The pop- and rock-music scene in Seattle's Eastside suburbs is all-ages concerts at the Ground Zero Teen Center in Bellevue, the Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond and the Kirkland Teen Union Building in Kirkland.
Being a young music fan in the Eastside suburbs can seem an isolated drag.
There is classical music and jazz, but those concerts can be too staid to engage youth. For music that brings young people together, aren’t Redmond, Kirkland and Bellevue musical dead zones?
Completely untrue. Music lives on the Eastside.
Practically all of it lives at the Old Fire House in Redmond, Kirkland Teen Union Building (K-Tub) in Kirkland and Ground Zero in Bellevue. It’s pop — mostly rock, but sometimes not — and in an Eastside full of classic arts venues like the Meydenbauer Center Theatre, Village Theatre and the Bellevue Arts Museum, teen centers are the only places that throw those types of concerts. They happen every weekend, are always all-ages, always cost around $5 and always finish before 11 p.m.
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On a recent freezing evening outside the Fire House (a few blocks from Redmond Town Center), kids kick a skateboard and share a cigarette under a streetlight across from the center’s entrance. Music is happening inside, where a small audience hangs out in groups on sofas, away from the stage, present but not.
Others are front and center for Truckasauras, a Seattle-via-Kirkland electronic hip-hop group. To everyone’s delight, two small boys hop from the floor to the stage mid-song, and in an impromptu “how to have fun” demonstration, interact with the band’s hypnotic bleeps, bloops and beats in a goofy, slow-motion break-dance fight. Almost everyone is between 13 and 19. It’s a scene.
A scene that could use more participants.
The buildings are there — Ground Zero looks like a guidance-counselor-approved teen center, but the Fire House and K-Tub are decorated and designed better than most concert spaces in Seattle. The staff is there, too. Each center’s music program is run by an idealistic 20-something who patronized the Eastside teen music scene back when they were teens themselves. They all agree the last time the centers were fully utilized was about a decade ago.
It’s a scene that dates back 16 years, when the city of Redmond established the Old Fire House Teen Center. Two years later, in 1994, came Ground Zero. The era is fondly remembered now in emblematic concerts like “emo rock” creators Sunny Day Real Estate at Ground Zero in 1994. Kirkland “screamo” band the Blood Brothers played the Fire House in 1998, and its members rode teen-center momentum to world tours, reigning over a period when Fire House/Ground Zero concerts were routinely packed. When K-Tub opened in Kirkland in 2001, Eastside teen centers were as popular as they were culturally crucial.
Each teen center’s current music director knows the eras and understands their importance. “Those concerts, and the early ones, too, turned out to be pivotal … not just for the music, but for the greater Seattle-area music industry as a whole,” says Fire House booking and concert manager Melissa “Meli” Darby. Now she and her fellow center music directors “pay it forward,” booking music and involving teens in their centers’ programming and management, hoping for another round of the glory days that most current Eastside teens know nothing about.
“Honestly,” says Fire House program coordinator Chris Cullen, “a lot of kids out here don’t even know we exist.”
So they’re not going to the concerts. Lack of attendance won’t kill the centers — each is mostly or completely funded by its particular city, and Redmond, Kirkland and Bellevue are all committed to their center’s existence — but their impact waxes and wanes with active involvement.
Ground Zero Teen Center
257 100th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Ground Zero music director Nick Merz, 21, makes sure good, young bands play at his teen center every weekend. He knows he can’t match the Fire House’s reputation in that department, and also that his facility — an old church next door to the Bellevue Boys & Girls Club, which splits Ground Zero’s budget with the city of Bellevue — is small. Compared to K-Tub’s attractive, modern design, Ground Zero has a “training wheels” vibe.
But lanky, shaggy Merz has heart, damn it, and so do his teen volunteers, especially extra-involved Dean Chu, 15.
Chu remembers more people hung out and came to concerts at Ground Zero last year. Merz remembers a lot more people at Ground Zero “10 years ago, when [local bands] Botch and the Blood Brothers kick-started teen centers post-grunge.” Chu says Merz “is one of the reasons Ground Zero is still Ground Zero.” Both share a do-it-yourself ethic and want area kids to use the center as a resource.
Merz has been booking and running the music program at Ground Zero for just over a month, and his first order of business was turning a downstairs room “that used to be a total train wreck” into a practice space with speakers, amps, a keyboard, microphones and a drum set, all obtained from donations or trash-for-treasure deals at Trading Musician, a used-music-gear shop in Seattle. “We’re having a benefit concert to buy a new bass amp,” he says.
