It feels like a missed marketing opportunity.
There’s no mention on the “Welcome to West Seattle” sign greeting drivers sloping up the end of the newly reopened West Seattle Bridge. But anyone who’s been around the Seattle music scene longer than a two-minute Fastbacks song can tell you: West Seattle is crawling with local rock stars, artists and music biz shakers whose fingerprints are all over the past, present and future of the city’s musical identity.
“I’ve lived all over Seattle — Queen Anne, Madison Park, Capitol Hill, Shoreline, whatever,” says Matt Vaughan, owner of West Seattle’s nationally known Easy Street Records. “West Seattle for sure has a disproportionate amount of people in the business or artistically minded [people] — those that are making a difference on our scene.”
It might be time for the local Chamber of Commerce to spruce up its signage with a splashier tagline: “Welcome to West Seattle, the rock ’n’ roll capital of Seattle.”
It might sound a little dubious, given the neighborhood’s obvious dearth of music venues besides the Skylark Cafe, but hear me out. Seattle’s offbeat, beachy hideaway is home to Eddie Vedder, members of Mudhoney and The Head and the Heart, the city’s most famous record store and a swarm of prominent staffers at Sub Pop and KEXP, local institutions with worldwide acclaim. Matter of fact, if the chamber wants an artist’s touch to update that welcome sign, call one of Sub Pop’s go-to art directors and West Seattle skate shop owner Sasha Barr.
It also wasn’t a coincidence Sub Pop brass picked Alki Beach as the site of its 30th anniversary bash, one of the music community’s biggest blowouts in recent memory.
“Part of it definitely was a little bit of self-interest, because a bunch of us live over here,” admits Chris Jacobs, Sub Pop’s senior vice president and a 22-year West Seattleite. (Though that Elliott Bay backdrop, with views of the Olympic Mountains and Seattle skyline, and Alki’s distinctly Seattle-summer vibe may have factored in.)
So what is it about West Seattle that seems to produce or attract so many music-minded residents?
On the surface, a budget-proposing government suit doesn’t exactly scream “rock ’n’ roll.” But during his decade-plus as King County executive, lifelong West Seattleite Dow Constantine has been the local music and arts community’s biggest champion in local government. The county authorized what was believed to be among the first local-level COVID-19 relief grants earmarked for arts venues and turned an old Harbor Island flour warehouse into a film studio last year. More recently, King County and Visit Seattle teamed up for what they’re billing as Cloudbreak, “Seattle’s ReviveLive Music Fest.” The program gives guests at roughly 70 Seattle hotels a free pass to 60-plus shows throughout the month of November.
Constantine, a former KCMU DJ, credits West Seattle’s public school music education programs, through devoted teachers like Charles Holley and Donn Weaver, for creating an “environment where music is elevated and valued” at an early age.
“You can talk about Eddie Vedder moving here, and I think that’s important,” Constantine says, “but I also think that there are a lot of things that just make the soil more fertile for musical creation and that’s really one of them.”
Another is a once-affordable housing stock — filled, at least at one time, by “old punks” and blue-collar Boeing and shipyard workers, Vaughan says — with ample basements and garages, space necessary for baby band jam sessions.
Vaughan opened Easy Street during what he terms the “slacker era” of the late ’80s, when “there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for someone like me.”
“You kind of had to stake out your own claim, it felt like, plant your own flag,” he says. “A lot of us were doing that at that time. Clearly the musicians were. Guys that were starting up record labels and fanzines and bars. … You can’t call it a music industry, because it wasn’t really an industry yet, but a lot of music-minded folks were doing everything they could to try to make a living.”
Vaughan, whose mother and stepfather managed proggy ’80s metal band Queensrÿche, dropped out of Seattle University as a sophomore to consolidate two record stores he worked at and open Easy Street. In 1989, he slid the shop a few doors down into its current home on the corner of Southwest Alaska Street and California Avenue Southwest, the most prominent location in the Junction that was plagued by turnover after a longtime drugstore was shut down “for selling Valium over the counter,” Vaughan says.
As a 19-year-old entrepreneur, he spent the first year-and-a-half working 12-hour days and sleeping in the back of the shop, hiring high school buddies to help him out under the table.
Back then, West Seattle had a “hesher mentality — a lot of guys working on cars, metal was huge,” Vaughan says, also noting the presence of heavy metal guitar shop Mick’s Vintage Guitars.
“Look at some of the bands and artists that have come out of here that had good success, especially when you talk about that Seattle explosion, revolution. The grungiest of them all are from here,” he says, mentioning, among others, Tad, Mudhoney and motor-oiled punks Zeke, whose song “West Seattle Acid Party” is among their turbocharged signatures. “It was all dirtier and grungier and louder. You’d have to go to Aberdeen to find anything close to it, with Melvins and Nirvana.”
Of course, West Seattle’s musical pedigree didn’t start or stop with the flannel era. Thirty years before “that Seattle explosion” made legends out of local recording studios like London Bridge, maritime-loving audiophile Joe Boles ran one of Seattle’s first acclaimed studios out of his West Seattle home. The self-taught sound engineer, who according to HistoryLink founded a local boat tour company, recorded some of Washington’s top musical exports — including The Fleetwoods’ chart-topping “Come Softly to Me,” The Wailers’ “Louie Louie” and The Ventures’ surf-rockin’ classic “Walk Don’t Run” — in his Admiral Way house in the late ’50s.
