Record companies are flocking to the Great Northwest, signing bands like crazy and hoping to find the Next Big Thing
SAN FRANCISCO moved to Oregon and Washington,” says Bob Pfeifer, director of A&R of Epic Records. “The whole thing is psychedelic. You can see it in the T-shirts and the tie-dye. It’s all hippies. These are the hippies’ kids or something.”
That’s just one of several theories making the rounds these days about Seattle, a city that until recently was famous for its rainy weather and inexpensive real estate. But in the past two years, Seattle has become a regular music mecca – a haven for record-company executives who regularly fly in from Los Angeles and New York to compete for the privilege of signing such bands as Soundgarden, the Posies, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone and the Screaming Trees. And the labels are coming because amid the city’s lush greenery, they smell money.
“I talked to somebody at CBS in New York last October,” says one woman who works for a Seattle artist-management firm. “And he said, ‘You’re from Seattle. Just find me any Seattle band. I’m dying to sign a Seattle band – I’m so mad I didn’t sign Alice in Chains.’ “
It’s a situation that is hardly unprecedented in rock’s trend-ridden history – remember San Francisco, Detroit, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Athens, Austin, Minneapolis. But the big question in Seattle at the moment is: Why here? Why now?
PRODUCER TERRY DATE – who has had a hand in the careers of most of Seattle’s better-known bands, starting with Metal Church in 1984 and continuing to the most recent albums by Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone – believes one reason local groups are attracting so much attention is that they are unique. “They’re not in a major music market, so they don’t follow any sort of formula at all,” Date says. “They don’t look at something on MTV and say, ‘We’re gonna look like that.’ They pretty much find their style from the records they listen to – which are typically very underground.
“On top of that,” Date adds, “the weather isn’t always that great, and they sit in their garages a lot.”
For such a hotbed of talent, Seattle doesn’t offer its artists much choice. Aside from garage-land, only a handful of small clubs – the Vogue, the Central and the Backstage – are options open to bands itching to play live. “The funny thing is,” says Charles Cross, editor and publisher of the local music paper The Rocket, “if you go to New Orleans, you go to Tipitina’s. If you go to New York, I guess you have CBGB. And in Los Angeles, there’s Club Lingerie. There isn’t that kind of club in Seattle. Our club scene has been horrible for years.”
Instead, the driving force behind the Seattle scene has been a record label, Sub Pop. With a roster that includes Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad, Sub Pop has defined the Seattle sound – loud, fast, grungy rock & roll. “All these people were friends,” Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman says of the bands on his label. “This is a small community of people, and when one person got into Scratch Acid, everybody got into Scratch Acid. When one person got into Big Black, everybody got into Big Black.”
Two former Sub Pop bands, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, have been snapped up by major labels (A&M and Epic, respectively), and CBS Records has reportedly been negotiating a pressing-and-distribution deal that would put Sub Pop acts Mudhoney and Tad in the same Sam Goody racks holding the latest by Fleetwood Mac and New Kids on the Block. “We want it to happen,” says Poneman. “We’re trying to make it happen, because we want to be able to get the records out there.” But, he adds, “whether or not there will be full cooperation in terms of our agenda, and whether or not we will be able to acquiesce to the things they’re asking for are still things that remain to be seen.”
Indeed, one has to wonder whether such key label artists as Mudhoney or Nirvana could cross over into the Nineties mainstream without seriously compromising their sound. “I don’t think we’re really easy enough for a lot of people to swallow,” says Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, a former member of Seattle’s legendary (and now defunct) Green River. “Motorhead never made it beyond a certain point, and they’re one of the greatest bands on Earth.”
But Bob Pfeifer, who signed both Metal Church and Screaming Trees to Epic Records, thinks some Seattle bands have long-term potential. “Screaming Trees are capable of selling 100,000 records,” says Pfeifer. “Whether they will or not is another question. Three albums from now, I don’t know how many albums they’ll be able to sell – maybe a million. That’s not the pressure I put on the band or the way I structured the deal. Everybody will be happy at a certain level, which allows the band to have the freedom and time to grow.”
But major-label interest in Seattle hasn’t been limited to one very hip record label that has so far seen great press coverage but less-than-great overall sales. Nastymix Records, the local label that features the best-selling rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, has been approached by all the majors regarding a potential buy-in, according to Ramon Wells, the label’s national promotion director. “Even [Island Records chairman] Chris Blackwell flew in to talk with us,” Wells says. But with one platinum and one gold album already, Wells adds, “we’re perfectly content with where we are now.”
Then there’s PopLlama Products, a label helmed by Conrad Uno that has released the work of Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows and the Posies, among others. Both bands are now on different labels, both are miles away from the grunge that Sub Pop has glorified, and both are essential components of the Seattle scene.
The Fellows, as they’re called, are enormously talented and extremely unfocused. Together, the two attributes are likely to confuse any market-conscious A&R person. The Fellows’ most recent records for Frontier are now getting major-label distribution, thanks to a deal the California label signed with RCA Records last year. But so far, that linkup has been of little benefit to the Fellows, and they are pursuing other options.
“I guess we’re finally making an effort to get signed to a major label,” says vocalist Scott McCaughey. “I hate to say that, because it’s always been totally anti-everything the Fellows were about. But I guess it’s gotten to the point where we’ve been doing it for six or seven years, I’ve got a kid now, and we’re thinking a little bit more about how rough it is to make a living. We’re trying to figure out a way that we can be musicians and make a little bit more money, so we can live comfortably, because for the last three years we’ve just been musicians. We quit our jobs because we went on tour too much.”
