Big Cheese, Little Pond
T.V. Coahran's Bargain-Basement Punk Label
If you've been going to punk-rock shows in Seattle for very long, odds are you've seen T.V. Coahran around—either onstage playing with one of any number of bands, behind a merch table or makeshift soundboard at a house show, or else hanging out in the crowd. Even when he's just part of an audience, he stands out—for years, his trademark was a toothbrush mustache à la Sparks' Ron Mael or Charlie Chaplin (not à la Hitler—a point of distinction about which Coahran could get rather huffy). More recently, Coahran turned up at the Stranger offices clean-shaven and looking like a cross between an old-timey tramp and a traveling salesman: ripped and ratty T-shirt, thrift-store jacket, worn felt trilby hat, and a suitcase filled with orderly stacks of CDs and cassette tapes from his fledgling GGNZLA record label.
It was that suitcase—even more than its contents—that made me want to write about Coahran. The image of him snapping it open in our office lobby to display his latest wares was just too much, too perfect a picture of the DIY entrepreneur/punk-rock snake-oil charlatan. If any song on any one of those CDs stuck in my head as firmly as the first impression made by that suitcase, GGNZLA would be the next Sub Pop. As it is, GGNZLA is already industriously documenting some of the stranger corners of Seattle's weirdo punk-rock underground.
The label began in February, with a double CD-R sampler of a couple dozen bands ranging from the twee, ukulele-strumming folkie Jordan O Jordan to acerbic punk thrashers Partman Parthorse, with plenty of variation in between. Since then, Coahran has released records at a rapid pace, with albums from Johnny O'Donnell, Charles Leo Gebhardt IV, Emeralds, Broken Nobles, Scraps, the Spits, the Pharmacy, and Spurm. A new EP from Partman Parthorse is due soon. All the CDs come in attractive hand-screened sleeves.
"I'm trying to put out as much as I can of stuff that I like, to try to lay a groundwork," says Coahran.
The headquarters for all this activity is the basement bedroom of a run-down party house nestled in the residential neutral zone between the private academia of Seattle University and the public housing of Yesler Terrace. On a recent visit, there is a water shutoff notice posted to the front gate, giving the residents three days to come up with $900 in back bills. The basement itself, accessible by a separate door, is chilly enough on this early fall evening for Coahran to wear fingerless gloves and a long, puffy parka indoors, but not so chilly as to prevent the holding of a cold Rainier tallboy.
Coahran has just moved into the house (the room's previous resident relocated to a van parked out back), and boxes of stuff are still scattered amid the bedding, shelves, musical instruments, and full-size drum kit. He is pleased to announce that he's successfully Dustbusted a bunch of spiders earlier that evening; the Dustbuster sits dormant for the moment on top of a pile of boxes. Before our interview can begin, an alarm goes off and Coahran runs outside and upstairs to retrieve a frozen pizza from the oven.
Pizza in hand, Coahran sits at a computer desk that doubles as a home studio thanks to an old multitrack tape recorder. On top of an attached cabinet, he has built a small silk-screening station—just a couple clamps and some framed screens, really—which he's used for the covers of GGNZLA's most recent releases.
Coahran grew up in San Diego and Santa Cruz, where his father, also a musician, still lives.
"He taught me how to play guitar," says Coahran of his dad. "There were always instruments in the garage that I could mess around with. He showed me how to play 'Stairway to Heaven' and stuff.
"I grew up around it," he continues. "My dad's band would practice in the garage when I was a kid—like, when I had to go to bed for school, they'd be making all this noise downstairs. It was pretty cool. They'd play gigs. I mean, they all had day jobs and stuff; I think they were just trying to have a lot of fun with it."
Later, Coahran moved with his mother to the Tri-Cities, where he went to high school. At 18, he fled for Seattle, took a temp job doing video-game testing (ideal because it allows him to take long breaks for touring, he's kept working there for the past 10 years), and fell in with punk band the Retards.
"They were from Bainbridge or Vashon—I forget which one," says Coahran. "They broke up and wanted to start a new band, and I moved up and lived with those guys in West Seattle, in a one-bedroom apartment and slept on their couch for about a year. That was pretty gnarly."
Coahran has played in a number of bands since then, doing time with Weird Science, the Popular Shapes, Holy Ghost Revival, and Dunk, as well as recording solo under his own abbreviated name (T.V. is short for Trent Vernon). Lately he's been playing drums and singing with Charles Leo Gebhardt IV and contributing keyboards and backing vocals to manic, campy punk rockers Spurm.
Coahran's skills as a sideman are matched by his efforts as a behind-the-scenes agitator and facilitator for other people's creative urges.
"I don't know why I started the label," he says. "Just to have a hobby or something, I guess."
Prior to GGNZLA, Coahran put out his own releases on hand-stamped CD-Rs, similar to the style he's using now. He speaks admiringly of prolific, underground recording artist Stevie Moore.
"He's been making music since the late '60s and recording it all in his basement," Coahran enthuses. "He's made like 400 double albums, he had a tape club throughout the '80s, and he makes it all himself. His dad played bass for Elvis Presley." Of Moore's outsider status, Coahran observes, "I think he's always wanted to be more recognized."
When it comes to his own pursuits, Coahran is cagey about his ambitions. He's ambivalent about expanding, exhibiting that mix of half-assed slack, reluctance about capitalism, and serious hustle typical of a generation reared on punk rock and witness to the ongoing collapse of the music business as money machine.
"I kind of like having it be real limited," he says. "I enjoy doing it all—I've been getting more into screen-printing, using the lab at Vera a lot, and that's a really good resource. If there were a bigger demand, I would probably make more, but so far I haven't sold out of anything except the comps.
"It'd be nice if it got bigger," he continues. "But for right now, I'm just doing it as a hobby. I'm not trying to make any money or anything. So far it seems to be going pretty well. The Spits tape is selling well. I think the Scraps CD is getting a lot of radio play, and Spurm's been on the radio."
He's also a fan of inconvenient and obsolete formats; several of GGNZLA's releases have been on cassette, and he'd like to release a video compilation on VHS.
"It seems like it's too easy," he says of today's media options. "It's a little more satisfying when you have to work to find something really good." Still, all GGNZLA's cassette releases come with codes to download the songs in digital form.
Back to that suitcase: What about all these albums that Coahran is pushing, anyway? Working through the stack of CDs on my desk (no tape player handy right now, ha) in order from earliest release to most recent, they range from the pop rock of Johnny O'Donnell's Hellbodies (clean, cartoonishly buoyant, like the Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone with less conceptual continuity) and Charles Leo Gebhardt IV (more frayed and jangling and electrified) to the classic rock and metal riffing of Emeralds to the druggy, droney love songs of Scraps and the aforementioned punk operatics of Spurm.
It may not all be absolutely essential music, but it does represent a vital niche of Seattle's music scene. It's to everyone's inestimable benefit that Coahran and GGNZLA Records is taking such care in documenting it all.