Let It Grow
Photography by Dylan Priest
It’s an Alexander McQueen pea coat, midnight blue, sleek and high collared, scored on the cheap from a vintage store in Portland. Drew Grow had worn it almost every day this winter, and he was wearing it the night in January he left work in his green Econoline van, merged onto snow-slicked I-5 in southwest Portland and violently collided with the back end of a slow-moving semi. Before paramedics could pull Grow out of the van – its front end crumpled, the semi long gone – they cut the coat off his body with utility scissors. Scraps were bagged and rushed with Grow to Legacy Emmanuel Hospital.
Over the course of eight days and two surgeries, doctors reconstructed his shattered right femur and, to support it, arthroscopically inserted a foot-long titanium rod into his leg through a tiny slit in his upper thigh. They re-fastened his wrecked right foot with titanium screws and realigned his broken nose. During that time, labelmate Kelli Schaefer acquired the bag of Grow’s shredded clothes. With a heavy-gauge needle and thick turquoise thread, she began stitching the pieces back together, crazy-quilt style.
The morning after the accident, word spread via text and e-mail. As a part-time youth gymnastics coach, Grow had health insurance, but it wouldn’t entirely cover his medical bills. Within hours, benefit shows were planned around the Northwest. Shows already scheduled became de facto benefits: Seattle sextet the Head and the Heart passed the hat at their Neumos headlining debut; the editors of music blog Sound on the Sound rebranded their birthday show – featuring Schaefer, the Moondoggies and others – as a fundraiser. A pair of shows Grow was forced to cancel also became benefits.
Grow left the hospital on January 19, his 37th birthday. Two weeks later, he and his band, the Pastors’ Wives, arrived at Columbia City Theater in Seattle for a recording session. Grow was sidling around on crutches – “This place isn’t exactly handicap accessible,” he joked – and his leg was bound in a plastic cast. He was wearing the Frankencoat. This didn’t seem strange; in look and sound, the four-piece band has always flaunted a ragged-chic hippie-punk aesthetic. Instead the turquoise stitching was strangely right, like a fashionable map diagramming where everything so arbitrarily came apart and so carefully was mended.
“The way everything has come together since the accident has shocked a lot of people. It’s proven there’s a scene here,” Jeremiah Hayden, drummer for the Pastors’ Wives, said a couple weeks later. “It takes an accident to prove it, but that’s not a sad thing. You can’t go through life this emotionally moved all the time.”
The handful of benefit shows in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland has raised more than $6,000 for Grow’s medical bills.
"Until I started interacting with these people, the idea of community seemed like a buzzword,” says Sound on the Sound editor in chief Abbey Simmons. “Then I got to see it in practice.”
Community is a buzzword. It’s also a reality. As in: Northwest music is surpassing traditional notions of scene is in its new-age embrace of community.
Go ahead and laugh, but the distinction is more than semantic. To spell it out, scene connotes scenery, spectacle and spectator, producer and consumer, with a well-defined line of separation in between. Community connotes inclusion, participation and intention. In a community, everyone’s in it together.
And so people—post-collegiate, white, well groomed, sensitive, eager—come together around a Northwest brand of inclusive folk-pop music. They sing along to “Rivers and Roads” with the Head and the Heart as the band leaves behind its mics in a grand finale at Berbati’s Pan in Portland. They turn silent when Goldfinch sings an a cappella version of “Parting Glass,” an old Irish folk song, sharing a single mic onstage at Columbia City Theater. They sit entranced at Damien Jurado’s feet as he strums an acoustic guitar at a house show in Tacoma. Musicians draw in listeners with vocal harmonies that beg to be shared and heartbeat rhythms that distill naturally into hand claps and foot stomps. The music’s emotional force is equally palpable in a living room or at the Paramount Theatre. It hinges equally on craft and passion. It comes off the stage, literally, and into the audience, the performers part of the crowd, the crowd part of the performance.
For a while, this budding community existed independently of the city’s traditional music-industry hierarchy and the grunge money that backs its major festivals and established musical acts. Local alt-weeklies were initially skeptical or silent about what they perceived as an assortment of opportunistic outsiders with a vaguely Christian notion of cooperation. The November signing of the Head and the Heart to Sub Pop, however, legitimizes the community that incubated the band. It acknowledges the music’s growing audience and the growing profits it will bring. A new wave of musicians, promoters and journalists is ready in the wings. The dam has broken and the outsiders are streaming in.
With them comes a new desire for more tangible accessible cultural exchange. Hollywood and Nashville manufacture music for mass consumption in culture labs far from the Northwest; here, homegrown intimacy prevails. Savvy music lovers seek out tangible artists and art. They want their own presence to be acknowledged. But being present isn’t enough—community demands contribution, be it of time, money or talent. Once you pay the cover, everybody’s in the band.
