The Lonesome, Crowded East
After 15 Years of the Old Fire House, the Eastside Is Still Important Proving Ground
It's a rainy Wednesday night in Issaquah. I arrive at an average-looking house off the downtown drag and make my way around to the side door, following my ears. The small basement, half of which is a makeshift bedroom, is crowded with 30 or so startlingly young faces, most in the beginning throes of high school. Someone is wailing a song about pyramids over lo-fi homemade beats as the crowd stares in the dark. I find the show's organizer, Jayden Long, the 16-year-old bassist of the band Seahouse. I explain that I'm there to write an article about Eastside bands.
"It's a good thing you came, then," he says. "Because they're all right here."
If the Seattle music scene was a professional sports organization, the suburbs would be its farm team. Few historic Seattle musicians actually grew up in Seattle: Modest Mouse came from Issaquah, Heart from Bellevue, the Blood Brothers from around the Eastside, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic from Aberdeen. When a suburban band outgrows its small-town, minor-league roots, it moves to Seattle and tries to make a national name. This is the way it has been and will always be.
The first obstacle for many young bands everywhere used to be simply finding a place to play, an unfortunate reality the Old Fire House teen center in Redmond sought to rectify in the early 1990s. "We started the Old Fire House because there were a ton of kids who wanted a venue to play music, but were too young to play in bars," says Christopher Cullen, the Old Fire House's program coordinator. "For a long time, the Old Fire House and the Velvet Elvis in Seattle were really the only two options for all-ages music."
Throughout the '90s, the Old Fire House was an essential venue for both young and touring bands. It was a social arena in which aspiring musicians could cut their teeth in front of a crowd as well as learn from bands that had already perfected their craft. And as one of the only all-ages venues in the region, it was home to many shows with huge crowds.
Casey Foubert, who currently tours with indie darlings Sufjan Stevens and Richard Swift as a multi-instrumentalist, has a musical background tightly intertwined with the Old Fire House. He began playing drums for the band Seldom at the Eastside teen centers in the mid-'90s, then went on to play in Seattle acts Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls. "One of the first shows I ever played was at the Fire House," he says. "I was probably 16 or 17, and it was a big deal to me."
Foubert has fond memories of seeing Washington kingpins Botch, Undertow, and Waxwing at the Old Fire House—packed shows that drew big crowds from both the suburbs and from the city. "Now that I've been playing a lot of shows, seeing how sparse all-ages shows can be, I remember those old shows being pretty full," he says. "If bands were on a regional or national tour, it would be a really big deal if they played in Redmond. A lot of times I didn't even know who the bands were, I would just go to a show to be at a show."
The Old Fire House and Bellevue's Ground Zero proved the importance of all-ages venues. Their success was in many ways responsible for the founding of Seattle all-ages venues the Paradox and Vera Project. But once several all-ages options were available around the greater Seattle area, the number of big shows at the Old Fire House dropped.
"We're not the only game in town anymore," Cullen explains. "It's easier for bands to come to Seattle than to Redmond. The venues in Seattle can pay more money and it's easier for the bands to get paid because those venues aren't nonprofit, government organizations like we are.
"Our mission is not to put on big shows," he continues. "It was a natural process moving from bigger shows to the kind we have now, where we are simply trying to give opportunities to the bands that will be big in three to five years. If we were just a venue, I would think differently—but as a teen center, that's not our priority."
The Old Fire House still has shows every Friday, but bills now typically comprise young, local acts. These smaller, localized shows provide opportunities for the teenage musicians of Redmond and its surrounding cities, but the Old Fire House's impact has dramatically changed from previous years. When the Old Fire House was regularly putting on big shows, it was a reason for people—not just teenagers—to come to Redmond and thus be introduced to Eastside bands. Since the focus of the shows is now primarily on teenage bands, that draw is gone.
For a while, perhaps out of necessity, the Eastside and Seattle scenes were inextricably linked. As it stands now, few big-name bands from Seattle or abroad come to the Eastside, leaving its young bands to fend for themselves. Does this affect the quality, or quantity, of the bands coming out of an area that has historically been rife with musical promise? Do young Eastside bands notice or care that Seattle crowds are gone?
The basement show in Issaquah put things back into perspective. Out of the 12 bands playing, I recognized several names from the Old Fire House show listings—young bands that now dominate the bills at the teen centers. They are most likely, as Cullen put it, some of "the bands that will be big" in the years to come.
"This is my first show with a microphone" are the first words I hear upon entering the basement. Potentially troubling, yes, but the talent amassed in this high schooler's mom's house is remarkable. Thinking back to the music my peers were making in high school, and how incredibly bad it was even to my unrefined high-school tastes, I can't believe how legitimately good some of these bands are. Seahouse play smart, subtle, catchy pop that could easily incite a dance party. Shed are a reincarnation of the sloppy energy and songwriting of early Modest Mouse, opting to play in the laundry area instead of in the open room, and tumbling dangerously off their drum kit. The Last Slice of Butter are a loud, punishing, drum-and-bass duo with strong songwriting, though they absolutely butcher a cover of "War Pigs."
Most surprising is Deer City, a 15-year-old armed with a Stratocaster and an iBook, performing songs way too good to come from a kid his age. Not only are the songs smartly crafted indie rock, but he already sings and plays guitar like a seasoned vet. He's Issaquah's young Ben Kweller. During his performance, LP of Little Party and the Bad Business turns to me and says it perfectly: "That kid's got a paycheck coming."
One can assume that any of these kids would love go the route of Casey Foubert—play music with your friends at the teen center, meet like-minded individuals, stick to it, and before you know it you're touring the world with Sufjan Stevens. ("My musical circle keeps getting wider and wider since I've always been traveling down the path of being a musician," Foubert tells me later, "and that all started specifically from playing shows at the Old Fire House and Ground Zero.")
Jayden thanks everyone for coming to this "celebration of the suburbs." More than that, the makeshift show is a reaffirmation: Even though the big shows have moved away from the Eastside, there's still a thriving culture of young musicians playing the teen centers and throwing concerts in their parents' basements for their own enjoyment. Witnessing it firsthand only reinforces that these will in fact be the kids five years from now who will be making waves in the Seattle scene. Maybe sooner if they keep at it.