Archive for November, 2011

(Yeah, Jim gets two parts…lucky him.)

Have you seen The Runaways, the film about Joan Jett’s first band?  There’s a scene early on where singer Cherie Curie performs at a high school talent show.  Donning David Bowie Aladdin Sane-era make-up and singing one of his songs, the crowd roundly boos her.  Curie responds, in true punk rock fashion, with the requisite middle finger.  Seattle’s underground music scene began under similar circumstances, with Jim Basnight taking Curie’s role.

It was 1975.  The setting: a talent show held at Roosevelt High School in Seattle’s North End. Jim’s band the Luvaboys would perform after lunch.  “We came out there wearing makeup,” he recalls.  “I painted my whole body in silver spray paint, like Iggy.  And I put a big, black X on my chest.

“We were just really into that whole idea of rebelliousness and being really flamboyant and kind of irreverent and trying to incite trouble and stir up shit like the [New York] Dolls, and like Iggy, and like Alice Cooper and Bowie and stuff.”

To paraphrase George W. Bush, they accomplished their mission.

The Luvaboys played too loud, so loud in fact that the vice principal attempted to turn the volume down several times without success.  Angry jocks, armed with vegetables leftover from lunch, pelted the band mercilessly.  “And then later on I got my ass kicked by a bunch of ’em,” Jim remembers.

Despite the trouble, much of the crowd got into that performance, inspiring some to migrate south to the University District and start their own bands.

The Luvaboys’ talent show gig had become Seattle punk rock’s opening salvo.

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Pretty simple.  The first five people to identify my favorite Seattle band get a free signed copy of The Strangest Tribe mailed to them.  (Note: it’s not one of the “big four.”)  Email your answer to stephen@stephentow.com.  I’m figuring most of you Northwest people already know, so I’m again asking you folks to use your discretion.  Thanks much.

Interviewing Neil Hubbard

Posted: November 26, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

You won’t read about Neil Hubbard in most Seattle music books because he never became famous, nor did most of the musicians he associated with. Yet Seattle’s punk scene would never have gotten off the ground without him.

Neil is Seattle’s ultimate D.I.Y. guy. Along with such notables as Jim Basnight, Lee Lumsden, Rob Morgan, and Paul Hood, Neil helped create a music scene out of nowhere.

As a punk musician in mid-’70s Seattle, you had no support. Clubs weren’t interested, mainstream print media didn’t cover your events, and radio wouldn’t touch your music. Essentially, you were on your own. Instead of whining about it, Neil decided to take matters into his own hands on several occasions. In 1976, he helped organized the “TMT Show,” Seattle’s first public punk experience. Held at a local hall, TMT showcased three Seattle bands: the Telepaths, Meyce, and Tupperwares. Neil created a made up entity called the “Telepathic Foundation” to help fund the event. “This one radio station, KILO, gave us free public service announcements,” he remembers, “’cause we had this nonprofit group that we just made up out of thin air called the Telepathic Foundation. We were just pretty resourceful about things.”

The next year, after finding out the Ramones were playing an over-21 club in town, Neil called up their manager and requested the band play an all-ages show. The Ramones happily complied, and performed for punk fans at Seattle’s upscale Olympic hotel. The Meyce opened.

In 1980, instead of complaining about the lack of local record label support, Neil started his own: Engram Records. The following year, Engram would put out an era-defining compilation: Seattle Syndrome, Vol. 1. The comp showcased the scene’s varied musical expression: everything from hardcore (the Fartz), to postpunk (the Beakers, Blackouts), to arty new wave (Student Nurse), to pop/punk (Jim Basnight, the Fastbacks, Pudz). Syndrome documented Seattle punk as effectively as 1986’s Deep Six represented early grunge, and 1988’s Sub Pop 200 recognized Seattle’s arrival as an indie music hotbed. “Nobody had a full album’s worth of material recorded,” says Neil, referring to Syndrome. “I think a lot of the groups had that much material, but they couldn’t afford to spend all that time in the studio recording it. So, we just collected [the tracks] and put out the [compilation.]”

