Tender Loving Empire does a little of everything. Independent record label, Handmade goods retailer… these are just a few of the personas TLE dons as they connect artists, musicians, and craftspeople across the Pacific Northwest. Founded by Jared and Brianne Mees, Tender Loving Empire has released 60 albums and now operates 3 shops, bursting at the seams with local talent.
Tell us how Tender Loving Empire was started?
We got started in 2006. It was essentially just a labor of love. We were interested in all different types of art ranging from handmade jewelry and clothing, all the way to music, comics, fiction…there were all types of creative pursuits that we were very excited about. We didn’t really want to pick one. We just wanted to put our energy into all of them. The only way we thought that we could actually do that was to create a store of some type. Something that people could walk into and buy or rather interact with stuff. It was really more about interacting. I mean, buying is a necessary part to keep going but it was really more just about the exchange of ideas and art. It was very pure. That’s what’s kind of the core of what we do and eventually it became a business. Over time we’ve actually tried to hone our skills and provide more of an ecosystem and an infrastructure for artists. To provide a way for them to make a living. That’s really what has kept us going all these years. At the beginning, my wife Breanne and I moved to Portland and we were just overwhelmed by the creative community. We saved up a bunch of money from our serving jobs, lived very frugally and just invested all of that into our “business”, which it really wasn’t much of a business at the time. Once we had blown through all that money, we had created a community that was actually able to sustain us and we were able to keep going.
So now you have three stores?
Yep, we have three stores and we’ve put out about 60 records. It kind of picked us as much as we picked it. And the music scene here is growing as fast as Portland is growing.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
That’s a good question because honestly, there’s been lots of dry desert periods where it’s like ‘you’re doing this 12 hours a day and just kicking your butt’. My cofounder is my wife so it’s like we don’t really escape from the business part of it and y’know, there is 20 people working here now. It’s a lot of managing people and it’s a lot of business. It’s not difficult to stay inspired but it’s easy to lose it if you don’t constantly give it air. It’s kind of like a fire. If you don’t give it oxygen or fuel, it’s going to die. It’s not like you can never get it started again but it’s all about living the dynamic life and not getting too rooted into just one way of doing things to the point where you get overwhelmed. I think the things we do are to just try and keep things dynamic. Doing things that maybe are totally different from what you normally do, is what keeps things interesting.
Do you have a creative process?
There’s a creative element to this entire business and its basically been about finding what is true and awesome. “Whatever you do, just make sure that it’s strong and it’s bright.” That’s a lyric of mine and it’s about making sure you are putting something out there, that you’re being forthright about, and you’re not judging it too heartily. With us our process is very much a process of inertia. If you can just get something going then it starts to tell its own story. It starts to make itself manifest. Every time we’ve opened a store, it’s very much a business project but it’s also very much a creative pursuit because we’re often involving dozens of different people. I’d say it’s more like once you have an idea, making sure people are on board and that you have it established and then just trusting the people that you put around you. From my own creative music process, it’s ever evolving. Like I said before, it’s about not getting so attached to one way of ideating or creating things. For me it’s more about listening to yourself. Listening to what is going on in your life and being quiet and actually hearing the sounds and the songs and the lyrics. And If nothing is there then nothing is there. I’m not forcing it. That’s what keeps creativity flowing. Not forcing things. It’s all about riding the inertia of the creativity.
What’s it been like working with Radiation City?
We’ve been working with them since 2011. They’re great! They have worked very, very hard. Rad City has suffered for their art and I have caused them to suffer. Often when signing a label like ours, it’s signing up to be just professional enough to suffer. They’ve been relentlessly touring and recording and they’re always doing creative things. They’ve been able to do it for a living but they’ve really had to buckle down and accept the bohemian, traveling artist lifestyle in a way that most people don’t understand. It’s like a nomadic lifestyle in many ways. You don’t really call a place home for very long. That’s what touring life is. They’ve recently moved on to Polyvinyl records. We put out their early stuff and we are just pleased as punch that they are able to continue on. Ya, they are just lovely people.
What does it mean to you, being a creative in Portland?
I think that it’s really about doing something that you can be proud of. Something you can stand behind as being valuable. As simple as that sounds, some of the time it drifts away from that. A lot of the time it becomes about being cool or making money, or being popular, getting on a podcast or blog, being prolific, being mysterious.. there’s a lot of little things it can be about but I think ultimately it’s about doing something that you are proud of and that you can call pure.
What do you wish was happening more in Portland?
I think we could have an eye more for creating industries for ourselves that are sustainable so that we don’t all have to work in coffee shops to be creative people. Having the mindset of ‘How can I make this thing be my livelihood now rather than some time in the future’. There could be more systems and more infrastructure for artists. If we could focus on sustaining ourselves then we wouldn’t feel as that we have to either go work for somebody else to feel that that’s the only way we can make our art. Creatives have to be creative somehow, so they’re either going to do it on their own time or someone else’s time. We should be developing ways for creatives to be entrepreneurs in a way that isn’t sell-outy or smarmy.
What do you love most about your job?
The think I love most about TLE is being around people that are pursuing something creative, pursuing beauty, and pursuing something which they feel needs to be out there in the world. Also, just being around all the people I work with. I really love all the people that work here. We have an amazing team of people and just a great community. I love this city too. I love coming to work in a city that is ultimately a very unique, forward-thinking, advanced city. We don’t spend enough time singing Portland’s praises.
Where did the name ‘Tender Loving Empire’ originate?
We originally wanted the name to be this juxtaposition of words. It kind of comes from listening to Modest Mouse and Built to Spill in the early 2000’s and all of their songs and albums are these funny juxtapositions. We kind of felt that the idea of an empire which simultaneously had infrastructure, growth and power while remaining an empire of the people, and an empire of creativity, respect and tender love, had something to it. ‘Tender Loving’ are sickly sweet words. It’s almost gross, and ‘Empire’ is almost gross, and when you put them together and it’s this weird juxtaposition. We were taking a road trip and constantly coming up with band names and company names and just free-forming in the car as you do. It was a result of visiting the Albuquerque hot air balloon fiesta and there was this gigantic tent called ‘Tender Loving Arts and Crafts’. It was like a Walmart of doodads and nicknacks. That’s where we were like, ‘It’s a Tender Loving Empire!’. It was all very free-form. That’s how things happen. You think of something and suddenly you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life.