Teens flocking to Redmond weren't aware of it back then, but they were experiencing the explosive aftermath of post-grunge music in the Pacific Northwest, a historical anomaly that for one decade shifted the region's musicultural epicenter from Seattle to the East Side. Kate Becker ran the Old Fire House Teen Center for a golden decade...
photographed by Erika Schultz
“DOES ANYONE know who Kate Becker is?” Tyler Swan asks, stretching his microphone arm across drum machines, samplers and synthesizers. Looking for signs of recognition, he scans the scant clump of young people fidgeting beneath him. Nothing.
Outside on that dark fall evening in 2008, it was quiet enough that no one could tell a concert was happening in the former Redmond YMCA called the Old Fire House Teen Center. Inside, Seattle-via-Kirkland electronic quartet Truckasauras dutifully played its set of melancholy/triumphant songs.
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Swan, older brother Adam and childhood friends Ryan Trudell and Daniel Bordon agreed to the concert not for exposure — their group was already favorably recognized by local and national media — and certainly not for the money.
They went instead out of love and gratitude, loyalty and curiosity, to check in with the place where they spent their youths in the ’90s, the place where they picked up enough momentum to play music together for going on 20 years.
They remembered a huge room packed flesh-to-flesh every weekend. Crowd surfing and moshing underneath rock-star lights. Cigarette smokers, scene-makers and skateboards on the patio. They remembered a genuinely wild-feeling-even-without-the-alcohol rock club. A safe place where you could rebel. An active scene with a supportive community.
They weren’t aware of it back then, but what they remembered was the explosive aftermath of post-grunge music in the Pacific Northwest, a historical anomaly that for one decade shifted the region’s musicultural epicenter from Seattle to Redmond.
What Truckasauras experienced in returning was like visiting your childhood home and finding a vacant lot. Its synthesizer melodies cried out for all that once was.
Watching the show and taking notes for an article that ended up not coming out exactly the way I’d wanted, I put it together that the poor attendance wasn’t a fluke. I’d visited other area teen centers (Ground Zero in Bellevue, KTUB in Kirkland) around the same time and realized that Eastside kids in the late-aughts didn’t want to be in bands like kids in the ’90s did. They wanted to play Halo. They wanted a living room or a cafe, not a nightclub.
I thought about how much I, pop music-obsessed headspace-dweller that I was, would have appreciated the Fire House back when it was really something. Back when I was growing up in Kirkland at the same time Truckasauras was, hating school, working dishwashing jobs and spending all my money on CDs. At night, the Truckasauras guys escaped Kirkland Junior High, Lake Washington High and BEST Alternative High School and flocked to the Fire House, where they mattered in a new context. I did nothing every evening besides listen to Elliott Smith and A Tribe Called Quest in my headphones.
When Tyler Swan squinted into the silence in 2008 after finding out today’s Fire House kids didn’t know Becker’s name, he followed with a brief, “Well, she started this place. This song is for her.”
The sad thing is, I didn’t know her, either.
KATE BECKER ran the Old Fire House for a golden decade from 1992 to 2002 with one goal: to support “nontraditional” kids — the ones “not fitting in comfortably at home, church, school, neighborhood” — in whatever they wanted to do, so long as it was legal.
Back then, they wanted to play concerts.
In one way or another, she, the teen center and the Eastside gave us: Modest Mouse (international supergroup, used to play the Fire House for $5), Fleet Foxes (had its first formal concert at the Fire House, went on to play “Saturday Night Live”), Gossip (the world’s leading sexuality-rights band; drummer was in several Fire House groups), Sunny Day Real Estate (invented emo, the melodic/cathartic punk spinoff genre) and Blood Brothers (invented screamo, a frenzied spinoff of a spinoff). The list of bands goes on. The booking agent for Fremont’s Nectar Lounge, Melissa Darby, was in the mix, too, as were several Seattle music writers, including The Stranger’s Eric Grandy.
Add to that a sizable chunk of Seattle’s musicultural vanguard in 2010: Past Lives and Flexions as well as Truckasauras.
Each band is the product of a multiband evolution and is actively inventing new styles of music with big payoffs. Past Lives deconstructs furious guitar rock and sometimes finds a calm core. Flexions connects dub reggae with punk over acoustic/digital drums. Truckasauras combines electro and instrumental hip-hop, and communicates Northwest melancholy/majesty with vintage synthesizers and drum machines, playing a significant role in Seattle’s changing pop-music scene, where our best bands don’t necessarily use guitars.
