Interviewing Seattle’s Music Scene

Posted: August 29, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

I unofficially began The Strangest Tribe back in 2004, when I met Jack Endino at a restaurant in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.  At that time, I was just starting a class on rock n roll history, and I wanted to chat with Endino about Seattle’s place in music.  About two years later, he became my first interview.

Since then, I’ve done about 120 interviews in an attempt to penetrate a very insular music scene.  Non-Seattleites have to understand that the locals have become quite jaded, and understandably so.  Since Nirvanamania, countless writers have come in from out of town to carve out their own “angle” on the grunge phenomenon.  I didn’t want to be just another carpetbagger.  I had to do it right, and that meant–in addition to conducting interviews–looking through newspapers, magazines, fanzines, record liner notes, pictures, and listening to tons of music.

It took awhile.  I think I only did maybe a half-dozen interviews in 2006, and then it began to pick up slowly.  I knew virtually no one when I began this project, so I had to allow time for the word to spread that I wasn’t a typical out of town asshole.  I at least wanted to be viewed as an atypical out of town asshole.  So, I used time as an ally.  Some people took two, even three years to finally nail down for an interview.

Despite prevailing cynicism, I found the Seattle music community to be quite gracious.  I enjoyed every interview…maybe because my style is more Larry King than Mike Wallace.  Initially, I had a list of questions for each interviewee, but I noticed that I would typically deviate from the script depending on what the subject was talking about.  So, by the time I was about 40 or so interviews in, I pretty much ditched the pre-fab questions.  That style allowed the dialogue to progress more naturally, and thus better enlighten me about that person’s life within the music community.  I listened to each interview at least three more times–sometimes up to a dozen repeats–just to get the feel for each one.

I also noticed the further I went back in time, the more people appreciated talking with me.  Pre-grunge musicians from bands like Chinas Comidas, the Enemy, the Pudz, the Blackouts, and the Moberlys were generally thrilled somebody actually gave a shit about their story.  The grunge folks were naturally more hardened, but even they were pretty open with their stories.

I conducted most of my interviews by telephone since a) I’m in Philly and most of my subjects are in Seattle and b) sometimes in-person interviews can be awkward.  It’s hard to feel natural when a running tape recorder rests on a table between you and the interviewee.

Some highlights:

  • Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5/R.E.M./Baseball Project/Tired Pony…I think I’m missing a band).  Scott is such a nice guy and funny as hell.  My book would have sucked without him.  I needed an entrée into the Fellows, perhaps Seattle’s greatest underground band.  Scott provided that and then some.
  • Green River’s Alex Shumway.  Alex may have been the funniest of all of my interviews.  His recounting of Green River’s 1985 CBGB’s show was priceless.
  • The late Ben McMillan of Skin Yard.  I loved him.  He was absolutely hysterical, brazen, and totally honest.  When I asked him about his lyrical inspiration, he told me it was a ridiculous question.  Knowing Ben meant no harm, I burst out laughing.  He then provided the following answer: “Love lost…punch in the face.  Pissed on.  Not pissed on.  Fed.  Not fed?”
  • Jack Endino.  Jack is, in some ways, the gatekeeper of the Seattle grunge scene.  I interviewed him three times, but it took me until the third conversation to inquire about Nirvana’s Bleach.  And no, I didn’t ask, “What was Kurt like?” or “Did you really record Bleach for $600?”
  • Dawn Anderson.  Dawn provided a nice cross-section of Seattle underground music.  She was one of the few scenesters to admit liking Kiss way back in 1983, when it wasn’t cool for punkers to admit it.  She attended the slick Eastside metal events and the urban noise shows, and at least symbolically laid the basis for Deep Six with her Backfire fanzine.
  • Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records and member of Beat Happening.  Calvin became irritated when I asked him why Beat Happening played without a bass.  I didn’t laugh this one off since he was dead serious.  You’ll have to see the book for his response.
  • Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard.  Super, super gracious guy.  I’m doing a separate write-up on this interview next week, I think.
  • Mudhoney’s Mark Arm.  Another cool guy.  I was interviewing Mark for about an hour, when Skype cut out from my end.  I called him back, and ten minutes later, Skype disconnected us again.  He then patiently waited for another few minutes while I hooked up my old tape player to record the remainder of the conversation.  At the tail end of the interview, you can hear my wife yelling up to my dog (who was hanging with me), “Coco!  Dinner!”
  • The Squirrels’ Rob Morgan.  Rob may be the funniest person in the universe.  You just have to spend an hour with this guy.  I think I interviewed him six times.  You’ll have to read the book to find out why.
  • Paul Hood (the Meyce/the Enemy).  I originally wanted to begin my story in 1978 with the opening of the Bird, Seattle’s first punk rock club.  Paul basically said, and I’m paraphrasing: ‘Nope, you gotta start with the 1976 TMT Show, the city’s first punk rock event.’
  • Jim Basnight (the Meyce/the Moberlys).  After speaking with Paul, I called up Jim.  In 1975, Jim’s first band, the Luvaboys (which included Paul), performed after lunch at a high school assembly.  Jim came out glammed-up like Iggy and had vegetables tossed at him by irritated jocks.  That event essentially began the Seattle underground music scene.  (Note: if you’ve ever seen The Runaways, there is a scene where a young Cherie Curie stands up in front of a high school audience singing a Bowie cover while wearing Aladdin Sane make-up.  The audience threw garbage at her.  It made me think of the Luvaboys.)
  • Metal writer Jeff Gilbert.  Jeff was my last interview, back in February of 2011.  As I talked with him about Seattle’s vibrant metal history, I thought, ‘Why did I wait this long to interview this guy?’
  • Conrad Uno, producer and founder of Popllama Products.  I actually did a “pre-interview” with Conrad at a sandwich shop near his house.  We chatted for about two hours off the record.  It was about the funniest two hours of my life.  We then did an official interview at that same shop about a year later.
  • The Thrown Ups’ John “Leighton” Beezer.  I had already interviewed Leighton, and about a year later I had hit a snag.  I just couldn’t get from 1983 to 1985.  So, I called him up.  Interestingly, he had been revisiting those same years and helped get me from point A to point B.
  • The U-Men’s Tom Price.  I interviewed Tom, along with Cat Butt’s James Burdyshaw, at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard.  Tom was my first direct inroad into the U-Men, a band I wrote about more than any other.  If you read the book, you’ll see why.
  • TAD’s Kurt Danielson.  Kurt was living in Paris at the time, and I called him up at 6 am ET.  We spoke until 10 am.  It was great.
  • Nirvana’s Chad Channing.  I briefly met Chad at Geezerfest back in 2007, and interviewed him by phone afterward.  We spent most of our interview talking about Nirvana’s place within Seattle’s underground music scene, again avoiding the “What was Kurt like?” line of questioning.
  • The Walkabouts’ Chris Eckman.  Chris was great, and provided the book’s closing quote, which of course you’ll have to wait to read.  I know…I suck.
  • Nirvana biographer Everett True.  After reading two of Everett’s books, I braced myself for a confrontational interview.  Didn’t happen.  Everett turned out to be truly nice, and walked me through his discovery of grunge back in 1989.
  • Terry Lee Hale.  I interviewed Terry Lee once as a musician and once as a booking agent.  On both fronts, he was an invaluable cog in the Seattle music scene.
  1. Ralph Becker says:

    Mike McCready was another big Kiss fan. We always ordered Kiss buttons for him at Kitchy Koo.

  2. heidi says:

    all the punk girls are left out. That’s too bad. there wouldn’t have been punk without girls.

    • Stephen Tow says:

      Went through my interview list to see women I chatted with: Dawn Anderson, Jane Brownson (aka Jane Fag), Shirley Carlson, Tina Casale, Amy Denio, Gillian Gaar, Claudia Gehrke, Courtney Miller, Carla Torgerson, Faith Henschel-Ventrello, Kim Warnick, Laura Weller-Vanderpool, and Bon Von Wheelie. Ignoring/declining my interview requests were: Cynthia Genser, Lulu Gargiulo, Penelope Houston, Megan Jasper, Maire Masco, Lisa Orth, Susan Silver. Hope that helps.

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