On a Saturday night in early January, Damien Jurado sits solo onstage with his acoustic guitar, closing a sold-out performance at Columbia City Theater. In the audience are members of Hey Marseilles, Curtains for You, Ivan & Alyosha, and the Head and the Heart; to these young alt-folk musicians Jurado is a godfather. (Read his thoughts on Seattle’s music community on page 46) He’s stretching the song “Ghost of David” into eerie, Jim Morrison-esque territory, gesturing with an outstretched hand and gazing into the dim middle distance. “That’s me over there,” he chants. “That’s me over there ... ” The room is chilled into silence by Jurado’s sudden introversion. A weird stillness lingers a few moments after the song ends and before the cheering begins. From silence to applause, the theatre’s sound quality is pristine, the atmosphere regal.
Jurado’s assessment a day later: “Best acoustics in Seattle.”
Columbia City Theater was built for vaudeville performances in 1917, a decade before the advent of electrical amplification. It’s the second-oldest operating concert venue in the city after the Moore – and it sounds way better. Brick-walled, with a vaulted ceiling and a high stage garlanded by a burgundy velvet curtain, CCT is unfussily ornate, a rock club you’d take your mom to. Since new owners relaunched it last June, it’s doubled as an affordable, high-end recording studio and hosted concerts on Friday and Saturday nights pretty much every week. More diverse bills have featured heavy metal, hip-hop and hard rock – sometimes all in one night – but Columbia City Theater belongs to the alt-folk troubadours. (It also happens to be up for sale, with prospective buyers eyeing it for condos.)
If this scene has a center, Columbia City Theater is it, and at the center of Columbia City Theater is Kevin Sur. Sur, thirty-two, bearish and soft spoken, is a Seattleite of only three years. He grew up in the suburbs south of San Francisco during the Bay Area punk explosion, seeing now-mythic bands like Operation Ivy and Hickey at 924 Gilman, a famous all-ages co-op venue in Berkeley. Back then he was a self-proclaimed “super jock” known to friends as Bubba. In the mid-’90s, straight out of high school, he played guitar in Luckie Strike, a hard-core punk band that took several spins around America as part of the Vans Warped Tour. Now he’s husband to his high school sweetheart, dad to a year-old daughter and guitarist in Indian Valley Line, an Americana twang band. Ask and he’ll admit sheepishly to playing straight-edge house shows with Fugazi back in the day. “Their fans and what they create live epitomize togetherness,” he says.
Hence the headstrong, largehearted spirit Sur brings to CCT (“He’s not afraid to tell you the way you’re doing something sucks,” Jeremiah Hayden says) as well as to his Wallingford-based booking and management company, Artist Home. His first client, back in ’05, was Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives. The roster now includes Kelli Schaefer, Goldfinch, Ravenna Woods and more. Along with partner Chad Clibborn, Sur also books the Doe Bay Festival, a three-year-old musical gathering on Orcas Island. In January, Fremont venue the High Dive hired Sur as its new talent buyer.
“I learned all my lessons in the music business from the leftovers of the DIY punk movement of the ’80s,” he says. “Whether it was doing our own shows, starting our own record labels or booking our own tours, instead of asking people how to do things, we just did it ourselves.
“The impression I get in Seattle,” Sur continues, “is that there’s been an attitude that in order to do anything in music, you need someone’s permission. If anything, we represent the fact that if you believe in what you’re doing, you don’t need anyone’s permission to create a musical moment.”
How about this for a musical moment: It's the Sunday morning after last August's Doe Bay Music Festival. After two days and nights of music, scenery, and more music, the event is officially over. Unofficially, a lot of the featured bands are still here, as are seventy-five or so of the event's eight hundred attendees.
A few dozen fans and musicians are brunching in the on-site home of Joe Brotherton, the unassuming, enviably tanned University of Washington ethics instructor/real estate mogul who owns the Doe Bay Resort. (Its thirty acres of bungalows, meadows, woods and shoreline are more ramshackle than the word “resort” implies.) Supposedly the brunch is invite only, but Brotherton’s front door is wide open and the spread – garden-veggie frittata, fresh fruit salad – is laid out buffet-style. Mimosas and screwdrivers flow. The Head and the Heart are relaxing outside on the deck overlooking Otter Cove, the Maldives are working on a bottle of Absolut.
Kris Doty, the ever-smiling bassist of the Pastors’ Wives, notices Brotherton’s washtub bass. It’s beaded and painted, with pickups and a sound hole in the tub – an electric washtub bass. Putting down her plate, she plucks one of its thick strings – FWUNNNG.
The bass was made especially for Brotherton. “It was an anniversary gift from my wife Maureen,” he tells me later. “It’s a playable piece of art.”
Doty’s fingers tiptoe up and down the broom-handle neck. Her bandmates close in as Doty plucks a slow, bluesy progression. Suddenly all four are singing barbershop harmony: “I want you to come home now … “ Around the room – it’s an open floor plan, all white tile and sunlight – forks are lowered, heads rise. Grow sings, casual but intent, “Maybe if I wear a little different clothes / Maybe if I shave my face real close / Maybe you could find your way back hooooooome.” The band stomps and claps, and the hungover festivalgoers present in Brotherton’s home stomp and clap too.
