Former KCMU Music Director Kathy Fennessy shares her memories of "Soundgarden," "Mudhoney", and Nirvana. Fennessy also talks about Susie Tennant, Donna Dresch, and other women who were actively involved in the Grunge scene. She also points to "Shabazz Palaces," "THEESatisfaction," and "Champagne Champagne" as upcoming local talents to watch out for.
Read Kathy Fennessy's blog
Kathy Fennessy is a music and film writer for Amazon, The Stranger, Siffblog, and Video Librarian. She has also written for indieWIRE and The Seattle Weekly. Fennessy was the former Music Director of KCMU (now KEXP) from 1988-1991.
Soundgarden was formed in Seattle in 1984 by Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, and Hiro Yamamoto. Matt Cameron became the band's full time drummer in 1986 while bassist Ben Shepherd became a permanent replacement for Yamamoto in 1990.
Soundgarden named themselves after a wind-channeling pipe sculpture located next to Seattle’s Magnuson Park.
The band achieved its biggest success with the 1994 album "Superunknown," which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and yielded the Grammy Award-winning singles "Black Hole Sun" and "Spoonman".
The band is currently working on a new album, which is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Formed in Seattle in 1988 following the demise of "Green River," Mudhoney's members are vocalist and rhythm guitarist Mark Arm, lead guitarist Steve Turner, bassist Guy Maddison, and drummer Dan Peters. Original bassist Matt Lukin left the band in 1999 but briefly returned in December 2000 to complete touring obligations.
The band named themselves after the Russ Meyer movie "Mudhoney," which none of the band members had actually seen.
In 1988, the band recorded and released their debut EP, "Superfuzz Bigmuff," and their first single, "Touch Me I'm Sick", on Sub Pop. The single attracted attention and the band enjoyed moderate success in the U.S. and U.K.
In 2011, Pearl Jam had Mudhoney open for them on their 20th Anniversary tour.
Green River (named after the then at-large serial killer) was formed in 1984 by Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Alex Vincent, and Jeff Ament.
Green River released two EPs and the full-length album "Rehab Doll" during their tenure. But soon a stylistic division developed between the band members - Ament and Gossard on one side, and Arm on the other; and although the band members agreed to complete production of "Rehab Doll," Green River had by October 1987 ceased as a band.
Although the band had little commercial impact outside of Seattle, Green River proved to have significant influence on the genre later known as grunge, both with its own music and with the music its members would create in future bands including Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.
Green River website
Nirvana was formed by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987.
During its initial months, the band went through a series of names, starting with "Skid Row" and including "Pen Cap Chew," "Bliss," and "Ted Ed Fred". The group finally settled on "Nirvana," which Cobain said was chosen because "I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk rock name."
The band released its first album "Bleach" for Sub Pop in 1989 and found success in its second album "Nevermind" in 1991.
Nirvana's sudden success widely popularized alternative rock as a whole, and Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the "spokesman of a generation", with Nirvana being considered the "flagship band" of Generation X.
Dickless was a short lived all-girl band from Seattle. Signed to Sub Pop, they released their only record, "Saddle Tramp Miniskirt Mob," in May 1990.
The original line-up consisted of Kelly Canary (vocals), Kerry Green (guitar), Jana McCall (bass), and Lisa Smith (drums). Jennie Trower eventually replaced McCall on bass guitar, while Meagan Jasper replaced Canary on vocals in the band’s later days.
Dickless | Myspace.com
Susie Tennant is a staple of Seattle's cultural community having worked at Sub Pop Records, EMP and Town Hall.
In 1991, Tennant put together the record release party for Nirvana’s "Nevermind". The celebration took place at Seattle's Rebar – but was cut unceremoniously short when Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl collectively instigated a food fight that got them ejected from the bar. The soon-to-be iconic trio retreated to Tennant’s Capitol Hill apartment, something they had done many times before.
Donna Dresch is the founder, guitarist and bass guitarist of the punk rock band "Team Dresch," which originally formed in Olympia. The band released two albums, "Personal Best" and "Captain My Captain," and a number of singles in the 1990s and then broke up.
However, after reuniting to play a show in 2004, they have since begun to tour and record again.
Dresch has been actively involved in the queercore scene since the 1980s, as the creator of the fanzine, "Chainsaw," and contributor to several other seminal zines such as "Outpunk" and "J.D.s"
She founded the queercore independent record label Chainsaw Records in the early 1990s.
