An easy thing for a music fan to forget is how rare it is for a band to stay together. Bad Religion, the Decemberists, Green Day... these are anomalies. Most groups fizzle out or burn bright and fast before imploding. And most of those are forgotten about entirely.
That's what makes the recent arrival of a CD retrospective of Sleetmute Nightmute such an usual but wonderful development. The noise rock quartet tore up the expectations and eardrums of Portlanders for just a few years in the early ’00s. The band gained some traction: landing a track on a Kill Rock Stars comp, a deal with beloved indie label Troubleman Unlimited, a West Coast tour with the Gossip. But just as they were gaining momentum, interpersonal drama split the band up, sending its members—guitarists Alder Suttles, Lanie Fletcher, and Nate Preston, and drummer Charlie Mumma—scattering to other projects.
Nearly 20 years after their demise, there are still those that can't leave the band's unrelenting, abrasive sound behind. Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell released the group’s planned Troubleman debut Night of Long Knives on his own label, Fast Weapons. And noise artist and longtime Sleetmute supporter John Wiese helped compile a CD of everything the band recorded in its short lifespan (including a vicious 2003 live performance) and released it on his own imprint, Helicopter Records, just last month.
Wiese's aim with this new CD is as simple as mine: to bring Sleetmute's work to a larger audience. The former members of the band, though, have greeted this turn of events with varying degrees of bemusement. Or, in the case of Preston, anger.
“To be honest, I was kind of shocked,” he says as we sat down for coffee recently. "I didn’t even know it was coming out until it was out. I was pissed off at first, but I feel like they just wanted to go ahead and get it done. And they knew that involving me would ruin it.”
That tension was a hallmark of Sleetmute’s short existence and their wound-up sound. Everything the quartet recorded feels agitated and feral; a fury of serrated guitar chords and Mumma’s grindcore-informed drumming, capped off by Fletcher and Suttles’ furious vocals. The rhythmic assault of “Scaring The Birds” and “In Adulthood” recalled the no wave visions of artists like DNA and the Theoretical Girls but filtered through the punk and hardcore scenes that burbled through basements and tiny bars around North America.
In the ’90s, that included a contingent of freaks in Anchorage, Alaska, where Fletcher and Preston first met, and where Mumma, some 10-15 years younger than them, viewed them with awe.
“I knew them as sort of mythical beings in the Anchorage punk community,” Mumma remembers, speaking from his home in Chicago. “When I was 11 and 12, I started going to shows. There was a warehouse scene where people would rent out spaces and do their own DIY shows. Nate and Lanie were heavily involved in that.”
All three eventually uprooted to Portland and fell in quickly with the house show network and an artistic community making similarly uncompromising sounds. The next logical step was to start a band, roping in their friend Alder Suttles to join in on guitar and vocals.
“I had never played music in my life,” she wrote via email. “I think maybe that’s why they wanted me to do it. I didn’t know any chords, but understood how to control the sounds my guitar could make. I was very lucky to be around such talented and kind people that embraced me and believed in the potential of my inabilities.”
Things moved quickly from there. Within weeks, Sleetmute were playing live, starting at Fletcher and Preston’s apartment in SW Portland where their neighbors were fellow artists who didn’t care about the noise. With each step forward, the band’s circle of fans grew wider, including Howdeshell (who also played with Preston in Die Monitr Bats) and Wiese. Yet, in spite of an endorsement from the Gossip, interest in the band never reached critical mass because, as Preston remembers it, they “didn’t take it very seriously.”
“It was a drinking club disguised as a band that just happened to record a record or two,” he continues. “I wish I could go back and take it more seriously because there were a lot of crazy opportunities and people emailing us asking us to play festivals. I just didn’t follow up on any of it.”
It didn’t help matters much that, heading into the sessions that yielded Long Knives, Preston and Fletcher split up. They tried carrying on for a stretch, but as Suttles put it, “the hurt kinda killed the vibe. It was a real bummer.” And when the band split, Troubleman withdrew their plans to release the album, leaving it to sit on the shelf until Howdeshell got it out into the world in 2010—seven years after it was recorded.
Again, even that positive development came with some baggage, with Preston and his ex-bandmates butting heads over the artwork for the LP. Ten years later, even with Preston's initial concerns about the re-release of their work, the acrimony amongst the four former Sleetmute Nightmute members has died down. That's the benefit of having time to concentrate on other artistic projects while also maturing along the way. But, again, as happy as they all are for Wiese to have put the time and money into this re-release, and to speak with me about it, their collective feelings about it are muted.
“I’m sure this is for a handful of people,” Fletcher wrote in an email. “A fraction of those who liked the band when it was active and wanna reminisce, but maybe it will amuse some new listeners as well.”
At the same time, all four have good memories of their younger, wilder days together—sneaking booze to then-underage Mumma in their touring van when he had to wait it out before playing a show or packing the living room of Preston and Fletcher's apartment for their first-ever gig.
“Portland was so different back then,” Fletcher said. “Everyone knew each other and it really was a scene. All we did was go to parties and shows. We [also] jammed a lot and that was a really satisfying part of playing together. We were all so close that it was easy to communicate with the music alone. That was really special.”