The Portland Cello Project is a cello-based collective that formed in 2006, hitting on a formula that has taken them around the world: with a group of some of the best cellists around, the group interprets music as varied as Radiohead and Elliott Smith, and classical music as well.
This Sunday at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, The Portland Cello Project will perform Radiohead’s monumental OK Computer. All those strings add up to something special, so we caught up with the project’s artistic director Douglas Jenkins to chat about the show, the group’s mission, and more.
Tickets to The Colorado Sound Presents show can be found here.
Note: This interview is has been slightly edited for clarity.
The Colorado Sound: The first question our listeners would want to know: Why OK Computer? As a cello-based collective, what is it about that album that resonates with you?
Douglas Jenkins: There are a bunch of reasons. Besides the fact that it’s one of the most influential records of all time, it’s incredibly challenging to try to adapt a record where each song has such unique and well-crafted soundscapes as OK Computer. Getting to where we are with this record has been a long process of trial and error, to find ways to make things work on the cello and make them our own while staying true to the spirit of the original without being gimmicky.
Sticking with Radiohead for a minute, do you remember where and when you first heard that album?
I was in a car driving to school and heard “Karma Police” on the alternative radio station and immediately went out and got the record. I had Pablo Honey and The Bends but had no idea this record was out and didn’t even know it was Radiohead until the song was over.
What did it do to you – it sent me into a state of deep oblivion, but in a very good and necessary way – besides make you want to pick up the cello?
I don’t remember it making me want to pick up the cello. I like your description of what it did to you. It just felt refreshingly new, like the thing that had been missing.
I’d image a song like “Paranoid Android” would be a really hard song to get right, but at the same time, does Radiohead’s cacophony lend itself perfectly for what you’re doing up there?
It took us years to get it right, not because of the counting, but the feel and all the contrasting soundscapes. But now I feel very good about how we play it.
Looking at your roster of musicians you interpret – Elliott Smith, Kayne West, Bach, Rossini – what is your mission with the music you reinterpret?
Just to put on a good show that builds some bridges between different communities. There’s good music everywhere, so just opening as many of those doors as we can.
There is a big educational piece that seems to fit in with the group’s mission. What communities do you work with, and how have you seen musical engagement make a difference with your audiences?
We’ve done outreach everywhere from schools at all levels and community centers to correctional facilities. We try to give back wherever and whenever we can.
You famously formed at a show in 2006 at the Doug Fir Lounge (in Portland) at was supposed to just be a one-off show. What happened that night that made you realize, we have something?
It was just fun so we did it again. And then a couple of shows later folks were lined up around the block to see us. It took a while to find our sea legs artistically about what to do with the group, but just the idea of a bunch of cellos collaborating with folks and doing a wide variety of music was appealing in Portland right away. Luckily audiences were patient with us as we figured out where to go artistically.
The truth is, only some of the artists we play use the cello to the max. Is it because it’s super hard to play? It seems like it would be.
Perhaps. I think it’s like any musical instrument. It’s easy to dabble in, but difficult to play well.
So, who’s the resident shredder in the group like on Radiohead’s “National Anthem”?
We all shred on “National Anthem”. Skip vonKuske probably fits that description the best.
What’s the next project you have in store?
We’re going further back than that and working on a Prince project right now. Our drummer and some friends of ours in Portland played with Prince so we’re all kind of trying to meld some worlds there to see what happens.
The Colorado Sound Presents The Portland Cello Project Performs Radiohead’s OK Computer at the Fox, November 17.