By Rob Mair
From the birth of seminal indie group Beat Happening, through grunge, riot grrrl, and indie-rock, the Pacific Northwest has always revelled in reinvention.
While trends come and go, one man has seen it all. Jack Endino – the bona fide “Godfather of grunge” – has helmed albums by Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad in a career that spans more than 30 years. When he says your band’s songs have “… a good pop hook with a bunch of bashing and screaming over it; what’s not to like?” you know you’re onto a good thing.
Endino isn’t talking about a grunge breakout. He’s not even referring to Modest Mouse, the Thermals or Japandroids, where the same description rings true. He was talking about up-and-coming Seattle punks Dead Bars. Vocalist John Maiello is understandably stoked at the praise: “He understood from the get go. At our core we write pop songs, but we’re not a pop band. We can’t be; because of our upbringing and the atmosphere here.”
At 22, Maiello moved to Seattle from New Jersey. Eight years later, he’s been adopted by the city as one of its own, and sees Dead Bars as more a product of Seattle than of his East Coast roots.
“I can tell you straight up, we’re definitely a Seattle band,” he says. “The East Coast influences I have, they come through because of who I am and who I grew up with, but this band would never be the Dead Bars that you know if we’d stayed in New Jersey. I don’t even know what it would be like. The physical stuff here – the weather, the atmosphere, the attitude – it has made us a poppy punky band, but also a darker, edgier, punk band.”
It’s a similar story for Boise’s Western Daughter. An eight-hour drive from Seattle, they’re very much the product of their environment (“the physical stuff”, as Maiello describes it). In their case, it’s the isolation and wilderness that surrounds them. While the pop sensibilities still shine, it is more subtle; diluting the hooks with emo, folk and indie influences.
“We all have a different vocabulary in how we think about music,” says Western Daughter’s Cameron Brizzee. “I could play punk music my whole life, but trying to get someone like Zach [Sherwood], who plays jazz drums..? We’re always gonna end up with something a little different.”
Most of the sextet found different paths to Boise from nearby towns and cities (to them, ‘nearby’ can mean up to a four hour drive). The cultural and artistic centre of Idaho, Boise is a small city with a huge legacy, having produced the iconic indie-rockers Built to Spill. Like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and the Microphones, they remain an important touchstone for all of today’s emerging bands:
“You know Doug Martsch from Built to Spill? I see Doug Martsch around Boise on a weekly basis. Like at house shows, in a basketball court, at a school down the street from my house. It’s pretty surreal,” laughs Brizzee.
“I do think our sound is indebted to Built to Spill and Modest Mouse to a degree. But I think even if we didn’t sound like that, we’d still be compared to those bands, just because we’re a guitar rock band from the Pacific Northwest.”
As if to prove the point, Portland’s Strange Ranger were on the end of such comparisons following last year’s breakout Rot Forever (recorded under the name Sioux Falls). Formed by two Montanans, Isaac Eiger and Fred Nixon, it felt like any Modest Mouse and Built to Spill similarities were used as a stick to beat the album, despite it being one of the most outstanding records of 2016.
They’re gearing up to release their second-full length, ‘Daymoon’, having recently signed to Tiny Engines. They readily agree that these same acts – Modest Mouse, Built to Spill and the Microphones – influenced the group’s development. It is this influence that swayed their decision on where to relocate six years ago: “Portland was the closest city, and it’s not huge or intimidating like those East Coast cities. We also grow up listening to tonnes of Pacific Northwest stuff, especially at that time,” comments Eiger.
Yet, what has been most beneficial to the group’s development was meeting like-minded people. Growing up in Bozeman, Montana (pop. 50,000), there weren’t too many other people into similar music. Now, as part of a much larger scene, they’re able to draw inspiration from friends and associates – even if they initially struggled to find their feet in a new city.
“For three to-four years, we were playing on bills that we shouldn’t have been playing on, to literally nobody,” says Eiger.
“Then, there was this fateful night where we played a show with this band Loser Boyfriend. They’ve since split up and are members of Snow Roller and Cool American, but we became friends with those people, then got into the scene with bands like Blowout. That was a special time,” continues Nixon.
