Noah Mortola performs a drum set. Luke Misclevitz/Rhododendron

Rhododendron brings prog rock to Portland

The band talks creative process and what they hate most about house concerts

According to the simple description found on their official Instagram page, the band Rhododendron is “pdx prog punk.” 


While these three short words might be accurate, they don’t go far enough in describing the Portland-based group’s fresh sound that blends decades of musical evolution. 


Rhododendron has its roots in the Portland School of Rock, a music school that all three band members attended for several years. Guitarist and singer Ezra Chong and bassist Gage Walker were the first to meet, and they quickly made a doom metal band that neither member looks back on fondly. 


“It was this really crappy doom metal band we didn’t do anything with,” Chong said.


Chong began listening to a lot of King Crimson, while Walker got into prog rock and experimental music. With shifting musical interests, the pair left their doom metal band to make something different. They began playing around with a riff that both thought was cool, but Chong knew that whatever they did, they would need their fellow School of Rock student Noah Mortola as their drummer.


“I was fifteen, Gage was sixteen and Noah was thirteen, but—even then—he was still the best drummer I know,” Chong said.


Mortola agreed to join the project, and in March 2019, the three came together for their first practice. Although they found musical chemistry right away, their plans were unexpectedly put on hold when Mortola broke his arm BMXing, causing them to postpone practice for months. 


Once Mortola’s arm was healed, the group realized they needed a name. The band threw around a few—almost going with Stickbone Bonestick—but weren’t satisfied. Frustrated, the three went on a walk around their neighborhood. On their stroll, they passed a bush of rhododendrons. Back home and hours later, the flower came back up in their naming discussions and they decided to make it their new name. Although the name had almost random origins, Chong found meaning in it after the fact. 


“There was a rhododendron garden near my house as a kid,” Chong said. “I would go to feed the ducks, and I always thought it was a sick word.” 


A friend of theirs mentioned that they thought it was a good name because rhododendrons are beautiful on the outside but poisonous on the inside. 


“I wasn’t thinking that at all, but it’s cool that people can get that interpretation,” Chong said. “I swear we aren’t that edgy.” 


Although the name is memorable, the band has found some unforeseen inconveniences with it. “People will tag us in their [Instagram] photos not knowing that we’re a band,” Mortola said. “[They will] caption it with ‘nice day at the rhododendron garden.’”


In a more intentional way, fans will often send them photos with the flower. 

Ezra Chong, Gage Walker and Noah Mortola perform at a Rhododendron concert (left to right). Ian Enger/Rhododendron

“I’m always like ‘this is cool, but I don’t know what to do with this,’” Walker said. 


With a name chosen and Mortola’s arm healed again, the band started making music in 2019. Most songs began with Chong coming up with a riff or melody that would develop into a song. After the rough idea was developed, Walker would go through and help edit the riffs into cohesive tracks. Finally, Mortola would record all the parts and mix the tracks into a finished song. Chong described the dynamic simply: “I’m the writer, Gage is the editor and Noah is the talent.” 


Their first months of writing manifested into their debut EP, Stream of Nauseousness. The band described this first project as being a mish mosh of different songs of different genres. 


“We were writing music and knew that we had to release something quick,” Walker said. 


“It was less cohesive and more collage,” Chong said. “Every song was its own genre in a way.” 


Although they enjoyed the project, the band finished with a desire to make something more unified. In 2021, the group released their first full-length album, Protozoan Battle Hymns. This release would see their goals made true, with tracks that share unifying themes and musical ideas throughout. 


“[I wanted to create] something that you can define more as being our sound,” Mortola said. “As opposed to just a ton of random songs.”


In all of their discography, their unique approach to naming tracks has persisted. They described their naming technique as a random process of putting words together into word vomit. One of their song names, “Moloch Whose Eyes are a Thousand Blind Windows,” was decided on a rock paper scissors game that Walker lost to Chong. The song borrows its title from a line in an Allen Ginsberg poem, who Chong cites as someone that they want their lyrics to be like. 


“No one knows our lyrics,” Chong said. “And we’re okay with that because I’m not very proud of them.”


When asked about their influences, the band overflowed with artists and genres, including Brazilian folk, various metal bands and prog staples. Chong’s major influences in writing for Rhododendron include Don Caballero, Gospel and 37500 Yens. Walker cited The Birthday Party in their approach to intentional repetition and deconstruction in repetition. Mortola agreed with the others—referencing Matt Gartska as his favorite drummer—but in recent years, has been studying jazz for his style, naming Bebop and its many subgenres. To him, the difference is a huge plus.  


“If we all liked the same music it might be easier to have a collective image,” he said. “But I like having a different take, especially with something as essential as drums.”

Rhododendron’s Gage Walker riffs on the bass at a concert. Ian Enger/Rhododendron

In their three years together, the band has seen a lot of what the local scene has to offer. In that time, they’ve also developed a few minor grievances. One of these is frustration at house shows, with the crowd either getting on stage or walking directly through their area. 


“Give all the bands you go to see space,” Chong said. “If you crash into my pedals I’m going to kill you.” 


Another issue for Chong in particular is their rising popularity.


“A lot of people know me in the scene, which is cool to be appreciated, but I have this expectation because everyone knows me,” Chong said. “People associate it more with me, and it sucks because Gage and Mortola are putting in just as much work and are crucial.” 


Despite the small upsets, the group is still very thankful for the success they have found and emphatically express how much fun they have had. All three agree that their work is something they would be doing no matter whether people listened or not. They all state that they write because it’s what they enjoy, not for any career goals or public appeal.


Moving forward, the band plans to write more original music, with a loose goal of releasing an album or EP this summer. Interested readers who’d like to learn more about their work and upcoming shows can find them on Instagram, where they go by the handle @rhododendronpdx.