It's as "summer" an afternoon as one could hope for in the Northwest: partly overcast but warm, and the smell of roasting meat is wafting through the air above a nondescript mid-century home in South Seattle. Jets zoom overhead, instantly reminiscent of the speech Matt Dillon's Cliff Poncier gives in Singles about the barbecues he'd host "down by the airport." The Singles vibe is a hard one to shake, because if Cameron Crowe actually had filmed Cliff's cookout, it would most likely have resembled the scene here today—not only because of the weather and planes, but because the folks participating in the weekly Sunday gatherings that have come to be known as Basment (sic) Sessions are the same ones who pop up in the film and on its soundtrack.
Conceived in the summer of 2011 in West Seattle, the Basment Sessions are devoted to "making music, eating barbecue, and fine, fine tequila," says event co-founder Johnny G., a drummer and producer whose home studio and backyard host the event. "My wife Laura and I started messing around on Sundays doing Failure, Joan Jett, and Hater covers," he says. "Next thing we knew, a lot of wonderful friends started coming over every Sunday, so we called it "Tekillya Sundays," which turned into the Basment Sessions demos," explains G. "We started making kick-ass food to go along with the good music and good booze. We are a rock-'n'-roll refugee camp for wonderful musicians to come out and relax, have some fun, eat some grub, and make some noise. No one here is getting asked for their autograph. You can just relax and cut loose."
Johnny, Laura, and his partner Dave have built a studio as impressive as their outdoor kitchen. Both are fully stocked with bells and whistles, making culinary and audio perfection easy to achieve. The result of all these musicians "cutting loose" in close proximity to a recording space can be heard on The Basment Sessions Volume I, set to be released on iTunes next month and on vinyl (exclusively at Easy Street Records) in August. The musical approach to the Basment Sessions is much like the food: a one-of-a-kind potluck that can only be produced on that particular day.
"The musicians that show up are all great friends," Johnny continues, "from old-school badasses like Tad Doyle, Jack Endino, Kim Warnick, and others I won't mention [for contractual reasons, artists signed to labels appear uncredited on The Basment Sessions] to Mike from Brokaw, singer Ramona Allison of Dionvox, the boys from Mother's Anger—and the list goes on and on." The talent is not only local; touring musicians often pop in to visit, eat, and imbibe. All songs are written on the spot by whomever is present and done in a single take. They come together cohesively in their hard-rock edge, but vary in style. The tracks are built consistently around Johnny's drumming, and are as hearty as the accompanying meals, which are built around meat. Lots of meat.
The scent of roasted flesh that greeted me on arrival did not disappoint. Throughout the day, six courses of carnivorous delights made an appearance. My first serving was a pulled-pork sandwich in an astoundingly delicious curried barbecue sauce. It was followed by two courses of uniquely seasoned ribs; a slow-cooked and marinated pork loin; chicken thighs that had spent the entire day shacked up in a smoker; and an amazing, heart-stopping sausage soaked in onions and butter. Combined with a myriad of picnic-inspired side dishes and some actual Seattle sunshine, folks were slow to put down their plates, head inside, and pick up their instruments.
Musical motivation came later, through the sessions' third element: tequila (Cazadores Blanco, to be exact), which is shaken with ice and/or lime and served as a shot for the serious connoisseur. With nary a blender in sight, their approach to liquor is not for the faint of heart, and asking for a mixer or a back could (did) get you (me) laughed at, as "girly shots" are not rock 'n' roll.
The day wore on; as third and fourth rounds were hoisted, guests made their way in and out of the studio. A trip to the loo and peek at the session in progress saw Brokaw frontman Mike Henderson at the board working out his lyrics and vocal strategy before attempting his only take. His professional approach was impressive, considering the day had already seen him in a condition that had him attempting handstands in the expansive, grassy yard.
Not content with the current setup, Johnny has bricks for an outdoor pizza oven piling up, and this summer's sessions are being compiled for Volume II. Featuring the track recorded during my visit, it's slated to come out next year with a coffee-table cookbook showcasing the food (and of course drinks) that have inspired the music. Look for some live shows soon from musicians who've participated in the project this summer, but until then, here are some of the tasty tracks from Volume I, with commentary from Johnny G.
Track: "Ringtone Deaf"
Edible inspiration: Smoked chicken and ribs, with Mama Cornell's potatoes au gratin. "We lit up the grill after five or six shots. We also made these potatoes au gratin, from a friend's mom's recipe."
Mama Cornell's Potatoes au Gratin
Preheat oven to 375.
1 cup of sharp cheddar
1½ cups of Parmesan
6 large russets
1 quart of heavy whipping cream
Peel russets and slice as thinly as possible into a large bowl. Pour in cream and add potatoes, cheddar, and half the Parmesan. Salt and pepper to taste. Grease a 9" x 13" baking dish with butter. Pour in the potato mixture and sprinkle on the remaining Parmesan. Cook for one hour. Let cool for 15 minutes and serve.
Track: "Jesus Horses"
Edible inspiration: Whole roasted pig and Greek salad. "A friend was celebrating his birthday, and we got to it [in the studio] while our awesome friend Ty made the pig happen. We put the pig on at 10 a.m. and were eating and tracking by 4 p.m. It was easy and delicious. We've never had so many side dishes. There was also lots of Jameson and a cake."
Track: "Working for the Man"
Edible inspiration: Flank steak with onions, pepper, and capers. "We drank a good amount of booze and decided we should get fancy with food. The song ended up being from one of our fave girls in the world, Polly Jean. We ran with it and made food to match her sweet goddess voice. It's amazing how inspired we got watching crappy cell-phone-shot footage from her show at the Moore."
D's Rockin' Soyaki Marinade
½ can of beer
2 cloves of garlic, diced fine
1 medium onion, diced fine
¼ cup capers
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup teriyaki sauce
Marinate to death in the refrigerator.
Track: "2 Pitas"
Edible inspiration: Tequila. "This is pretty self-explanatory, as we were a bottle in when we began tracking . . . early on a Sunday morning. We had an out-of-town friend joining us for a drink, and kept this song rocking. It was super-fun, super-fast, and easy."