It wasn’t so much an explosion as a series of waves that fed on hero worship of the previous wave, national bands that Becker booked, and the culture of the teen center. The Old Fire House faction of Seattle’s current musicultural vanguard is made up of the first Eastside teens who essentially grew up there. They’re now around 30 years old and making the best music of their lives. Each says it’s all because of Becker.
Like many of the kids she nurtured, “I didn’t have a great adolescence,” says the 43-year-old on the back porch of the Greenwood house she owns with her husband, Michael Compton, a Fire House alum, musician and record-label owner.
In high school in Connecticut, Becker was getting A’s but bored. She skipped class often, hung out in empty fields, had a fake ID “for shows, not drinking,” and was eventually kicked out of school for lack of attendance. One of eight kids in a household with not a lot of money, she had a tumultuous relationship with her mom, who brought in a psychologist when Becker started acting out.
“I remember thinking, ‘These people don’t get it,’ ” she says.
Without the free alternatives Eastside kids had (Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes went to community college via Lake Washington School District’s Running Start program, and so did I), young Kate Becker applied to four-year schools as a 16-year-old and graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst at 20. While there, she started working with teenage girls, and later started a program in Massachusetts for girls “who had suffered horrible things at the hands of adults, were drug-involved or seriously emotionally unstable.”
Becker eventually left New England in search of a new home with her boyfriend and landed in Seattle in September 1991, the same month Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was released, 107.7 The End went on the air and the first edition of The Stranger was published.
She liked the place, lost the boyfriend and applied for a job in Redmond. Mayor Rosemarie Ives was trying to start city-funded programs that would engage nontraditional young people — “which her 15-year-old son happened to be,” says Becker. To figure out how best to serve her new customers, Becker went to where they were, Peter Kirk Park in Kirkland and Anderson Park in Redmond, and approached the same loitering teens most people avoid.
The generation gap was wide in 1992. Mainstream pop music was grunge and gangster rap, nihilistic and confrontational. Adults who’d lived through the countercultural 1960s were not getting it, not seeing themselves in their children.
Flexions/Past Lives guitarist Devin Welch says, “At that time, in Eastside policing and public schools, there was a lot of profiling. Like, ‘These kids are bad, they’re gang kids, or drug kids, or goths, and they’re gonna go on a shooting spree.’ “
Instead, Becker was listening: “They said, ‘We just want shows.’ ” So even though the Fire House wasn’t music-focused — it was a free drop-in teen center five days a week — it became a concert venue on weekend evenings because the clientele decreed it should be so, and because it fit with Becker’s own love of music.
But what happened there back then wasn’t just the product of kids being allowed to do whatever they wanted. Becker’s Fire House was made possible by an absurdly serendipitous mix of timing and humans, a style of governing without governing, and a lot of love.
IN 1985, FUTURE Seattle Mayor Norm Rice was a city councilman with a problem. Local all-ages nightclubs were attracting negative attention; one club, the Monastery, was notorious for alcohol, drugs and rumored child prostitution. Citizens started organizing against them, and as Public Safety Committee chairman, Rice had to act. He drafted the Teen Dance Ordinance, which required hosts of all-ages concerts to meet security and insurance conditions that most promoters and club owners were unable or unwilling to meet.
“It was always about the safety of the kids,” says Rice, noting there’s been a broad cultural shift since then. “If you asked me what would I do today, it probably wouldn’t be the same.”
In any case, the ordinance and its resounding “no” to all-ages music in Seattle dammed up potential energy, leaving teens no place to listen to live music and dance. So when an alternative venue opened in an adjacent city with a mayor who wholeheartedly said “yes,” the unintentional consequence was a flood of music pouring across Lake Washington to the Fire House.
The influx of touring rock bands who preferred an all-ages venue skewed cutting-edge underground, and their regular performances lit up the Fire House. All of a sudden, Redmond was edgy. More than just business parks and soccer fields, it was a place for some of America’s best rock. And rock was the scene.
Performances by Washington, D.C., band Fugazi and San Francisco’s Jawbreaker were instant legend. The same with Olympia’s Bikini Kill. They were leaders in the DIY personal/political/musical movement, and Bikini Kill the era’s leading feminist band. Their self-sustaining/inclusive/be-yourself ethos resonated with those young people on the Eastside who felt bland-ified by an unwalkable landscape of strip malls and housing developments. All three bands happened to be direct musical descendants of four-chord melodic punk, the most popular style at the Fire House due to its simultaneous dominance in the mainstream and underground. And it didn’t matter if you could play so long as your emotion or intent or message was sincere.
