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April 16, 2021

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‘Such a Seattle thing’: How local music stars help uplift the next generations of homegrown talent

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Seattle rockers Ayron Jones, left, and Eva Walker of The Black Tones, shown here at Jimi Hendrix Park in Seattle last year, both have support from Seattle musical heavy hitters.
Seattle rockers Ayron Jones, left, and Eva Walker of The Black Tones, shown here at Jimi Hendrix Park in Seattle last year, both have support from Seattle musical heavy hitters. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — It was a one-in, one-out situation at the Capitol Hill Elysian Brewing. The capacity crowd packed into the cozy brewpub to revel in two complementary things Seattle has always done well — craft beer and loud guitars.

Thunderpussy was yet to release its debut album, but had already achieved local buzz band status when Elysian tapped the ’70s rock revivalists to help christen a charitable new brew in 2017. In typical Thunderpussy fashion, frontwoman Molly Sides commanded the makeshift stage like a limber rock ‘n’ roll contortionist, howling over Whitney Petty’s revving guitars that seemed loud enough to blow the nearby fermenters. Whether he couldn’t get in or simply found the best sightlines for scoping Petty’s pedal board, some yahoo outside the glass window behind them was rocking out on Pike Street.

Turns out that yahoo was Thunderpussy die-hard Mike McCready, who happens to play guitar in one of Earth’s biggest rock bands, Pearl Jam. Sides wasn’t expecting the Seattle rock great to show up that night, though he’d befriended the band the year before after catching their set at Sasquatch! Music Festival. At the time, Thunderpussy was still getting to know McCready, who’s since become a mentor-buddy-superfan who’s helped open industry doors and fan the band’s creative flames as an enthusiastic collaborator.

“We always say this, we joke about it, but he’s the fifth member of Thunderpussy,” Sides said, laughing. “He’s right there.”

The relationship between the local rock luminaries is part of a deep tradition of Seattle music stars supporting the next generations of homegrown talent. That support ranges from behind-the-scenes guidance to public cheerleading and spotlight-sharing, and in rare cases, high-profile tours via private jet. It’s an ethos passed from one generation to the next, and part of what continues to make Seattle one of the great American music cities.

‘SUCH A SEATTLE THING’

Back in 2017, Thunderpussy’s pistons were churning. The rockers’ glammed-up live show was undeniable and the songs they’d raised enough cash to cut with big-deal producer Sylvia Massy were just as dialed in. Yet shopping the album around as an unsigned act proved difficult until McCready put a word in with the head of Stardog Records, a subsidiary of Republic Records affiliated with longtime Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis and PJ antecedent Mother Love Bone.

Roughly 10 months after that brewpub bash (and McCready’s sidewalk rock-along), Thunderpussy inked a deal with Stardog to release its debut album.

“It was because of Mike that we even got in for a meeting,” Sides said. “His excitement around our project got other people as excited as he was. Networking is such a huge part of that part of the development, that next step, and he was helping pave those steps alongside [us].”

For McCready, if his Pearl Jam platform allows him to “help shine a light” on other bands worthy of acclaim, he’s happy to do so. “It feels good to try to help other inspiring artists to get recognition,” he said in an email. “I love to help young bands with great songs and exciting energy. The Black Tones and Thunderpussy feel that way to me.”

Long before Ayron Jones’ first nationally released single lit up the rock charts last summer, the budding guitar hero had a small army of Seattle heavy hitters behind him. Several years earlier, the hard rock fusionist was invited to record with the Levee Walkers, a studio project featuring McCready, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, a frequent Jones collaborator. When a label exec flew to Seattle to scout Jones at the Crocodile in 2019, McKagan picked him up from the airport and escorted him to the club, Jones said.

When the offer eventually came in, Jones sought advice from another credentialed supporter — Sir Mix-A-Lot, the platinum-selling rapper who produced Jones’ first album back in 2013. A lifelong Seattleite, Jones was still in grade school when Mix and the grunge kings put Seattle music in the spotlight, and Mix’s support was especially meaningful since both grew up in the Central District.

“It was such a Seattle thing to happen,” Jones said last year of their collective backing. “That’s kinda the trend here. Seattle’s one of those places that looks really big on the outside, but once you get in here, it’s a pretty small city.”

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART

Of course, Seattle wasn’t always loaded with musicians who stuck around after making it big and made themselves available to young artists.

