On December 16, Chris Vandebrooke, a respected and talented drummer in the rock groups Fairgrove and Engine Kid, was killed in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. As of this writing, the LAPD has released no further details on the investigation.
Though neither band was ever hugely popular, both left a deep mark on Seattle music—Engine Kid in particular, perhaps the closest this city ever came to matching the emotional resonance of Slint, an angular, enigmatic, and influential post-rock band from Louisville.
Friends are planning a memorial show in town for Vandebrooke as well as a public Facebook memorial page; we'll report the details on these, as well as the ongoing LAPD investigation, when we know them.
Local music-industry figures and friends who knew him during his time in Seattle reminisced about him, recalling a talented musician with a "childlike presence" who descended slowly into mental illness, drug abuse, and homelessness.
In the nascent 1990s Seattle music scene, Vandebrooke connected with Greg Anderson, guitarist/singer of Engine Kid. "We had come from the hardcore-punk scene," Anderson said. "Engine Kid differed from that. We were writing stuff that was influenced by Slint, the Melvins, Galaxie 500, Sonic Youth—experimenting sonically. It clicked very quickly and very well."
They self-released the single "Novocaine" and played a lot of shows. Slowly people began to notice, including Marco Collins, the former DJ for 107.7 The End who recalled hearing Engine Kid for the first time at Fallout Records on Capitol Hill. "I ended up writing an actual letter to Engine Kid to ask if they'd want to do a radio interview on 107.7 The End because they sounded like no one else from the Northwest. They created a loud, slow, dirgey, and punishing anthem that the audience had to hear," he said.
Tim Cook, formerly of C/Z Records, had met Vandebrooke at Fallout Records in the autumn of 1992. "I had become obsessed with the first self-released 7-inch by a new band, Engine Kid, based on a recommendation by Fallout co-owner Russ Battaglia," he remembered. "Within the next week, Russ would introduce me to the other members of the band who were also Fallout regulars. We became friends, 'trenchmates' in a dire Seattle scene filled with bands and people who were making an overwhelming amount of bad music for artless, careerist motivations."
Those who knew him spoke fondly of Vandebrooke's musical acumen. "He wasn't a traditional drummer," remembered Anderson. "He played more like a percussionist. He would put accents in different places than the other drummers I would play with. His own character seeped through and became apparent on every song that we had."
Said Cook: "Vandebrooke was cut from a different cloth from his bandmates, and any of my other friends. He lived in the moment exclusively. And he was a great drummer."
The sentiments about his playing—and his personality—were echoed by many. "He was a super cool and inventive drummer," said Tim Midyett of Silkworm, a band that played many shows with Engine Kid in early 1990s Seattle. "A soulful, multitalented person. Eccentric, troubled, yes. A lot of stuff roiling below the surface. He was full of ideas and energy—for music, for skateboarding, for art—so not all of the stuff was bad. But not all of it was good, either."
Vandebrooke struggled with his sexuality—or at least with the disclosure of it to his friends and bandmates. Anderson remembers the meeting when the band decided to tell Vandebrooke he was being asked to leave.
"He started not to feel a part of what we were doing. He started getting on our nerves. He was really into skating and into graffiti. That's not where our heads were at. We were 100 percent into the music," he explained. "Our plan was to tell Chris we were kicking him out of the band. He took it very calmly. There was a moment of silence, and then he said, 'I want to tell you something. I'm gay. I've been waiting for the right moment, but I wasn't comfortable enough. Now that I'm not part of the group, I can tell you that.' We were 22 years old. It was the first time that situation had been placed in our laps."
Collins said he was proud of Vandebrooke for coming out. "I rejoiced that I had another indie-rock gay friend to barhop with! Chris's life just kept getting better. He formed a new queer band called Fairgrove then moved to San Francisco for a fancy tech job," Collins recalled.
But that fancy tech life never panned out.
Friends describe the last few years of Vandebrooke's life as being fraught with mental illness and drug abuse, as he drifted in and out of homelessness.
"I started getting calls from his friends in San Francisco," Collins said. "His drug habit had allegedly increased and he wasn't showing up at work. After a while, he wasn't showing up at home. Reports from friends said that they'd seen him aimlessly walking through alleyways talking to himself. I didn't see him for years."
Others reported similar run-ins: "About five years ago, I was going to 7-Eleven by the Southern Lord Records office" in Los Angeles, Anderson remembered. "There are always people panhandling out front. I was going out the door, and this panhandler hits me up, and it's Chris. I was shocked... His face was all bloody. He had a black eye. He'd been jumped," he said. "I didn't know how to handle it."
Collins describes the last time he saw Vandebrooke. Three years ago, Collins was out at Neumos when a man covered in dirt, clothes soaked in motor oil, approached him. "I leaned closer to see his eyes and then recognized him. 'Chris! Are you okay? WTF?'" said Collins. "It was shocking what the years, streets, and disease had done to him. He asked if he could borrow $20. Now I'm pretty good at being able to spot a junkie needing dope money, but he seemed too steady and clear-eyed for that. I trusted my gut and went to the ATM, and then we grabbed some pizza and I tried to understand how things got this bad."
Collins said Vandebrooke filled in the "bits and pieces he could remember: cold states and unfamiliar cities, dangerous parks and how he could only sleep four hours a night because his stuff was stolen and he had been attacked. I could clearly see the shame and embarrassment in his eyes and had to fill the awkwardness with something. 'Well, let's try to figure out some stuff.'"
Collins asked him to meet the next day for lunch at Rancho Bravo—he wanted to find him housing and worked with his roommate, an attorney at the Disabled Homeless Advocacy Project, to call in a favor and get Vandebrooke a room on Capitol Hill.
But Vandebrooke declined the offer: He said he "didn't want anyone monitoring him." The housing program required regular doctor appointments. Collins reasoned that it could just be temporary but would get him off the street in the meantime. But Vandebrooke claimed, "I just want a little granny pad in someone's backyard where no one bothers me."
"I was irked at him," said Collins "but I asked if he wanted to spend the night and we'd revisit it in the morning. I took him home, we washed all his clothes, got him some toiletries, and we made dinner together. I never even acknowledged the various nonexistent people he was taking to all night. We watched TV, talked about the old days, and I tried one more time to reason with him. We exchanged numbers and I sent him off to a very hard, confusing, and unforgiving world."
That was the last time Collins saw him.
For his friends, they want to remember him as he was before the fall.
"Chris was present and available and cared," Cook said. "Anyone could benefit from having a friend like this, and Chris was our guy. Being around him at that time was to notice a childlike presence, easily fascinated; he was constantly futzing with stuff, solving puzzles for amusement. This was alternately charming and annoying depending on your mood, but it was always Chris."