Portland's power pop supremo talks us through his list of the finest bands from the genre's latest crop
Mo Troper and I are off to a good start. “This is the first time I’ve joined a Zoom and everything has worked,” he says, “So I’m just so stoked.” When you spend enough time doing virtual interviews, it’s the small wins that count.
For the uninitiated, Mo Troper is not just one of the finest singer-songwriters out there, he’s also an accomplished producer and maybe the world’s foremost expert on power pop. A Talkhouse feature he wrote back in 2021 entitled ‘Power Pop Is Camp’ has become the definitive thesis on the genre (and a rather nifty t-shirt). It’s all very appropriate for a man who sits at the forefront of a new wave of bands embracing the music of Big Star, The Beatles and Badfinger, and twisting it into new, contemporary forms.
With Troper about to tour the UK as support for labelmates Slaughter Beach, Dog, we figured there was no better time and no better person to guide us through the finest bands of power pop’s third wave. But first, he has a question for us:
“What would you say are the other two waves?”
In my head, the first wave is the original power poppers: Big Star, Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Nerves. That kind of thing. And then the second wave is Matthew Sweet, Fountains Of Wayne, Superdrag, the 90s stuff…
Ok cool, yeah.
Being in it, does it feel like a wave? Or is it just a lot of bands who share common ground?
My feeling is that, over the pandemic, there were a lot of bands that were all circling the drain who found each other on social media. And it was weird, because before that I thought everything around me was just pop punk or emo or the only common ground we had was Weezer, which isn’t really a big reference point for me anymore. 2nd Grade is a great example. Hit To Hit came out at the start of the pandemic and I was like, “What the hell? This is so weird that this exists.” I think a lot of bands felt like they were the only ones who were doing purist power pop and felt alienated in their scene. We all found each other in 2020 and 2021 and there’s a lot of camaraderie.
1. Barely March – ‘2001 Light Years Away’
Chris, the person in this band, is a huge pop nerd and loves Jellyfish. Like, he’s maybe the biggest Jellyfish fan I’ve met. It has some of the production and the theatricality in the vocals of pop punk; he’ll hate this comparison, but it’s reminiscent of Say Anything. But the chords and the melodies are so clearly The Beatles or Jellyfish.
There’s a fine line, thematically, between pop punk and power pop, but I think there’s a lot more bravado with pop punk. Power pop is more like, “I’m so sad”. I assume this song is about a long-distance relationship. The way he’s narrating it is very power pop but also quite modern, which is why I chose it to kick off the playlist. The chords and melodies aren’t exactly Fountains Of Wayne but they’re clearly written by someone who’s influenced by that stuff and the lyrics are something that could only be written in a post-internet/AIM world.
2. The Lost Days – ‘For Today’
I’m so glad you included something by Tony Molina. He’s known for short songs, which is something I wanted to ask you about as four of the songs on your list are under two-minutes long. Where does that come from? Is it a Guided By Voices thing?
I don’t think it is, necessarily. I remember when I put out my first records, which had a lot of short songs, speaking to somebody who did radio and there were like, “Well, we could put this out as a single but it’s too short.” I think it’s like no consideration for making commercially viable music. All I really liked was the chorus so why do I need to make it longer? It’s like a punk attitude. Hardcore has a lot of short songs and Tony comes from that world.
We did a tour with Tony and The Softees and The All Girl Summer Fun Band at the start of June. At the end of the tour, Alicia, Tony’s manager, gave us all the merch. I took The Lost Days CD and record, because I hadn’t heard them yet, and the CD is still stuck in my car. It’s crazy when you hear a new song by an artist you love and you’re like, “Whoa, this is top tier.” I just think it’s beautiful.
3. 2nd Grade – ‘Velodrome’
Tony and 2nd Grade are both bands that we’ve gone on little tours with, which is awesome and something that couldn’t have happened before the pandemic. I feel like I’m speaking really highly of the pandemic, like sentimentalising this horrible thing that our government bungled. But I associate this record with the start of the pandemic. I had no idea about this band and then they released a music video for ‘Velodrome’ and ‘My Bike’. I was just so angry, because this is just perfect music.
I had released a record before the pandemic called Natural Beauty, which was really fussy and I was really fussy about it. It was really self-serious and then I couldn’t even tour it so it was all futile. I felt really bummed on writing music but the 2nd Grade record was such a fuel injection. It’s kind of like a Guided By Voices record but the songs are also really personal. Some of the songs made me cry when I first heard them. ‘Velodrome’ is just a perfect pop song. It’s a modern classic of the genre.
4. DOGBRETH – ‘When U Call My Name’
So this is a little bit of like Pacific Northwest pride. Tristan – who is the singer, songwriter, guitarist in DOGBRETH – is from Phoenix, but DOGBRETH was Seattle-based for a while. The person who actually wrote this song isn’t Tristan. He and Bill, the other guitar player, had a DB’s thing on this record where they both have pretty distinct styles, but Tristan’s guitar playing on this does a lot for it. The first time I heard this song was when I saw them play and I was like, “What the f*ck?! That’s crazy!” These songs are songs that really bowled me over when I heard them. None of them were growers, you know? Just, “Whoa, this is a crazy song!”
5. Diners – ‘Someday I’ll Go Surfing’
You produced this record. How did that come about?
I first fell in love with Diners with the record Three, which was recommended to me by the old music editor at The Oregonian. I remember listening to it in headphones and the panning is really great. It sounds like Ram, the way it’s panned so artfully. I felt a kinship with Blue [Broderick, Diners’ frontperson] and drove an hour and a half to see a Diners show. Blue and I just became friends and went on tour together a few years ago. I said something to Blue along the lines of, “I want to make a loud Diners record.” Blue had a batch of songs that were incredible so I agreed to make a loud Diners record.
