Mark Gajadhar programs beats in hip-hop trio Champagne Champagne and plays drums with prog-punks Past Lives. Past Lives' Devin Welch also plays with dub-rockers Flexions. And on it goes, in Seattle's musically promiscuous community.
It’s quarter past nine on a recent Friday night. A crowd of 20-somethings mills outside Cairo, a shoebox art gallery and performance space along the Summit/Mercer enclave of Capitol Hill: thrift-store winter coats, wool hats, beards, American Spirits, Rainier tallboys.
Inside another 50 or so people admire the weekend’s installation, a giant, 8-by-8-foot wall hanging known semi-ironically as “The Incest Map.”
The work of KEXP communications manager Rachel Ratner and poster artist Keith Whiteman, the map started in September on a legal pad, Ratner’s six-degrees game between her bands and her friends’. It’s a graphic representation of various bands in and around Seattle and the members they share.
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This night more than 350 groups are logged, circled and linked: stars Modest Mouse, Minus the Bear, the Shins; unknowns Steaming Wolf Penis, Psychic Emperors, Meth Teeth; Northwest icons Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Calvin Johnson. Dozens more are being Sharpied in by gallerygoers. By the time this story goes to print, more than 1,000 bands will be mapped.
Looking like the hand-drawn diagram of a monstrous circulatory system, the map depicts the primary characteristic that makes the Seattle creative community a thriving, ever-growing organism. When it comes to making music, we get around. A lot.
“It’s more of a casual, social thing, a thing you do to hang out with your friends,” Ratner says. “It almost brings music back to what it was meant to be or what it used to be. It’s less about the industry and making money or being successful or popular; it brings it back to a more personal level. It’s so much easier to be a band and make music nowadays — you can just be like, ‘I’ve got my computer and I’ve got friends coming over and now we’ve recorded something and it’s on MySpace and we’re a band.’ “
This is a difficult concept for consumers raised on manufactured, blockbuster artists and consensus favorites. It’s wholly Northwestern — DIY, low-fi, punkish, grungy. Is it any good? The ubiquity of free downloads and cheap concerts allows you to decide. Or you can follow the trend and make music yourself.
“There’s this idea that success is based on appealing to the greatest amount of people possible in the shortest period of time, which is totally flawed,” says Josh Tillman, who plays drums in Fleet Foxes and his brother’s psych-folk band Pearly Gate Music and records solo chamber folk as J. Tillman.
“Maybe I’m getting older, but I’m less interested in making distinctions whether something is good or bad in a universal way,” he says. “Those personal connections deliver so much more in a listening experience to me. If I know guys in a band I find that it fortifies the music. It’s definitely a highly biased listening experience, but that can be so much more meaningful than listening in purely a consumer kinda way.
“Me joining Fleet Foxes turned into a career, but at the heart it still feels like I’m sitting in with my friends,” he says. “It’s not like I answered a Craigslist ad. They all play with me [on my solo albums] and I play with my brother’s band and I play with my girlfriend. All the other stuff ends up feeling extraneous.”
Musical promiscuity is not endemic to Seattle. Any music city, from Austin to L.A. to New York, probably boasts a similarly leafy family tree. But the big city/small town dichotomy of Seattle means we revel in our intermingling perhaps more than most. And the climate is conducive to introversion.
“Most of my friends would rather sit and work on music rather than go out and party,” says Mark Gajadhar, who programs beats in the hip-hop trio Champagne Champagne and electro-Goth group Weekend, and plays drums with prog-punks Past Lives. Commiseration is maybe why Seattle musicians tend to be more supportive than competitive.
“I was worried when starting Champagne, because I never dealt with the Seattle hip-hop community in any way,” he says. “But it seems like everybody is super stoked for each other’s bands. And I never felt that competition in the rock scene. All of us have always toured with each other and played shows and kicked it. I’d chalk it up to it being such a small city with not that many places to really hang out and not run into these people and form friendships.”
For better or worse, small city means small payoff, says Tyler Swan, who plays drums in dub-rockers Flexions (who share a member, Devin Welch, with Past Lives) and noir-jazz band Foscil, and programs beats in digi-rock troublemakers Truckasauras: “If you’re content on the local scene, you’re bred not to trip on money because when you’re doing shows a lot of it is nickel and dime stuff.”
It also means small overhead.
“With a big-city grind, it’s hard to do extracurricular stuff,” he says. “Just to pay rent you work 12 hours every day. Seattle is a way better place to come up with stuff. It’s more comfortable. It’s really isolated. You can do weird, new things with that isolation. There’s less pressure. It’s, like, possible.”
The thrill comes in the doing, the gratification comes from doing it with your friends. Says Ratner of the two bands she plays bass in, art-punk provocateurs Partman Parthorse and low-fi dork-punks Butts: “It wasn’t supposed to be serious or to have shows. It’s really fun to play music with your friends, and that seems like what a lot of folks are doing.”
Jonathan Zwickel: firstname.lastname@example.org