- Tim Mathis
Seattle music history, by way of artists that I've behaved strangely around.
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
It would be hard to argue that it keeps up with the London’s and the New York’s of the world, but considered purely in terms of per capita impact, across the last three decades Seattle has to be recognized as one of the world’s musical epicenters - especially when it comes to the type of music that I like personally.
Still, when my wife Angel and I moved to Seattle in 2005, I never could have imagined how many amazing musicians I’d have the opportunity to behave strangely around.
Let’s back up.
Seattle’s music history is long. In the seedy old days, clubs in the Pioneer Square neighborhood set the context when the city wasn’t much more than a jumping off point to Alaska for loggers and miners. It was brothels and speakeasies and skid row and trouble set in a muddy wilderness paradise of mountains and the sea. The city’s European origins are a churn of immigration and itinerant sailors and desperate people seeking their fortune. In my own historical imagination anyway, it’s always had a sort of lowbrow chaotic energy that produces great music across the long gray winters when locals are forced to entertain themselves indoors. It’s hard to quantify, but the recipe is right there, and it has been for a long time.
The city has a park named after Jimi Hendrix, who was born there, and his life sized statue is one of the city’s most well-known landmarks. Ray Charles and Quincy Jones met as teenagers at the Elks Club on Jackson Street and did heroin together according to Jones, long before anyone knew much of anything about a Seattle sound.
Now let's skip ahead.
The heyday of Seattle music hit exactly during my own teenage glory years - from 1991 - 1996 when musical tastes were being seared into my brain for life. Cable television finally reached my small town Ohio home and I was exposed to MTV during the seventh season of the Real World, which was based in Seattle, and the city’s bands were on constant rotation: Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Hole, Mudhoney, Soundgarden.
Why did grunge happen as it did? I’m not sure. To me the music is the sound of bad weather and difficult economic times and probably heroin, which was Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s, but that was also the time that Microsoft was growing up and tech was bringing in resources, interest and hope. In 1992, Starbucks went public and was well on the way to becoming the world’s coffee McDonald’s, setting up new Seattle embassies across the country. The tumult of the early ‘90s saw a cultural transition away from the optimistic pop of the ‘80s towards gangsta rap and grittiness, and Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles gave gray, cool Seattle national exposure with cameos by Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. The city itself was notably and obviously on the cusp of significant change, and was at the epicenter of an internet revolution that was beginning to break into universal human consciousness. The music was a glimpse of a city that would be shaping the future.
Meanwhile, Seattle reached out to my own local music scene when Sub Pop, the Seattle record label that made grunge famous, signed Southern Ohio heroes The Afghan Whigs, who moved from Ohio to Seattle and developed into a core part of the early ‘90s alternative music rotation. I saw them at a legendary club called Bogarts when I was 16 in Cincinnati. I almost passed out from excitement and contact high during the show.
Nirvana had their time and deserve the attention they received, but Pearl Jam was my own favorite of the true Seattle grunge bands, and they’ve been the most enduring. They’re still making good records and Ten is still being shamelessly emulated by gravelly voiced hacks around the world. They’re also one of the few grunge-era bands that still hang around Seattle.
When we moved to the city, Angel and I bought a small unit in a cooperative building that looked a lot like the Coryell Courts Apartment from Singles, and was actually just around the corner from it. I’ve walked by the building hundreds of times. Living in the center of the city on Capitol Hill, across the years I personally experienced many of the places where Pearl Jam made their name. After their album Ten, they famously didn’t invest much into music videos and their relationship with MTV was never much better than sour, so the most famous video imagery associated with Pearl Jam all happened around Seattle in the early days of their career. Scenes of Eddie Vedder diving from speakers into a churning crowd in the video for Even Flow were recorded at the Moore Theater, which was part-owned by a doctor that Angel worked with while she was training to become a nurse practitioner. As a teenager, one of my most enduring music video memories was watching Vedder swing from rafters 30 feet in the air, defying death during a show at Magnuson Park, a spot just down the road from the hospital where I worked for a decade.
My cousin’s husband did some landscaping for Stone Gossard and said that he was a really nice guy.
I never met Stone, but I did run into Jeff Ament in a cafe near our place in Capitol Hill. He was eating with his family. Our friend was a bartender there, and told us not to stare but pointed him out. I turned my head, and I did stare, and I accidentally made eye contact. I jerked my head back around, looked down at my plate. It wasn’t a significant interaction for him I’m sure, but for me it was a taste of the rush to being acknowledged by a star and the crushing feeling in your chest when you suspect that they think you’re weird.
