Answering Portland’s ‘call of the weird,’ with The Unipiper

For folks not in the know, tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Brian Kidd and I came to Portland in 2007 to answer the call of the weird with a set of bagpipes and a unicycle in tow. Like many others, I was lured in by off-kilter tales of what Portland had to offer and the promise of fitting in merely by not fitting in. Without any real plan, I began my life of weird in Portland by roaming the streets on my unicycle and playing bagpipes everywhere I could. I adopted the moniker of “The Unipiper” and kept going. I began receiving requests to play at every kind of event from birthday parties to ice hockey games and everything in between. 

Viral fame soon followed after upgrading my bagpipes to shoot fire, a video captured in front of the iconic ‘Keep Portland Weird’ sign landed me a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2014 and overnight The Unipiper became a physical manifestation of the ‘Keep Portland Weird’ movement. From there I would have the chance to represent Portland in many different capacities and in many different locations, from a Portland-themed festival in Amsterdam, to appearances on shows like ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘America’s Got Talent.’  I of course had no idea what The Unipiper would become or where it would take me, but I am very fortunate to have found my place in Portland. There is no doubt that it is as much a part of my identity today as my pipes or unicycle.      

How did “Keep Portland Weird” as a slogan become such a significant part of Portland’s identity?

The slogan originates from Music Millennium owner Terry Currier, who borrowed it from Austin, TX (Keep Austin Weird) as a way to promote shopping at local businesses in the late-nineties when big box stores began dominating the Portland consumer landscape. It was the fact that the slogan caught on that shows something uniquely Portland. The city did not become weird with the introduction of the phrase, rather it gave a name to an already vibrant subculture that had existed for decades. Portland’s reputation as a haven for misfits traces its roots back to the days of the ‘Wild West.’ However with a catchy name in place, it suddenly became a lot easier to put into words what was going on in Portland and the label stuck. 

People started putting the iconic yellow letters on their cars, in their windows and even on the sides of their businesses, and for better or for worse, the citizens of Portland began taking pride in their different ways of doing things, from offbeat museums, to performance art, to stores specializing in ice cream sundaes covered in ants. The cycle continued, attracting other like minded individuals and the weirdness of Portland grew, in size and in name. Fortunately, Terry Currier kept a tight leash on the name and licensing rights, keeping it safe from corporate interests seeking to turn a profit from our unique brand of quirkiness. 

This, in turn, has allowed Portland to maintain a hold on the authenticity of its weirdness. As Portland continued its rise in the cultural zeitgeist of the early 2010’s, fueled in part by our collective love of food cards, tall bikes, craft beer, and just generally being weird, the city started to experience a growth in population the likes of which it had never seen before. Would our sense of identity rooted in our reputation for putting breakfast cereal on donuts and bacon on everything survive this unprecedented growth? Was being weird in Portland still relevant? And what does ‘Keeping Portland Weird’ even mean in a post-Portlandia world? Enter Weird Portland United

What led you to create Weird Portland United? When did it launch?

Weird Portland United, as an accredited 501(c)3 nonprofit, officially launched in January of 2019, however the idea for an organized group dedicated to preserving Portland’s weirdness goes way back. I had always thought there was a need for such a group and I was ready to offer my support whenever it came to exist. I felt the need grow stronger though as I watched many of the weird staples of Portland slowly disappear and start to fade into memory (things like the prevalence of tall bikes, and museums like the Velveteria come to mind). It didn’t seem either that we were getting much in the way of replacements for each gem that was lost. I was worried that as the cost of living in Portland continued to rise and we lost more of our unique treasures, we might also lose a bit of ourselves in the process. At that moment I felt I had no choice but to try and start a movement, and as Portland’s unofficial ambassador of weird, I was in a unique position to save the weird. 

As they say, ‘With great weirdness, comes great responsibility.’ While other folks sat idly by and poured one out for the ‘Old Portland,’ I instead saw an opportunity with the influx of Portland newcomers to reinvigorate the underground creative scene. Be the weird you want to see in the world, I always say. Instead of lamenting what was being lost, my goal was to share with others the amazing and weird things about Portland that made me fall in love with it in the first place, and inspire others to pick up the mantle and continue that story. I want everyone to have the same chance at success as I did for expressing themselves as uniquely as possible. 

Because if not in Portland, then where can the weird turn? Weird Portland United kicked off alongside the release of the Unipiper Hazy IPA from Portland Brewing. I had concocted the idea of partnering with a local brewery to create a beer that would support our mission. For each beer sold, a portion of the sale would be funneled directly to Weird Portland United. What better way to ‘Keep Portland Weird’ than by drinking beer? Unfortunately Portland Brewing has since closed their doors – another business casualty of COVID-19, however the mission they helped to launch still carries on.

What is one of your favorite classically “weird” things about Portland?

The 24-Hour Church of Elvis, a gaudy interactive art installation by outside artist Stephanie Pierce is without a doubt one of my favorite weird Portland institutions. It has sadly been many years now since it was last open for ‘worship,’ however upon my arrival to Portland in 2007, it was one of my very first stops. Over the next several years, it was always high on my list of stops to show off to out of town visitors. It was also the site of an impromptu wedding between two of my best friends. Weddings mind you, were just one of the services offered at the self-service kiosk. Beyond being a delight to look at, on what was otherwise a very ordinary street, it’s what the 24-Hour Church of Elvis represented that makes it so fondly remembered by those who crossed its path. 

The church defied any line of questioning that dared to ask why. It did not need a reason to exist. ‘Portland’ was reason enough. It offered something different to everyone, whether a plastic bracelet, souvenir T-shirt, or personalized fortune. And despite the nonbelievers and against all odds, the Church of Elvis like any good prophet, rose from the dead more than once, existing in several different incarnations and locations over the years. I can’t think of anything more representative of the spirit of Portland than that. And there is no reason to believe today that we’ve heard the last from Stephanie and her shrine to the King. Even from its current state of silence and non-existence, the 24-Hour Church of Elvis still gives hope to those who remember it or long to visit for the first time. Today, the legacy of the 24-Hour Church of Elvis can be seen in the work of folks like Portland artist Mike BennettPeculiarium owner Mike WellinsWoodstock Mystery Hole proprietor Barron Mind, and anyone else just putting some fun out into the world for no particular reason.

I’ve heard there is a Weird Portland Museum in the works — what’s the current status on the project and what is the significance of documenting Portland’s weirder history?

While the establishment of a Weird Portland Museum is part of the long-term plan for Weird Portland United, those plans are temporarily on hold while we re evaluate priorities in the context of pandemic recovery. Ultimately, we will find a physical location to permanently show off the weird and wonderful history of Portland. I would love to one day show off the work of the group through an exhibit at PDX. In the meantime, however, we are wasting no time coming up with content for said museum. Last year we oversaw establishment of the Weird Portland Hall of Fame to honor those who have made significant and lasting contributions to our shared cultural identity. The first class of inductees included the world’s oldest drag queen, Darcelle XV; musician and merry maker, “Working” Kirk Reeves; former Portland mayor Bud Clark; and Portland author Stewart Holbrook. We are currently working to honor these individuals through an interactive mural and window display.

It is important that we remember our history through the lens of weird. In many ways, these are the people, places, and things that have helped put Portland on the map and have shaped public perception of our city, but they are at the same time easily overlooked by traditional accounts of our history. This is where Weird Portland United comes in. Not only is it in our mission to recognize the weird-makers, but to also provide a platform for the next generation.  Who better to tell this part of the Portland story than those who are most passionate about learning from our weird past and celebrating the best parts.