As soon as Naomi Punk struck the first chord of their set, their audience scurried in from the sidewalk outside of Cairo, walking through the modest sales floor in front and into its even smaller performance space in the back. Though only about two dozen attendees were piled into the boutique/venue/art space, it was a few bodies away from full capacity. The show was a sendoff for the conquering heroes of Seattle‘s DIY scene — with a tour fully booked in hopes to convert the rest of the nation one matchbox venue at a time. It was the second-hottest day of the year in Seattle, and its most talked-about DIY space’s only relief from the stifling indoor heat was a solitary $20 box fan in the corner behind the band. My friends and I wisely chose to listen from outside.
But the show served as yet another small victory for a burgeoning music scene springing from underneath the Space Needle, with a quickly growing network of musicians, visual artists, and venues that range in legality from totally legit to flagrantly questionable. As the city’s most hotly-tipped new band, Naomi Punk (Editors note: who are now signed to Captured Tracks) have received a decent amount of national press, most of which describe them in terms no Seattle group with members under the age of 40 should have to endure. It seems like few journalists outside of the Pacific Northwest are able to write about music from the Emerald City without using the G-word.
A brief refresher on the story of grunge:
Chapter 1: A pocket of Seattle-area bands combine the ferocity of punk music with the heaviness of metal. Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of grunge incubator Sub Pop Records, pinches the term from Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (who used it descriptively), gives the heretofore unnamed genre its name.
Chapter 2: Major label signs Nirvana away from Sub Pop, yields astronomically successful results.
Chapter 3: Monkey see, monkey do, monkey sends label representatives to fling money at anything in Seattle carrying a guitar case and anything elsewhere able to sound like a reasonable facsimile of a Seattle band. Monkey unrepentantly attempts to justify the existence of Bush and Silverchair.
Chapter 4: Grunge becomes a worldwide phenomenon, resulting in such cultural disasters as “high-end grunge fashion” and Cameron Crowe’s feature film Singles, a mawkish, chintzy romantic comedy masquerading as 24 Hour Party People in flannel.
Let’s backtrack, though, to when the city saw huge successes from bands like the Presidents of the United States of America, Harvey Danger, and later Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. Around the time of the latter, Ian Kim Judd, Cairo’s events curator, moved to town as a fresh-faced 18-year-old with a list of friends he made while visiting the city. “I grew up in Spokane [about four hours east of Seattle] when grunge hit,” Judd says. “So the proximal impact of the cultural boom really resonated with me. Seattle became a very mystifying place.”
Just like Cairo itself — in addition to the things above, the space holds screenprinting workshops — Judd is a pathological multitasker. He books music and art shows at Cairo, curates Seattle’s annual Vibrations Festival, co-owns local label Couples Skate (label home of Naomi Punk) and plays bass in the shoegaze-leaning post-punk band Stephanie. All of his job titles can be partially attributed to the friends he made and visited as a teenager, musicians who would later join or form bands like Naomi Punk, mischievous twee-poppers Witch Gardens and the now-defunct Talbot Tagora.
“I met all of these kids when we were all in high school, communicating via email, sharing music with each other, and hanging out and going to shows whenever I’d come across the state to visit my dad in [nearby] Bellevue. Once I moved to Seattle, I had already felt integrated into a community. And after a couple of years through building more and more relationships with people in the community, I got more involved not just with the creative side of music, but the curatorial side as well.”
Just like any music community full of ambitious, idealistic kids, Seattle saw those teenagers migrate toward operational roles during the turn of the decade while still holding onto their creative side. Jason Baxter, who entered the world the same year as Nirvana’s epochal Bleach, plays in experimental electronic duo USF in addition to his duties as the in-house publicist of Hardly Art Records, a Sub Pop subsidiary and label home of such Seattle DIY mainstays as Grave Babies and TacocaT.
