Bands are fragile, fraught things. They're like families, except even more combustible, because art is involved. So many things can go wrong in a band: Egos can spiral out of control, personalities can clash, drugs and alcohol can be abused, sexual intrigue can ensue, digestion issues can wreak havoc. There could even be skill envy. But sometimes the reason things end is more mundane, if no less emotionally wrenching.
When the great, under-acclaimed Seattle post-punk trio Universe People announced they were ceasing operations before most in the city had even heard them (their last gig is October 17 at the Funhouse at El Corazón), guitarist/vocalist Jo Claxton said they weren't splitting so much as "finishing." Creative stagnation coupled with distaste for frequent late nights at clubs among strangers sealed the deal, and bandmates Kimberly Morrison and Min Yee (who also play in Steal Shit Do Drugs and Dreamsalon, respectively) concurred. "We are also at an awkward point with the band where we are asked to headline but we don't really have a strong enough draw," Claxton says. "I feel responsible that we can't bring in more people to see some of these great touring bands that we play with."
Although Universe People had released two LPs in the last few years, no labels had shown interest in their next record, and they lacked the funds to do it themselves. "We would just be releasing music digitally, which is okay, but I really like putting out records," Claxton says. "I love our new recording, three songs that are just out now on Bandcamp. I wish it could be a vinyl 7-inch, but we just don't have it in us."
Yee concludes, "Finishing a band when you're still good is really the way to go out."
For promising, short-lived local space-rock unit Jetman Jet Team, their 2014 ending wasn't so amicable. After an excellent debut album, We Will Live the Space Age, and a powerful performance at Hypnotikon: Seattle Psych Fest in 2013, JJT collapsed in a cloud of toxic vibes. They had trouble making the transition from weird two-man studio project to a live, expanded touring band. Guitarist/vocalist Brenan Chambers says the group's "immaturity" resulted in excessive stress. "I don't think we ever really figured out the proper band dynamic, how to work together as a team in a productive way," he said in an interview last year. "After lots of really bad practices and petty fights, eventually [bassist Tyler James] needed to move to Portland, personal relationships started to sour, tastes were changing, and honestly we just didn't like each other anymore. Everyone turned into a dickhead. The atmosphere was acrid and uncomfortable. Most of us lost our creative drive and didn't want to be involved in the project anymore, despite still really enjoying the music itself. Tyler, Miguel [Diaz], and [drummer Quin Dickinson] all joined or started other bands, and that was that. We acted like children, and that's what comes of it."
Pop group Exohxo just broke up after seven years of toil. Member Jasen Samford says that their modest goal was to become "Seattle famous." Exohxo self-released a few things that received airplay on KNDD and KEXP's local shows and earned praise in The Stranger, Seattle Weekly, and a handful of online publications. "It seemed that people really liked us!" Samford gushes. But all that radio and media attention didn't result in sizable draws when Exohxo played out. "Our shows were rarely attended by more than our spouses, parents, and a few friends," Samford recalls.
In the fall of 2014, after undergoing personnel changes, Exohxo began work on an EP of what they believed to be the best songs they'd ever written. "We told ourselves, 'If this doesn't get people coming out to our shows, nothing will.'" They released the EP online as a free download in June 2015, accompanied by a Facebook blast saying, "We've spent all of our energy and every dollar the band has earned for two years (sparing you a lengthy crowd-funding campaign) to lovingly craft this original music. The most important thing you can do now is just to LISTEN and to SHARE this record with as many people as possible. All six tracks will be everywhere they can be online because, while money is nice, this album only becomes a success to us when these songs earn a place in your lives."
Samford says all that effort didn't pan out as planned. "Since its release in June, our final EP, The Ghost Is Clear, has been downloaded 328 times. We started talking about last-ditch efforts to salvage the band. We considered bringing in a new lead singer. We thought about rebranding and starting fresh under a new name. In the end, we ended up deciding that the best thing we could do was to just call it quits. We played our final show at Lo-Fi in September. Our posts on Facebook and Twitter about our final show were met with 'You're breaking up?! Why?!' mostly by friends who hadn't seen us play in years."
Oh, the pain.
Samford concedes, "Seattle is particularly difficult in that it's supersaturated with bands. It's almost as if there are so many bands to try to care about, it's easier to just not care about any of them. More and more, the best way for a musician to 'make it' these days is not through releasing albums and playing shows and touring, but by movie and TV licensing."
