The Canal Substation on Northwest 45th Street buzzes ominously. The building—which supplies electricity to Seattle—is festooned with signs warning DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE KEEP OUT. Across the street sits the similarly named Substation, an unostentatious new music venue attempting to capture the same magnetic force as its utilitarian neighbor. Owners Dave West, Ken Wallace, and Jeremy Rudo—in addition to talent buyer Tim Basaraba—have their work cut out for them.
In this industrial and residential hood at the nexus of Fremont and Ballard, Substation hopes to become, in Basaraba's words, "A mecca for all things underground." Lacking the bustling foot traffic of nearby clubs like Nectar Lounge and High Dive, Substation needs to attract strong bills. This is where Basaraba—who also records as TBASA and plays bass in the band Valley—comes in. He has nine years of experience booking clubs like the Mix, White Rabbit, and Benbow Room. At peak productivity, he was scheduling 60 acts a week for these establishments. Burnout ensued, but Substation, which had a soft opening in April and a grand opening in June, lured Basaraba back into the biz. Also a comic-book artist, Basaraba designs about 60 percent of Substation's posters. Said artwork hangs on the walls of the venue's L-shaped hallway, where coin-op arcade games and rehearsal rooms also dwell.
Substation holds 150 people and includes a well-stocked bar. Alternate revenue streams? Substation's got 'em. Co-owner West runs Birdhouse, a fully equipped studio, out of the building. The sound in the main performance space is very good. At the show I caught in mid-June, Meridian Arc's grinding and blooping Moog synth emissions came through in high definition and Noise-A-Tron's gargantuan space-rock possessed an engulfing power.
On June 14, when local noise-rock unit Hemingway performed, the band received scant payment due to sparse turnout, but bassist Demian Johnston still thinks Substation has great potential. He told me, "I was treated really well, and the sound engineer that night was great. There is a little reservation in the back of my mind because I was told it was the new [defunct DIY space] Josephine, and that is not even close to true." But he said he'd definitely play Substation again and hopes to book a gig with his other band, Great Falls, before coming to a definitive conclusion on the sound.
Johnston's observation seems inarguable. Right now, Substation's performance area is a frill-free rectangle with its stage bathed in royal-blue and sea-green lights. It has that new-club smell. But if it can't be the new Josephine—which accrued several years of freaky art and cigarette stench, as well as a rep for embracing the most extreme forms of music—it certainly can be an incubator for emerging and established musicians to grow and thrive in a low-pressure, great-sounding room.
Basaraba said, "I don't want my shows to be genre-specific." Toward that end, Substation holds an open mic night on Mondays, hosted by the Zim, and DJ events on Tuesdays called Vinyl Only. Myriad styles of rock, hiphop, and electronic music fill out the rest of the week, with after-hours techno and house parties occupying the crucial Friday and Saturday slots. Basaraba claimed those weekend dates, organized by local crews like Uniting Souls and KRAKT, have been going exceptionally well.
He also asserted: "Just because something's underground doesn't mean it sucks. A lot of people cast off what isn't instantly accessible, not knowing that in three years, they could be listening to something that's a copy of that sound. I want to be able to champion the inaccessible. I want people to come here and choose what they're buying into on this feeling level, instead of someone telling them what to like. There have been so many cool bands that I never would've seen if I didn't show up to watch the opening band or the second band. Remember Polvo? Back in Moscow, Idaho, they opened for some local band. If I hadn't shown up for that Polvo show, my life would be 100 percent different. I want people to come here not just for the headliner."
Substation's open-minded curatorial approach, combined with its emphasis on vivid sound, gives it the potential to become a key nurturer of Seattle's subterranean scene. And you can find ample parking nearby, too.