Likewise, making these links has been beneficial to Seattle indie-punks Great Grandpa. Vocalist Alex Menne is close friends with Snow Roller and Strange Ranger, and there’s very much a sense of a fostered community spirit when they talk about each other’s bands:
“I feel that, as a group of people, we respect each other a lot, and that’s an awesome thing. We’re in Seattle, they’re in Portland – it’s not that far away. But it’s far enough that we don’t get to play shows together all the time. So, when we do, it feels special.”
Menne also speaks fondly of Western Daughter – “We love them. We’ve seen them a few times. They’re so good,” she says, while Western Daughter’s Brizzee says the new Great Grandpa record (‘Plastic Cough’) will spur them on for the follow-up to ‘Driftwood Songs’: “I think seeing your friends do well, it breeds this weird competitiveness in me. Like, ‘Holy shit, that Great Grandpa record is crazy’. I want to make something that good.”
This collective mentality – to drive each other on to benefit the local scene – is seen clearly with the establishment of Portland’s Making New Enemies, a label and art collective that has recently released excellent new albums by Snow Roller (‘XXL’) and Hemingway (‘You Will Never Be Happy’). Initially set up as a means to distribute releases by Walter Etc. (formerly Walter Mitty and his Makeshift Orchestra), it has grown to be an indicator of the quality in Portland’s scene. Their next release will be the new Walter Etc. album, ‘Gloom Cruise’, as part of a joint licensing deal with California’s Lauren Records and Philadelphia’s Lame-O.
The eponymous Walter (AKA Dustin Hayes) hopes such a deal will help bring the spotlight to other bands on the label: “Walter Etc has always been a spearhead for Making New Enemies,” he says. “We’ve met a lot of people that we work with on Making New Enemies through the Walter band, and I always hoped that if that did well, and by getting out there, it would trickle down laterally to help out bands like Hemingway – like maybe get Hemingway out on tour, or get Snow Roller on a cool show.”
Last year, Making New Enemies were involved in a further co-release with Lauren for Blowout’s ‘No Beer No Dad’, another gem of the region that deserves a bigger audience. Barely four months after its release – and just as they were taking off – Blowout broke up. From a personal perspective, Hayes believes the decision cemented their place as “local heroes who dropped out before they had their day,” while from a professional perspective he was gutted as “they were so awesome and I didn’t wanna see them stop.”
Like Hayes, Alex Menne has seen friends’ bands break up before they ever got a shot. Here, she puts it down to the gentrification of the city forcing people out. The arrival of Amazon and other big corporations into Seattle has pushed prices up and relegated artists to the fringes.
“A band will pop up, and something will happen – like rent will get raised – so someone from the band has to move out of the city. Life happens,” she says. “Sometimes, it feels like revolving musical acts, where one week it would be this line-up, and the next it would be like ‘Oh, so-and-so is moving out of town’, or ‘It didn’t work out with this person.’
“There’s still affordable living, but unless you have money, things are really expensive – and increasingly so. You can get lucky in a few spots; if you have a landlord who knows the cost of living in a city, and knows it’s just a shitty one bedroom apartment. But then there are a lot of newer condos being built and older buildings getting torn down. Just general gentrification, you know?”
It’s a similar story in Portland, where Strange Ranger also mention gentrification as a challenge. Just this year, The Know – a popular punk dive bar – was forced to relocate 3 miles, taking root in the former legendary indie-rock venue the Blackbird. Oddly, it feels like an appropriate sign of reinvention in a scene that continues to find new ways to survive.
“Gentrification is a challenge, but it’s not the only challenge,” considers Dead Bars’ Maiello. “Housing and rent prices going up definitely makes it harder for musicians to live inside the city, and there have been bars that close – but then others open up. There are still plenty of places to play, but it’s just a matter of how much of the other bullshit you can take.
“People will still write songs. Bands will still play shows. We’ll all be just fine,” he affirms.
And this is perhaps why the Pacific Northwest continues to produce so many exciting bands. These challenges – whether it be the isolation or the gentrification – will never stop people from making music, but instead spur bands on to push harder.
The march of time means the landscape for today’s emerging acts is far different to that encountered by the fledgling Nirvana or Modest Mouse. Yet, despite the ever-shifting challenges, the region’s underground remains in rude health; a melting pot of creativity that continues to produce bands and albums that should be cherished. In an area renowned for producing iconic alternative acts, the likes of Strange Ranger, Great Grandpa and Western Daughter look well-placed to take the baton forward. It feels like the dawn of yet another golden age for a scene that always finds a new way to shine.