Interviewing Seattle’s Music Scene: the Prequel

Posted: September 13, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

First let me start by saying I hated the ’80s.  I attended college during the first half of that decade when MTV hit in force.  Suddenly, presentation became more important than the music itself.  To me, those years were more about choreographed videos, big hair, fancy clothes, and manufactured controversy than rock n roll.  Even the so-called rock n roll of that decade bored me…Springsteen, John Mellencamp and the like.  (Unfortunately, like most Americans, I was not aware of the amazing alternative bands happening at the time.)

So while my friends talked about the latest Madonna video, I learned the ’60s.  I ate up Hendrix and the Who and the Stones and Cream and the Yardbirds and Jefferson Airplane.  And I obsessed over Led Zeppelin.  All of that music just spoke to me so much more than anything coming out of the radio.

Then Nevermind hit in 1991/92.  Finally.  The ’80s had unequivocally come to a crashing halt.  No more pretty bands with big hair.  No more MTV kissing Michael Jackson’s ass.  Dirty, loud, and raucous rock n roll was back.  Seattle caused me to listen to current music, current popular music.  Wonderful.  I ate up the “big four” Seattle bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

Then I started digging a little further and the story became richer.  I saw hype!, a 1996 documentary of Seattle and grunge, read Clark Humphrey’s Loser,* and began to venture further.  As I peeled back the layers, the city began to fascinate me on a whole other level.  I discovered something: the Seattle music community possessed an amazing, eccentric, and contradictory sense of humor.  Nothing I’d seen, read about, or heard did it justice.  So, about ten years ago, I began to consider writing a book about it.  Personal circumstances prevented me from starting the project at that time.  And then…

In the fall of 2004, I got an opportunity to teach a class on rock n roll history.  That summer, I met my sister and nephew in Seattle for vacation.  Prior to the trip, I had contacted producer Jack Endino to discuss Seattle’s place in music history.  Endino’s deal was pretty simple: feed him and he’ll give you an hour of his time.  Cool.

We met at a Greek restaurant in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood that July.  I got there first.  Endino walked in, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated.  Here I was an obscure adjunct history professor from Philly meeting the “Godfather of Grunge.”  He discovered Nirvana for crying out loud!  Endino, sensing my awkwardness, asked: “Are you nervous?” “A little,” I responded.  “Don’t be.  I’m just a studio rat,” he said.

 We ended up moving to a Thai restaurant and sat outside.  We talked about music and history, he told me to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (a good social history, but I find it a bit too preachy), and I took some mental notes.  At the end of the lunch, he told me about a Wellwater Conspiracy gig taking place the next evening at a now-defunct club called the Catwalk.  WWC, a three-piece, featured former Soundgardeners Matt Cameron (then and now with Pearl Jam), and Ben Shepherd.

I ended up going to the show myself since it wasn’t my family’s thing.  About twenty or so patrons watched a Ramones cover band open.  I’m pretty sure I saw Tad Doyle in the audience, especially since his band would play later, but I was too shy to say hello.  (I interviewed him by phone in 2006).

The low-key atmosphere immediately struck me.  (The ad in The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly paper, displayed “Wellwater Conspiracy” in small print, with no mention of the celebrity of two of its players.)

As I stood among the handful of patrons, Cameron came out to set up his drum kit.  No roadies…and nobody in the audience gave a shit.  The band then took the stage.  I got to see Cameron play drums from about 20 feet away.  Amazing…and he sang at the same time.  And he sang well.  And he sang while he played weird time signatures.  How?  After about 40 minutes, the band broke down its equipment and left.  The performance was stunning, and, like I said, totally under the radar.  I had a similar experience in 2009, when I met Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard for the first time.  (See “Interviewing Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard,” also in the Offbeat Seattle-Related Music Stories section.)

Afterwards, I emailed Jack to tell him about the event.  Two years later, he became my first official interview.

* – I have to give Clark Humphrey a shout-out for Loser, which documents a century of Seattle music.  I could not have done the music scene justice without having his book as a reference.  I have heard some criticism about Loser’s accuracy, but I have to challenge people: you try and write a mistake-free account of one hundred years of music.

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