Appearing in this article about the sound of Seattle will be only a single instance of the g-word. Here it is, in a quote from Mat Brooke...
Appearing in this article about the sound of Seattle will be only a single instance of the g-word. Here it is, in a quote from Mat Brooke, front man of the band Grand Archives:
“It seems like Seattle is finally realizing that we don’t have to be grunge, and we might just end up with a new, credible scene going on.”
There is a new scene going on. It is credible. And it sounds nothing like the music this city has long been associated with. For the first time, the music coming from Seattle reflects the beauty, grandeur and remoteness of the city’s locale. The last 15 years of music sounded right in a grimy basement or dark nightclub; this music sounds right on a sun-dappled back porch or in a living-room daydream of Paradise.
“The bands talk about this common sound that’s happening,” says Grant Olsen of Arthur & Yu, “and no one really knows where it’s coming from or why it’s this particular acoustic, softer sort of thing, as opposed to the harder thing that came out of here 15 years ago,”
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Actually, right now Seattle offers greater choice in every genre — hip-hop, electronica, indie, punk, experimental, you name it. But when it comes to world domination, it’s Sub Pop’s sounds that reach the most ears. Along with Grand Archives, locals Fleet Foxes and Sera Cahoone are on Sub Pop’s roster; Arthur & Yu and the Moondoggies are on Sub Pop subsidiary Hardly Art. (The Cave Singers, whose folk-dirge-blues fit alongside the aforementioned bands, are on New York’s Matador Records.) Each of these Seattle bands has a unique sound, but they all share a common ethos.
“We definitely haven’t done any conscious marketing of them to make them appear to be some sort of single sound,” says Tony Kiewel, head of Sub Pop A&R. “But I do appreciate that they are mellower and more melodic, and there does seem to be a thread of vocal harmonizing going on, and you see that spilling over into bands a little further out. Bands that all hang out at the Redwood on a Saturday night getting drunk.”
The Redwood: Every scene needs a center, and right now the peanut shell-floored Capitol Hill saloon is it. The bar of the late ’90s was the now-demolished Cha Cha; today the Redwood serves as the scene’s primary watering hole. It’s co-owned by Grand Archives’ Brooke, and it employs several local rockers. Its faux-rustic, backwoods décor caters to the urban-rustic, beards-n-belt-buckle ambience of this new crop of bands. It’s a natural fit.
“The way I grew up playing music was always sitting around a living room with friends, or outdoors — connected to both sides, the city and the outdoors,” says Olsen. “Seattle is a good city for that. You can get your guitar and get out into the woods pretty quickly. A lot of these cats grew up here, and I did for a while when I was young, and there were guitars in the woods for sure.”
The phrase “guitars in the woods” might conjure knee-jerk flashbacks to the 1960s and ’70s, but that’s a narrow-minded perspective that misses an important point.
“I don’t think sitting down and playing guitar is an old-time thing,” says the Moondoggies’ Kevin Murphy. “Our sound is what seems to happen when we sit around and sing and play. It’s never going to get old. People will always do that.”
Along with a shift in setting, there’s an important shift in the influences at work. This would usually coincide with a generation gap, but that’s not the case here.
“Maybe [the influence] was Iggy Pop for a while; now it’s Neil Young,” says Sub Pop’s Kiewel. “And it’s always looking backwards and picking up older records and seeing them through new eyes. For sure it’s some people getting older, but then you look at Fleet Foxes and you couldn’t get much younger.”
Fleet Foxes bandleader Robin Pecknold and the Moondoggies’ Murphy are both 22 years old, disproving the notion that this trend consists solely of aging rockers reluctantly turning down the volume. Their personal tastes speak directly to the thread that binds these bands together.
“Music that I listen to, that I like the most, that is easiest for me to connect to, is music where I’m hearing the individual behind the song,” Pecknold says. “Where the song is a direct expression of who that person is. It has nothing to do with what style of music it is.”
“You believe someone when they’re being sincere, basic,” Murphy says. “There’s always a place for that, as long as they’re being honest. You look at them like, do I believe you? Are you just saying that? I think about when I was little, the music I listened to, you didn’t really think about all this stuff, about anything going on in Seattle. You just totally believed in it.”
It’s easier to hear the individual behind the song, to believe the song, when the song is absent of digital effects, studio overdubs or ear-punishing volume. Perhaps we’re looking to connect to music in a more direct way than before, to go beyond fashion and affectation and dig into fundamentals (though going fashion-less is itself a fashion, but that’s another story). It’s not necessarily a new notion, but it is unquestionably a powerful one.
“I don’t know if any of the other bands in this category are reinventing anything, but [our music] is nothing mind-blowingly new that you’ve never heard before,” says Arthur & Yu’s Olsen.
Inevitably, the questions arise: How far will this thing go? And what the heck do we call it?
To answer the first question we need to look at the scene’s origins. In the beginning, there were two bands.
The first is Carissa’s Wierd, a Seattle “sadcore” band whose members included Sera Cahoone, Mat Brooke and Ben Bridwell. (Brooke and Bridwell went on to form Band of Horses, from which sprung Grand Archives). They were true originals, quiet, mournful and eerie; were briefly signed to Sub Pop; and were local favorites from the mid-’90s until their 2003 demise.
The second is Beachwood Sparks, a Los Angeles collective whose music was a clear and proud homage to the Byrds, Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield, the very same godfathers of the Moondoggies, Fleet Foxes and Grand Archives. Beachwood Sparks was also signed to Sub Pop, somewhere around 1999 until the band’s dissolution in 2002.
Though their influences today are strong, neither band blew up beyond cult status. In that light, the odds of this new trend — pretty, pastoral, quiet — going big may be small.
Not so, says Kyla Fairchild, co-publisher of No Depression magazine. The influential publication was founded in Seattle in 1995 and was the principal journal of the roots and Americana scene until its demise earlier this year.
“Roots, Americana, alt-country, whatever you want to call it, that music is cyclical in nature, and it’s had points of success over the years,” she says. “When the alt-country thing was going on in the mid-’90s and people we’re saying it’s the next big thing, older fans would laugh because they’d seen it before in the ’70s and again in the ’80s. But it’s a great thing because it means there’s always another wave coming around. This wave, it’s the next incarnation of this thing. For the first time it’s more firmly interspersed with what’s popular. It’s reached a more mainstream, hipster crowd than ever before. … When you think of the Shins or the Decemberists or Death Cab, alt-country Americana is not that far away.”
As for what to call it? Carissa’s Sparks? Beachwierd? The March edition of Seattle Sound magazine suggested “hill pop.” Someone within Sub Pop jokingly tossed out “grange.” The fact is, names come about organically or risk sounding contrived, like a marketing scheme. Besides, neither name nor popularity does a scene make.
“I like a lot of the people in the bands you mentioned, and without a moniker I think there can be something done with all those bands that’s positive,” Olsen says. “Whenever stuff gets grouped together it’s dangerous. I think it’s a healthy response of the public to turn a cynical eye to it.”
“What makes a scene, perhaps, is where your desire is as an artist, what you’re trying to accomplish together,” says Kiewel. “Are they all working together? Yeah, they do play shows together, they do look out for each other and oftentimes swap members or play on each others’ records. I don’t really think about it as any sort of changing of the guard so much as, wow, isn’t it great that there is this thing here, because I haven’t felt like that for a while. It’s always exciting to feel like your community is creating things that are beautiful and interesting.”
Jonathan Zwickel: firstname.lastname@example.org