Some bands rise high in Seattle but fail to gain traction outside of the 206. Such was the case with XVIII Eyes, whose hauntingly beautiful rock songs netted them press accolades and slots on big shows at major venues, but guitarist/vocalist Jamie "Aaron" Henkensiefken notes that "it was hard to get out of town to start building audiences elsewhere on two weeks of paid vacation. Also, after having more recently been in a band that's toured the US a few times, it seems like the geographical and cultural isolation of the Northwest is really real. It's fairly easy to be big in Seattle and hard to get out." She also observes that bands can do a lot on their own due to better technology, but to elevate to a much higher level, artists still "need the help of publicists, lawyers, managers, etc., and getting access to business people was, and still is, about knowing the 'right' people."
The unpredictability of life in one's 20s can also submerge a band. Wildly inventive no-wave trio Wet Paint DMM ranked among this area's greatest bands from 2009 to 2011, but they fizzled when drummer Christopher Brown moved to China for six months. A hiatus gradually segued into a breakup. "Do I put everything on hold and see where this goes or do I need to keep thinking about where my life can go?" says Wet Paint DMM vocalist Jamey Braden Von Mooter. "There was no bitterness about [Brown's decision]—who could turn down an opportunity like that?!"
Wet Paint DMM represented one of the freshest, most interesting approaches to rock this writer had encountered in years, so their demise was especially disappointing. However, Braden Von Mooter says, "The working dynamic was unbalanced. We needed to chill out a little bit or figure out a method for intense output with adequate replenishment. It takes time to figure that stuff out. Maybe we could have gotten there, but life was changing so fast for all of us at that time." Ultimately, band life wore out Braden Von Mooter (a highly demonstrative performer, she experienced pain after each show), and after all that work, she ended up not even owning one of Wet Paint DMM's few physical releases, a split cassette with Solar Masters bearing a photo of artist Louise Nevelson. It still bugs her four years later.
In the '00s, the Dead Science were one of Seattle's most distinctive and cerebrally visceral rock bands. They never officially broke up, but touring and recording pretty much nonstop without accruing much fan-base growth (or money) led to inaction. Frontman Sam Mickens decided to move to New York City in 2008 to focus on a solo career, which so far has enjoyed more aesthetic success than financial. "[The Dead Science] exerted so intensely for such a long time without seeing many markers of rising fortunes," Mickens says. "In 2008 we released a record [Villainaire] that we felt was really fully realized and the best we had to give at that time with a deeply reputable and wonderful label [Constellation] and still saw little energy returning to us. We had a moment of disheartening, and around the same time I moved to New York. I tried to compel us to make another record after this, but the mutual spirit had gone for the time being."
There is the sense with Mickens and others interviewed for this story that it's harder for musicians to "make it" in this century than it was in the last one. "What infrastructure was passed down from Black Flag etc. and existed for a while as 'indie rock' has largely dissipated," Mickens says. "The possibility of getting signed to a large, truly independent record label and, with their support, building up a touring and record-releasing life that makes sense and is at least financially self-sustaining is largely extinct. That said, this model only ever appealed/made sense to me because of the time in which I grew up and the values/sensibilities thereby instilled in me. I have a pragmatic understanding of the fact that there has always been music and the ways in which it's been supported have always changed. After all, there have only been records for about a hundred years—at one time, people making music could only do so with money from the papal church, etc. All of this said, the occupation of making music is increasingly only for young people who have family money/independent wealth/support of some kind, which I find lamentable."
Sushirobo flared on the Seattle scene in the early '00s with a fresh Northwestern slant on kraut-rock-tinted pop over two albums and an EP for a small local indie. After they exhausted their "buzz-band status" with little reward, they quit unannounced after four years, before mediocrity could set in, says guitarist/vocalist Arthur Roberts. He laments that you can pour everything you have into your music and get scant positive feedback and experience many "demoralizing moments. Even in your hometown you get your spirit worn down. Your friends are only going to come see you so many times before they move on. People within the local scene all claim to be supportive, but you still encounter competitiveness, petty resentments, cliques, power tripping... Booking your own shows can be an exercise in humiliation. Bookers can be dismissive, sometimes insulting, if they haven't heard of you."
Roberts says his musical endeavors never have been motivated by money, even when he was in the commercially successful Posies. "The only measure by which I ever judged 'success' was performing in front of warm bodies. I wanted bigger audiences and for their attention to be focused on me. Performing in front of a receptive audience is thrilling and addictive. I am a shy person, but I can't get enough of being in front of people playing a loud guitar. I suppose this is purely a desire for attention and that it has nothing to do with music. It makes me feel powerful and desirable, when I am used to feeling plain and invisible. So it's ego, pure and simple. Vanity is a huge motivator."
On the downside, apathy reigns in the indie-rock scene—and in the world, to be honest. So many musicians scramble for tiny scraps of attention from what Roberts calls "a small and only marginally interested potential audience. It can be painfully demeaning. It makes you doubt yourself constantly."
Despite all these depressing stories and cautionary tales, five new bands just formed in the time it took you to read this. Here's hoping they find a way to make it work.