SAN FRANCISCO — The sound of singer-songwriter M. Lockwood Porter is a finely mixed blend of alt-country, Americana and indie rock sensibilities. But despite having such a strong country sound, Porter’s main influences are singer-songwriters within other genres, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. He’s also influenced by older Wilco—not that there’s anything wrong with Schmilco, but the more recent stuff hasn’t really tapped into his songwriting style.
Another favorite is Big Star. In fact, Porter even wrote a song about Big Star vocalist-guitarist Chris Bell. The album art for Porter’s album 27 was an homage to Big Star’s #1 Record, which was a minimalistic neon sign. These are Porter’s most recent influences, but he actually has a long past in playing with bands in a multitude of different genres. Besides his most recent album, 2016’s How To Dream Again, Porter has been politically engaged. The native Oklahoman, who now calls Oakland home, has volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and been involved in numerous benefit shows, including one for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation last December.
RIFF met up with Porter last month when he opened for Lydia Loveless at the Independent. Porter is on a Noise Pop bill including Bay Area favorites The Family Crest Saturday.
RIFF: What were your projects prior to this band? Were they always country?
M. Lockwood Porter: I’ve been playing in bands since I was 12-years-old. I was 12, y’know? So it was, like, Blink-182-kinda stuff. And then all throughout high school I played in various different bands, and that became my main social life. I played in some pop punk or emo bands. And then I played in this instrumental band that was very American Football-ish.
So it sounded like math-y, post-rock slowcore?
Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t know what to call it. And then I went to college and left Oklahoma. [I] started teaching myself how to write songs that I could play on an acoustic guitar because I didn’t know anyone I could play with in college. That’s when I started getting into folk.
Did you go to a music college?
No, I actually got my degree in English and American history. I ended up forming a band … and playing music the whole time. But I had this punk rock mindset that you didn’t need a lot of theory to make the kind of music I wanted to make. It was more about songwriting for me. I was more worried about being a good writer than developing more as a musician or a singer. I think in the last 10 years I’ve really shifted toward focusing on things that I like listening to. What I listen for is the songwriting now. It used to be a certain sound or a music experimentation, but then I flipped the switch. I was, like, “There’s nothing new that you can do. What I’m looking for is someone who has a unique voice and who inspires me.”
Do you think rock or country music, as a whole, can still be original?
When I was in that band in my late teens … that math-y, post-rock, slowcore whatever, I think I had this idea that the goal of music was to push it further in terms of musical exploration. But then I [realized] it’s all been done. It’s more about your voice.
One hundred years ago, there were rules in music, but now people have figured out that as long as it has sound, it can be art. You can be post-avant jazzcore or progressive dreamfunk, but if you’re not a good songwriter it’s still boring and someone has probably done something similar, despite how “experimental” it may be.
I had a personal realization that what I wanted to do with my music was communicate with people. I didn’t want to show off as a musician or dazzle people with my virtuosity. At a certain point, there’s always gonna be a better guitar player, than me, at least. But no one can beat me at being me. So, if I carve out my own space with my writing … maybe people will be drawn to that.
Your most recent album, 2016’s How To Dream Again, is pretty political, but you also manage to tie in some personal lyrics. Would you want to elaborate on why you chose that approach instead of being either completely personal or completely political?
I felt compelled to get more political with my songwriting. Over 10 years of songwriting has taught me a certain way of writing songs that was very immediate and cathartic. What I realized is that it can be a really good method for writing about your inner emotional state, but when you’re talking about politics it can be really easy to fall back on slogans or lazy lyrics, like “smash the system.” I really see myself as a songwriter and I feel like the job of a songwriter, or any artist, is to portray things that resonate with people in a way they haven’t thought of before, or in a relatively new way. So, I think, when you’re talking about politics, you have to put a personal spin on it to make it interesting and to make it emotional to people, rather than just pure anger. Part of what I wanted to do was make people realize how, not just politics, but social forces influence all of our lives: Your job, or your inability to find a job, or how hard it is to make ends meet, or live in the place you want to live or love the people you want to love. It has an impact on your everyday life and I do think a lot of people of my generation are realizing that, especially because of the economy and everything that’s going on.
Are your future projects going to be more political?
I wasn’t sure until Trump won the election, but now I think they will.
A lot has happened since last year, when your last record came out.
I feel like whenever I’m writing a new record, it’s kind of a cycle. I have to go through this period of “OK, what do I want to talk about now?” It takes months of thinking, reading and talking to my friends, and also getting a gist for the kinds of songs I want to be writing. When How to Dream Again came out, I had no clue what to write about next. But now I think, definitely, it’s going to be in that direction.
Follow writer Michael Massaro at Twitter.com/michaelcmassaro.