Grunge City: The Seattle Scene

For real rockers, Seattle is the ultimate Wet Dream

Pearl Jam
Alison Braun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pearl Jam
By |

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."

The costly but ingenious move of flying in a Melody Maker writer in 1989 panned out – the English press flipped, and in classic fashion, American A&R people soon rushed in, checkbooks at the ready. In a trice, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, the Posies, Alice in Chains and others were snapped up.

Photographer Charles Peterson established the look for Sub Pop bands – all hair, sweat and guitars – while Jack Endino's raw production was the sound. In a word, it was grungy.

Seattle became Grunge City. The music hailed Seventies bands like Black Sabbath and Kiss, as well as proto-punks such as the Stooges, the MC5 and Blue Cheer. Endino calls grunge "Seventies-influenced, slowed-down punk music," while Kim Thayil says it's "sloppy, smeary, staggering, drunken music." Poneman calls it "a backwoods yeti stomp."

"You gotta understand Seattle," says native Duff McKagan, now bassist for Guns n' Roses. "It's grungy. People are into rock & roll and into noise, and they're building airplanes all the time, and there's a lot of noise, and there's rain and musty garages. Musty garages create a certain noise."

In Seattle, where no one honks his horn, to make noise is to make a statement. "People want things to be pretty and gentle and soothing here," says Grant Alden. "And if you look at the world differently and you rebel against that, you end up sounding like Mudhoney." (There may be a chemical explanation, and no, it's not the water. By day, coffee-crazed Seattleites guzzle espresso in cafes on every corner; by night, they quaff oceans of beer – jolted by Java and looped with liquor, no wonder the music sounds like it does.)

Noise always figured in Northwest music. Named after the sonic booms of a nearby air-force base, Tacoma's Sonics – admired by everyone from Springsteen to the Sex Pistols – cut loose with bloodcurdling screams, Neanderthal drumming and heavily distorted guitar that sounded, well . . . grungy. And this was only 1964.

While the rest of America was mooning over Frankie and Fabian, Northwest kids were digging the Sonics, the Wailers and the Galaxies on the region's crazed teen-dance circuit. "Those bands have never been forgotten around here," says Scott McCaughey. "There was always a core of people who looked at that music as the Northwest tradition."

Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Kingsmen and the Ventures all came from the Northwest, where the original grunge classic, "Louie Louie," first became a hit (and nearly became the state song in 1985). The region boasts many other illustrious native sons, from the doo-woppers the Fleetwoods to James Marshall Hendrix.

The Northwest's late-Sixties psychedelic bands didn't cut it, and things went dormant until the debut of Heart on the indie Mushroom label. Later on, there were isolated successes, such as Metal Church and Queensrÿche.

Typically, scores of punk bands popped up after a late-Seventies Ramones gig at the elegant Olympic Hotel ballroom (there hasn't been a rock band there since). Among them was the Vainz, featuring a not-yet-legal young guitarist named Duff McKagan. McKagan also played in the tastefully named Fartz, which became the seminal punk band 10 Minute Warning, and in some twenty-eight other bands. "When I was there," says McKagan, "there were no record companies there, there was no writer from Rolling Stone there, it was just our own scene. But we were happy with it. And it was cool, and that's all we needed."

The scene bottomed out around '83, but then a new flock of bands, including the U-Men, Malfunkshun and the Melvins, started playing music that merged punk and metal, both the province of outsiders and outcasts; it was like someone putting their chocolate bar in someone else's peanut butter. Metal kids from Seattle's suburbs liked punk's exotic cool, while downtown punks liked metal for its theatricality, for its uncanny ability to annoy pointy-headed New Wavers and because it just plain rocked.

If the Seattle scene was an explosion, 1986's Deep Six compilation (now out of print) lit the fuse. The album featured Soundgarden, the U-Men, the Melvins, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun and Green River. "We'd go to New York, San Francisco and L.A., and there was nothing there," says Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. "With Deep Six coming out, we all said, "Yeah, this is a way cooler scene than anywhere else.' "

A tightknit core group emerged – the Melvins, Green River, Soundgarden and Malfunkshun. "We used to jam together a lot," says Cornell. "We talked about each other's bands, what we liked about 'em, what we hated about 'em. We talked about music a lot, we drank a lot."

The criminally over-looked Melvins virtually invented grunge simply by going from being the fastest band in town to being the slowest. "They got really heavy," recalls Mudhoney's Dan Peters, "and then a lot of bands decided they would be really heavy, too."

Malfunkshun bravely melded hardcore punk and the excesses of Seventies glam rock. The band's Andy Wood ("a total star," says Cornell) hit even the tiniest stages in white face, glittery outfits and motorcycle boots with nailed-on platform heels and hollered, "Hellooooo, Seattle!" Green River's tense punk-metal fusion eventually snapped the band – "It was punk versus major-label deal," says former frontman Mark Arm. It is believed that the band's Jeff Ament was the first Seattle musician to proclaim he wanted to make music his living.

