Following growing for local metal band

How the West Was Won is comprised of, from left, bassist Peter Elliott, lead guitarist Jonathan Wipff, lead vocalist Jon Curtis, keyboardist Brian Holmes and drummer Ethan Spencer. (courtesy photo)

Local metal band How the West Was Won may still be learning to crawl, but it’s come a long way from its early days jamming in a Canby garage.

The five-man group’s first real single, “Oregon Throwdown,” just dropped on iTunes, and the band plans to release an EP later this year.

Had you told frontman Jon Curtis just about nine months ago that this would be happening now, he wouldn’t have believed it. At the time, the outfit had yet to book a show and was on the verge of breaking up.

“We had a point where we said, ‘We’re either going to do this, or we’re going to have to break up,'” Curtis said.

How the West Was Won’s growing pains were far from unusual for a small-time band with bigger-time dreams. The band members live, work and go to school all over northern Oregon, so synching up schedules and scrounging up gas money for jam sessions is often a challenge.

“The band just kind of fizzled out,” said keyboardist Brian Holmes, also reflecting on that time. “Everyone was going in different directions, and we thought that was it. But (drummer Ethan Spencer) and (guitarist Jonathan Wipff) re-sparked it and said we should give it a really good shot.”

It’s also Spencer and Wipff who worked to put the band together in the first place, according to Holmes. They reached out to friends and friends of friends until they’d assembled a lineup that has remained relatively static throughout the band’s short career. Bassist Peter Elliott completes their roster.

One need not dig much more deeply into the group’s history to uncover ample evidence of their humble beginnings. My favorite example is that Spencer first honed his skills on the video game “Rock Band” before picking up a set of real drumsticks. As for Curtis, band members sought him out for their lead vocalist after hearing him sing and head-bang through his favorite metal songs during downtime at a local camp several of them had worked at together.

And Holmes, a classically trained pianist who had little taste for metal bands before he joined one, had to borrow a keyboard for practices early on. He said he would return the instrument to his tiny church in Mulino every week, just in time for Sunday worship.

Mere weeks after the group nearly “fizzled out,” their booking agent called to announce they’d been cleared to take the stage at Branx PDX. Their second show, they opened for Call is Forgotten at The Hawthorne Theatre, Holmes said.

“We were super excited, but we were also nervous because we had never played for anyone but a couple close friends,” Holmes said. “We were like, ‘What if we just think we’re really good, and no one else does?'”

And inexperience wasn’t totally to blame for some of the band members’ jitters.

They classify themselves as a Christian band — a rarity in the heavy metal scene in general, but perhaps even more so in Portland”s — and Curtis said many of his lyrics derive from his faith. And How the West Was Won doesn’t exactly play its concerts in churches and worship halls.

“It’s definitely been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” Curtis said. “But we don’t write our music just for Christians. We write our music for everyone.”

Both said the experience has been a positive one for them, and they’ve been able to “have some really cool conversations” with concertgoers after some of their shows.

“Nobody really wants to hear somebody preaching down their throat, so we try to avoid that,” Holmes said, adding with a laugh, “And a lot of our lyrics — because we’re screaming — people don’t really know what we’re saying most of the time, anyway.”

And discussing religion isn’t their only aim. According to Holmes, band members also pour their energy into making their shows fun and music top-notch.

“We don’t take ourselves very seriously. We can be kind of goofy,” Holmes admitted. “We want (the shows) to be entertaining for people, because they paid money to come. But at the same time, we do take our music seriously. We practice hard and try to take it to a place where it’s both professional and really fun.”

How the West Was Won will hearken back to their Canby roots next month for a concert at Bethany Evangelical Free Church. The free show starts at 6 p.m. Aug. 3. For more information on the band, visit its Facebook page.

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