Chris Jury of the Bismarck Vents About the Seattle Music Industry
Chris Jury is a guitarist/vocalist from Seattle rock band the Bismarck. In the 20 years he's been playing and working within the business of music, he's formulated some opinions about our music scene—a scene that hasn't necessarily bought what he's been selling. The Bismarck do everything themselves. They make straight-up rock that's of and for volume. Overdriven guitars and screamed vocals fire through a sloppy turret. Originally from North Dakota, the Bismarck are instilled with a workmanlike Midwestern ethic. They record, engineer, produce, and release their own music (three full-lengths since 2002, the latest being Great Plains in May 2010). They book their own shows and tours, silk-screen their own shirts, build their own instruments, drive their own van, and do all their own promotion. Through trial and error, they've learned where to tour and what spots to play. Now, music is something the Bismarck does more for fun. They aren't trying to "make it" anymore.
Jury and bandmates have grown frustrated with a scene that hasn't accepted their brand of rock music. They gave up caring about playing Seattle shows years ago, instead opting to tour and play where they are better received. In the Bismarck song "Not If You Were the Last Team Gina Fan on Earth," Jury sings, "Everyone was wearing girl pants... Everyone was on the cocaine... Everyone had an awkward haircut/And everyone was sucking everyone else's dick." Jury and I spoke. No fellatio or girl pants were involved.
Why don't you care about playing Seattle shows anymore?
Because the Bismarck and our music aren't fashionable. It's not for scenesters or buzz-feeding press. We're fine with it at this point. There's plenty of other places we love to play.
What do you think of the current Seattle music scene?
It's a good indication that something is wrong in a given scene when bands like Police Teeth or Kozo can do very well touring the Midwest, East Coast, and Europe, but locally have a hard time getting the time of day. Local bands, both here and in Portland, that have their social infrastructure here often have an easier time and get better receptions elsewhere, and do so consistently. The Hunches are a good example. In Portland or Seattle, they were playing at a two-thirds-full Funhouse or Twilight Lounge, but when they toured Europe, they were playing with JSBX or the Stooges at large festivals.
What's the problem, then?
I think a band that is making outstanding music should have trouble deciding what venues or shows to play, rather than sweating it out on a Saturday afternoon in front of 20 people. And, given an opportunity, local press should be seeking these folks out, rather than writing weekly about the same bands, many of whom are not making particularly great music.
You recently booked a European tour for your band. How was booking that as opposed to booking shows in Seattle?
I actually had a much easier time booking the Newcastle-Leeds-Nottingham-London leg of the tour than I had booking our last Sunset show. Which is why we quit giving a shit about playing Seattle years ago. The Sunset is easy to work with, and I have always had good experiences with the folks who book and work there. But even the relatively easy process at a welcoming venue like the Sunset is harder than booking in many other places—even the process of visas and work permits is more straightforward. I can't really describe it in another way. The level of effort involved is simply less. I send mail, they reply with a yes or no, I move on to the next venue or town.
How often does the Bismarck tour?
We tour once a year. We have jobs and wives and kids that take priority over this hobby. In the past it was more than that, and longer, ragged outings. Prior to that I was in a band that did barn-burning tours several times a year, and so got plenty of practice lifting heavy things and sleeping in vans. We generally do okay on tour, although we opt for doing interesting things rather than profitable things, because this is also our vacation and we'd rather enjoy it than be in situations that are boring or uninteresting. Being able to do a couple nights with Bottomless Pit or IfIHadAHiFi can make you feel like you're in Cheap Trick or something.
Where do you all do best?
The Bismarck seems to do best in the upper Midwest. Some of that is due to the fact that we are all from North Dakota, so our aesthetic and our ethos seem to resonate. Chicago, Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Minneapolis are great, but Bismarck, Minot, Fargo, Grand Forks are great too. The exciting thing is that you simply never know where something amazing will happen. Places like Tulsa, Memphis, or Cullman, Alabama, have been really welcoming and were routine stops in the past.
How do you go about setting up your tours? What have you learned?
To my mind there are two important things to balance: contact with friends and sympathetic audiences, and then risk-taking with unfamiliar promoters, towns, bands, etc. For example, with this upcoming UK tour we are playing with an aesthetically similar band for a run of shows in Scotland, and will be doing a festival the following weekend. But one night in the middle of the week we are playing in a tiny market village along Hadrian's Wall. That is a risk, but what fun is a tour without risk.
I am perfectly happy playing in a one-car garage in the middle of a cemetery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Working with very young promoters, playing in unusual spaces or in towns that are often overlooked is rewarding. I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and started booking touring bands when I was in high school. I had to ask bands to trust me, that I would give them as much cash as I could, find opening bands, get them fed, and give them a place to sleep. I was just reminded that a former bandmate of mine did a show for Dead and Gone on the loading dock at her father's tree nursery around 1996. Locals still talk about that show. Bands need to be willing to take those risks, because they can be very worthwhile. I know Dead and Gone made like $500 playing that show between door and merch, but it would have been really easy to blow it off.
What bands would you like to see get more press?