Team Dresch | Myspace.com
Megan Jasper started out as a receptionist and is now Executive Vice President at Sub Pop Records.
Before Sub Pop, Jasper was the Northwest Sales Representative (for five years) for Alternative Distribution Alliance, a music company that distributes mostly independent music to retailers in the U.S., and served on the Board of Directors for the Vera Project for six years. The Vera Project is music-arts center run by and for youth, with participants at all levels of music production and community organizing.
Shabazz Palaces are a Seattle-based hip-hop collective, led by Ishmael Butler aka 'Palaceer Lazaro' (once 'Butterfly' of Grammy award winning jazz-rap group Digable Planets) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire.
The group anonymously self-released two EPs, Eagles Soar, Oil Flows and The Seven New in 2009 before becoming the first hip-hop act to be signed to Sub Pop and releasing their debut full-length album, "Black Up," in 2011.
Shabazz Palaces website
THEESatisfaction is a hip hop duo comprised of Seattle’s Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White.
THEESatisfaction has released five EPs to date and contributed to Shabazz Palaces' "Black Up" album. THEESatisfaction is expected to release their debut full-length album in 2012.
THEESatisfaction | Myspace.com
Champagne Champagne is a Seattle hip hop group comprised of Pearl Dragon, Thomas Gray, and Mark Gadjahar.
Champagne Champagne's lyrics mix life in Seattle's Central District with cultural touchstones like Pop Rocks, Molly Ringwald and Oshkosh kids clothes.
As of this writing, Champagne Champagne has not signed to a record label.
Champagne Champagne | Myspace.com
KCMU began as a student-run campus radio station at the University of Washington in 1972.
From 1972-2001, KCMU was ground central for the Seattle music scene. It was the only Seattle radio station that regularly supported local bands and was influential in breaking many bands that went on to sign with Sub Pop e.g. Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Green River.
In 2001, KCMU was renamed KEXP. Today KEXP broadcasts in Seattle on 90.3 FM and on the Internet via streaming audio.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I’m Kathy Fennessy and I’m a music and film writer for Amazon, The Stranger, Video Librarian, and also I have my own personal blog. I use to be the Music Director at KCMU between 1988 and 1991.
So after college I returned to Anchorage where I’m from for a time, then I went to England for a little to study journalism through a program at Boston University, so that gave me some writing experience and I got to see bands in England who were big at the time.
Came back to Anchorage again, and then I moved to Seattle and got a job at Cellophane Square which is what I really wanted to do at the time. I wanted to be in Seattle I wanted to work at a record store and it turned out to be a good place to be at the time because I did get to hear a lot of local bands. I actually got to meet a lot of them because a lot of customers were in bands.
Like Mark Lanigan who worked at Peaches at that time which is a record store that isn’t around anymore, neither is Cellophane Square, but he would come in every once in a while and Mark Pickeroll who was the drummer in Screaming Trees. Once Kurt Cobain came in but it was already at a time when Nirvana was pretty big, so it was kind of a big deal for him to come in. He came in with Courtney and bought a record by the New Zealand group “The Bats” and I never saw him again after that, but that was kind of a big deal. And J. Mascus from Dinosaur JR, who weren’t really a grunge band but they were kind of in that vein and they did end up doing some recording for Sub Pop.
But one of the more interesting things Cellophane did during the Grunge era I saw was shrank wrap Sub Pop 200, so when they came out with the vinyl version of the compilation Sup Pop didn’t have access to a shrink wrapping machine which seems kind of weird. One afternoon I came in the afternoon and there were all these people in the room shrink wrapping Sub Pop 200. It was something we did for them that kind of contributed to something that was really significant at the time because that compilation had TAD, and Steven Jesse Bernstein, and Soundgarden, and Beat Happening - bands that you can describe as Grunge and other ones that weren’t Grunge era and i think it was one of the more significant Sub Pop releases - it was also in vinyl, cassette, and CD.
So after I moved to Seattle I started volunteering at KCMU which was a station I already knew about because it had a pretty impressive reputation already long before I got there. It had been around since the 70s through the University of Washington. Even KEXP maintains a connection to the University of Washington even though they’re not located on campus anymore.
I started volunteering, eventually became promotions director and then music director after Faith Henschel, Maggie Mccain, and then myself. And that was something that I wanted to do from the start when i saw the kind of work that Faith and Maggie were doing I thought that was the best job in the world. And at the time it was a volunteer position so nobody was payed - sometimes you get to go to music conventions which was a bonus but that wasn’t always a sure thing but I did get to see CMJ in New York and Gavin Convention which is in San Francisco.
