Shooting the Shit with Olympia Punk Band Gun Outfit
It's just past 2:00 a.m. in Olympia, Washington, and Dylan Sharp is hanging out on a couch at Reuben Storey's house on the city's leafy, residential Westside. Sharp is a guitarist/singer for a punk band called Gun Outfit, along with fellow singer/guitarist Caroline Keith; Storey is Gun Outfit's drummer. The band have just unloaded their gear back into their practice space following a show at Olympia's Old School Pizzeria, where all three have been employed and where Storey and Keith still work. Three houseguests, up from Portland for the weekend, all ladies, are interrogating Sharp in a kind of mock interview, making good fun of my reason for being there.
One of the ladies asks, "Where do you get your ideas?"
Sharp, his voice pitched up in a parody of earnest enthusiasm, his arms swinging in an old-timey "aw shucks" gesture, replies, "From real life!"
Before the show, while the sunset was fading, Sharp and Keith split a cigarette on the balcony of Keith's downtown apartment, from which you can see the old K Records warehouse, which now has "Olympia Knitworks" painted on its side but which actually houses band practice spaces, including Gun Outfit's. Sharp joked about how he was going to spike his hair for the show (he didn't): "I know you've seen me in my normal life, but tonight I'm playing a show!" And then, walking the few blocks from the apartment to Old School, Keith's guitar slung over her back, Sharp did a little leap and self-effacingly exclaimed, "We're really doing it!"
Sharp has always been the best, most amiable kind of smart-ass. I've known him for years, although I only realized he had a new band three months ago, when Stranger music critic Dave Segal wrote an enthusiastic review of their debut album, Dim Light, which I hadn't yet heard ("the contrast between flat vocals and manically expressive guitars creates a pleasing friction"), and I recognized Sharp's name. Eight years ago, we briefly lived together while attending college in Olympia. Back then, he lived on the couch of a two-bedroom apartment we shared with a third friend. From that couch, we watched the A&E biography of Brian Wilson (afraid of the ocean), played a season of Baseball Stars on the NES, and introduced me to records by Lync and Bright Eyes and Men's Recovery Project. Mostly, though, we just reclined in the weird mix of seemingly limitless possibility but probable hopelessness that comes with being young, poor, and pursuing a ("worthless") liberal-arts degree. Lots of leisure time. Not surprisingly, the view from that couch, reflecting our slack positions and prospects, was one of seriously self-deprecating sarcasm. Everything was at least partly a smirk, or a sigh.
While in school, Sharp fronted a thrashy hardcore band called Homo Eradicus, featuring members of Seattle bands Teen Cthulhu and Akimbo (the misanthropological name reflected a distaste for all of Homo sapiens, not homosexuals)—a technically proficient band, but with Sharp screaming inscrutably while flailing and flopping around like a fish thrown in a boat, microphone cord hooked to his mouth. The whole act seemed like one loud, disaffected shrug.
Something of that posture still exists in Gun Outfit—not the screaming or flailing, but the shrugging and smirking. Sharp sings about dead-end drudgery ("Work Experience"), bad feelings ("Guilt and Regret"), deprivation ("In the Dark"), and refusal ("Had Enough," "Your Will"), all in a tunefully deadpan baritone. When he sings, "Want to feel good all the time/Feeling good is feeling... fine," there's a sardonic, slightly sly inflection to the last syllable, as if wanting to feel good were just so pedestrian. Keith acts as a counterbalance with her relatively airy and earnest vocal presence, and it all plays out over lively drumming and surprisingly bright, catchy guitar melodies.
Sharp and Keith formed the band in the summer of 2006, originally performing as a duo at house shows, both playing electric guitar and singing without a drummer or drum machine; Storey, already playing in two metal bands, joined a few months later. Sharp describes the band's early, drummerless incarnation as being "very Olympia," and indeed, there's as much of a shade of Beat Happening to their shambolic-band-plays-house-parties origin story as there is to Sharp's flattened drawl. (If Sharp and Keith were an item, there might be something of the Vaselines' vibe to them as well.) But while everybody thinks of Olympia as being all K Records, there's a whole other scene of punk/hardcore/metal bands happening there under the surface, to which Gun Outfit belong, and which K really doesn't often touch.
Dim Light was released in February by Post Present Medium, the boutique label run by Dean Spunt of L.A. band No Age, which is also home to releases by Mika Miko, Wavves, and others. Spunt decided to release Gun Outfit's album, as well as a 7-inch, after the band opened for No Age at an Olympia house show. Whether because of Spunt's patronage or because of the album's considerable strengths—it has attracted not undeserved comparisons to SST standard bearers Dinosaur Jr. and Meat Puppets, the latter of which Storey was listening to while cleaning his house before the night's show—Gun Outfit has recently received a rash of good press, including nods from KEXP and Rolling Stone, all without having so much as a MySpace page. (Of the trio, only Storey even has a cell phone.) They've been up and down the West Coast but have played Seattle only once before; they embark on their first nationwide tour this summer.
Not that this attention has gone to their heads. In Olympia, it's hard to get too haughty about your indie-rock band—for one thing, everyone's got one; for another, everyone knows that success in that world doesn't exactly mean making a living. (Sharp is unemployed after a period spent teaching ESL in Turkey, but he can afford it for the time being because rents in Olympia are ridiculously cheap—he pays $150 a month for a room in a house.)
At the pizza place, the band played in front of the soda fountain, chairs and tables cleared out, to a packed crowd of about three-dozen people. Sharp strained to make his vocals heard while Keith's came in relatively clear over the feedback, both fingerpicking their electric guitars; Storey roundly pounding the shit out of his drum kit in good time. The catch-and-release guitar hook of "Troubles Like Mine," which breaks into a chorus of rollicking drums and Keith wordlessly crooning, sounds especially persuasive live.
The "real" interview finally happens late the next morning. I'd been putting it off because it's just so awkward to switch the tape recorder on and switch the casual, friendly conversation off. Sharp encourages me to fabricate an interview if there aren't any good quotes: "Just make me sound funny." We do it over coffee and some weird soy-lecithin supplements that claim to fight "mind fog," while the three houseguests are making French toast. It proves to be about as predictable and perfunctory as they expected.