Chu, a Bellevue High sophomore and ardent music fan (favorites are local bands I Declare War and Wild Orchid Children, both regulars on the Eastside teen-center circuit), is at Ground Zero no fewer than four days a week. At weekend concerts, he collects door money, manages the floor during the show and cleans up after everyone leaves.
Merz blames attendance woes on the return of all-ages concerts in Seattle — which essentially didn’t exist from 1985 to 2002, the years the Teen Dance Ordinance hobbled the ability of concert promoters to open their shows to teens. Chu thinks otherwise, explaining that his peers would rather hang out at other Eastside teen centers.
“K-Tub? You actually want to go there,” Chu says. “The only reason I’m here is to attempt to take this place back.”
Kirkland Teen Union Building
348 Kirkland Ave., Kirkland
At K-Tub, things are decidedly less PG.
“At Ground Zero, they don’t let people play ‘Halo’ anymore,” says Kelly Aiken, 27, music director at K-Tub. “We play ‘Halo’ here. And swear.”
Next to the downtown Kirkland library, Peter Kirk Park and bus lines galore, K-Tub looks like it belongs on a college campus. There’s a room with couches and a big TV where kids play Xbox, a comfortable lounge-y cafe and a real-deal studio where you can record music for $15 an hour.
Fifteen minutes before K-Tub closes one evening, two “suburban glam” kids — tight pants, white belts, longish hair with a vicious sidesweep — offer a baseball hat as collateral for the Xbox controllers. “We’ll just kick it till you close?” one asks-says.
Aiken says such drop-in clientele at K-Tub is heavy, all day, every day, but “our regulars don’t go to shows.”
Sarah Miller, 15, is at K-Tub “every day it’s open.” The BEST High School sophomore says, “if there’s a good show, I go, but I usually come here to hang out with friends and play video games and chill.”
When it comes to the music programs, and utilizing the high-ceilinged concert room (occupancy 300) with its brand-new speakers, Aiken says, “there is a lack of youth involvement in general.”
His view is that all-ages shows in Seattle have nothing to do with it. “There is a total disconnect between the Eastside and Seattle. No crossover audience at all,” he says, blaming apathy instead.
There are exceptions, like “mall screamo” band From Aphony, who plays K-Tub so much, it’s practically the house band. “They realize this venue and the kids that come out are their lifeblood,” Aiken says.
“I only book Eastside-oriented bands,” he continues, because they have a better chance of filling up the space with friends and family members than traveling acts. “I book shows for kids in bands and kids in the area. That’s it.”
The Old Fire House Teen Center
16510 N.E. 79 St., Redmond
The Old Fire House Teen Center in downtown Redmond hosts the most exciting music on the Eastside, all-ages or not, period.
On that chilly night before Truckasauras hit the warmly lit, black-curtained main stage — in a clean mini-hangar with black matte walls and red accents — 19-year-old Fire House intern DJ Trev, who also helped organize the event, hunched over machines in a dim, adjacent room, surrounded by maniac dancers who sliced purple light from a nearby plasma lamp with neon green glow-whips. It was a small digital tribe.
Quite small, actually. Just a few kids showed up that night.
“It’s powerful,” says booking manager Darby. “It might be one or two kids, but we were those kids. That was the domino. Those are the one or two kids that’ll be running this.”
Darby, 27, says she’s happy about the electronic/rap concert, even if it didn’t resemble the jampacked Fire House she loved attending 10 years ago. That period, which revolved around screamy, arty rock bands like the Blood Brothers, is certified Eastside legend.
The Fire House is the longest-running all-ages music venue north of San Francisco, and if you care to look, wall art made from old fliers flaunts a seriously cool booking history of big-venue bands (the White Stripes, Fugazi and Elliott Smith among hundreds).
She thinks more bands that normally play in Seattle don’t come to the Fire House mostly because of money. “We are city of Redmond so we have to write a check, which comes like two, three weeks after the show. People don’t want to play because they don’t get paid right away.” In her opinion, Seattle’s all-ages venues like the Vera Project don’t siphon the Fire House’s audience — which doesn’t include a lot of Seattle people anyway. Eastside kids simply don’t support the Fire House as they once did.
Still, “I can’t be stuck on the history of the Fire House and expect them to give a [expletive].”
Some kids do give a [expletive]. The Fire House pioneered “band pool,” a booking system in which teen musicians play demos for each other, then vote for which act should play which concert. It’s now a fixture at K-Tub and Ground Zero. Darby says 25 kids showed up at a recent meeting.
“The band pool shows are by far the most successful,” she says. “Parents come in. Friends support. The support is super important.”
Andrew Matson: 206-464-2153 or email@example.com