IN SEPTEMBER the revered British label Soul Jazz released a two-CD/four-LP compilation titled No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era 1986–97. The lineup may resonate with music fans who lived in the Northwest during the comp's time span—or perhaps not. Do you remember Nubbin, Crunchbird, Helltrout, Shug, Pod, or Vampire Lezbos? Do the Ones or Bundle of Hiss ring a bell? Did you know they include renowned producer Jack Endino and future members of TAD and Mudhoney, respectively? What about Portland bands like Hitting Birth, Thrillhammer, and Calamity Jane?
As a Midwest-based music obsessive and editor for Alternative Press during the 1980s and '90s, I sheepishly admit that most of the names on No Seattle are unfamiliar. Only Hitting Birth and Bundle of Hiss registered with me when I scanned No Seattle's track list. The hook for the comp is that these groups have a connection with Nirvana, albeit tenuously in some cases. Seventeen of the 23 acts here performed alongside Kurt & Co., and all of them include a band member who shared a stage with Nirvana. Despite this association, most of the bands here vanished into obscurity. But one of the most celebrated members, Endino, was "delighted" by his and Terry Lee Hale's band's inclusion. He thinks the Ones were "just the wrong music at the wrong time. We were as far from what would soon be known as grunge as you could get. It was more like speedpunk-bluegrass."
Endino is right. The music on No Seattle mostly falls into the grunge domain, but there are some outliers. Small Stars engage in Simple Machines-like orchestral pop, Yellow Snow flaunt new-wave moves, Kill Sybil slip into a shoegaze haze (with tricky-metered drumming by Patty Schemel, later of Hole), and Hitting Birth forge an exhilaratingly brutal strain of industrial funk rock.
Honestly, it was surprising to see No Seattle come out on Soul Jazz, an imprint more famous for its excavations of various strains of black music from the Caribbean, Africa, and South America and its fantastic surveys of New Orleans funk and soul. To be fair, though, Soul Jazz is wildly eclectic, and sooner or later it will likely unearth every regional scene and genre on the planet. Still, at this juncture, grunge is not at all typical of its output. No Seattle's English curator and liner-note writer, Nick Soulsby (also the author of Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide), went all out in his pitch to Soul Jazz. Surprisingly, he says, it wasn't that difficult to get them on board for the project.
"Soul Jazz had been releasing a series called Punk 45, they'd done work on the No Wave scene in New York, and the post-punk scene in Argentina," Soulsby explains in an email interview. "Their ears were open already. Soul Jazz treat their compilations with proper respect, which is so refreshing when often compilations are chucked together, blatant marketing, no backstory, no sense that there's been any love put in. Soul Jazz put out such complete works; you can tell someone has really listened and defined the lineup of songs, while the inlay booklets hammer in that there's a concept and reason behind each release. I wrote to them because I think they make compilations that matter. I told them why I was in touch with these bands, told the story I felt deserved telling. A few weeks later, I walked into Soho, London, with a couple of CD-Rs in an envelope. Stuart Baker, Angela Scott, and Steve Platt made the big decisions, and everything was together inside six months."
The Nirvana connection helped to facilitate the green-lighting of No Seattle, but that wasn't the only way this compilation came to be. It partially sprang out of Soulsby's forthcoming book, I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana (out in the US in March). "Around my actual job, I interviewed 210 members of 170 bands who played with Nirvana [between] 1987–1994 and people kept sending me their music," Soulsby says. "And I kept thinking, 'Damn... why have I never heard this? These guys are good.' So the connection was a reflection of what I was devoted to. Soul Jazz simply looked at what was on the two burned discs and said 'yea/nay' on the basis of the music they were hearing."
The release of No Seattle suggests that audiences in the UK and other countries are still interested in grunge. Does Northwest music bear an exotic quality that those immersed in it fail to detect? In America, grunge seems to have eluded the nostalgia process, although the genre's biggest bands still garner attention.
"It's a fight to decide who tells the story of a region's music," Soulsby says. "In Australia, I know a great woman called Jessica Adams who's working to put together the Australian Music Museum Project—independent, not for profit, community focused. Likewise, there's the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, entirely local-run, which has a printing house dedicated to publicizing local music. There's nothing like that for the music of the Pacific Northwest—somewhere created by local scene members that preserves their memories."
Soulsby continues, "The nostalgia wave was not sustained because it was being sold by mainstream magazines. They've reduced the entire story of Northwest music down to one city and a bare handful of bands—the most they had space for were Nirvana reissues, Pearl Jam anniversaries, and maybe a mention of new Mudhoney [records]. The way for an indie label to survive at the time was to make money selling a band to a major—which is why Seattle's biggest stars all looked like Axl Rose after a month on the Drip-Feed Diet. Now those labels run more like majors, which means you get beautiful sets related to superstars like Sleater-Kinney, but there's no attempt to really expose people to the full history. There's no one safeguarding the Northwest's musical heritage—the world forgets because the local labels aren't too interested in remembering and there's no local institution that's capturing it and keeping it alive."
(Actually, the Northwest Music Archives just launched in November, so that will help.)
Soulsby notes that Soul Jazz's Baker spent weeks determining whether certain tracks merited inclusion and contributed to a logically flowing album. "The main consideration is that this took shape around the idea of the forgotten," he says. "I wanted, initially, to put Blood Circus on there, but ultimately they're legends, they're originators of grunge, so they fit into a different concept."
Detractors might say, "There's a reason these sounds were forgotten." How does Soulsby respond to those naysayers?
"My friend Charlie Tee loves country music and Americana, while I hate it," says Soulsby. "But I love his depth of knowledge, and I love listening with him because he'll point out things I'd never have noticed and he has a passion that's really inspiring to be around. So I sometimes say he's wrong, but I love him doing his thing and that makes him right. It's why a firm like Apple will do stupid things like the U2 download; they're engineers and they treat your personal music taste as just another machine function to be worked out so it'll spit the right answer—if you disagree, they think you just haven't seen how right they are, their data says you're wrong so they assume you'll realize it eventually. That's why the music charts look like what an investment banker admires; it's about money, power, the exploitation of cheap labor from ethnic minorities, and the sale of female flesh.
"Music is something people make with friends, Soulsby continues, "in small local communities, so each generation is always coming up with new sounds and fresh ways of kicking the old tricks—the amateurs move too fast for the money men and tech boys to commoditize. The past is the problem; that's where corporate subsidiaries exercise the power to tell people in 2014, 'Oh, this is what was worth bothering with back in 1990,' and to spread that word like it was the whole truth and nothing but. It means the history ends up simplified; there are loads of books and pictures of the aristocracy, but the everyday people get erased because finding what they left behind takes blood and sweat. So, Bundle of Hiss are awesome... But their name survives because they became backstory to a mainstream phenomenon. In the meantime, if you're attending local shows in the Northwest, then you'll have met the musicians on No Seattle a dozen times in whatever identities they've evolved to.
"And if you want to hear what was really going on in the Northwest in 1990," Soulsby says, "then the compilation is a good document of something a lot more intriguing than 'grunge,' which was simply Men-Only Hard Rock to sell to the majors—diversity, local scenes, diversions, detours. The oh-so-right/wrong answers. And the best retort to the naysayers? Easy. No Seattle isn't expensive—go take a listen. If you find something you like, I'm delighted. If not, what the hey—that's how music should be. Only you should get to decide what's forgotten; it's too important to leave to professionals."