The Hoons may have moved out of state more than a year and a half ago, but Alaska's had a hard time letting them go. The band relocated to Portland, Ore., in October 2011, but that hasn't stopped local promoters from asking them back for one-off shows or special events, with the Hoons returning to Alaska yet again this weekend for a couple shows, including one as the headliners of Saturday's fifth annual Summer Haze block party.
But even as the Hoons remain a consistent draw in Anchorage, the band's move to Portland meant it was starting over in a lot of ways, beginning as an anonymous group in a bigger city with more bands and trying to attract a new audience.
"We were nobodies, but fortunately we were a pretty tight band and we have a good album, so it wasn't too hard for us to move forward pretty quickly," singer and guitarist Sean Howland explained.
"A lot of bands from Alaska pick Portland as their destination when they want to leave, and a lot of them come back. I felt the reason for that was a lot of them were just thinking they were just going to pick up where they left off in Anchorage," he continued. "It's not at all like that -- it's starting completely over. You have no contacts, no friends."
Howland is originally from Bend, Ore., about three hours from Portland, which is one reason the band chose it as a new home base. But the biggest push to leave Alaska came from an A&R showcase at Chilkoot Charlie's in early 2011. A panel of representatives from Atlantic Records, Fearless Records and EMI recommended that the Hoons move somewhere easier for touring with bigger bands. Howland said they were told they were "label ready."
After relocating, the Hoons recorded and released "Terra Incognita," a confident, rough-hewn collection of modern rock with strains of the Pixies and Howland's idiosyncratic vocal delivery sitting front and center.
"I try to blend something soothing and nice, like Thom York (of Radiohead), but also sort of abrasive like Frank Black (of the Pixies)," the singer offered. The Hoons also increased their Portland profile after recently winning a battle of the bands, finishing first out of 10 bands.
Howland viewed it more as a necessary evil -- a way to reach a larger, built-in audience.
"I don't like the spirit of band battles at all," he explained. "It's just silly to me, but it was an opportunity."
The goal is to keep laying the groundwork with the hopes of reaching the right ears, but the Hoons seem content to continue doing it themselves for the time being, booking mini-tours and juggling work schedules (bassist Brandon Boedegheimer and guitarist Kevin Woeglemuth continue to work as commercial fisherman in Alaska).
"It's all about numbers nowadays. I've realized, with these record people, it's not all about talent," Howland said. "You have to have a certain amount of basically Facebook 'likes' and record sales and stuff like that. They want you to have done part of the work already before they sign you."
To that end, the band is gearing up to hit the studio again, funded partially by battle-of-the-band winnings. Howland also said that he took a different approach in writing the material this time around.
"At 18 or in my early 20s, it was really easy to write songs about myself and my problems and blah blah blah, and it kind of got to the point where I didn't want to write songs anymore because I'm pretty happy," he explained. "I'm pretty content with my life. I've been married for 10 years; I have two kids. I'm fine. I felt like I would be faking it if I was writing about that sort of stuff."
During the days at his job as a union concrete finisher, Howland was listening to every episode of "Radiolab," the science-documentary public radio program. He got the idea to write a song about one of the episodes. Then he wrote another about a different episode. Then it turned into an entire album -- every song about a different "Radiolab" episode.
And while the Hoons can continue to count on Alaska for support, the band keeps balancing responsibilities with bigger aspirations.
"I guess the goals are the same as any musician: We want to play music for a living and not have to do our day jobs. At the same time, I have a family -- I have a wife and two kids -- so I have to work and take care of them first," Howland offered. "But I think we definitely have something, so we keep trying."