With the Seahawks' berth in last month's Super Bowl XL focusing more attention on Seattle than usual, the Emerald City once again enjoyed a good ol' cliché-fest from the national media: "Boy, it sure does rain there a lot!" "Wow, those guys in orange overalls at Pike Place Market really like to throw fish!" And of course, "Hey, it's the place that gave us Nirvana and grunge!"
To most of the United States, Seattle music history begins with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (never mind Hendrix and Heart) and ends with a shotgun blast. Since then, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie have emerged as the most successful Seattle-area postgrunge bands; both made the jump from tiny indies to major labels, enjoying heavy promotional pushes via The OC, Spin covers, and Saturday Night Live appearances.
Yet, at the risk of adding more clichés to the pile -- "Seattle is back!" -- those two bands represent merely the tip of a formidable iceberg currently floating in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle indie rock in particular is especially fertile at the moment, with tons more terrific, diverse, and thus far largely unballyhooed artists -- These Arms Are Snakes, Laura Veirs, the Long Winters, Damien Jurado, Kinski, A Frames, The Briefs, Rosie Thomas, Headphones, the Cops, Heather Duby, Visqueen, and Dear Darling among the ever-growing list -- releasing high-quality albums of late, touring incessantly, and positioning themselves for similar national breakthroughs.
Coming to UC Berkeley's Heller Lounge this week are three more such acts -- Suicide Squeeze labelmates Minus the Bear and Crystal Skulls, and Barsuk Records singer-songwriter Rocky Votolato -- striving to build their reputations far beyond Seattle city limits. "There's definitely a much more exposed side to Seattle music," Votolato admits. "But if a band like Death Cab is waking people up to the fact that there's something exciting going on throughout the entire indie-rock scene in Seattle right now, that probably increases the chances of the rest of us smaller artists getting noticed. I don't think of it as, 'Oh, Death Cab's getting all this attention and that's taking away from what I'm doing.' I know there are a few bands around town that do feel that way. You can hear it in people's voices, you can hear the jealousy, and it bums me out. But honestly, I don't think that kinda competitive thing is all that pervasive in Seattle."
"I think for the most part people here are fine with those bands' success," concurs Minus the Bear singer Jake Snider. "Death Cab and Modest Mouse are great, and I see it as complimentary if we get mentioned in the same breath as them, but we definitely don't sound anything like them. And these bands we're touring with right now are completely stylistically different than us. That's pretty representative of what's happening in Seattle right now -- it's superdiverse."
Indeed, Votolato's just-released Makers, Minus the Bear's recent Menos El Oso, and Crystal Skulls' forthcoming Outgoing Behavior are truly distinct from one another, and each outstanding in its own right. Makers -- Votolato's fourth full-length since 1999 -- largely explores a lovely, plaintive country-folk vibe that fans of the Pernice Brothers or Iron & Wine would appreciate; its songs are similarly airy and evocative, driven mainly by acoustic guitars and bits of harmonica, pedal steel, Hammond organ, violin, and subtle percussion. His tenor, meanwhile, is equal parts sugar and sandpaper, yet softer and more resigned-sounding than on rantier predecessor Suicide Medicine (2003), and definitely more tranquil than his delivery a decade ago in the Fugazi-inspired emo outfit Waxwing, which he formed with brother Cody (who now plays in another rising Seattle band, the Blood Brothers).
Change is also evident on Minus the Bear's second long-player in its five-year history. Once known for near-spastic, mathy post-punk -- including healthy doses of Eddie Van Halen-esque guitar tapping and over-the-top song titles like "Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked" -- Menos El Oso is smoother yet more intense. Snider's laid-back vocals still sound remarkably akin to Jawbox's J. Robbins, and the quintet still knows how to ratchet up some tension, but the disc's new twists include glitchtronica cut-ups, shoegazer guitar textures, and unexpectedly pretty pop moments that recall Death Cab side project the Postal Service.
Crystal Skulls, meanwhile, are the newest of the three acts -- frontman Christian Wargo, former guitarist for now-defunct Pedro the Lion, launched the quartet in late 2004 -- possessing an idiosyncratic, pretzeled pop sound justifiably compared to Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, and other '70s AM rock. Outgoing Behavior (due in April, a year after the band's debut, Blocked Numbers) indeed displays a fondness for suave, jazzy textures, Ooooh ahhh backing vocals, and agile, interlocking guitar melodies. But an equal reliance on quirky funk rhythms (more Tom Tom Club than Talking Heads) and Wargo's keen lyrics and phrasing cast the Skulls as heirs to XTC.
Musing on the notable variances between the three tourmates and other Seattle artists, Snider laughs: "There's no way some journalist or somebody is gonna be able to come up with one overall word for what's going on here, like they did with 'grunge.'"
"Usually it's a certain type of person that cares about a 'scene,' and defining it or whatever," Votolato adds. "They're like, 'Okay, this is the Chicago scene and here's Tortoise, and all these bands know each other and that's really cool, and, like, this part of the country has this type of sound and these guys evolved into these bands together,' and they see how incestuous it all is and think that's really cool. But I don't think the average listener out there really gives a shit or has enough time to pay attention and notice that stuff."
"I don't even think I understand what a 'scene' is," Wargo deadpans. "I dunno, I guess I feel like there's something happening in general in Seattle, maybe the success of more poppy bands. But just like these other guys, we're just focused on taking care of what we do as a band, y'know, writing good songs and playing shows, and the rest will happen as it happens."
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