If Judd felt the proximal impact of grunge, Baxter was square in the middle of the blast. “I think it’s sort of a given for Cascadian teenagers to get into grunge in early adolescence, which is when I started listening to it. It’s just sort of pervasive and hard to ignore in Seattle, despite some lingering resentment about the whole grunge scene and genre being one of four things people tend to associate with the city (the other three being coffee, Microsoft, and rainfall),” he says. “Kurt Cobain was huge for me in early high school — I had that embarrassing, acolyte-ish adoration thing going on.” Though Judd was indifferent to most of the grunge scene, he admits, “Nirvana was enormous to me.”
Inspired by both the musical legacy of their city and the vibrant community of their neighbors to the south in Olympia, venues staunchly dedicated to do-it-yourself values and all-ages admission started hosting shows where Seattle-area youth could see bands both local and national, hang out, and in many cases, form bands of their own. Places like The Vera Project and The Old Fire House in suburban Redmond were not only prime hangout spots, but were also volunteer-operated, a perfect way for patrons to give back to the arts community.
In the wake of the city’s mid-’00s crackdown on liquor legislation, not only were established music venues under siege by unpopular laws, such as one that forbade artists from drinking alcohol onstage, but Seattle’s best DIY spaces were caught in the crossfire. This manifested itself mostly in building inspectors shutting down beloved makeshift venues like Healthy Times Fun Club and “hazardous” storeroom stages like the one at the old Atlas Clothing. Of course, this hardly stopped the city’s DIY community, as its patrons kept forming bands and setting up places to play shows every bit as rapidly as they were being torn down. In many cases, the old venues took new ownership and ran the venue under a different name until they were shut down again.
While the city went through various sea changes as far as the musical landscape– from cheeky alt-rock groups like Harvey Danger and the Presidents of the United States of America to indie-to-major-label heroes Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse– Seattle’s legislators and businesses started getting behind all-ages venues in a big way. Long a proponent for the DIY sector of the city’s music community, nonprofit venue The Vera Project found support from donors both expected (Sub Pop) and far-flung (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen). Other spaces like the Josephine and the Black Lodge have remained intact by having proper permits and keeping their spaces alcohol-free. And, most importantly, bands have cropped up that the ability to capture imaginations far outside of the Puget Sound area but continue to gain the support of their hometown. “Everything that’s big here musically — Sub Pop, local, listener-powered radio station KEXP — is independent, too,” Judd says. “And you can see it in the infrastructure that this city has for preserving local music and empowering local musicians.”
In spite of all of this, or perhaps because of it, many of the city’s bands have made peace with the G-word, both albatross and benefactor of much of Seattle’s musical legacy. Iconic photos of grunge legends — taken by local photographer Charles Peterson — hang on the back wall of storied venue The Crocodile. Songs from Incesticide sit in rotation right along with the Wimps on local listener-powered radio station KEXP. Even the bands themselves can’t help but be swept up by the city’s past. “I don’t want to make a blanket statement like, ‘The contemporary Seattle DIY scene wouldn’t exist without grunge,’” Baxter says, “but I’m sure to a large degree that’s true. Its legacy is certainly felt, with an abundance of references both aural (Naomi Punk, Broken Water) and visual (Grave Babies’ aesthetic identity is just one of many that rely heavily on that classic Nirvana serif font).”
The world at large may continue to ignore Seattle’s music scene as a whole for the sins committed by grunge two decades ago, but nobody there is all that worried. Says Baxter: “What’s interesting is that grunge, as I understand it, was this community-focused, non-commercial thing. The journalists and, subsequently, the majors had to be (literally) invited to the party before the music and the culture caught on and went supernova. The DIY musicians operating in Seattle nowadays are savvy but also very art-driven and not commerce-minded at all. The difference being, these days, culture is so fragmented and mutable and diverse that I don’t think something so special and deliberately hermetic could break out on such a massive scale again. The underground will stay underground, which is probably a good thing.”