Grunge City: The Seattle Scene

For real rockers, Seattle is the ultimate Wet Dream

Pearl Jam
Alison Braun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
April 16, 1992

Everybody loves us/Everybody loves our town," sings Mudhoney's Mark Arm. "That's why I'm thinking of leaving it/Don't believe in it now . . . /It's so overblown."

With the spectacular success of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana, the Northwest music scene is a bona fide phenomenon, a success story in a nation starving to hear one.

Actually, Seattle really peaked back in 1989, when the bands that made its reputation were still in town. "The whole thing is happening all over again," says producer and Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino. "And in a bizarre, self-parodied, too-big-for-life sort of way." Says Bruce Pavitt, co-owner of Seattle's Sub Pop Records: "There are no brakes on the hype at this point. It's just going through the roof."

In the past six years, Seattle has gone from a small but vibrant music scene to a rock mecca recently profiled by Time, Entertainment Weekly and USA Today. The upcoming Cameron Crowe film Singles stars Matt Dillon as a Seattle rocker who fronts a band called Citizen Dick – which includes members of Pearl Jam – with cameos by local rock-scene VIPs.

Overblown? Possibly. Over with? Definitely not.

"Wow, the natives are restless tonight," exclaims Ron Nine of Love Battery during a brilliant set at Seattle's Off Ramp, where a wave of gleeful slam dancers has deposited yet another piece of human flotsam on the stage. When it comes to Seattle, the natives are restless – people they see every day can be members of their favorite band. And you couldn't make it nicer to go to a club – most feature excellent beers from the city's microbreweries, and admission rarely tops six bucks. The Off Ramp hands out free earplugs and serves up fifty-cent plates of the mysterious "Hash After the Bash." Oh, and the bands are great. Welcome to Seattle, Rock City.

For major labels, the gold rush is on. Northwest bands are getting signed at the rate of one a week. Until recently, the Seattle scene seemingly reshuffled the same thirty or so musicians, but now scores of bands have moved to town, all competing for attention and club space. They come from places such as L.A.; Boise, Idaho; and Tucson, Arizona, whence the Supersuckers arrived three years ago. "There was no work in Tucson," says drummer Dan Siegel. "So you move where there's some work." "We're like a construction worker looking for a union," adds singer Eddie Spagetti.

The Supersuckers favor hyperthyroid tempos, scuzzy guitars and titles like "I Say Fuck" and "Retarded Bill." Having released four 45s on as many labels, they'll release an album on Sub Pop, the seminal Seattle label, this summer. At first, the Supersuckers lived and rehearsed in a squalid band pad. "Eddie and I found the Thanksgiving turkey in July when we moved out," says guitarist Ron Heathman.

A recent show at the RKCNDY club had Spagetti daring the listless crowd to do something – anything. It responded by pelting him with a steady stream of plastic beer cups, few of them empty. "It was a good audience-participation show" is Spagetti's considered assessment. "I was covered in beer, and I couldn't open my eyes. I was thinking, 'This is hell!' I was all wet, and I was touching the mike. I thought for sure I'd just go blaaaaam!

"Wasn't it great, though?"

The Seattle phenomenon wouldn't have been possible without the network of college radio, fanzines and indie distributors that sprang up in the wake of punk rock; Minneapolis and Athens, Georgia, established the viability of regional scenes. Seattle's repressive liquor laws stifled live music, but recording was cheap; in the mid-Eighties, radio stations KCMU and KJET supported local bands, which were reviewed by the late Backlash and the Seattle Rocket, which remains the scene's respected commentator.

Mark Arm chalks it up to "the two i's: isolation and inbreeding." Like Minneapolis, Seattle is a relatively isolated northern city with heavy precipitation and little to do except drink beer and jam in the basement; with the population barely topping half a million, everybody knows one another. While mid-Eighties alternative bands were busy aping R.E.M. and the Replacements, Arm says, "there was this one corner of the map that was busy being really inbred and ripping off each other's ideas."

Free of major-label attentions, musicians just made music to please their friends. "It's not a cutthroat sort of thing," says Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows. "It's more like 'Love Battery put out a cool single! Great, let's go see 'em!' Everybody's friends. It's not a competition thing." In the early Eighties any band that made it to Seattle stood to make a big impression, which is why the hard-touring bands on Southern California's blazing postpunk label sst – Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen and Black Flag – became musical Johnny Appleseeds. Even Seattle's trademark hirsuter-than-thou look was inspired by the longhairs in Black Flag.

All this occurred in Seattle's thriving cultural environment, which boasts prominent art museums, an opera, a philharmonic and local luminaries such as Gus Van Sant, Matt Groening and Lynda Barry. A university town, Seattle is consistently rated one of the nation's most livable cities, and the low cost of living makes it easy to be in a band.

And of course, Sub Pop had a lot to do with it.

"Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were the first people that ever told me that this scene was going to be huge," says Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. Poneman and Pavitt, both in their early thirties, are two extremely bright men who use words like heretofore and detente when discussing their music; still, Poneman can and does slam-dance with the best of 'em.

Sporting a degree in punk rock from freethinking Evergreen State College, Pavitt wrote an early-Eighties fanzine called Sub pop and began releasing cassette compilations of national indie stars, then noticed something happening in his own backyard and released Green River's Dry As a Bone. In 1987 Jonathan Poneman as erstwhiles KCMU DJ and local promoter, signed on to the new Sub Pop label after a mutual friend, Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, introduced him to Pavitt.

Documenting Seattle's then-obscure scene was the epochal Sub Pop 200, a three-EP box set, complete with twenty-page booklet. The music could have fit onto one record, but Poneman and Pavitt wanted to make a statement. "It was just overkill – sheer overkill and maximum hype," says Pavitt.

Modeling themselves on Motown Records and SST (and maybe a little Malcolm McLaren), Pavitt and Poneman created an alternative universe of stars such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, not to mention Sub Pop itself. "Their marketing strategy has been to create Sub Pop as an identity," says Rocket managing editor Grant Alden, "to create trust that if it's on Sub Pop, it's worth owning, even if you've never heard of the band."

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