A decade earlier, Ivar Haglund, the namesake founder of Ivar’s fish and chips restaurants, hosted lefty folk heroes Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger at his Alki home when they came to town in the early ’40s. A folk singer himself, Haglund was a big supporter of the local folk scene at the time, per HistoryLink. Ivar’s Acres of Clams restaurant on the waterfront takes its name from a line in “Old Settler’s Song,” a folk standard Seeger and Haglund played during their time together.
“The beginning starts over on Alki,” Vaughan says. “It starts, I think, with that early folk movement coming out of the Northwest and with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger being part of that. … I think politics and healthy debate and protest has a lot to do with what created the music scene here and attracted others to West Seattle.”
Amid The Great Condofication of tech town Seattle, West Seattle might not be the same hesher haven of yore. But that independent, “stake out your own claim” spirit Vaughan describes still courses through the neighborhood, especially in the Junction, home mostly to mom-and-pop shops, bars and restaurants.
“This is like the last little piece of Seattle — old Seattle — left, in my opinion,” says ascendant hard rock star Ayron Jones, sipping a Rainier outside of Easy Street. Before leaving for more expansive suburban digs a pandemic year ago, Jones lived on Alki Beach for more than five years and regularly played to neighborly crowds at the old Celtic Swell (now Alki Beach Pub) and held low-key jams at the Parliament Tavern, which shuttered during the pandemic.
Like several generations of Seattle musicians, Jones’ history with Easy Street goes back a ways. Years before his searing and soaring anthems began scaling the rock charts, the store carried his earliest independently released albums. When “Child of the State,” his first album with big-time label backing, dropped last year, Jones held a celebratory signing and in-store acoustic performance at Easy Street.
Still, Jones’ fondest memory came a year earlier during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 when the Junction was flooded with united neighbors denouncing George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. “I got to speak my piece,” Jones says. “Matt provided this space, so I’m standing on top of the Easy Street van. I ended up playing the national anthem to a bunch of people out here. That was one of the more powerful moments of living out here, one I’ll never forget.”
Over its 33-year history, Easy Street has become Seattle’s rock ’n’ roll clubhouse of sorts, especially since adding its omelet-folding cafe that’s drawn brunch crowds since 2001. (Fun fact: During his West Seattle days, a stroller-pushing Chris Cornell was the first person to sit at Easy Street’s coffee counter. The kid in the stroller, Lily Cornell Silver, now fronts local band Josie on the Rocks and whenever their debut album arrives, it’s a safe bet to land on Easy Street shelves.)
On its small stage that daytimes as a raised seating area, the shop has hosted in-store release shows with everyone from Brandi Carlile to current indie rock breakouts Enumclaw. It’s the site of local legendary performances like The Sonics’ all-star reunion jam — sparked by a cafe conversation with a West Seattle band member — and an intimate 2005 Pearl Jam gig that was captured on vinyl and foreshadowed Record Store Day. (Released exclusively to indie stores, Pearl Jam’s “Live at Easy Street” is the shop’s all-time bestseller.)
“I don’t think you can discount the presence of institutions like Easy Street,” Constantine says. “There were record stores in the Junction before when I was a kid, which was great. But Easy Street is a bit more, it’s like a gathering place. Even before it had a cafe it was a gathering place. It’s on a very prominent corner, it kind of makes a statement about what this neighborhood is.”
(As Vaughan tells it, Easy Street — the Junction’s flagship small business — may not have been able to stay in its now-landmarked building if not for Constantine. “He was concerned that West Seattle could lose some of its classic architecture and some of its bedrock businesses, and so let’s just say he caused a stir,” Vaughan says. In 2013, Vaughan closed Easy Street’s second location in Queen Anne amid tech-boom rent hikes.)
Resident punk-rock cowboy Brent Amaker arrived in West Seattle in 1997. The Oklahoma-raised musician has seen the neighborhood evolve from the “sleepy” enclave with a “beautiful beach and a nice little main street” that he immediately fell in love with. For all the development that’s touched nearly every pocket of the city, that neighborhood feel has remained intact, as younger bars and restaurants like the recently revived Benbow Room have joined staples like the Husky Deli and Yen Wor Village, Amaker says.
This spring, the spaghetti western songslinger with an unmistakable baritone threw a word-of-mouth tour warm-up show at Yen Wor, hiring a West Seattle buddy to bring a stage and lighting into the karaoke bar. Proceeds supported the longtime husband-and-wife restaurant as they dealt with health issues. “We packed the place,” Amaker says of the charitable bash. “And it was waaaay more fun than playing Neumos.”
There was already a do-it-ourselves, support-our-own sentiment before the West Seattle Bridge went down — one Vaughan acutely felt when dozens of Easy Street merch orders came in daily early in the pandemic. Amaker says that community ethos only strengthened with the extended loss of West Seattle’s main pipeline to the rest of the city.
Next year, Amaker and his Rodeo band plan to release their next album with Killroom Records, a trusty local label co-founded by Shadowland owner Ben Jenkins and KEXP DJ Troy Nelson, who book the bands for West Seattle Summer Fest — one of the best summer block parties.
When the bridge finally reopened last month, after severing West Seattle from the rest of the city for more than two years, Amaker wasn’t exactly rushing to get across.
“It’s been up for a week, but I don’t have any reason to leave, man. … I’m going to Mexico City on Sunday and I’m more likely to go there than Ballard,” he jokes.
Stick that on the welcome sign.
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