Saturday, July 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Make a Scene: Empire Rocket Machine set for Tacoma

Portland's Empire Rocket Machine – a regular on our Weekly Mix Tape ( – will make its first appearance in Tacoma on Aug. 17 at Harmon Brewery downtown. The bill will also include Alex's Hand and Bodybox, with music starting at 9 p.m.

To mark the occasion, we caught up with singer-guitarist Jon DeBellis who gave us four things you should know about his band.

1.) It was brought together by hot dogs and jukeboxes: The catalyst for the band's formation, one night in 2007, was drummer Kenny Field's scattershot jukebox selections. “It would be, like, Tom Waits and then NWA and then Frank Sinatra and Cream,” DeBellis recalled. “I was looking at my buddy and saying, 'Who is playing this music?' And then the gentleman sitting next to me was like, 'I am.'”

Portland's Empire Rocket Machine will make its first appearance in Tacoma on Aug. 17.

The two bonded over shared musical influences and started as a duo, later adding lead guitarist Piotr Moes and bassist Kevin Dunn.

“Kevin was at this annual party that my wife and I throw, called Franksgiving,” DeBellis said. “We give thanks for franks. So, I go around town and collect sausages from all the local sausage makers, and then we cook them and have people over. He was there and said, 'I don't play bass, but I play guitar. I'm sure I could figure out bass.' So we tried him out on a temporary basis, and it just kind of stuck.” The rest, as they say, is history.

2.) E.RM. took its name from a Portland machine shop, and nearly ripped off an iconic alt-rock band in the process: DeBellis and Field struggled to come up with a name before their first duo gig, and a friend mentioned driving by a block engine boring shop he thought was called Empire Rocket Machine.

“The next day I find out the shop on Gleason is actually Rocket Empire Machine,” DeBellis said. “I was like, 'Oh, you got the name wrong.' Then Kenny was like, 'That's probably good because Rocket Empire Machine is R.E.M., and R.E.M.'s already taken.'

He suggested boosting show attendance by making a simple, if dubious, change on the marquee. “I suppose being sued by Peter Buck would be a good publicity stunt,” he said. “I just don't know if I can afford the legal fees to deal with it.”

3.) You shouldn't expect them to sound like Yes or Phish: “I wasn't interested in being in a jam band, and I wasn't interested in playing rock-jazz odyssey music or noodling because I couldn't really do that,” DeBellis said, recalling how the E.R.M.'s hooky, melodic sound first gelled.

“Probably one of the most influential records to me was Elvis Costello's 'This Year's Model' because it was very accessible, and at the same time it pushed the envelope of what people expected pop music to be. I don't want to make something that's so out there that people don't understand it or only a small group of people understand it. I want to make something that people want to listen to and have fun with or get energized by it.”

4.) Dunn is the sexy one: “There's been a couple of female, drunk audience members that have been excited by our bass player. He's probably the most attractive out of all of us, subjectively. He's tall, and let's just say Kevin went as Superman one year (for Halloween.) He actually does kind of look like Christopher Reeve. Kenny calls him the eye candy of the band. The rest of us are just sort of flailing our chubby stomachs about.”