I just happen to be at KCMU when the whole grunge thing started happening so I can’t really take much responsibility for it and even the station can’t. It was just something that was happening that we were a part of and we were one of many parts...record stores and music writers and all kinds of other people contributed to that. But we played a lot of that music on cassette.
A lot of times we would move things to cart if we heard a song that we really liked that wasn’t commercially available we would convert it to cart, so DJs could just throw the cart in and play that, and then a lot of these things would start being sent to us as singles once Sub Pop started to release singles. We got things like Mudhoney’s first single or Nirvana’s first single, or TAD or any of these other bands, and eventually we got full length releases from all of these groups.
What does a Music Director at KCMU do?
So the Music Director is the person who would listen to the things that we would receive along with my staff to decide what we would want to play and decide what we want to play the most. So anything that we would add to heavy rotation is usually what we were most excited about and wanted to play the most.
The music director would also report to the trades - I think it was a top 30 every week or something like that, so they would know what we were playing and what was getting played the most. If there was something we weren’t getting, the music director is the person who would write to a label or call them, this was before email, so there was a lot of writing just to say we want a copy of such and such a record - especially with some of the labels that don’t have much of a promotional budget. I think they would appreciate it if you contact them directly and say we would love a copy of something whereas the major label would automatically send us copies of whatever they had that they wanted us to play.
And imports are something we would usually buy on our own with whatever budget or tradeouts we had. We had one with Peaches and Park Avenue Records, which also doesn’t exist anymore. So that’s how we got some of the imports we would play, so those are some of things a music director would do. And just taking calls. A lot to times we would have office hours and record labels would call us and say what do you think of the record we just sent you - are you guys playing it? If you don’t like it, why? So they could pass on that information to the people they work with.
Do you remember the first time you listened to Soundgarden? What did you think?
My first knowledge of Soundgarden was through The Rocket. I knew about them before I heard them cause I would see this ad in The Rocket from time to time, and it was a picture of Chris Cornell without a shirt. It was the cover of Screaming Life, which was their first EP. And I thought, well that looks interesting. But it also looked kind of metal, which kind of bunked the trend of what was going on in Seattle at the time, with groups like Young Fresh Fellows, and Squirrels and more pop-oriented groups.
This obviously was something a little different and I didn’t know if they were like Queensryche, which was a harder band that wasn’t part of the grunge scene but that was already established or where exactly they fit. But the basic look was kind of a Led Zeppelin kind of look and as it turned out, they sounded a little like that. So I don’t actually remember when I first heard Soundgarden but I did like them right away and it probably doesn’t hurt that I do like Led Zeppelin. But they do something a little more raw, and then they came out with an EP that was actually very different than the typical metal or hard rock band. They came out with a version of “Fopp” by the Ohio Players and I think it was Steve Fisk that did a remix of that.
So already from the start it was kind of hard to peg exactly where they were coming from, because they also seemed to have an interest in funk. And the fact that they would get somebody to do a 12-inch remix was kind of unusual. And it worked really well. But I didn’t actually see any of the club shows they did, I didn’t actually see them as a live band until they were playing bigger venues, which was a good venue actually for that kind of band so I would end up seeing them at the Paramount. There was a show they taped there, for a DVD release. And I remember seeing them at Bumbershoot, with a big crowd, and that was exciting because by then they had signed to a major label. A lot of people knew the band, knew the songs, there were a lot of people singing along, so it was a totally non-club scene.
And Mudhoney? When was the first time you heard of them?
Whereas Mudhoney, the first thing I heard...and again I think I’d heard of them before I actually heard the music but I was aware of Green River and I knew who Mark Arm was, I knew he’d been in a band before. And I had heard Green River, I liked Green River. Then Mudhoney put out a single, so they formed, put out a single, “Touch Me I’m Sick” and I think “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” was a B-Side. And just, it was the thing everybody was talking about.
When it came out, it was such a big deal. It wasn’t just big in Seattle, but all of sudden, everybody in England was talking about it. And I think that was kind of a game changer for Seattle, the point at which Melody Maker, Sounds, Enemy--and not all of those publications are around anymore--but the three of them together were very influential. And the fact that they were so excited about this was a big deal. And AIDS was a big deal at the time, so some people wondered, is this a song about AIDS ? And by that I mean “Touch Me I’m Sick”. What exactly are they talking about? So it also got a debate going, as to what the song was about and how it could be interpreted. And just musically, it grabbed you because it didn’t sound like anything else, it didn’t sound like Soundgarden, didn’t sound like any of the more psychedelic pop groups at the time, like Pure Joy or Room Nine.
