It’s not your fault for not knowing who Joey Ficken is. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you didn’t grow up in Chico and even if you did, you probably don’t remember his band Land of the Wee Beasties who regularly frequented now-extinct downtown venues such as Juanita’s. What you should know is that ever since his musical pilgrimage to Portland, Oregon, back in 2000, he’s been making some big moves with his latest band Sea Wolf, who will sweep through California this week on yet another national tour.
Some Chicoans will remember that Ficken was revered as one of the town’s most interesting and talented drummers. Thanks to the guidance of his older brother Corey, Ficken was introduced to the world of music performance at a very young age. In junior high, Ficken was already gigging around town with his much older bandmates. After high school, the Ficken brothers would go on to form The Swords Project—a larger-than-life, nine-piece orchestral rock band that would go on to produce multiple records including their nationally recognized LP, Metropolis.
Since the band’s breakup in 2006, Ficken went on to join the already well-established Sea Wolf, led by songwriter Alex Church. At the time of Ficken’s introduction to the band, Sea Wolf’s music tended to lean toward the mellow side, so it was quite a switch for Ficken coming from a hard-hitting rock background. Fortunately, it was just what the doctor ordered to spruce up the Sea Wolf sound and create a dynamic, engaging live performance.
The transition from a democratic, collaborative band environment to the specific vision of a singer/songwriter was a new experience for Ficken, which he describes as “almost like going into a cover band,” but that quickly changed right after their first major tour. When they returned to the studio, Ficken began to contribute original drum parts. Church then decided he wanted to pursue more of a “band” feel to the sophomore album, White Water, White Bloom.
“Having only done collaborative bands, it’s hard at first to allow yourself to let go of your own creative elements and just sort of give in to what someone else wants,” said Ficken, “But then you start getting paid and start figuring, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad doing it this way either.’ I’m not traveling with a bunch of assholes, touring is fun, and I’m still playing music that I like. It all works out.”
Although Church and the other members of Sea Wolf reside in Los Angeles, Ficken still loves life in Portland and has been able to make it work with the band, despite his distance from the other musicians. With over a decade of experience in the Portland music scene, Ficken is in a unique position to comment on the change he’s witnessed throughout the years.
“I feel like back in the day a lot of the music was still based off the ‘90s scene of Portland, which is that stripped-down garage-rock/indie-rock sort of thing,” said Ficken. “The one thing that’s kind of shifted, not to toot my own horn or anything, but it just seems like a lot more of it is in the vein of stuff that we were doing with Swords. But I mean, a lot of that has to do with the popularity of bands like Arcade Fire. It’s a kind of fun, youthful energy. Maybe that’s why I’ve stepped away from it. I’m not fun or youthful anymore. I kid, I kid,” Ficken kidded.
Ficken isn’t the only one to relocate to Portland in the interest of musical pursuits. Just in our conversation over the phone we were able to list a variety of famous bands that have transplanted from their original stomping grounds, including Modest Mouse (Seattle), The Shins (New Mexico), and Portugal. The Man (Alaska). “I think there’s always been an attraction to the city,” said Ficken, “but now it’s definitely gotten to that point that it’s a place where people will move to in order to say ‘I’m a band from here’ in the same way that people would move to New York City.”
The allure of “being a band from Portland” has continued to captivate the creative minds of musicians across the country, but Ficken would argue that what makes it great to live in the city extends beyond the additional attention one might receive from the powers-that-be in the music business.
“I do think that for as much as people might move here to be able to say, ‘We’re a band based in Portland,’ people also just like the creative community that has always been here,” said Ficken.
“I don’t feel like it’s ultra competitive, but I think it also feeds on people’s inspirations from each other.”
Joey Ficken will be drumming for Sea Wolf at the Great American Musical Hall in San Francisco next Tuesday, May 21st. Someone tell his parents.