Seattle Spawns Brave New Rock Acts
IT'S a typical March evening in Seattle - cold and wet. Inside an office building near the Salmon Bay inlet, a band named April Knows Everything grinds out rock and jazz rhythms, readying their act for the local club circuit.
Across the hallway, another band is practicing its rhythm-and-blues-oriented music.
Everywhere in this city, it seems, new bands are springing up, wide-eyed and filled with the hope of finding public acceptance, if not outright fame. Hope springs eternal in the rock music world, but today Seattle is a place for dreams to be made. Hard rock bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Queensrche, and Alice in Chains have placed albums in the Top 100 and have made "grunge rock" and the "no-costume" look the fashion.
More bands from Seattle may wind up on the national airwaves as record companies descend on the city to find the newest and hippest acts.
Like other cities before it (San Francisco, Minneapolis, Athens, Ga.), Seattle finds itself at least temporarily in the center of the rock universe.
"The music's been there for the past five years, it's just that people and record companies are just now noticing it," says Bryan Huttenhower, vice president of A&M Records.
Seattle, says Mr. Huttenhower, is now in the same position San Francisco was in the 1960s - the leader of a new movement in rock music. The name of that movement is "grunge." The mixing of heavy, distorted chords with punk rock's raw vitality and alternative rock's melodic hooks has served as a wake-up call to the rest of the rock world.
"If you look at the music in the marketplace today, most of it is very stale," says Grant Alden, managing editor of the Rocket, a monthly music magazine in the city. "Most of the Seattle bands don't sound, don't dress, like they're being signed to a major label."
And there lies a large part of the secret to this region's sky-rocketing success in the rock world, observers say. Bands in this city are following a long-established tradition that emphasizes creativity and straightforward, guitar-oriented rock and minimizes pretension. It's a tradition that began in the early 1960s with groups like the Sonics and maintained by the legendary Jimi Hendrix.
"Most of the people in bands here didn't set out to be 'musicians.' They set out to play their own music," Mr. Alden says. "The attitude has been 'why would you want to play someone else's music?' "
Helping fuel the rise of local bands has been the consistent support given by local clubs and radio stations. "There are more clubs to play at, and they're better places to play at than five, six years ago," says Jonathan Poneman, co-president of Sub Pop, an independent label here. "If you have a support system, than it's easier to nurture music," adds Bruce Pavitt, also co-president of Sub Pop, and the man who coined the term "grunge rock."
Adding to the chemistry is Seattle's sheltered isolation from commercial pressures found in New York and Los Angeles. Bands are free to be creative, observers say, since few record companies ever paid attention to the city until recently. "This is a locally based, family scene here," Mr. Poneman says. "Everybody knows everybody else. There's a lot of crossbreeding of influences."
Grunge, which Mr. Pavitt describes as "glorified garage rock," now has a grip in the United States. Soundgarden, a grunge pioneer, has placed its current album, "Badmotorfinger," in the top 100 albums. Other Seattle bands are doing just as well. Pearl Jam's "Ten," Queensryche's "Empire," and Alice in Chains's "Facelift" albums are listed in the top 100 albums selling in the country.
Leading the charge, however, is king grunge band Nirvana. Its album, "Nevermind," has sold more than 3 million copies and is outselling Michael Jackson's and U2's latest albums. The group's best-selling single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," has become an anthem for young adults wishing for a return to a no-frills lifestyle.
What does the future hold for Seattle?
"It's a growing industry and it's going to continue to grow here," says Pavitt, who adds that Seattle's prominence proves that regional music will always have a place in the US. "Up until a few years ago, you had to go to Los Angeles or New York if you wanted to be a musician. That's not true anymore."
Poneman warns of the new-found dangers posed to the Seattle music scene. "There are so many people who are in this town solely to be discovered," he says.
"The innocence is over," adds Alden. "People know about Seattle, and the standards for local bands are a lot higher. We may end up with Nirvana-wannabes, but I doubt it. What's exciting is the prospect of another generation of brilliant, creative bands that will take the place of the current generation."