The reason I picked this song in particular is because we couldn’t figure out how to arrange it. At first, it was really slow and then we did the That Thing You Do thing where we just made it really fast and it sounded kind of like Elvis Costello or The Shivers. It was just really exciting and definitely the song where I was taking the most producerly liberties. That’s why I chose it, it’s the most me. [Laughs]
6. Bory – ‘Should I Believe You’
So that’s Brenden, who plays guitar in my band and played guitar on the Diners record. Brenden’s not originally from Portland but I feel like if you write songs and live here long enough, you start to sound like Elliott Smith. There are certainly worse things. He does it really well. His chord progressions are great and so classic. Like what I was talking about with Barely March, I think sometimes the chords are a giveaway. Like, “Oh, this person isn’t just playing power chords or barre chords. They’re really trying to be inventive in the way The Beatles were. I think they got that from their love of like musical theatre or Cole Porter or whatever granny sh*t Paul McCartney was listening to.
You can write a great pop song without using weird chords but I feel like a big part of power pop is the commitment to harmony, whether it’s a vocal harmony or a lot of harmonic information through using a weird chord. I think about XTC, where it’s like some of the most f*cked up chord voicings ever, but it’s just total commitment to something weird. Brenden does that with Bory. A lot of great chord moves in that song.
7. Young Guv – ‘Only Wanna See U Tonight’
The production on this record is incredible. It sounds classic without sounding hokey. I think some of the garage stuff in the early 2000s was almost too reverent in that way. This record sounds shiny and modern but the tones are great and sparkly and the vocals sound awesome.
They’re one of those rare power pop bands where you feel cool listening to it, which is an experience I have listening to Radio City [by Big Star] and the DB’s. There are some power pop bands where the car windows are rolled all the way up. Like ‘Roll To Me’ by Del Amitri. That song rocks but I don’t want anyone to know that I’m screaming along to it at the top of my lungs. But Young Guv sounds so cool and he’s so cool, like the fact that he wears sunglasses and long coats when he plays live. It’s like Budokan. This person is a rock star. It sounds so cheesy, like something Paul Stanley would say, but he gives everything to the fans.
8. Hurry – ‘Beggin’ For You’
You wrote the press release for Hurry’s latest record. Do you guys go way back?
No, not really. Matt’s an example of someone I met online during lockdown. I love Matt, we’ve become friends. Very dry sense of humour, which I love. We played a show with 2nd Grade in Philly and he introduced me to someone as his biographer. I was talking to Eric from Lame-O records about this record and I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way but I’m surprised at how tender this record is for how caustic and dry Matt is.” There’s very much an openness to it. It’s really cool to be a more tender person in your songs. It’s someone who’s very much in touch with themselves and their emotions.
Like Young Guv, it’s hi-fi but it sounds classic and chimey, which comes from Matt loving Teenage Fanclub. I know Grand Prix is his favourite, which is the ideal for that kind of record. When Matt shared a demo of ‘Beggin’ For You’ in a group chat we were in, it was just so shamelessly catchy. Like nothing about it is trying to be cool or cover up its love of the hook.
9. Sobs – ‘Air Guitar’
This is kind of like that Alvvays record, very classic song structures but also noisy and kind of 80s, like almost new wave. But then it also sounds like early 2000s, like Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’. It’s just this cool mixture of a bunch of stuff.
We played with them and the guitarist Jared and I talk… actually, we don’t talk. We interact on social media. I’m really into following these strange animal accounts, like, I think they’re called Central Asian shepherds. Whenever I post a photo of one of those on my story, he always reacts to it. He’s the only person who reacts. I don’t want to misquote him, but when I met him he said, “America kind of sucks. I thought there would be indie pop bands here. What happened?”
He needs to move to San Francisco. I interviewed The Umbrellas and I swear they live on the same street as five or six other indie pop bands.
Yes, totally! Slumberland Records. The Slumberland cinematic universe.
10. Mo Troper – ‘For You To Sing’
It must be difficult to pick one of your songs to put on a playlist.
I just picked the newest one. Get those numbers up.
Does this feel most representative of where you’re at right now?
I think that I’m the most excited about it because it’s the newest thing. It’s going to be on my next record, which is the first time I’ve released a single so far in advance of the record that it’s going to be on. So, yeah, I think it is representative of where I’m at. I spent so f*cking long recording it at the beginning of the year, so I’m attached to it. It’s kind of the opposite of being burnt out. Blue and Brendan both sing on it, too and so I’ve really liked that aspect of it. It’s the first time I’ve had anyone else sing on a record of mine.
With Dilettante getting reissued on vinyl and then MTV getting so much positive press, does that change how you approach a new song or a new record?
Oh yeah. I hate to admit that or make it seem like I’m at all affected by that. This one in particular, because it’s so personal, I was immediately mortified. I think that one of the things that got me through writing personal stuff was the feeling that nobody really cares. Like, I’m just doing this for me, which I think is such a good attitude to have when it comes to making art. But yeah, with this one I was like, “Whoa… a little too much.”
How do you deal with the amount of personal sharing you put in your songs?
Well, I can’t do anything else. If I try and be arty with lyrics, it just sucks and feels contrived to me. I can’t do character stuff, I’m not a fiction writer. It has to be personal. There will be things that happen to me, in my life – and it sucks that I think this way about life – but I am like, “Whoa, what a great pop song that could be.” This song is very much a directive. Like, you’re telling somebody, “This is for you to sing.” And I was like, “Oh my god, I want to write a song like that.” That excitement would only come from a lived thing. I think that there is a danger. I’ve gotten in trouble before from making my way through the world with that antenna. I think sometimes people are like, “What’s wrong with you? Too much!”