As a teenager, Tooth and Nail Records eventually became more important to me than Sub Pop. It’s a label with a strange but very American story. Based in Seattle, they were founded in 1993 by a guy named Brandon Ebel who recognized that Christian kids were thirsty for music that wasn’t praise and worship, and for a time, they signed every edgy band willing to be marketed in a Family Christian Bookstore. Like Sub Pop, Tooth and Nail exploded in culturally important ways, and when I had an ecstatic evangelical conversion at 16, the label became my world. It’s not too much to say that Tooth and Nail defined Christian youth culture in the ‘90s, and I joined millions of other young conservative Christians whose parents forced them to only listen to Christian music, or who wanted to differentiate themselves from their less faithful peers. For a time it seemed like Tooth and Nail signed bands regardless of talent, but they did support some really great artists: MXPX, The Juliana Theory, Starflyer 59, POD, Damien Jurado, Pedro the Lion. Those bands were how I defined my identity in my late teens.
I was a few years past my evangelical/Christian music phase when we moved to Seattle in 2005, but my first job in the city was at a warehouse where a lot of musicians worked. Maybe a lot of musicians work at all warehouses in Seattle, I’m not sure, but this particular place was full of people with peripheral connections to Tooth and Nail. For instance, a coworker who helped me remodel our bathroom played in a band with the lead singer from the Christian punk band Ninety Pound Wuss, and knew the girl who was the target of the MXPX song “Move to Bremerton.”
By that stage the label and the Christian music scene were both changing. Personally I’d mostly lost interest in that world, but I did continue to follow a musician named Dave Bazan, who was (and is) the lead singer of the former Tooth and Nail band Pedro the Lion.
Bazan was a Seattle guy himself, and had been an icon of late ‘90s Christian alternative music before abandoning his faith very publicly and releasing an album about it in 2009 called Curse Your Branches. It was very well received and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but for me, the music felt very personal. He’d been in my headphones for hundreds of hours while I was studying in college, and he was losing faith and writing about it at a time when I was going through the same process years later.
Bazan was also friends and collaborators with another musician who I worked with at the warehouse, so I ended up at a table with him at a wedding reception. He was on his way out of religion publicly at that point, and I was on the same path. It was one of those moments that you picture as a fan, when you meet someone who has made a real difference in your life through their art. I was listening to his music on regular rotation and it meant so much to me, right in that moment.
What do you say though? He was there with his family. We’d never met before. How do you raise the topic of losing faith with a stranger at a wedding reception?
Hey, you have a cute baby. I love your music about your issues with alcohol and how there is no God. I have deep seeded issues with religion as well. Beautiful ceremony, eh?
When he introduced himself I didn’t even make eye contact. I pretended I didn’t know who he was. He talked to his wife and tended to his baby across the table while I sat wishing I could figure out how to start a conversation. I just talked to Angel. She must’ve known I was uncomfortable. We left after the cake.
The day after the Trump election I cried while I watched Bazan’s video about his daughter on my phone in that apartment that looked like the place from Singles. I wish I’d said the right thing and we’d become friends.
Grunge died, mostly, but through the early 2000’s Seattle continued to produce a stream of hard, grimy music with widespread influence. Pretty Girls Make Graves. Sleater-Kinney. Tacocat. Even if it isn’t what it was, Seattle still has a strong undercurrent of music tradition. The weather still sucks and plenty of people still struggle there. It all drives a lot of good, gritty rock.
Angel and I moved to the city when the culture was transitioning. Amazon had established itself in the warehouse district but it hadn’t eaten the inner city yet. It was still anxiety provoking to walk around the central neighborhoods at night. A guy killed one of our neighbors with an ax, and another person was stabbed at random outside of the first apartment we considered buying. Nowadays Capitol Hill is fully gentrified but at the time it was populated by a good number of actual weirdos.
I came to my own immersion in the post-grunge culture honestly. We moved to the big city to make something of ourselves. Angel graduated from the University of Washington as a nurse practitioner and succeeded. I didn’t really, especially at first. The job in the warehouse lasted for two years, so I spent a lot of time in the industrial part of the city across from a seedy hotel, packing bottles in boxes next to rock stars on their way up or their way down.
I worked briefly with a guy named Jeff Matts, who at the time played guitar in a band called Zeke, which had a big following. The only thing I remember saying to him when he mentioned that he played hardcore punk was “That’s awesome. I don’t really listen to that stuff.” He left the warehouse job when he joined the heavy metal band High on Fire. A few years later he won a Grammy.