“We weren’t that lucky,” said Heart singer Ann Wilson, laughing. “When we were that age and just starting to climb the ladder, the only Northwest musicians that came before us had been Jimi Hendrix, who had to go to England to make it, he wasn’t around. Who else would there have been? Paul Revere & the Raiders? [Laughs.] It was a whole different time.”

Back in the 1970s, Wilson said, when she and her sister Nancy were shattering rock’s glass ceiling with Heart, the industry was more competitive and bands were treated as disposable. While the grunge era wasn’t free of band tiffs, the industry pie had gotten bigger by the ’90s, and with more slices to go around, the competition wasn’t as fierce is it once was, Wilson said.

Nowadays it’s commonplace, if not expected, for Seattleites who’ve earned their rock star merit badges to extend a hand to the next generation, whether it’s Macklemore bringing Dave B. and Travis Thompson on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and launching a youth music program, or Jay Park signing local artists like Souf Souf and 28AV to his H1ghr Music label. Heart helped set that tone, at least in local rock circles, by taking burgeoning grunge stars under its wing during their turbulent ascent to stardom.

By then, the Wilsons had spent two decades on the rock ‘n’ roll roller coaster and Ann said they recognized the young rockers, including members of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, as “good people” struggling with newfound fame. Ann’s house on Capitol Hill became a regular hangout, the site of late-night, fireside jams and wild parties.

“That was really meaningful to all of us [for them] to be so human and welcoming and understanding, and to be able to ask them advice,” Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell said last fall. “They’ve always been there for us, man. All of us. All of the next generation of bands that came up. That was a pretty cool lesson and affirmation to have them be so welcoming and open with their time, and jamming and including us in stuff.”

“I think that Nancy and I both understood that when you get to the point in the process of being famous, going from being unknown to being famous, there are moments of really great uncertainty and insecurity, and maybe a breakdown of ideals,” Ann said. “So I think we both felt that we could be there to just say the right thing at a certain moment and help them through it.”

PRIVATE JETS AND COMMUNITY COLLABORATIONS

By the early 2000s, Pearl Jam seemed more comfortable in their rock star skin. While the crowds were as large as ever, the media circus around those early grunge years had cooled. Meanwhile, a young Ben Gibbard was coming off two career-altering albums — The Postal Service’s self-titled smash and Death Cab for Cutie’s seminal “Transatlanticism” — that turned the Bremerton Navy brat into an era-defining indie rock star.

During the transformative period around “Transatlanticism,” Pearl Jam invited Death Cab to open for them on their tour around 2004’s Vote for Change campaign supporting voter registration efforts ahead of the presidential election. Though Gibbard’s sound is more indebted to fellow Northwesterners Built to Spill, the introspective songwriter grew up listening to Pearl Jam, a band that seemed like an untouchable “monolith” to him. Intensifying the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming effect, Death Cab would travel with the Seattle rock icons from city to city on Pearl Jam’s private jet.

“We were like, ‘What? We’re doing what?!'” Gibbard said. “I’d obviously never been on a private jet in my life at that point. I mean, that’s an unbelievable display of altruism and confidence. … I don’t know that we would have done the same thing, honestly. [Laughs.] They brought us so into their world.”

Seeing up close how the Pearl Jam guys carried themselves and their “sense of charitable duty” left a lasting impression on Death Cab, instilling in them those same values as they stepped into a larger spotlight.

“We left that tour and we were like, ‘That’s what we want to be,'” Gibbard said. “Not that we wanted to achieve their level of success, but we watched them and were like, ‘That’s what we want to do. That’s the model.'”

And who knows, had local alt-rockers Harvey Danger (of “Flagpole Sitta” fame) not insisted that the Crocodile’s booker watch Death Cab’s set in 1998 — helping the Bellingham band gain steam in Seattle — maybe Gibbard and Co. would never even have gotten on Pearl Jam’s radar.

It may not be as swanky as a private jet lift, but Gibbard has collaborated with rising Seattle producer Chong the Nomad and been a supporter of local blues-punk darlings The Black Tones, tapping the sibling duo to open for Death Cab during a sold-out Showbox gig last year. The Black Tones have another big-name believer in McCready, who released a 7-inch from the band through his HockeyTalkter label. McCready also joined The Black Tones for a U2 cover as part of last year’s SMASH benefit, a virtual concert pairing some of Seattle’s biggest stars like Dave Matthews and members of The Head and the Heart with local up-and-comers.