I mean now we talk about it as grunge, and immediately people started comparing them to The Stooges and MC5 and all that. And there was a relationship there but it was still something pretty new, and kind of had a punk attitude in terms of these vocals that just came right at you. You were forced to engage--either you liked it or you didn’t like it--but one way or another you were going to have a reaction. And so that was maybe the most significant single to come out of Seattle, “Touch Me I’m Sick” -- even more than Nirvana, whose first single was great, but it wasn’t something that really attacked you in the same way.
How about Nirvana?
So unlike Soungarden, or Mudhoney, Nirvana wasn’t a group I knew about beforehand and I think that’s partly because they started in Aberdeen, and they had roots in Olympia as well. They just weren’t a band I’d heard about and only in retrospect did I realize that they had sent to KCMU, while I was there, a tape that went to the hosts of our local music show which was Audioasis, which is still on KEXP, it started on KCMU.
Jonathan Ponneman from Sub Pop was one of the hosts [of Audioasis] and so was Scotty Vanderpool who went on to work for a variety of commercial stations. And he was at that time already involved in commercial radio but he worked KXRX and KISW. So a lot of time local releases would go to them, so they heard Nirvana before myself and at that time I think Jonathan had already co-founded Sub Pop with Bruce.
At what point he [Jonathan] signed the band [Nirvana], I don’t know but I do remember one day getting the single Love Buzz, which I thought was great. And everybody else seemed to, although it didn’t grab me as much as Mudhoney or Soundgarden. I remember thinking it was really good, but it wasn’t necessarily as distinctive as those groups. But I would feel differently once I heard more from the band. And it wasn’t even an original, it was a cover of “Shocking Blue,” who had already been covered by Bananorama, so it was kind of an unusual choice for a Northwest band, but a very good cover. And the buzz on them from my perspective didn’t build as quickly as it did on Mudhoney or Soundgarden, particularly in Mudhoney’s case because a lot of people in Seattle at the time remembered Green River and had seen the band live and knew the people in the band, so with Nirvana I thought it was a totally different situation. The single was good, “Bleach” came out and that’s kind of when the hype started to grow, and Jack Endino produced it.
Jack Endino had already worked with these other well-liked bands and he gave it a really grungy sound, and I thought it was great. I did see them live around that time at the Vogue when they opened for the Flaming Lips and I thought they were great when they played, but they didn’t really know how to put on a show, they would play a song, and then they’d fiddle around, trying to get the tuning just right, and that made the crowd a little bit listless. Then they would play, and they would sound great, and this would kinda go back and forth.
But then I remember talking to Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips afterwards and he’d already heard the buzz about the band, and he didn’t say he didn’t like them, but he kinda looked at me and said “I don’t really quite see what the big fuss is.” At that point they were liked, but I don’t think anybody was ecstatic. But then they got better quickly, and by the time they came out with “Nevermind,” which had a much more polished sound.
They were actually better at putting on a show, and keeping things going throughout the show, and even kinda doing fun, weird things - like its on the DVD of one of their live shows and Kurt Cobain comes out in a wheelchair, kinda making fun of the rumors about him being in really terrible shape, and then gets out of the wheelchair and begins to play. So they actually started to do fun stuff like that.
Their record release party was before they were putting on these big shows at these big venues and it was at Rebar which was a fairly small bar in Seattle. Everyone was flown out for that, so the people who worked for DGC in LA came up for that.
During that night, John Rosenfelter, who was the alternative radio representative for DGC introduced me to Kurt and I can’t remember if he introduced me to Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic or not but I think he might have because he was very professional about those kinds of things. So I met Kurt, said hi, that was about it, he didn’t seem to be in a very talkative mood. He didn’t seem to be grumpy, but he didn’t seem thrilled either, he just seemed like “I’m here because I’m supposed to be here.”
At a certain point the band was playfully throwing some food at each other and it was kinda immature but it wasn’t a terrible thing, but nobody was looking at them like “Wow these guys are really awful, aren’t they terrible rock star people” but the managers at the Rebar however were not happy and kicked them out. So I didn’t really think it would happen but it did and the next thing we know we were still at Rebar and the van was gone. So I went outside with some friends because by the time the van was gone we had heard the record and we had socialized with each other and it was time to go.