Interviewing Cap’n Mystery

Posted: November 21, 2011 in Other Key Interviews

Chris Hanzsek, aka Cap’n Mystery, is one of Seattle music’s unsung heroes.  He opened Reciprocal Recording (twice), the studio that gave us Green River, Mudhoney, TAD, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and many others.  Chris discovered Green River…and he put together the first “grunge” compilation (Deep Six), in 1986 on his C/Z label.

Chris and I have some geography in common.  He grew up in Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and I grew up in Lower Bucks (Upper is better, trust me.)  We both went to Penn State (ugh…this fucking scandal)  “My last years at Penn State were the exciting ones,” Chris remembers.  “I got involved with radio….I got to do what they called the “New Wave Show.”  Or, I thought of it as the “Punk Rock Show.”

“[We] did a radio show at Penn State called “Too Much Too Soon”….and he called himself Stu Dent.  Did he tell you who I was?  I was Poli Dent,” says his then girlfriend, Tina Casale.

Upon graduation, in 1980, Chris and Tina ventured to Boston.  “Then I found [a] job in Boston, kind of working in a warehouse that was just completely stocked full of musicians,” Chris recalls.  “And I think that’s where I got the idea I was gonna go in to the recording business ’cause there’s all these people sittin’ around talking about music, fightin’ over the stereo.  And quite a number of them were….going into studios and making recordings, and I just looked at that and went, ‘Oh man, that’s just too much fun.  How can I get involved?’

“So I just decided to start saving my money, my minimum wage money, whatever I was making, and I just started buying recording gear, and then trying to weasel my way into helping some of these developing bands with their demos and stuff.”

“And Boston at the time was just full of bands, utterly absolutely full of ’em….what convinced me to move there was I think the very first show I went to…we just wandered into the Ratt in Kenmore Square.  And opening that night was Mission of Burma and then the headliner was Gang of Four, playing their second show in the U.S.  I was just utterly impacted, very stunned.  It was just amazing for me to see this music happen.”

Chris remained in Boston for two years, immersing himself in the vibrant music scene there.  He found himself starting to struggle financially, however, as the cost of living began to outpace his earnings.  He then began to consider another place, perhaps cheaper, that also afforded an opportunity to record bands.  Some of his friends were living in Seattle and they suggested he move there.  “I just came out here [Seattle] and stayed in somebody’s basement for about, I think about two months or so, while I was looking for a job,” he says, “eventually found some pathetic job that would keep me afloat out here.  And then I stayed.

“I think my [day] job…was cleaning Xerox machines, and making paper tablets out of scrap paper for this little print shop.  So, it was sort of a go-nowhere, dead-end job.  But that kind of thing really fuels your dreams.  You really are motivated to try to do something with your life when what you have is a dead-end street staring you in the face.  So, I borrowed a little money from my mom…bought an 8-track recorder, and then the studio started…”

“[Chris] started buying all this equipment and then at one point he needed a place to put it all,” says Tina. “So he rented this place down…by the train tracks and he started Reciprocal Recording.  And then through meeting all these bands coming in and going out and seeing bands, like we saw the first time Soundgarden play.  And I remember Chris, we were looking at each other saying, ‘These guys are really great.’”

“I think we were 10 bucks an hour at first,” says Chris, “slowly moved up to $12.50 an hour.”  Competing studios were charging as much as $75 per hour.

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Reciprocal Recording offers high quality 8-track recording services at incomparable prices.  We’ve got good equipment and a versatile space.  Check us out for your next demo or LP project.  $12.50/hr, $10/hr block rate.

—Ad for Reciprocal Recording, the Rocket, July 1984.

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“…Seattle only had about four or five actual working studios that people could go to, and some of them weren’t really approachable,” he continues.  “So, there was a lack of inexpensive musician-friendly, independent-friendly studios and I quickly became one of them.

“Seattle was pretty fertile ground for that because it hadn’t been done that way before.  The studios that were here were more of your traditional, bigger studios that were a little too expensive for people on their own money to do things in.”

