The house where Jeff Keenan grew up, and where Feral Children used to practice, rests at the end of an overgrown gravel road in Maple Valley, surrounded by damp woods that slope down to a partially frozen bog. In the summertime, the water evaporates, leaving the peat so soft that you can leap onto it from several feet up a tree and land safely (Keenan's done this before). The driveway is littered with automobiles in various stages of disrepair and rust, the yard is cluttered with brightly colored plastic children's toys and various junk. The ubiquitous new Shins single is audible from inside the small, one-story house—a cheery reminder that even this seemingly disconnected place is just like everywhere else.
"I wish I could say it didn't always look like this," says Keenan's amiable older brother, Russell, the home's current occupant. "But... it does."
This place and its surroundings are audible—as echoing wails, reverberating gunshot percussion, and broken-down lyricism—on Feral Children's debut EP, Eternity Emergency. The Maple Valley imagined and remembered in their songs is a bleak, desperately lonely place.
"I never liked playing here," Keenan says. "I grew up here, and I'd had enough of this house."
The real Maple Valley is almost quaint and predominantly rural, although suburban-style development—ranch-style McMansions, apartment colonies, and strip malls—threatens to encroach from Issaquah to the north and Kent/Renton/Auburn to the west. Drummer/vocalist Keenan, bassist/vocalist Jim Cotton, and guitarist Josh Gamble all grew up here, though Cotton spent some of his early years in East Germany (he shares his Eastern Bloc childhood with keyboardist Sergei Posrednikov, whose family emigrated from Ukraine to Kent before the dissipation of the USSR). They went to high school together, made aborted horror movies in the woods, played pranks, stole each other's girlfriends, fought, got in trouble with the law—for everything from indecent exposure to trespassing to punching a cop while high on mushrooms—although Gamble insists they never had a reputation as the bad kids in town. The group learned to make their own fun, as dissatisfied kids growing up in the middle of nowhere often have to do.
"Seattle seemed like a million miles away," Cotton says. We're loading Keenan's brother's truck up with trash to haul to the nearby dump—doing some chores was sort of our excuse for this visit. "Getting on the radio or talking to magazines just seemed impossible. We were just writing these songs. We never thought anyone would really hear them."
They began playing music in high school as Blood Alley Accident—named after a lethal stretch of Highway 18—a band with heavy debts to early Modest Mouse, Murder City Devils, and the other "crazy, indie rock" that the boys sought out on occasional trips to the city. Blood Alley Accident's membership changed over the years, they dropped the Accident from their name, and they later switched styles from indie rock to something more like alt-country. The band ran its course and dissolved—Gamble moved around Ohio, Texas, and California; Keenan went to Evergreen State College in Olympia; all three of them continued making music separately. But in 2005, the boys found themselves back at the old house, making music together again, and Feral Children were born.
Driving over the dizzyingly picturesque Green River Gorge, a Stranger photographer makes a joke about it being a good suicide spot.
"Yeah," Cotton replies, monotone. "One of our friends from high school jumped here... I hear when you jump you actually die of a heart attack before you hit the ground. But he died later, I guess."
"A couple of our friends killed themselves," says Keenan.
Once, the boys were threatened with a gun in a McDonald's parking lot.
"We were talking trash about one of their dead friends," says Cotton. "But just because he's dead doesn't mean he wasn't a prick."
Dread, violence, and callous misanthropy inform the best of Feral Children's songs. "They're Gonna Kill Me" recounts the alienation Cotton felt from his drunk, toothless co-workers at the fish hatchery where he worked for three years, while "Seahorse Scores!" talks of "getting hurt, getting angry, getting old." The verse ends with the epitaph, "Just close your eyes and you're a ghost."
But if their songs are gloomy and cold, the live shows they've been playing for just over a year are burning and manic. Keenan beats out rhythms on a keg—left over from a birthday party at the old house—and various scraps of percussion while drummer Christian Dorsett (formerly of Asahi) bangs with equally blunt force on his kit. Posrednikov hunches over his keyboards, pounding out chords, and Cotton leans heavily into the mic, screaming and singing with drunken abandon. Gamble is the most reserved, head bowed toward a multitude of pedals, but this wasn't always the case.
"There was one night," he says. "I just didn't want to play this one song, and I was shit-faced drunk, so I just turned around and threw my guitar without really looking."
"The guitar hit Chris," Cotton adds. "And Chris puts his hand up to his face, and when he takes his hand away blood just—it was like SNL fake blood—exploded out of his forehead."
At their show last night in a Georgetown warehouse, Gamble was shocked by his equipment badly enough to stand stunned and immobile for nearly 10 minutes, badly enough that he isn't driving his own car today.
Some of their live intensity is captured on Eternity Emergency, but Feral Children hope to more fully realize their vision when they record in April with producer Scott Colburn, who the band were drawn to for his work with Animal Collective and Arcade Fire.
Keenan, Cotton, and Gamble live in Seattle now, but they seem like awkward transplants. Cotton confides that, upon first moving to the city, he almost mowed down several pedestrians because he wasn't used to looking for them at intersections. Up until a few months ago, they were still practicing in Keenan's old home, routinely making the long drive out from Seattle to write and rehearse. But in many ways, the band remains a child of Maple Valley—the people and ghosts who live there populate their songs, and its wildness and isolation shape them.
"Most of my songs are about trying to connect with the real world, and how difficult that is," says Keenan—and standing in the house's front yard, or driving around those quiet highways, it feels downright impossible.