Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A post about Stymie that's really about Seattle

As I write this post—longhand, in a spiral notebook—I’m 20,000 feet above eastern Washington, having just crossed above the Cascades on my return flight to Chicago. I visited Seattle for the weekend to attend my friends Steve and Eliza’s wedding. Steve and I have known each other for 20 years now. They had a lovely ceremony, and the trip in general was fantastic.

In the 13 years since I left Seattle, I’ve visited six or seven times, and I always return to wherever has become home with mixed feelings about the place. It both alarms and pleases me to see how neighborhoods have changed, to the point that once-familiar areas seem almost foreign. For instance, on the south ridge of Capitol Hill, near Seattle University, where I lived in 1991, charming street-side cafes have proliferated where warehouses formerly existed—as have cookie-cutter, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow nightclubs that cater to the shiny shirt crowd.

The Comet Tavern, however, still stands, with its familiar dilapidated neon sign still serving as a beacon for the young, thirsty, and skuzzy. It comforted me to walk past it, to see its resilience to gentrification. It comforted me to see the original Vivace coffee bar on Broadway, to see young people sporting long hair (a rarity in Chicago), and to see Showgirls across from Pike Place Market, even if I was patronizing Pike Place on this trip to buy gifts for my wife and kids and not to buy produce or to hit the comic book shop on a grade-school field trip.

The constants—these harbingers to the glory years of local music—vacillated between the back and the front of my mind as I considered what to write about Stymie, a long-defunct grunge band featuring occasional Lamestain comment-writer Adem Tepedelen. Saturday afternoon, I hung out with Tom and his girlfriend, Emma, at their home (and Dirty Knobby headquarters) in Ballard. As we sat in the living room, Tom spun singles from the A-B box from his enormous, alphabetized collection of singles. We revisited Big Satan Inc. and Alcohol Funnycar (Stymie’s New Rage labelmates)—bands that, if we can be honest here, few people have considered over the past decade, decent bands that were extinguished in the shadow cast by Nirvana, Mudhoney, Sub Pop, etc.

This will sound disparaging, but I don’t intend it to be: in the late 80s and early 90s, bands like Stymie and Big Satan Inc. were almost like wallpaper. They filled out the bills at the Vogue and Moe’s and the Croc. They played music that locals would recognize as grunge because it was grunge and that Spin might classify as grunge because it came from Seattle. Moreover, I believe that, if these bands didn’t specifically set out to make grunge, they certainly didn’t set out to avoid making it.

Stymie also played the brand of grunge that we here at Lamestain HQ most appreciate: the original kind, the kind grown from the same waters that nourished TAD and Dickless. Even this single’s packaging—a recycled grocery bag—recalls the thrift store chic of the time. “Willy’s Gone” reminds me of the no-hope music made when Seattle bands had no realistic expectation of $2 million advances, before Los Angeles diaspora like Candlebox followed the trail of eager, na├»ve A&R reps up I-5. Somehow, they achieved this in 1993; like the Comet, they resisted gentrification.

In a sense, bands like Stymie were a paradox: bands like this were common; bands like this were unique.

Here are some of the basics. Membership at the time that they released this single was Patrick Barber on bass, Shane Bastian on vocals, James Halada on drums, Jeff Kleinsmith on guitar and vocals, Brian Taylor on guitar and bass, and Adem Tepedelen on guitar. (That’s a lot of guitar!). New Rage released the record in 1993. Nick Sherman and the band produced the record, which was recorded by Phil Ek at Word of Mouth Recording Studios. “Willy’s Gone” has elements of Skin Yard, and the two B-sides remind me a tiny bit of Seaweed. I’m sure that not even Styme would claim that this single is as essential as, I dunno, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” but you can’t really complete the picture of that era without accounting for Stymie, the New Rage roster, and the dozens of really, really good bands that were obscured by the giants.

I’m now about midway through the flight, and the landscape below has flattened and browned. A few closing notes:

While there’s good coffee in Chicago, I was reminded this weekend of what great coffee tastes like. Seattle, you can’t match us in pizza, but the cappuccino I quaffed at Vivace last Friday morning was heavenly, and it beat anything that Chicago has to offer.

We saw a pair of shows: Deranged Diction w/ the Suck Machine at the Crocodile on Friday (sadly, we arrived too late to catch Police Teeth, who I wanted to see) and Obits w/ the Lights and the Unnatural Helpers at Neumo’s on Saturday. The best band of the bunch, by a country mile, was the Unnatural Helpers. Deranged Diction were also good. As ridiculous and, frankly, banal as their music was—this was, after all, a reunited high school band—the guys played with an infectious giddiness. I smiled throughout their set.

One of the wedding guests was Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic. A minute after Steve pointed him out, I made some cracks to Steve about Stephen Glass, only to realize that Foer had vacated his seat and was now within earshot. His facial expression fell somewhere between a smirk and a cringe. So, if you’re wondering why you’re reading this in Lamestain and not The New Republic . . .

Willy's Gone

Pretty Now


They're also available in the zip file here. Adem, if you're reading, I hope it's okay to post these tracks! Let me know if you'd like us to remove them.