Chris soon crossed paths with Green River, and the band recorded its first demo at Reciprocal in the Spring of 1984.  Even in those early days, Green River was kind of an unstable compound, especially after Stone Gossard joined the band.  Stone and Jeff Ament would begin to push Green River in a hard rock direction, while Mark Arm and Steve Turner would steadfastly stick to their punk roots.  By 1987, the split had become irreconciliable.  Mark and Steve would form Mudhoney, while Stone and Jeff would eventually form Pearl Jam.  “I thought [Jeff and Stone] were being far too studious and serious about it,” says Chris.  “But, I guess time has proven that their efforts were valid as well.  I mean, they got their wish.  I don’t know if being in Pearl Jam hurts you any–but probably not.”

In the late summer of 1985, Chris and Tina formed a partnership called C/Z Records.  The label’s first offering would become a landmark compilation album.  “…I forget exactly who had the idea,” says Chris, “but someone said, ‘Why don’t we have a compilation record and put some of these great bands on a compilation?’….And I said, ‘Well, that’s a great idea.  Let’s go do it.’  I got my girlfriend [Casale] to bankroll the thing.  That was the spawning of the idea of having the Deep Six compilation.”

Deep Six featured Green River, Malfunkshun, the Melvins, Skin Yard, Soundgarden, and the U-Men.  Chris, Mark Arm, and Jeff Ament selected the bands…although no one is quite sure who and how they made the final determination (and I asked Chris, Mark, Jeff, Stone, and Jack Endino…it remains the mystery question of life.) “I think that it was just the…bands that were just kind of well-known around town,” says Green River’s Alex Shumway.  “Everybody went to a Melvins show.  Everybody went to go see a U-Men show.  God knows, you wouldn’t miss them.  Everybody went to go see a Malfunkshun show.  Jesus Christ, you’d never want to miss a Malfunkshun show.  Green River, because we were just the fucking greatest thing on Earth, right?…Soundgarden…we were just all the bands right around the area that were the really popular bands.  That’s the only way I could figure that one out.”

“I remember, I was there, and there was Mark Arm and probably a couple of the Melvins, and Malfunkshun, and everybody,” Jack Endino recalls.  “[Chris] said, ‘Hey, I want to put out this record.  We’re probably not going to make any money on it, but I’ll pay for the studio time.  And if we make any money on it, you can all share in it.’  And everybody signed a little two-page contract.  Yeah, he basically never made any money on it.  In fact, he lost a lot of money on it.”

A year later, Chris re-opened Reciprocal (initially with Jack as co-owner) in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.  The studio became the center of all things grunge by the late ’80s.

Since then, Chris has worked on a number of projects, and continues to do mastering out of his home.  He has contributed a hidden, but important legacy to Seattle music.  “If [people] ask me what I want to take credit for,” says Chris, “it’s just that when I came to town, I had a little bit of a vision, and a little bit more confidence, and I just wanted to push people and say, ‘Let’s go.  Let’s do it.  Let’s do it.’  And working with Green River was sort of a keystone for me, because all the guys in that band were enthusiastic.”

I saw Chad play drums with his band Lamar back in 2007 (and he was impressive, by the way.)  I shook his hand afterwards, mumbling something brilliant like, “Good set.”  I looked him up after I got home and did the interview by phone a couple of months later.

Talking with Chad can be kind of touchy, given his dismissal from Nirvana prior to the band going nuclear.  Thus, broaching the subject of Kurt Cobain would require some deft handling.  As a result, I framed the interview in terms of “Chad growing up,” “Chad’s influences,” “Meeting Kurt and Krist,” and “Nirvana in Seattle.”

I was surprised to learn Chad had seen a number of Seattle shows years before he joined Nirvana.  He went to the notorious Gorilla Gardens.  He saw the Melvins.  He saw Soundgarden.  He even saw the U-Men play at a private party.

We spent most of the Nirvana time talking about 1988, the first year the band appeared in Seattle.  We chatted about early gigs at the Vogue and the Central, about Nirvana’s early sparsely attended shows, and about how the music community eventually embraced the band.  I also asked Chad about music that influenced Nirvana.  He acknowledged poppier groups like the Vasolines, that Kurt brought with him from Olympia, as well as his own background in speed metal.  Ultimately, though, Chad viewed Nirvana as a clean slate for all of its members.  “It was very fresh,” he recalls, “I think [more] influence might have [come] off of one another.”