The Pitch. Meghan from Racetrack. Wyoming Young and Strong. Josh and Josh from Lake of Falcons. Red Hex from Tacoma. Minutes from Kalamazoo. Ex Wives. That Fucking Tank from Leeds. Bottomless Pit. The Family Ghost from Memphis. Trophy Wives from Louisville. And IfIHadAHiFi from Milwaukee are great.
I'm an old man. I work a lot and spend most of my time doing things that are not music-related. So I'm always thrilled to see exciting local bands, bands that are doing something vital and uncalculated. I have had my fill of smug, cool, disaffected bullshit. I want to see people who are enjoying themselves, are excited about what they are doing and have some nervous energy behind them. I don't want to see laconic pop or fake hardcore.
I was happy to see Special Explosion get some attention. I saw one of their first shows when I was helping out at the Monroe YMCA. They had all sorts of technical and "band etiquette" issues to work out, but it was obvious to everyone they were going to do amazing things, and now a year or two later, here they are.
So the Seattle music scene sucks, and you don't give a shit about playing here. Why do you live here?
My wife and I moved here for work. Many of our friends had moved out here as well, so that made it more appealing. I wouldn't say the scene sucks—that would be a bit simplistic. I would say that there are a few specific forms of music-making that are in vogue, and those are the acts that get a disproportionate share of the attention available. My band doesn't happen to be part of that scene, so trying to force ourselves onto an audience that isn't interested is not much fun. We play with friends' bands or when we have the chance to do something interesting, like screening the Grateful Lovers documentary. But we don't look for shows, try to get on bills just to play, or try to make it to the next level here. It isn't worth the time.
Whose fault is all this? The suckiness of the scene, in your eyes?
I'm not sure there is a fault. I think there is a disconnect between local press, local venues, and local musicians. What brought this to the fore was a seemingly endless stream of minutiae about a single local band on Line Out a few weeks back. There is a large pool of exciting bands that haven't been able to garner much attention, and there are venues that want to fill the rooms. Then there is local music press that needs to straddle the line between telling people about stuff they already like and introducing new stuff to at least appear to be a likely source of information on the next thing. I'm not sure how to get them all playing together. One of the nice things is that with a blog, as opposed to a physical paper, there is no limit on content other than what someone can upload, and there are a pile of folks who would do so for free.
Blogging is always the answer.
Yes. [Laughs] I mean, pretending like playing music, or writing about it, or booking shows is difficult or unknowable is a losing proposition. That is what happened in Olympia in the late '90s. Twenty years ago, Olympia was the epicenter of American underground music. The tastemakers went in one direction, the interested public went another, but control of the venues and labels stayed with the first generation. Even as late as '99 I would organize a tour around a date in Olympia. Now maybe one in five bands that tour through here bother to stop in Olympia. None of this is somehow beyond the grasp of the average person. I strongly believe that anyone with the enthusiasm and will to do so can learn to make interesting music, write in an interesting manner, or learn the mechanics of organizing events.
What would make the scene better?
The youth! [Laughs] I think there are real consequences to having an environment where the youth have no space or incentive to step up. If thirtysomethings are running the scene, booking every venue, operating the labels, then it becomes likely that the high school kids won't have much of a voice and that aesthetic differences won't be respected. They could force the issue and reject the old guard or go elsewhere to make their contribution. I want to be pushed aside when I'm behaving like a stubborn old man, assuming I know how things ought to work or what a band ought to do. If I'm doing sound at some community center rock show and a kid feels like they can handle it without me, they should feel empowered ask me to turn over the board.
If you were a club owner/promoter/booker, what would you do? How would you run that type of business? Look at it all from their perspective.
I've been a promoter, a booker, and managed a part-time venue. None of those jobs are easy. Making sure the underlying business is sound and that you are maximizing value from the space is foremost. Music happens at night, so it should be only a portion of your business plan. When I was a younger man I taught at a high school during the day, delivered pizzas at night, and worked construction on the weekends. There are a lot of hours in the day. If the thing you do for four to five hours, three to four nights a week isn't making the nut, then you need to rethink.
If a band can't bring in people, how is the club supposed to make money?
I guess it depends on the business model. I don't think the clubs, like Showbox or Nuemos, are struggling, or if they are it isn't because they are giving too much stage time to unknown local bands. On the other hand, some of the bars that do shows are more or less empty when shows aren't going on. I am particularly impressed with the Sunset using part of their space for pizza—an outstanding idea. I think there is a lot of opportunity for more fully utilizing space and resources. If a venue is relying on me to bring 30 to 40 people on the Wednesday you saw fit to let my band open for some horseshit Alkaline Trio cover band, and the sum total of your promotional effort was to list it in your one-eighth-of-a-page alt-weekly ad, I am not terribly sympathetic to your problems.
What do you want to see happen?
I think there is a lot of opportunity to tap an amazing group of ambitious young people who want to be making music, writing, or promoting. Rather than dumping money into the Vera Project, why don't we work to encourage spaces where bands can play their first shows? Why not let some kid book the first Tuesday night of the month at your empty bar to let them learn the ropes and try to do something fun? Why doesn't Line Out have dozens of posts daily from high school and college kids who are totally into music and want to write about it? It isn't like it costs you anything. So what if you end up with an article about how great Skrillex is. It can't be any worse than that tour diary from Monogamy Party.
This story has been updated since its original publication.