About a month ago, I received an email that made me think ’90s punk-grunge outfit the Treepeople (featuring Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch) was reuniting. And, based solely on that band’s dirtied-up, angsty cover of the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again”—not to mention my immense BTS fanhood—I was pretty excited. Little did I know I’d learn an underground history lesson in Northwest psych folk instead.
See, Martsch’s Treepeople weren’t the first. Back in 1979, a man named Stephen Cohen went into “a studio in the woods near Eugene” (now-defunct Rockin’ A Ranch) and recorded a self-titled album under the Tree People name—an album one fan laid down 150 bucks for at Portland music store Exiled Records. “It didn’t last for very long,” Exiled owner Scott Simmons recalls. Cohen, who continued to play after the Tree People called it quits in 1985, says of the album’s 2006 Japanese reissue: “It is a nice feeling to do something, have it sit for years, and then be around to see it appreciated.” But to some, that original was already sonic gold: “People into psychedelic folk definitely know about it,” says Simmons.
Here in Portland, plenty of music fans are into psychedelic folk, and—whether those fans know it or not—they could lump the Tree People’s spooky, hypnotic forest folk in with that of legendary faves like Texan duo Charalambides or British psych-folkstress Vashti Bunyan. All share a key aesthetic: a sound that’s one with nature, whether it be evoked by cryptic lyrics, sylvan flute, hand percussion or experimental forays into trancelike string noise.
So why did the Tree People vanish? Cohen’s then-young children made touring a non-option, and original bandmate Jeff Stier (recorders, flute, hand drums) eventually moved to Washington, D.C., for work. When the kind-voiced Cohen started hearing from “collectors [and] music fans who all had somehow discovered our first vinyl album,” he contacted Stier only to find that he was moving back to Oregon. “The enthusiasm for our older recorded output [played] a big part in inspiring us to play again,” says Cohen.
The reincarnated band—which is already working on fresh material with new double-bassist Rich Hinrichsen—played a “small, warm-up performance” this past Saturday at a coffee shop in Seattle. “It was great to get our feet wet again,” says Cohen. Simmons’ response when told the Tree People are playing Portland this week? “Oh, weird.” Yup, and pretty awesome, too.
The Tree People play Friday, Dec. 14, with Jon Koonce and Maggie’s Choice at the White Eagle. 9:30 pm. $6. 21+. Photo: The Tree People (circa 1979): Stephen Cohen (far left), Jeff Stier (center) and guest pianist Soria Meadow.