Post-boom town

Is Seattle rock on its way back? Local observers report from the recovery room.

Ten years ago, Seattle had a very cool rock scene. Nine years ago, some people figured that out. Eight years ago, everybody figured that out. Five years ago, the scene was declared dead. Four years ago, they dug a grave. Then they buried it. Last year, everybody bought country albums. This year, rock started stirring again. People began mumbling about community, and bands started supporting bands—up front at shows, screaming for each other with the circus no-where in sight. Seattle now faces the question that cities like New York and Minneapolis have faced before: How do you sustain a cool rock scene?

Lisa Orth, formerly of 66 Saints, now of Parini; Veronika Kalmar, former music editor of The Rocket and editor of Iconoclast; Dave Nothing of Bone Cellar and Happy Stars; and Diane Perini, who books the Breakroom, have been a part of Seattle's music community for years and have played an integral role in shaping the rock scene. You might not know their names, they aren't famous, but interviewing celebrities is like interviewing the prom queen about her high school experience—you end up with a lot of "Everybody's really nice. God! I'm so bored . . . " Strong music scenes aren't built on stars, and there's a difference between being a clique and being a community. With the glare of local history finally subsiding, it's time to look at what the Seattle rock scene has—and what it needs.

SW: During the signing frenzy, bands that weren't signed within a year were written off. How much time are bands given today?

Perini: I don't know if there is a time limit you can place on a band. Look at Zeke. They've been around forever. How could anybody possibly write them off because they weren't signed after three years?

Nothing: I know there's an attitude among musicians that if things aren't starting to cook within six months, it's a hopeless project. Maybe it's like a Nietzschean will to power—if you're arrogant enough, it will come to you.

Kalmar: No other art form lays down that kind of standard. It's ludicrous. Maybe it's because music is part of pop culture, so it has an immediacy.

Since the poster ban was passed, smaller bands have had to rely more and more on local press. How much has this shaped the scene?

Perini: I still really feel that somebody needs to step up here in the publishing department. Backlash was cool. I wish 10 Things could be monthly. This is a music town, it always has been—we need more 'zines.

Orth: It's more honest to have information spread by word of mouth. I'd rather have people coming to my shows because someone told their friends that they saw us play and it was amazing than coming because [somebody] wrote about us.

Do local music critics have too much power?

Nothing: In terms of clogging everything up they do. It's pretty evident they're all idiots. Unless you're friends with somebody, you can't get a gig reviewed. There's a poetasting thing going on that these people, by virtue of education or pedigree, think they know better than the average person.

Kalmar: People give too much power to the press. I also think some journalists in town don't use their power responsibly.

Orth: I think you really have to know who's writing. There are certain people who have said, "This band is horrible," and I've rushed right out to see them.

Often it seems that bands that are well-connected are given more leeway to make mistakes. A poor show might garner a "hip" band praise for its innocence, whereas another band might be written off for a similar performance. Is this true? Is it fair?

Kalmar: I can't fault people for being business-smart. Go out and make connections. It's part of the job.

Nothing: Seattle is a closed shop. If you're in the system, you're made—you'll just keep getting gigs, and if you're outside the system you get told by the Crocodile that if you want to gig on a weekend, your band has to bring in 300 people. But it's about all this "cred" nonsense. If you're not in the system, I don't see a way over the barrier.

Perini: There are people in bands that are definitely going to get the benefit of the doubt, of course. And sometimes for good reason. Other things may be going on in the band's ethic that I like, beyond the music. But if they come in and repeatedly blow it, friendship's out the window. They still have to deliver.

Orth: I think everybody needs to be allowed to make mistakes, and I'd rather have some people be allowed to make mistakes than nobody.

How does the less-connected band overcome this?

Perini: Write new songs. Play smaller shows to get your confidence back up. Do a new demo.

Orth: Bypass the clubs, create your own scene. Play at parties—have your friends come and rent out a space.

Kalmar: Fix what was wrong in the first place and let people know you fixed it. I always had time to listen to one track if somebody took the time to mark it and say, "This is what we're about now."

Nothing: I don't think it is surmountable. I see people putting more energy into schmoozing than music. Sub Pop brought corporate tactics to indie rock. They brought it in and destroyed it. I don't know— buy a hundred bucks worth of weed and get everybody stoned? Maybe that's the way.

There are few local headliners that can consistently draw 250 people. The cost of running shows has risen, and clubs are taking fewer chances. How do we turn this around?

Kalmar: One thing Seattle has to learn is that rooms with 50 are fine. Booking agents have to rely on their ears again—on their ears and their gut. What we're missing is an infrastructure that can support smaller bands.

Perini: Take more risks on up-and-coming bands. We're proving that here [at the Breakroom]. You can put four strong local bands on a bill and have a sold-out club. You don't need a big headliner. You can go the other way, get more conservative and, yeah, you'll rake in the frat boys, but what are you doing for the scene?

Nothing: I think one of the reasons people aren't going is because shows are way, way too loud. Everything has to come through the PA now. The hierarchical nature of rock— that you're watching someone on a stage—is pretty unavoidable, but it doesn't have to be the only focus.

The average age in the clubs seems to hover on the darker side of 30. Where are all the 21- to 27-year-olds?

Perini: At the Breakroom. I'm not trying to brag or anything, but it's true.

Kalmar: Dancing. But everything's smaller. Accept it for what it is. Because when it's huge and you have to stand in a crowded space with a million drunk frat boys—you're gonna be pissed.

Nothing: Not to harp on the volume thing, but there's been a vast rise in lo-fi bands. I used to joke that the only way our children could rebel would be to make music so quiet that their stupid parents couldn't hear it.

Orth: They're waiting to see exciting music. And if you're not putting it on in your clubs, they're not going. And neither am I.

What's the best thing that could happen to the rock scene?

Kalmar: It's happening.

Perini: We need more 'zines and more small rooms like the Storeroom and Lake Union Pub . . . [but] it's pretty cool right now.

Orth: All the labels that are funded by anyone big, or [who] has a lot of money—every label that's not owned by one person passionate about music—get rid of it. Out of the picture. If you're a club that relies on touring bands to earn your money, or bands like Mudhoney, or big-ass bands—you're out of here, baby.

Nothing: The best thing that could happen is if people who passionately like rock 'n' roll show the courage of their convictions. If you see something you like, go see it again and tell your friends about it. If I see a spark of life at a show, I'll go again. Sometimes that spark will lead to something that blows you away later.

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