Green River's Ament, Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather joined Andy Wood to form Mother Love Bone and signed a major-money, major-label deal. Tragically, Wood died of a heroin overdose in early 1990, just weeks before the group's debut album was released. Polydor dropped the devastated band, but the Seattle rock community rallied around them, producing the moving memorial album Temple of the Dog, featuring Wood's onetime roommate Chris Cornell. Ament and Gossard later triumphed in Pearl Jam.

Although Wood's death raised awareness of the problem, heroin still runs rampant in Seattle. The Supersuckers' Eddie Spagetti says the band knows plenty of musicians who have experimented with the drug. "Most people come out of it saying, 'That's bad news,'" he says. "Or they die."

Privately, a number of sources confirm that several of Seattle's leading musical lights – members of internationally famous bands – are heroin users. The feeling around town is, the drug is a disaster waiting to happen.

On a lesser scale, last summer Sub Pop was a disaster that was happening. On the floor of its reception area is a sign that reads, YOU OWE DWARVES $. Last summer, the ribald psychopunkers weren't the only ones Sub Pop owed $ – back in August, the label was bouncing $100 checks.

For all of Pavitt and Poneman's smarts, they were no bean counters. They spent a small fortune pursuing an abortive deal with a major distributor (they won't say, but it was Sony), as well as coping with two costly copyright suits. Their fledgling distribution company had been hopelessly mismanaged, and they vainly tried to match the huge advances majors were now waving at local bands. Sub Pop began selling a T-shirt with its logo and the legend WHAT PART OF "WE HAVE NO MONEY" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? But thanks to restructuring their business, a lucrative Single of the Month Club and the best-selling album it had ever had, Mudhoney's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Sub Pop gradually went into the black.

And then they really went into the black. Although Sub Pop rarely had contracts with its bands, Nirvana's Chris Novoselic went over to Pavitt's home one night, pounded drunkenly on his window and demanded one. Poneman wrote up a contract, which the band signed. When Nirvana signed to DGC, the label had to buy Sub Pop out of the band's two-album contract. Sub Pop got $75,000 and three points on each album sold. With Nevermind sales topping 3 million in the U.S. alone, that's $720,000 – so far. And Sub Pop nets an estimated $2.50 on each copy of Nirvana's first album, Bleach, which should go gold (500,000 copies) by the end of the year. But the best part of the deal might be the Sub Pop logo on every Nirvana disc.

Sub Pop was still in the midst of its financial crisis when America's mightiest indie band finally decided to shop for a major, winding up with Warners. "We just kind of had it," says Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. "We'd meet with them [Sub Pop], and they'd say, 'Come down tomorrow and we'll cut you a check.' And we'd go down there the next day, and they'd say, 'I didn't say that. You must have misunderstood me.' "

Mudhoney's lethal garage-punk kick only temporarily masks the humor and intelligence that makes the band better than simply very good. Despite Mark Arm's snarling whine and the distort-o-matic guitar work of Steve Turner (the Eric Clapton of grunge), they're remarkably unpretentious.

Nobody ever thought Mudhoney would go to a major, but the band had simply gotten too big. The members did it their way, striking a canny deal with Warners and retaining control over everything from artwork to videos. True to its indie roots, Mudhoney is probably one of the few bands that would have to fight to record for a lower budget rather than a higher one.

Mudhoney was the last of the original Seattle music community to graduate to the majors, a community that started to unravel when the bands began to go on lengthy national tours. "When you'd get back, the other band would be gone, and it wasn't the same thing anymore," Cornell says. Now the sniping begins: Mark Arm wrote the corrosive "Overblown" after seeing Soundgarden's bombastic video for "Outshined"; Nirvana and Pearl Jam are feuding after Kurt Cobain accused the band of selling out in an interview.

"The bands that created the scene are the bands that are out there getting the benefits of what they created," says Chris Cornell. "And what's come in after that was never a scene to begin with. This scene was basically bound to end one way or another, and it's a happy ending in that the bands that started it are all having some good success."

"We aren't signing very many bands from Seattle these days," says Jonathan Poneman, "simply because a lot of the bands here are starting to suck. So many of them are trying to conform to what they think a Seattle band is supposed to sound like." But Sub pop still has some great new bands up its sleeve, such as the Afghan Whigs, Seaweed and Love Battery, and other outstanding Seattle bands, including Flop, Treepeople, Gas Huffer and Stumpy Joe, prove there's life in the old town yet.

Some say that what happened in Seattle was just dumb luck."But the thing that's wonderful about dumb luck is that it will happen again," says Poneman. "Right now, there's a new scene being born somewhere."

This story is from the April 16th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 628: April 16, 1992