Today, it’s tough to imagine a time when Seattle was an isolated musical backwater, but — as The Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch can attest — three-and-a-half decades ago, that was the case.
Sitting outside a Fremont cafe, the guitarist remembers that when his punk-pop outfit formed in the late 1970s, “there wasn’t much of a scene for us here. [We weren’t] pop, or hardcore … we were somewhere in between those two things. It was a little ragged … which was probably why some people liked us, while others were like ‘Oh my God, turn down, get out of here, you’re driving away people at our club.’ ”
Seeking refuge from a landscape dominated by cover bands and heavy metal groups, The Fastbacks traveled further north, across the Canadian border, where Joe Keithley and his Vancouver-based group, D.O.A., welcomed them with admiration and show opportunities.
Saturday, the longtime colleagues play Seattle’s El Corazon club together, as part of D.O.A.’s last-ever tour.
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Speaking from his home in Burnaby, B.C., Keithley looks back on ’70s Vancouver, when it was to music what Seattle wasn’t yet. “Some of the best scenes come from towns that aren’t the biggest. When you don’t have record companies, people stick together. Vancouver was a little enclave.”
Though the bands’ styles varied — D.O.A.’s archetypal hardcore punk was politically-minded and angst-ridden, The Fastbacks’ more melody-driven and party-oriented — they shared a keen sense of humor and community.
“Us and D.O.A. hit it off,” says Bloch, 52. “Those guys definitely had a serious side and cared about things, but also weren’t afraid to have a laugh and drink beer. They always treated us well, and gave us way more money than they needed to.”
Adds Keithley, 57, “we could be serious … but not deadly serious.”
Neither band sold many records — Bloch’s hasn’t released anything in 14 years — but time has proved both integral threads in the fabric of local punk history. Go to Seattle’s EMP Museum and there, in the Nirvana exhibit, you’ll find D.O.A.’s “Disco Sucks” EP, from 1978, alongside The Fastbacks’ 1990 LP “Very, Very Powerful Motor.”
Over the years, D.O.A. weathered endless personnel and label changes.
“We had some terrible, terrible deals,” Keithley remembers. “The first six or seven record labels we were on went bankrupt, so we used to joke about how we should get Dow Chemical to start up a label so we could bankrupt them.”
As for The Fastbacks, their worst enemy wasn’t the industry, but each other. “We were hard to get along with,” Bloch admits. “Personality problems, bad decisions, perhaps some substance abuse and insanity … it was a recurring joke how, in The Rocket — the old music magazine here — every month there was an ad for The Fastbacks needing a drummer.”
While Bloch harbors no bitterness about his band’s inability to ride the mania surrounding ’90s Seattle into a big payday, he also isn’t quitting. Unmarried and childless, he plays “in a million different bands” and, while always down for a Fastbacks show, is respectful of his bandmates — singer-bassist Kim Warnick and guitarist-singer Lulu Gargiulo — who’ve both opted for life in the straighter world. “People always ask us to play,” he says, “but it’s up to the others. If they want to do it, I’m all in.”
Keithley, meanwhile, has a wife and three kids, and, besides playing in D.O.A. and running his label, Sudden Death, is a published author currently working on the follow-up to his 2004 autobiography.
He’s also a politician, having run in provincial elections for Canada’s Green Party — hence the band’s retirement.
But “it’s not like I’m not going to play or write songs anymore,” he clarifies. “I’ll always be an activist, but now’s just a good time to find a different way to do it.”
Although stressing that, in his mind, punk — as an idea, and a sound — will never die, Keithley expresses concern about younger artists cutting corners by licensing songs to corporations, hoping no one notices.
“It’s hard making a living playing music. That’s no secret. But you should still think about what you sign onto. Is it what you stand for? Part of your credo? Call me old-school, but if something’s wrong, it’s wrong, and you shouldn’t be supporting it.”
He pauses — wary of coming off “like one of those old punk rockers at an American Legion hall, give him a couple beers and he’ll tell you war stories all night” — then adds that, ultimately, “D.O.A.’s point was just to share our stance on issues at the time, and I think that while we’re from the old days, we’re not a nostalgia act because we’ve stayed progressive and forward-thinking. We’ve kept putting out new material, but we’ve never changed the sound drastically, because that’s when bands lose it — when they go way off on a tangent and try to chase a trend.”
To Bloch, punk is cyclical by nature. “It’s timeless, and if you mean it, it’s clear. There’s styles you can’t play now without being retro — rockabilly, for instance — but there are always new mutations of punk. Four 17-year-olds with a bad attitude and a basement to practice in will forever be capable of blazing down some kick-ass tunes. I still see young bands often where I’m like, ‘That’s where it’s at.’ ”
Keithley doesn’t have to look any further than his own home for proof of the genre’s endurance.
“My youngest son and I, we’ve got a jam space downstairs. I drum, he plays guitar and sings. We play The Ramones, The Clash, Bad Brains, all that stuff.”
Charlie Zaillian: firstname.lastname@example.org