But we found Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic in the parking lot and we talked to Krist for a little bit. I don’t think I talked to Dave, who at the time was new to Seattle, so fairly new to the band since he was replacing Chad Channing. I don’t recall that I said anything to him, but Krist seemed like a really nice guy. I don’t know where Kurt was, I think he had already left by that point. But basically the rumors about them getting kicked out of their own release party are true, but I don’t recall them doing anything any more obnoxious than that. I don’t think they were fighting, yelling at each other...just a little food throwing.
Were there any popular female musicians or bands during Grunge?
I think when grunge started it was seen as a masculine phenomenon in the sense that a lot of these bands were male, had male frontmen. But I do think that women were interested in the music and would go to the shows and buy the records. And groups with female members did form, and women did join bands. Patty Schemel went on to drum for Hole and worked as a session drummer, was from this area and was in a group called Sybil, with I think her brother. And she would be someone who was actually in several bands, but that was one of the best known ones.
There was a group Calamity Jane, there was a group called Dickless who put out a single on Sub Pop and might have had more of a following if they had stayed together longer but they didn’t, and that was kind of problem for some of these bands, for various reasons. In the case of Dickless I think the people who bought that single really appreciated the fact that the lead singer could scream as loud as any of the guys in town. She was just this petite redhead but she went for it.
But I think in Seattle there were more women that were involved behind the scenes and some of them are pretty well known, like Susie Tennant, who worked at DGC, and who still lives and works in the Seattle area. She was representing groups like Nirvana, and also The Posies, who were on DGC at the time, and Sonic Youth, who weren’t a northwest act but were getting even bigger at that time, even though they’d been around for awhile.
There was also a woman who managed the Screaming Trees, there was for awhile Donna Dresch from Team Dresch who played bass for the Screaming Trees. Also Megan Jasper, who works at Sub Pop. So there were a variety of women who worked at different labels.
But I think in retrospect it will probably always be seen as more of a masculine phenomenon even though women were involved in a lot of different ways. And I don’t think that’s a terrible thing, it just tends to happen with certain sorts of genres, like hardcore. There are women that like that kind of music but there were only so many women who were involved in that scene, and I think grunge was sort of similar. But maybe a little more welcoming to women on different levels. Just not as many frontwomen.
What were some good Grunge bands that people might not know about?
There were people in the scene who were part of the scene but kind of had their own thing going on. I think the quintessential person to fit that category would be Andrew Wood, who was originally of Malfunction, which was a popular local band. His influences were a little bit different than everyone else’s because he liked bands like KISS, and probably Alice Cooper, and David Bowie and things like that. So he liked glam rock and hard rock but he also liked Queen and bands who were very theatrical, which was not a Seattle thing at the time. He was in Malfunction which was a hard rock band with a funk edge to it as well and then he became a part of the Mother Love Bone and he was the front man for that group. They were building a following and they did get signed to a major label. They did put out, I think it was only an EP release, before unfortunately he died of, I don’t think it was drug overdose, but it was a drug related death. It was unfortunate because he was someone I never got to see live.
But people talk about how charismatic he was and what an exciting person he was to watch. There was really nobody in the scene like him. But he was playing with people that were very serious about music, and as terrible as that blow was for them, they did continue to play music and they do still play music, and some of them went on to form Pearl Jam. So they kept going but they never really forgot about him, and I think anyone from Seattle, who had any ties to him at all hasn’t forgotten about him. He also had brothers that played music with him, who are still in Seattle.
A documentary was made about him a few years ago, like a more local, regional play, it’s called “Malfunction”, than a national play, but it is commercially available, and for people who are interested, it will give you his story and there’s a little more to it than what people realize. Because in terms of what is available on record, there’s only so much, but Malfunction was putting out tapes and all those kinds of things when they were in Seattle.
So that was somebody who represented the glam rock end of things. Even in terms of grunge, there were bands that were heavier than the rest, I think Tad would fall into that category. They definitely developed a following from the start, but they weren’t as poppy and their songs weren’t as accessible as Nirvana or as Mudhoney. They were definitely more in the Black Sabbath end of things, very, very heavy. And they had a sense of humor as well, like Mudhoney did, maybe not as much of an obvious one, but heavy but kind of funny and they weren’t trying to be scary, I don’t think, even if some people saw them that way. So those are bands that were part of the scene but maybe not right in the middle of it.