Maybe the best post-grunge band to come out of Seattle were The Murder City Devils, who played a sort of garage horror punk and wrote great hooks. They were on hiatus when I started at the warehouse, and Spencer Moody, their lead singer, started work there around the same time as me. I knew who he was, peripherally, because my brother was a huge fan of their band, but I hadn’t listened to them much myself. They were popular mainly during my Christian music phase. Spencer’s aesthetic was ‘80s office worker who’s on the outs with his wife and slept in his car last night. He was a nice, funny guy, and I got to know him personally before I really got in to his music. We had drinks a few times. I gave him a shelf we weren’t using. I finally saw him perform live when The Murder City Devils played a packed reunion show and thought “Shit, this guy is a star.” He’s an electric performer. Nerdy, clever, and defiant, which embodies the best of what Seattle was in the ‘00s. It makes you view a person in a new light, seeing them on stage, and seeing people scream for them.
The musicians I met at the warehouse started to mean more to me as I latched on to that community while I was leaving religion. The music connected me back to my teenage identity prior to religion, and the more I appreciated their music, the more strangely I acted around them in person.
After Spencer left the warehouse, he briefly opened a small shop where he sold unusual odds and ends. I bought a signed photo of Glenn Danzig for my brother Shayne, because I knew he’d both like the photo and love knowing that it had come from Spencer’s shop. Shayne came to visit Seattle one weekend, and Spencer’s new band, Triumph of Lethargy Skinned Alive to Death, happened to be playing the night that he had to fly out. We went to the show but had to leave just after they performed so he could catch his flight. Spencer and the band were just sitting down as we were going, so I stopped to say goodbye and introduce my brother. They invited us to sit but I said that we couldn’t because my brother had a flight to catch, but I wanted to introduce him because he’d flown in from Ohio to see them.
“Really? You flew in to see us?!” Spencer seemed excited and flattered. The Murder City Devils were popular but Triumph of Lethargy was not on the same level.
I’m not sure why I said this but I told him, “No, not really.”
I don’t know why I left it that way. I’m not sure that I’ve talked to Spencer since then. He closed his shop and moved to Los Angeles. The Murder City Devils are playing regularly again so I’ll watch a YouTube video occasionally. It seems like Spencer’s doing well. He’s still nerdy and defiant, and he seems to laugh and joke a lot on stage.
Even after the decline of grunge, Seattle music has played a significant role in influencing other scenes. These days, the center of music culture in the Pacific Northwest is probably more Portland than Seattle. The city has had its own scene for years, but nowadays Northwestern musicians migrate south to Portland rather than north to Seattle because the cost of living is lower and the scene is more vibrant. One of the biggest bands to come out of the Portland scene in the last few decades is The Shins, and one of my Seattle musician friends ended up in the band.
Yuuki Matthews was the guy whose wedding I was at when I failed to become friends with Dave Bazan. We both started at the warehouse around the same time, and he was a great guy and a really talented musician. Even while he was working at the warehouse he was playing with a lot of talented people and at one of his shows we ended up backstage drinking free Rainier beers with Stereolab. Eventually he genuinely made it - touring with Sufjan Stevens and then joining The Shins, who he’s played with for what must be at least a decade now. I’ve seen him on TV a few times now - Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon.
Yuuki wasn’t, and as far as I know still isn’t, a religious guy himself, but we fell out of touch around the same time that I left the religious world, and after his wedding. When I was leaving the church, I emailed to see if he wanted to get together. I told him I’d left the church and would try not to cry about it. I think we grabbed beers and have messaged a few times but we haven't really talked in years. Now what do I do? What do we have in common now, more than a decade later? We put bottles in boxes together. Part of me feels like that shared experience must mean something for my own future success, but I don’t know how much it means for ongoing relationships.
Death Cab for Cutie defined an era of indie rock and were maybe the last titanic band that grew up out of the old Seattle scene before people started moving to Portland. Proto-emo and genre-bridging, they have some spiritual overlap with Sunny Day Real Estate and Modest Mouse but have had wider influence than arguably any Seattle band besides Pearl Jam.
Ben Gibbard, the lead singer, still lives in Seattle and is a part of the trail running community there. He lived in our neighborhood and we’d run into him in various places, sometimes literally because Angel and I also got really into running for a time. At the Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, Washington, I passed him on trail. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he told me he liked my buff. It was black and red. A Solomon rep had been giving them out before the race and he was wearing the same one. At the end of the race Angel out-kicked him to beat him by a few seconds. Later I wrote an article about Seattle culture for Trail Runner Magazine and he told a mutual friend to pass on that he liked it, which was flattering. I called him a hipster in the article, but he said he wasn’t offended.
The last time I’ve seen him was at a friend’s birthday party. I could’ve introduced myself and had an in, but instead I waited until he was talking to a friend, awkwardly interrupted their conversation and told the friend goodbye and hugged them, pretended not to notice him and left the party. Why? I don’t know, I just don’t know what to do with myself.
