Rocket Queen: Still Truckin’

The Tractor Tavern and the Spits both celebrate 15 years of kicking ass.

As in many music venues, the booking office for the Tractor Tavern is located upstairs, in a small space just over and slightly adjacent to the stage. It's organized chaos, strewn with discarded industry periodicals, liquor backstock, and mail crates of demo CDs. At the moment, owner Dan Cowan is trying unsuccesfully to photocopy a set list for living legend John Doe, who is standing in the office, relaying colorful stories from his latest tour with his band X. The punk veteran was there that night in a solo capacity, showing off his alt-country side with Toronto-based band the Sadies backing him. Cowan finally gets the copier to cooperate, and Doe descends the stairs to take the stage. "He's always such a nice guy," says Cowan, shaking his head and smiling. This assessment is definitely based upon experience; Doe has played the Tractor many times, both solo and with X side project the Knitters.Doe is but one on an impressive list of the Ballard club's notable repeat performers. Flipping through Cowan's old calendars, the history is astonishing. Neko Case played here many times—long before she could sell out the Paramount—often appearing on weeknights in the late '90s when she worked down the street as a waitress at Hattie's Hat. Emmylou Harris, Dick Dale, Whiskeytown, Gillian Welch, and Alejandro Escovedo have all graced the stage, and the club has unofficially served as ground zero for the local Americana-loving, No Depression–reading set, with bands like Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter and the Maldives building their following and refining their sound via countless performances at the Tractor. The venue also enjoys a steady stream of fans who come to see the Celtic, folk, rockabilly, blues, and jazz bands that club agent Greg Garcia regularly books.In fact, despite its strong association with the folk and alt-country scenes, the venue's diversity of programming is a huge part of both its appeal and its endurance. In just the last year, the calendar has included soul-punk purveyors King Khan and the Shrines, heavy drone rockers Earth, local rising stars the Dutchess and the Duke, and former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley. This weekend, the Tractor will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a two-night stint with local band the Maldives, celebrating the release of their new record, Listen to the Thunder (see interview).General manager Ryan Ellis attributes much of the club's success to old-fashioned good manners. "By treating bands and customers fairly, we give people a reason to come back," he says. "It's just a simple room with great sound, no bad sightlines, and reasonable drink prices, where every night the staff tries to put on the best party in town."Surprisingly, semi-local punk band the Spits have never played the Tractor. "We haven't, right?" says bassist Erin Wood, addressing his bandmates, who all agree they've spent plenty of time at the Tractor, just not on its stage. Coincidentally, the Spits are also hitting the 15-year mark this week, culminating with a show at Chop Suey on Thursday, Aug. 27, to celebrate the release of their fourth self-titled record. The 10 brief and brash songs were recorded in multiple locales with a variety of producers, including Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner and Swami Records svengali John Reis. Led by brothers Erin and Sean Wood since 1994, the scrappy, willfully ribald collective has blown through 14 keyboardists, three drummers, and countless miles of asphalt and ocean, touring the States and Europe exhaustively and generally creating the sort of haphazard havoc that makes old-school, garage-y punk rock so timeless."We actually started in Kalamazoo, Michigan," explains Sean, a ruggedly handsome fellow with soft eyes and a gravel-gargling baritone voice. "We were in another band called the Quitters and then moved out West, joined up with [drummer] Lance [Phelps], and decided to call ourselves the Spits."Fittingly, the name traces back to their misspent youth. "We had a band when we were younger called the Spit Outs, which we started while we were in a juvenile detention center," explains Sean, kicked back on a couch in the lobby of KEXP for our interview. "Part of our therapy in juvey was to make music, so we formed this little band." Their subsequent adventures would make a helluva documentary, from the usual underground circuit of house-party shows to surreal moments, such as meeting the Queen of England. "We played a festival, and somehow the Royal Guard got back to us and asked us to come to a tea party. We were told we couldn't touch her or look at her and we could only acknowledge her if we were spoken to," recalls Sean.Despite geographical obstacles—Erin lives in Los Angeles and Phelps is in Michigan—it's evident the Spits are a tight-knit group in spirit if not in practice. "People who come to the show should give us a break, 'cause we don't get to practice that much," says Phelps with a laugh. "It's just a way of life and it just makes us happy," adds Sean. Asked if they could see themselves going for another 15, Phelps is brazenly optimistic. "Sure, I think we're just starting to hit our stride. Look out!"

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