.

I never thought much about that, I guess. That’s just what I wanted to do and I found ways to do it. I never had the intention of sharing it with anyone. Obviously, this was way before the Internet. I’d make mixtapes of my songs and hand them to my closest friends: “Hey, listen to this.” I still have some of those and I’ll listen to them every now and then. Oh, man. Nothing was ever finished.

Even then I was experimenting with genres. That comes from my infatuation with The Cure at the time. This is the really dark one. This is the happy electronic one. This is the dark electronic one. That inspired me to not settle on a particular sound. I’d collect sounds and see what I could do with them. I never would have walked into West and put up a poster or asked for my tape to be played on the PA. I was just screwing around.

You said you made music for yourself when you were younger. How did it feel when you started playing with bands?

 

I loved it. I always wanted to be a singer, but I never felt like a frontman. I was always happy playing bass, guitar, keyboards — whatever. I was never into solos or standing out. I haven’t been in a ton of bands, but eventually it reached the point where nobody wanted to sing, so I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” That was a confidence-builder. Maybe I’m not great at it, but I never had the idea that I was Diamond Dave. It was fun, versus what I was accustomed to: doing all the recording myself, sharing it with myself, and not caring if anyone heard it. In a collaborative environment, everyone has ideas and works things out together. I dug it.

But I got burned out on it around the time of “Out of Place.” I had just quit a band [Poncherello]. But the bass player from Information Society [James Cassidy, who also happens to teach soil science at Oregon State University***] heard “Out of Place” and said, “I want your band to open up for us.” I had to tell him, “Maybe they’ll want to do it, but I quit the band.” And we sounded nothing like that song. But we decided to reform [as Echo No Echo] and write new songs, including that one, and take on a sound that was more ‘80s, with synthesizer and guitars. We took a couple of weeks to pull it together and opened for them at the Crystal Ballroom. Holy shit, my silly little song got us a gig and motivated not only a band, but even a brand identity. I created logos and a website to pretend we’d been around for a while.

 

How do you feel about Albany now?

I used to have pretty strong feelings about it, like I needed to get the hell out. But because my folks still live there and my sister lived there for a while, I’ll visit and it’s a different perspective. I could see living there now. Anyway, I still go to Ping’s Garden when I can.

 

* I, your author (hello!), graduated from West Albany in 1990, a year after Trent Johnson bailed on the Bulldog ballyhoo. We had mutual friends but did not really know each other. Honestly, I envied the hell out of him. He was so fucking cool.

** As a young Democrat-Herald reporter, I once interviewed Gary and Merle in their natural habitat. Gary actually opened our session with “Hi, I’m Gary, and this is Merle,” exactly as he did on television. Blew my little brain. For his part, Merle was far from quiet.

*** Information Society was astoundingly popular when Trent and I were West Albany sophomores and juniors, respectively, thanks to their runaway No. 3 Pop hit, “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy).” Their self-titled album also featured a decent ABBA cover, as I recall (yup, “Lay All Your Love on Me”). I recommend their 2014 effort, Hello World, as well. It’s a corker.

PARTIAL DISCOGRAPHY:

The Albany Project, Livin' in Albany (2009)

Echo No Echo, Crystals (2008)

The Promise Breakers

The Coos Bay City Rollers, For the Kids