That mindset, in Chad’s mind, went into the band’s songwriting approach as well.  “Kurt would be jammin’ on some kind of a riff,” Chad says, “maybe like when we’re doing a soundcheck or something like that, start playing some riff.  I’d go, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’  And I’ll start playing a sort of beat to it.  Krist would play around and we’d totally like get into it.  Just kind of make something of it.”

In 1989, following in Mudhoney’s footsteps, Nirvana and TAD toured Europe together.  Unlike most of the other musicians, Chad would take in the entire European experience, often arising early to walk the streets of a town to enjoy its charms.  “When you’re touring, sightseeing is not exactly something you have a whole lot of time to do,” he says.  “It’s just wherever you happen to have a day off.  It’s like, any chance I got, I’d try to get up early…and just spend a little time roaming around, just kind of checking stuff out.  And I really enjoyed that.

“It was sort of like a challenge to see if I could get up in the morning and order a cup of coffee and a pastry, in whatever [country] I was.”

We also talked about his role as a percussionist, which ended up in my blog piece called “Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer.”  Since Nirvana, Chad has played guitar and sang in his band Before Cars.  He thus has a unique perspective on the challenges confronting the drummer.  “Any guitar player should really spend at least some amount of time playing drums,” he offers, “even if they’ve never played before, or they’re not good.  Just take some time and try to learn a beat or something.  Just dabble into it a little bit.  You might even find you like it and end up becoming a fairly decent drummer by doing it, or at least, maybe get some idea of how difficult that job can be.”

Scott, like Mark Arm, took a little while to get ahold of.  While he is not a household name, Scott has indeed attained prominence with R.E.M. and other projects, and has played on Letterman and other national stages.  More importantly, though, I had to talk to a member of the Young Fresh Fellows, a band that changed everything for the Seattle music scene.  Up until my interview with Scott, my only contact with the Fellows’ was their defacto manager/producer/record label guy Conrad Uno.

Back in 1984, Seattle music appeared to be dead in the water.  A once vibrant all-ages scene had closed down, and musicians who desired success left town for perceived greener pastures.  For those who stayed, making music became its own end.  With few club opportunities, the music scene moved underground–literally–into University District basements.  It was during this time that new creative forces became unleashed such as the U-Men (then at their peak), Room Nine, the Green Pajamas, the Walkabouts, the Ones, Soundgarden, Green River, and the Young Fresh Fellows.

The Fellows were not grunge, but they inspired a whole generation of grunge musicians.  Back in ’84, the band did something that seemed impossible for an independent Seattle act.  They released a record!  Not a single, not a couple of tracks on a compilation, not an EP, but a full length record.  And it was good.  Further, McCaughey and his brethren were one of the few Seattle bands to focus on lyrics…and they were fucking funny!  “[It was] just an effort to entertain the other guys in the band, really,” says McCaughey.  “It was a very insular thing.  I wasn’t thinking about whether other people would think it was funny.  I think that we developed this sense of humor within the band and I wanted to crack them up.”

Listen to such Fellows’ tunes as “Amy Grant,” about the Christian singer turned pop star, and “Searchin’ USA,” to get an idea.

The band’s live show was unsurpassed.  “In their heyday, I would defy anybody to try to follow the Young Fresh Fellows,” argues the Posies’ Jon Auer.

Further, the Fellows kept acoustic guitars in the mix, which was not the norm for the ’80s Seattle scene.  “We also, [in] those early first couple years,” says McCaughey, “often had a Farfisa organ also, which we used quite a bit until it got too much beer poured in it.”

Then, in 1986, something amazing happened…the Fellows second record, Topsy Turvy, received a favorable review in Rolling Stone.  “Everybody in Seattle thought we were a really big deal because we got a review in Rolling Stone,” says McCaughey, “….Everybody I think thought that we just completely made it.  They didn’t know—as far as we were concerned, we were still going on playing shitty shows for $150.”

The Fellows never actually broke up, and you can catch them on December 3 at Seattle’s Triple Door.