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Interview: Douglas Jenkins of Portland Cello Project

Interview: Douglas Jenkins of Portland Cello Project

“There will be a lot of goosebumps and a lot of adrenaline.”

This weekend, the Portland Cello Project will add its unique touch to a classic record, playing Radiohead’s OK Computer in its entirety. Featuring special guest vocalists Kyleen King, Patti King and Adam Shearer, the show will feature a full ensemble of string and wind instruments. Portland Cello Project has taken on rock music in the past, including songs by Beck and Kanye West. However, the recontextualization of an album as important to modern music as OK Computer is a daring decision. Arranger Douglas Jenkins took some time to answer a few questions about the audience can expect.

Portland Cello Project has tackled a lot of really famous albums, but OK Computer is quite the sacred cow. I understand you’re celebrating its 20th anniversary. Tell me how the process went when selecting and deciding on playing Radiohead in this capacity.

The first time we did this record was five years ago for its 15th anniversary. For years before that we said we’d never do any Radiohead when the group first started out, especially OK Computer, out of risk of doing it in a gimmicky way, since it’s a work of art that truly stands on its own, and it’d be easy to mess up. But that specific group of cellists at the time had been playing together a lot (like over a hundred shows on the road together), and so we felt creatively tight, and in the right space as an ensemble to take on the challenge. Since then some of these songs have become such a regular part of the repertoire of the group that the arrangements have evolved through repeated playing and meditation. “Paranoid Android,” “Exit Music,” “Jigsaw Falling into Place” are all Radiohead songs we’ve performed at least dozens of times each. I think something we learned from that experience is that the works of art aren’t closed doors, but rather they inspire you to open new ones through them if you do it carefully and honestly.

Why do you think OK Computer is still so important, 20 years later?

It’s just proven itself to be one of those works of art that’s going to continue to be timelessly influential and inspirational. They did things that other folks wanted to do but weren’t quite sure how, and then they took it even further with subsequent albums, but you feel all the roots of where they were going and how free and confident they were feel creatively with OK Computer.

What should the audience expect at these performances? A straight reading of OK Computer? Some other Radiohead songs?

First set is like an opening band: just cellos, classical and jazz stuff to warm you up. And… yeah, we’ll throw in some surprise extra Radiohead as well. Second set is OK Computer.

The Portland Cello Project played OK Computer five years ago. Why revive it now?

We’ve been doing it for the last five years, just not in the NW. You know, Cello Project for many years NEVER repeated even a single song at multiple shows (for better or worse, there are well over a thousand pieces of music in the group’s repertoire), and we still don’t repeat entire programs. So this is an exception, and it’ll be fun to bring it back here evolved from our time playing these songs in other places. Looking at the video from five years ago, the scope is just on another level now.

What will you do differently this time? Are there any changes from last time?

Everything is completely re-arranged, different voices in the ensemble. On the bigger stage we can (and have) nearly doubled the amount of cellos on stage. No choir.

Which song proved the most difficult to adapt? Why?

“Fitter Happier?” It’s a studio creation, not a live song. We have a special guest narrator, though, for this version of it, who I think the audience will be really into.

Which song do you feel will surprise or the move the audience the most? Why?

Hard to say… there will be a lot of goosebumps and a lot of adrenaline, sometimes within moments of each other, which was kind of something we saw we could do with the arrangements with the ensemble as expansive as it’s going to be and with the unique talents of some of the instrumentalists on stage (Farnell Newton, Karen Schulz-Harmon, Diane Chaplin, Damian Erskine). Maybe “Let Down.” Maybe “Airbag.” Maybe one of the surprise songs. “Exit Music” is always moving, but I think people know to expect it at this point, so it might be something out of left field.

You are doing the show with different vocalists, depending on the night. Who are they and how are they different?

Yes, Patti King of the Shins and Radiation City, Kyleen King, a strong violist in her own right, and longtime PDX collaborator Adam Shearer. They all bring different strengths to the table. Patti and Adam have done some of these songs for years with us all over the country, so they’ve grown with the arrangements the same way the cellists have.

Did you get to see Radiohead earlier this year at the Moda Center? How was it for you?

I was out of town, unfortunately. The last time I saw them was on In Rainbows and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

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