So even before grunge started to take off, there were bands that were already established in Seattle that had local followings but not necessarily national followings, like the Fastbacks, who are still popular, and recently got together and played some well received gigs. Those are people who are still playing music. The Squirrels had a following, and a lot of the bands that were on Pop Lama, Green Pajamas, and amazingly a lot of these bands have kept going in different forms. Also The Walkabouts who did do some recording on Sub Pop, even though they were more of a country-oriented band. They were part of the scene, they had been part of the scene for a long time, but they were one of those bands that, for whatever reason, had more of a following in Europe, and I don’t really know why, but that was a good thing for them, so they could go to Europe and reach larger audiences there than here, even though they still had ties to Sub Pop and the local scene.
There were other bands at the time who fit into the same category. Dead Moon was the same way, who were out of Portland, and they predated the whole grunge scene, but kind of fit into it in a way. They would find bigger audiences in Europe. Within White Rope, a group out of California, there were just some groups that experience that phenomenon for whatever reason.
Then there were groups like The Posies who eventually ended up in Seattle, ended up getting signed to DGC around the same time as Nirvana but they were originally from Bellingham. They also remained popular; they were popular then, they are popular now. Pure Joy as well, which Rusty Willoughby was in, and he went on to form Flop. Now he is part of a group, it’s called Cobirds Unite. It’s Rusty Willoughby and Cobirds Unite. So he’s still playing with some of the same people he’s played with for years.
So you could say that for some of these groups that weren’t strictly grunge, that maybe it’s actually helped them. It might have hurt them at the time, but in the long run they’ve kind of outlived it. And then also Ron Nine is also another person that is worth mentioning because he was in Room Nine and then he formed Love Battery and they got signed by Sub Pop and I don’t know if he’s still making music anymore but he’s somebody else that’s been part of the scene for a long time and an important part of the scene as well. In Love Battery, Jason Finn was the drummer who went on to play for the Presidents of the United States of America.
How did you learn about new bands and upcoming shows back in the day?
So when I was in college I would get up to Seattle whenever I could, like during spring break and things like that because I was in Walla Walla, so it wasn’t too far away. I would always pick up a Rocket, so I think most of us at Whitman and probably other colleges in the Northwest were aware of the Rocket, like all the people living in Seattle were. That’s usually how you knew what the new bands were, and what shows were coming up, and they would focus on national acts as well. The covers would alternate between a local artist or a well-known artist from out of Seattle who would be playing in town soon.
So that was the Rocket - which produced a lot of well-known writers like Charles R. Cross, who wrote a book about Nirvana, “Heavier than Heaven,” which focused on Kurt Cobain. He also wrote a book about Hendrix and collaborated on a book about Led Zeppelin. Grant Aldon, who wrote for The Rocket, and was one of the editors, went on to co-found No Depression with a gentleman who was writing for the Post Intelligence here, so even some of these magazines or newspapers that formed out of Seattle did have their roots in Seattle.
And No Depression was one of those. Even though it was associated with alt-country, which wasn’t a big thing in Seattle at the time, but it’s actually a little bigger now, partly because of publications like No Depression. And at the same time The Rocket was doing their thing, much like what The Stranger would be now, or The Seattle Weekly, which did exist at that time but it didn’t focus on music as much as The Rocket did. So The Seattle Weekly was around during this time, the late 80s and early 90s, The Stranger came into being as well, and it wasn’t a very big influence to start with because we already had Backlash, which unlike The Rocket, focused exclusively on local music. It was edited by Dawn Anderson, who was going out with Jack Endino. So she wasn’t just someone who was part of the scene, but her boyfriend was producing a lot of these bands. Jack Endino is a musician as well, who was playing in Skin Yard.
Skinyard’s connection to the scene, beside from the fact that the band was based here, is that Daniel House, who was in the band, formed C/Z Records, so there was a label connection there as well. And C/Z was around for several years, and put out records by Skin Yard of course, and Gruntruck, Engine Kid, and a lot of other bands from the time. I think once the Stranger got a little bigger, in some ways that kind of pushed Backlash out, because it did end at a certain point. They were very good with what they did, but maybe there was a little less need for it, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t important at the time because it really was. And also The Seattle Weekly stepped up more of their music coverage as well.