Just today I posted on Death Cab’s Facebook wall: “Foxglove through the Clearcut is a beautiful song!” Posting on a band Facebook wall - I’m not sure if this is how it’s received but it makes me feel like a weird uncle who comments on his niece’s friends’ posts.
“Looking good girls!”
After Death Cab, a new wave of folksy Pacific Northwest indie rock grew up with connections to Seattle and Portland, embodied in bands like Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart, Band of Horses and The Cave Singers. For me, these types of bands sound like Seattle in the 2010s and the atmosphere of liberal culture in general during the Obama years - optimistic but oblivious white liberals without too many complaints. It’s a type of music that, to me, smells like pine needles and mist and a hint of smoked salmon.
My closest point of contact with this part of the scene was with a kid named John Van Deusen, the lead singer of a band called The Lonely Forest who had a couple of minor indie hits. They had an album produced by Chris Walla from Death Cab and he was a friend of a friend, and a really striking singer. I used a couple of connections to book him for a fundraiser I was coordinating for an AIDS nonprofit, and I was sure that we’d have a few hundred people in the audience. It was the first big event I’d ever organized, and in a lot of ways it was a failure. We only had about thirty people show up and it probably lost money in the end, which isn’t what you want for a fundraiser. John flew in at the last minute for the event from California, where his first niece had just been born. He was exhausted and expecting a crowd I’d guess. His performance was moving and he was gracious, but it wasn’t what I’d led him to expect it would be. He forgot his hat at the event, a yellow ballcap. I kept it in the trunk of our Corolla for months. It was a touch of celebrity and I thought maybe I’d give it back at some point, but I never did.
I found out the other day that he’s signed a contract with Tooth and Nail Records, so the circle is complete.
Hip Hop in Seattle has always been an under-appreciated if admittedly small scene. Sir Mix-A-Lot was the first properly famous Seattle rapper, and his 1988 breakthrough “Posse on Broadway” was about the same street that all of those grunge guys would be hanging around a couple of years later. Broadway - it was just down the road from our place that looked like the Coryell Courts. Later, in the early 2000s, the Blue Scholars, THEESatisfaction, Maktub and Shabazz Palaces made brilliant, if primarily critically appreciated music. D. Black made it as a producer and rapper locally in Seattle before converting to Orthodox Judaism and moving to Israel. Prior to the move he made an album with another guy I worked with at the warehouse - a rapper named B. Brown, It wasn’t a major commercial success but a lot of good things aren’t these days.
Ultimately Macklemore has been Seattle’s most popular hip hop export, which is maybe what the city is now. Not much grit but pulling from a history of grittiness? There’s no offense intended there. I used to work with his cousin and I like his music in that poppy kind of way. Before him, it had been a while since Seattle had produced a genuine pop star, and he’s probably the most visible Seattle artist working these days. It’s impressive that if you Google “Thrift Shop,” his song is on the first page of results. Imagine making a piece of art popular enough to supplant such a common thing. The US Census Bureau says that there are at least 25,000 thrift stores just in the United States, and he’s outranking all of them.
In 2012 I walked into our own local store - the since shuttered Capitol Hill Value Village. It was clear that something was off because the employees were noticeably more beautiful than normal. I went to the basement looking for a tennis racket, and I saw Macklemore sitting on a chair in an iconic fur coat, surrounded by cameras. I didn’t know it at the time but he was filming the video for Thrift Shop. It’s strange that they hadn’t even closed the store for the shoot but he hadn’t won any Grammys yet and he was still mostly a local artist. I recognized him, but what do you do in that situation? I pretended I was just browsing and that everything was normal. I confirmed that there were no viable tennis rackets and walked away. As far as I know, I didn’t draw any attention or actively make him feel uncomfortable. Maybe I’m getting better.
The Future of Seattle Music
It’s hard to know where Seattle music will end up in the future. The city has a lot of things going for it, but some of the same economic factors that make it a good place to live and work are undermining its ability to support the type of music and arts scene that it had in the past. The city has hit a No Mans Land of size and affordability. Lots of people have moved south to Portland for cheaper rent, or to Los Angeles or New York for better opportunities. Death Cab is still making pretty good music but it’s been thirty years since Singles.
Let’s be honest though, I’m not 25 anymore either. Whatever happens, I’m not going to be in the middle of it. We still have a place in Tacoma, but I’m not off Broadway anymore and my immersion in the music scene is virtually nonexistent. Seattle has moved on, and it’s moved on without me. I haven’t hung out with someone in a band in a decade.
Still, I did see Dave Matthews jogging not long ago and startled him when he passed. I slowed down to stare and inadvertently exclaimed “Hey!” as he tried to live his life.
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