The Fellows recently hired former Concrete Blonde manager Frank Volpe to help them firm up a deal with a major and are now ready to “seriously try to step up” their career.
At the same time, the Fellows’ former manager, Terry Morgan, recently inked a lucrative deal with Geffen Records’ new label DGC for the Seattle popsters the Posies. And in the end, the city’s more accessible bands – like the Posies, Alice in Chains and Mother Love Bone – may prove to be more attractive to the major labels than Sub Pop’s unique brand of metallic grunge. All three of those bands have recently released their major-label debuts, and you don’t have to be an A&R man to imagine their music getting played on the radio.
Meanwhile, one of the best-selling albums in Seattle’s hipper record stores these days is a compilation called Here Ain’t The Sonics. The album tells the story of the first wave of great Northwest rock – the Sonics, the Kingsmen, ‘Louie Louie’. But the artists who perform on the album – the Young Fresh Fellows, Screaming Trees, the Mono Men – are part of the city’s new generation.
Terry Date sees many parallels between the Seattle of 1990 and the one to which Here Ain’t the Sonics pays tribute. “These bands are coming from all over the state,” Date says, “and they’re all playing a fairly similar type of music, attitude-wise. Especially the Sub Pop stuff. It’s all real garagey, just like ‘Louie Louie,’ the perfect example of that era.
“It’s really cool,” continues Date, “because these guys do whatever they want – and the labels don’t really know what they’re trying to get, they just know people are buying it And it leaves it wide open for us.” ■
Three of Seattle’s Finest
“LOTS OF PEOPLE that I went to high school with ― who I didn’t ever expect to talk to – talk to me now,” says the Posies’ guitarist and singer, Ken Stringfellow. “And it’s a bit ironic”
No less ironic is the fact that the pure and sweet pop sounds of the Posies emanate from a city renowned for its grunge factor. Yet the quartet’s rise to national prominence resulted from the same do-it-yourself philosophy that spawned the best punk rock. Failure, the group’s first album, was recorded by Stringfellow and band mate Jon Auer for all of fifty dollars in the eight-track home studio belonging to Auer’s father. After being issued privately by the band on cassette, Failure caught the ear of Conrad Uno, owner of PopLlama, who reissued the tape last year on vinyl and CD.
In short order came a deal with Geffen’s label DGC and a wonderful new album, Dear 23, recorded with John Leckie, producer of Stone Roses and XTC. Along the way, the Posies added bassist Rick Roberts and drummer Mike Musburger and became a performing band.
Rather than playing modernized power pop a la Big Star, Dwight Twilley or the Raspberries, the group manages the unlikely feat of sounding both entirely contemporary and one step away from the Hollies, the Fortunes or Marmalade. “The pop-songwriting format is the thing that we’ve chosen to explore,” says Stringfellow. “The weird thing about the Hollies is, very early on people said, ‘You guys must really be into the Hollies.’ And quite frankly, we hadn’t heard them until after Failure came out.”
Alice in Chains
CYNICS MAY CITE Alice In Chains as the perfect example of the insularity of the Seattle scene: The group is co-managed by Susan Silver and Kelly Curtis, who between them guide the careers of Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees. Cynics, however, have probably not heard Alice in Chains’ music. Not entirely metal, not entirely grunge, Alice’s music is “all of the above,” says guitarist-songwriter Jerry Cantrell – and a little bit more. The band’s first national exposure came in July when Columbia Records released a limited-edition three-song EP featuring such cheerful ditties as ‘We Die Young’, ‘It Ain’t Like That’ and ‘Killing Yourself’.
The quartet’s debut album, Facelift, is an equally intense, throbbing experience. Recorded in L.A. and Seattle, the LP was produced by Dave Jerden, who recently worked with Jane’s Addiction. Now that the album is finished, Cantrell and singer Layne Staley are looking forward to the next step. “I think we feel pretty satisfied with the opportunity that we’ve been given, and we think that everything is going to be really cool,” says Cantrell. “It’s just kind of bizarre stepping into something that you don’t expect and having all these different snakes start biting at your head. You only thought you were gonna have to deal with one, and you’re in a pit with about a thousand.”
Mother Love Bone
WITH A QUARTER-MILLION-dollar deal with PolyGram and a superb debut album called Apple just arriving in the stores, Seattle’s Mother Love Bone has all the makings of a superstar band but one: The group doesn’t exist. Lead singer Andrew Wood died March 19th of a heroin overdose, and the band’s grand entrance ― preceded only by an EP on the PolyGram-distributed label Stardog – instead serves as its last hurrah.
Ironically, Mother Love Bone’s deal with PolyGram ― which came after the band had played fewer than ten shows – caused some friction in Seattle’s otherwise close music scene, with the local press referring to the group members as “bonus babies” and other musicians enviously looking on. “We weren’t going after the money,” says manager Kelly Curtis. “We felt everyone was getting the wrong message.”
So how did that message get out? Maybe the night the band played Seattle’s Central Tavern to an audience full of enthusiastic local fans and many well-known industry A&R executives. “All those labels showing up,” Curtis says, “it was probably the first time there had been six or seven labels in the same room in Seattle ever. And they were heavyweights.”
So what happens now? Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard have already recorded twelve instrumental tracks, and while promoting Apple in the coming weeks, they will be scouting additional talent for an entirely new group. “We spent so much time together,” Ament says of Mother Love Bone, “that to go out and find another singer who looked like Andy and maybe sang a little bit like Andy would just be prostitution. No matter how much I want to go out and play, and how much I love the songs I wrote, it just wouldn’t be right”
© Dave DiMartino, Rolling Stone, 20 September 1990