And there were also short lived publications as well like Hype, which was named that for a reason, was covering a lot of the grunge bands and a lot of the bands and labels that they felt were similar. I wrote for Hype for a short time as well. One of the guys who formed that publication was originally from Michigan, if I’m not mistaken. So they also covered for a lot of bands that recorded for Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile and labels from the mid-west that were kind of sympathetic to what Sub Pop was doing. But they didn’t last that long, and that was kind of the case for quite some time that some of the publications would start up, and then they would die. The Stranger managed to find that means to keep going and The Seattle Weekly is still around, but all these other publications are gone. Some of that has to do with the web as well.
Because there were a lot of fanzines at the same time and now some of those people are blogging and they’re doing the same kind of writing for their own blogs or for other blogs, but they [fanzines] were important at the time, even if they aren’t as remembered, because the distribution situation was different. To get a fanzine, you could get one at a bookstore, but in a lot of cases you would get them at a record store, so they were more known to people that bought a lot of music. One of the best local ones that I remember, and I do know the gentleman that edited it because he went on to do a show at KCMU, was Jack Thompson who did one called Swellsville that I thought was really well done, and he did that for a few years.
Mike McGonigal, who lives in Portland now, but lived on the east coast, did Chemical lmbalance around the same time. And there were plenty of others, but I think those were two of the better ones at the time. And they are remembered because its not always easy to find whatever happened to that material. I don’t know if Mike, for instance, has ever made, he now has a publication called Yeti, which is a more thicker, more professional publication, but I don’t know if he has ever made the Chemical Imbalance material available online, and I don’t know if Jack Thompson has either. So some of these just have been lost, and could end up on the internet at some point but for now, a lot of it is kinda hard to find.
Tell us what you think of today’s local music scene:
So to their credit, Sub Pop managed to survive the whole grunge boom, because whenever there’s a boom there’s also a bust. And I know that times were hard for them, but in diversifying, not every band that they signed hit, but some really did. And some did spectacularly, like The Postal Service, even though they only put out one record, it’s one of the best sellers on Sub Pop. And um, The Shins, and groups like that.
So Sub Pop’s been able to keep going and one of the ways in which they’ve diversified is in signing hip hop groups. And I think that’s a scene right now, that even though it’s always existed, I think this might actually be one of the best times for hip hop in Seattle. Because when the whole grunge thing was happening, there was Sir Mix-A-Lot, Kid Sensation, somebody who worked with Sir Mix-A-Lot.
There was a very popular hip hop show on KCMU called Rap Attack which still exists, it has a different name and it’s hosted by Larry Mizell Jr, who also writes for The Stranger. He’s been involved in different groups and has been involved in promotion and things like that. He’s a very big fan, as am I, of Shabazz Palaces, who are now on Sub Pop, so that’s something new, for Sup Pop to sign a hip hop group although they’re not just any hip hop group, because they are also a band that has longtime ties to Seattle, just like Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop. Because the lead, the frontman--even though he was in Digable Planets, which was a New York-based group, his roots are in Seattle.
And Sub Pop also signed ThEESatisfaction, which is a female group, two women, who appear on the Shabazz Palaces record. They’re also openly gay, so that’s something different as well. And they’re an integral part of the scene, so that’s also something that speaks well of Seattle. That whether a hip hop group is male, or female, gay, straight, there’s a lot of acceptance.
And another group worth keeping an eye on is Champagne Champagne, very good live act, with a charismatic frontman, Pearl Dragon, who’s also part of this scene, these are friends of his, his friends have played with them. And these bands have gotten more than just club exposure -- Shabazz Palaces played at Bumbershoot this year, 2011. And also this year, Champagne Champagne played so they were able to reach a wider audience than just people that go to Neumos or The Crocodile. And THEESatisfaction I think played at Bumbershoot last year. So that’s an exciting development, especially because the Shabazz record has been so well-received all across the country.
There’s plenty of other local groups that are worthy of attention as well but maybe not as strikingly different as those, because Shabazz, even within the Seattle hip hop scene is still pretty unique, because they have a lot of African influences because the percussionist is from Zimbabwe. So no matter how you look at them they’re a pretty unique group and very experimental. There are also more accessible groups like The Young Evils, who feature Troy Nelson who’s a DJ at KEXP, and they have more of an alt-country sound and they’re just getting bigger and bigger the more they play shows so they’re developing a more national reputation. I had kind of a short list but I personally think, to me, hip hop is the most exciting. There are plenty of bands that are good but I think that’s the most exciting area right now.