“I don’t have to ever win a Grammy,” said The Black Tones’ Eva Walker, “but to have fans in Ben Gibbard and Sir Mix-A-Lot … and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers like Mike McCready, that feels really [expletive] good. That is what I wanted to accomplish as far as feeling like I had a place in the scene without having to be Beyonce or anything huge. I can be this modest person who makes, I don’t know, just above the poverty line income [laughs], but feel like an equal in this community with these names. … That’s what I really love about this community.”

‘YOU CAN’T FRONT IN THIS CITY’

As Gibbard sees it, part of what fosters that helping-hand spirit among Seattle artists who’ve made it big is the city’s intolerance of rock star egos.

“One thing I’ve always appreciated about this town, is that this is not the kind of town you can be in the trenches with people, go get famous and come back and act like a famous guy,” he said. “You can’t front in this city. You can’t show back up and be like, ‘Do you know who I am?’ in front of the Showbox. … There’s no better example of that than Macklemore. [He] went out and got super-duper-duper famous and he’s still just bumming around Capitol Hill like a normal dude.

“There’s something ingrained in us as artists here in Seattle and something the city expects of you, that you will treat the city and its citizens the same amount of respect that you were expected to when you were a normal dude. We don’t play that [expletive] here.”

Whether jumping on a Chong the Nomad track or bringing Chastity Belt on Death Cab’s 2015 European tour, working with younger artists isn’t strictly about giving back to the scene Gibbard said made him. Being around bands that remind him of Death Cab’s early days also helps fuel the eight-time Grammy nominee.

“It feels like just yesterday that we were in a van driving around and experiencing that camaraderie that bands have when they’re new and they’re young, and the world is open to them and they can’t wait to get on the road and give it a shot,” Gibbard said. “To feel that energy coming off a great band like The Black Tones or Chastity Belt or [Chong the Nomad] — that’s both familiar to me and it continues to be inspiring, because that period of being that hungry and focused, it’s fleeting. It doesn’t last forever. So if you harness even just a small bit of that as a 44-year-old, selfishly, you’ll probably end up in a better spot.”

SUSTAINING A SCENE

Shaina Shepherd had the live chat going wild last December. The gospel-reared singer’s collaboration with Kim Thayil for MoPOP’s Alice in Chains tribute had many of the thousands of online viewers dying to know the name of the powerhouse vocalist playing with Soundgarden’s guitarist. The singer-songwriter and frontwoman for hard-rocking quartet BEARAXE clearly made an impression on the hometown rock giant, too, as Thayil later sang Shepherd’s praises in a piece for Spin magazine.

It was the second time Shepherd had worked with Seattle rock royalty last year, after doing a song with McKagan for the SMASH benefit. What struck her most about collaborating with “the first scene kids of Seattle” was their genuine investment in creating something with her, not just showing up for a handshake and photo op. “It’s that extra step of somebody taking the initiative to plant and sow the seeds so that the community that fostered that greatness and that talent can continue to build more,” she said.

Those are the sort of connections across generations and fame levels that local music veteran Ben London hoped events like SMASH, which he helps curate, would foster. “There’s power in it for our community, right,” said the guitarist with local power-poppers Stag and executive director of nonprofit Black Fret Seattle. “The more people know each other, there’s the potential for them to work together, collaborate together and support each other.”

The Black Tones may not have a Grammy on their mantel, but as they’ve become the talk of Seattle’s rock scene the past few years, they’ve made a point to share their spotlight whenever they land a big gig. When The Black Tones opened Thunderpussy’s annual New Year’s Eve blowout at the Showbox, they invited Shepherd to join them onstage. When they opened for Death Cab at the fabled club a year later, they brought up blues ripper Brett Benton to play one of his songs.

“That’s part of reinvesting in the community,” said Walker, who also hosts KEXP’s local show “Audioasis.” “We want to see as many people [as possible] uplifted in Seattle.

“Mike McCready could have easily not given a [expletive] about us,” she continued. “Death Cab could’ve easily not given a [expletive] about us. That stuff is inspiring and it makes you want to emulate that, and you pass that down. It’s everything. … That’s how you sustain a thriving music scene.”

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