Fire House kids were students who got lost when teachers were busy teaching down or up, smart ones whose minds were elsewhere. Of Seattle’s current vanguard from the Eastside, almost nobody completed traditional high school. Take Tyler Swan, now the busiest of all the multi-tasking Eastsiders, involved as a percussionist/songwriter in five local bands: Truckasauras, Flexions, Linda & Ron’s Dad, Foscil, eR DoN. In elementary school, teachers encouraged him to join Lake Washington School District’s accelerated program called “Quest.” Swan declined because he didn’t want to be considered a nerd. In the early ’90s, Swan’s mom offered her garage for hosting band practices. At the same time, Tyler and brother Adam discovered the Fire House and started going religiously.
Tyler recalls subsequent years at Lake Washington High as “the dark ages,” when he cared more about music than life in general. “Maybe my brain didn’t fire a certain chemical,” he says.
The Fire House was perfect for a kid like Tyler because it was all about music, but it also had a holistic angle that sort of filled the void of skipping school. Adam says Becker’s weekly band-pool meetings were formative “like grade school.” Attendance was required to play a concert.
Band-pool participants worked with Becker and her employees/volunteers to plan the concerts from the ground up, making and distributing fliers and posters, printing/selling/taking tickets, cleaning up afterward. Bands were taught to value other bands as co-workers in making a scene happen, even if they didn’t like each others’ music. The Swans and hundreds more band poolers learned get-along life lessons simultaneously with the grass-roots, street-level, pre-Internet concert business.
The Fire House’s essence, though, came from Becker. Bands remember her as a mother they had no bad issues with because her social-work background translated as a permissive parenting style that got behavioral results without making it seem like that was the point.
Subtle tactics worked best, like band pool. Another example: As kids entered the Fire House for a concert, Becker might hand each one a ticket for a free soda. She didn’t care about the soda, but about the moment when a staff member’s hand and a teenager’s hand held the same thing at the same time; authority figure and governed body blending a little.
They could wear insanely huge pants, dye their hair green, smoke cigarettes outside, play loud music and slam dance to it without judgment from the staff. And the kids went for it hard.
Past Lives singer Jordan Blilie went to his first concert ever in seventh grade at the Fire House, and when he walked in and saw hundreds of teens moshing, he immediately threw himself on top and crowd-surfed.
Tyler Swan remembers temporarily losing his mind at a Tchkung! concert there and coming home feeling like a changed person.
The Stranger’s Grandy says he copped an entire identity from the Fire House in junior high, that his transformation from unpopular geek to music-obsessed concert kid happened over the course of one summer. On Becker’s last day working there in 2002, he showed up with tattoos on his wrists: “For Kate” and “For the kids.”
FROM AN ALL-AGES perspective, Seattle music is thriving in 2010 like never before, with all kinds of events, legal or not, happening nightly. Most venues have split shows, separating drinking and non-drinking sections. Many of the best concerts happen at the completely all-ages nonprofit Vera Project at Seattle Center.
Young music lovers in Seattle never had it so good, and none of them know to thank Becker.
In the years before Vera’s 2001 establishment, she turned the Fire House — by then a nationally known success story — into a base for organizing against Seattle’s ordinance. She enlisted band members to change City Council members’ minds about all-ages music. Flexions bassist Robin Stein canvassed neighborhoods for signatures.
It worked, but when the ordinance was repealed in 2002 and Vera opened — cofounded with Becker by Shannon Stewart and James Keblas, now Mayor Mike McGinn’s director of the Office of Film and Music — the Fire House music scene began to die. Important bands could once again play in the big, cool city.
Becker moved on to the big, cool city, too, as director of development for Seattle Theatre Group, the nonprofit force behind the historic Paramount and Moore theaters and their extensive education programs.
Vera, meanwhile, has inherited the Fire House’s all-ages musical mission, and its traffic. But the social aspect was lost. At the Fire House, Becker had often found homeless teens sleeping on the lawn because they thought that was OK. It wasn’t, but the fact that they thought it was indicated how the place was regarded. Vera is not a teen center and does not seek out nontraditional kids. It’s a place for music (and screen printing, too), and a very good one, and absolutely succeeds at including young people in the region’s ongoing pop-music conversation — one of the most exciting parts about living in and around Seattle.
Andrew Matson runs The Seattle Times music blog at seattletimes.com/matsononmusic. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.