Coffin Break, formed in 1987, was one of the first Seattle bands to move beyond grunge’s slow/heavy/sexy aesthetic. Also, unlike their heavier brethren, Coffin Break’s song titles and lyrics were an integral part of their music. They even had the audacity to make fun of the “serious” bands with song titles like “Noise Patch” (Soundgarden) and “Flesh Field” (Skin Yard.) This little snippet talks about the band’s 1988 tour. An abbreviated version made the book.
Coffin Break’s 1988 tour is particularly intriguing since the band had not yet released a recording. The three-piece formed in the Spring of 1987. “I think it was May 18th, because that was the [anniversary of] Mount St. Helens [erupting],” bassist Rob Skinner remembers, “and also Hüsker Dü was playing at the University of Washington, on the ‘warehouse tour.’ So I remember going and trying out [for Coffin Break], then going to the Hüsker Dü show–which I promptly got thrown out of in the first song.
“I did a stage dive,” he continues. “I was big into jumpin’ off of things at that point. The more I drank–fear of heights, of course–so the more I drank, the more I wanted to jump off stuff.”
By 1988, the band consisted of David Brooks on drums, Pete Litwin on guitar, and Skinner on bass. The name was a parody on doom and gloom metal outfits, even while Litwin brought in his Black Sabbath and speed metal influence into the band. Skinner’s pop/punk sensibility brought a unique dynamic to Coffin Break, not allowing the band to fit too nicely within any rock n roll subgenre.
Bored with the small Seattle club scene, Skinner led the charge to tour the country. The band had no real “plan” to groom itself for a career. The six-week excursion was simply an excuse to get out of town.
Skinner helped put the tour together by calling promoters around the country. Coffin Break’s association with the San Francisco band Bomb provided helpful connections. Locations were chosen based on word of mouth and local scene reports in Maximumrocknroll.
Seattle’s music scene began to get national underground recognition by 1988. That certainly helped an unknown band get gigs across the country. “We sent out a press kit and a [demo] tape,” Skinner told James Bush in Backlash, “Sometimes it was almost too easy–just one call and we’d get a show.”
“Three dollars per day–that was our per-diem,” Skinner recalls. “We got five bucks a day when we were in New York–for three days. That was our big expenditure. We went out with three people and a roadie named Kyle in a ’68 Dodge Sportsman. And, just did it.”
The tour had its share of mishaps of course, like the time the band got thrown out of a Dearborn, Michigan movie theater because Brooks wore an offensive t-shirt. “We scraped together money–which was a big expense, ’cause that was our three dollar a day tour,” says Skinner. “And so at that point, movie tickets were like five bucks, seven bucks. So, we did a band excursion, spent the money, go sit down, get about fifteen minutes into the movie and some jackass is telling us that we have to leave.”
The manager was offended by Brooks’ t-shirt. On the front, it had the words “Green River,” referencing the band. On the back, it had a picture of a six-pack of soda also called Green River, accompanied by the words, “Ride the Fucking Six Pack.”* “And the worst part of the whole thing,” Skinner continues, “is they didn’t give us our damn money back. And that still burns me.”
Then there was the van incident at a convenience store stop. Brooks had gone in to get a cup of coffee while Skinner and Litwin had fallen asleep in the van. The only problem was that Brooks had forgotten to set the parking brake. Brooks told the story to James Bush in Backlash.
“‘Isn’t that your van rolling through the parking lot?’” Brooks recalled the counterman saying.
“I turned around and looked and it was gone,” Brooks told Bush. “I just said ‘Oh fuck’ and kept stirring my coffee.”
Brooks watched helplessly as the van containing his band-mates rolled toward the gas pumps and other vehicles in the lot. “And I was just frankly too hung over. I couldn’t move,” Skinner recalls. “But Pete just kinda jumped out of the loft [inside the van] and jumped up over the front seat head-first and pushed the brake with his hand, and stopped it. And we didn’t hit anything.”
Despite the tour’s issues including van problems, personality conflicts, bad routing and the like, the band accomplished what it set out to do: get publicity and possibly sell some demo tapes. “And more importantly,” Skinner adds, “avoid day jobs.”
* – Note: Mark Arm wore the same shirt when fronting Green River at their 2008 reunion show. See the story in the “My Seattle-Related Concert Experiences” section.