Monday, February 12, 2007

Gas Huffer Will Eat You Whole

When I was sixteen, I saw Gas Huffer for the first time in a small basement ballroom in Seattle’s Central District. Although the show occurred more than fifteen years ago, I can still recall it pretty well: the show happened sometime in the winter, I had a nasty head cold, I picked up my friend Mira in my car (a mid-80s Nissan Stanza), and the venue was practically foggy with sweat. Although the room had plenty of space, everybody crammed into a tight wad up front. There was no stage. Seaweed, who had only a single or two under their belt at this point, opened the show, and two or three times during their set, somebody in the band accidentally knocked one of the cables with his feet and cut off all the lights (a string of light bulbs) and sound. After this happened, Seaweed’s singer said, “Well, that’s punk rock.”

And Gas Huffer absolutely ruled. Before their set, they handed out “masks” featuring band members that they had drawn on paper and photocopied at Kinko’s. Drummer Joe Newton had dreadlocks (fake), and singer Matt Wright donned the most finely chiseled set of sideburns (real) to ever grace a human being. Although the sound wasn’t ideal, they played a blistering set. Their songs (by this point, they had only released a pair of singles) were quick as a whip, a little goofy, and melodic without sounding like pop. I enjoyed everything about that set, even though I felt sick as a dog.

Gas Huffer’s sense of goofiness and grease-monkey punk rock sound differentiated them from the slouchers and losers and long-haired junkies so ubiquitous back then. Former U-Man Tom Price’s augmented his chugga-chugga guitar riffs with a rockabilly twang, and bassist Don Blackstone’s added Misfits-esque back-up vocals. The rhythm section played tightly, too, which wasn’t too common at the time. Finally, Wright has a terrific voice; he sings deep from his chest and emits a huge amount of sound for such a small fellow.

The Huffers formed in 1989 and lasted until 2006. Shockingly, they never lost or replaced a single member that entire time. Starting with 1991’s Janitors of Tomorrow (Empty Records), they released seven full-length albums in total, all brought to you by the letter “e” (Empty, Epitaph, and Estrus Records). They also released a number of singles and EPs and made numerous appearances on compilations.

Video for “Crooked Bird”

So, we have blistering punk rock, a sense of fun, real personality, longevity. . . there has to be a downside, right? Alas, there is, and this is it: like Mudhoney (and, some would argue, REM), Gas Huffer’s definitive moment also happened to be their very first single, the absolutely terrific “Firebug”/“Jesus Was My Only Friend” (Black Label Records). Sure, they had plenty of great songs later, and they never failed to impress live, but they peaked with that first release. You could tell that the band itself tired of “Firebug,” as within a year or two, their performances of it became perfunctory. Still, I could think of worse fates for a band, being that I place “Firebug” in both the Pantheon of Greatest Ever Songs from the Northwest and the Pantheon of Greatest Ever Punk Rock Songs.

Although Price and Blackstone still occasionally play together in the Kings of Rock, it seems that the days of being a full-time musician have been left behind. The Seattle Times wrote a surprisingly good article on the eve of their final show in 2006. Sadly, it appears that Price developed Parkinson’s Disease in recent years, affecting his ability to play the whip-quick rock that put Gas Huffer on the map. Price has been a presence in the Northwest music scene for around 25 years, and Gas Huffer and (especially) the U-Men influenced countless musicians. We wish him the best.


If you have trouble downloading the individual songs, they can all be obtained via a zip file here.

"Firebug" 7"

Jesus Was My Only Friend

Ethyl EP

I Want to Kiss You
Eat U Whole
Buck Naked


Kevjones30 said...

What about the smoker that was featured on "Hype" called "Hotcakes(?)" You also forgot to mention how Matt walked around the stage like an old man...

Steve said...

Hey Lamestain --

Your assessment of Gas Huffer peaking (too) early with "Firebug" was spot on. I've listened to that single hundreds of times and never get tired of it (same goes for the B-side, "Jesus Was My Only Friend"). Ethyl was a disappointment, and the best thing about the Janitors of Tomorrow LP was comic book that came with it. But those gripes are minor -- Gas Huffer was killer. Also, one time a few years back, I saw Matt Wright doing yardwork outside his Madison Valley house.

Later dudes -- Steve

Lamestain HQ said...

Indeed, Matt did skulk around the stage like an old man, at least during some of their later shows. And while "Hotcakes" isn't bad, it's no "Firebug."

I felt the same way about Janitors of Tomorrow, although it had a couple of okay moments, like "Nisqually."

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, you guys missed it entirely! The Huff didn't get really good until One Inch Masters and peaked with the Inhuman Ordeal of Special Agent GH (IMO)...

BTW I think Joe is a senior bod at Rolling Stone mag these days.

Scott Faulkner said...

Maybe because I didn't get on board until Integrity, Technology, and Service I consider that one and One Inch Masters their best work. "Firebug" is pretty awesome though. Another single I really dig is "Java Jet Pack". I'm glad I got to see their last show and I will really miss the band. Last time I saw Matt around town I think he had even ditched the sideburns :(

Anonymous said...

Hey, JN's dreadlocks were real, dag nabbit! We did a show at the Central, probably not too long after the show posted about here, where he wore a wighat made from the recently shorn remnants of said locks and whipped it off mid-set, but that was the only do-fakery I recall. After that, he rocked the "Cab Calloway" for about 16 years, which three fifths of y'all apparently think we should have just forgone! Just joking, only some jokes! Anyway, it's nice to be remembered. Thanks, Lamestain! Oh, and check the Tom Price Desert Classic at the Fantagraphics store on December 9th.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jeez! I mean December 8th! Whew, that was close!

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Arthur Rambo said...

Your blog really is awesome & I'm glad I stumbled across it while searching for the Huffer, I saw them many times back in the day & was absolutely heartbroken when I got into a car accident & couldn't make it to their last show. I recently started a blog called He/She-attle dedicated to bands from the northwest, though I am planning on focusing on some of the more recent bands - like Raft of Dead Monkeys, The Red Scare, Teen Cthulhu... Check it out & thanks again for the great posts

Anonymous said...

I think "Lemonade for Vampires" is their strongest album!

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