Over by the buffet, Chris Zasche, pedal steel man of the Maldives and bassist for the Head and the Heart, corners festival organizer Chad Clibborn. “Chad, I gotta ask you something,” he says. Clibborn, already a couple cocktails into his post-fest decompression, has a concerned look on his face that says no more rock-star demands, for Christ’s sake.
“Would it be OK if I set up a Slip ’n Slide on the lawn outside?” Zasche asks. He has a 30-foot-long roll of visqueen and bottles of Palm-olive in the back of the Maldives tour van.
Clibborn laughs assent. DIY, baby.
“We’re all about creating an environment where awesome things can happen” has been Brotherton’s mantra all weekend, an ethos of planned spontaneity. Here it is in action.
The only drawback to Doe Bay Fest is that most of the world won’t get to go. To ensure minimum hassle and maximum intimacy, organizers limit capacity to 800 (compared to 50,000 per day at Bumbershoot or 20,000 at Sasquatch). Once tickets go on sale this year on May 1, they’ll likely sell out before the lineup is announced June 2.
“All the people who want to make the journey, people who would take the risk to go out there, are there to be in it,” says Grace Sullivan, whose band Goldfinch played Doe Bay’s second year. “As opposed to Sasquatch – we’re not there to be involved and make it happen. All those other humans are an obstacle to what I want to do. Whereas at Doe Bay they’re making what I’m doing that much better.”
Chances are, first place you’ll hear Doe Bay’s lineup is Sound on the Sound, the music blog launched in 2006 by Garfield High grads Abbey Simmons and Josh Lovseth. Though they originally planned a politics blog – Simmons studied political theory at University of California Santa Cruz, Lovseth was an IT nerd – they saw a gap in local music coverage and decided to fill it. Since then, SotS has provided first coverage of now beloved Northwest bands – the Moondoggies, Thee Emergency, Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives, Kelli Schaefer, the Head and the Heart.
At first, Simmons and Lovseth were ignored by other local publications because of their consistently positive tone. “We get the critique that we write about the same bands over and over, but that’s intentional,” Simmons says. “We want to follow bands and provide a narrative. We want it to be about what we love.” Their strategy worked. Now Simmons and Lovseth are credited as tastemakers, so much so that when former Warner Brothers A&R guru Perry Watts-Russell was courting the Head and the Heart last fall, he first contacted Simmons for help.
Like most of the threads woven into this socio-musical tapestry, Sound on the Sound came to prominence after getting involved with Doe Bay Festival. Last year Simmons and Lovseth organized the inaugural Doe Bay Sessions – live-band jams by ten SotS faves including the Maldives, the Head and the Heart, Ravenna Woods, Hey Marseilles and Drew Grow, shot on video amidst the gorgeous scenery around the resort. Lighting and sound quality were utterly professional. The Doe Bay Sessions are peerless representations of the festival.
Each month following the videos’ appearance last fall, traffic to the site has increased by 25 percent. “This past year, all of a sudden people were paying attention and reading closely,” Simmons says. “Something changed.”
One thing this collective could use is a record label, a central hub for the sounds that bring its constituents together. Tyler Kalberg, the Doe Bay Sessions videographer, recognized the need and recently formed Red Kettle Records to release Youth Rescue Mission’s debut. He and photographer Dylan Priest are maintaining the visual-branding momentum of the Doe Bay Sessions by filming living-room shows in Seattle and Tacoma for NotesFromHome.tv, their as-yet un-launched Web site. Then there’s Sub Pop. The Belltown-based label that first bought into Seattle’s young alt-folk scene in 2008 with its release of Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut signed the Head and the Heart last fall. Having rereleased the band’s eponymous debut in January, Sub Pop will release Fleet Foxes’ follow-up in May and the second Head and the Heart album next year. The label is invested.
“There’s something going on in Seattle, and the Head and the Heart is at the forefront,” says Sub Pop A&R manager Stuart Meyer. “Why couldn’t they be the Nirvana of the scene? This band runs in a lot of circles, by virtue of where its members met and hang out. They’re around a lot of different people. They will be shouting from the rooftops about these other bands. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney – they all knew each other, they all came from the same thing. Why can’t this be the same? There’s gonna be another rush from Seattle. Why not these bands that are good and sell records?”
While the Head and the Heart trots its tent-revival-ish road show around America and Europe, Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives galvanizes fans with shows back home. Sur and Clibborn are using the success of Doe Bay to re-launch two more small Northwest festivals. (“Like with everything I’ve done,” Sur says, “we aren’t looking at how other people are doing festivals, we’re looking at how festivals should be done.”) In Tacoma, a group called the Warehouse taps these bands to play concerts at art galleries and coffee shops. Columbia City Theater sells out weekend after weekend. Sound on the Sound documents it all, illustrated by photos and videos from a growing roster of talented amateurs. Scene? Nope. This is community, all in. Everyone contributes.
“Doe Bay has taught people to look for fun instead of just going where the biggest thing is,” says Goldfinch’s Grace Sullivan. “But the idea that it’s the only place magic could happen is self-defeating. You don’t want to hear about something year-round that you can’t be a part of. But you can be a part of it throughout the year in a lot of different ways.” •