The Western State Hurricanes

Background (OJR)

People hated Grunge already when it was happening and by 1998 it was nothing more than a bug bear from distant memory. People were so past it, they wanted it gone and wanted Seattle instead to be known as a town that produced smart, weird, uncompromising Pop Music. Punk Rock, which had been declared dead already in 1984, kept rearing it's ugly head and had reasserted itself successive times throughout the 80:s as the core place where music was coming from. That was not unlike Ska Music that never died either (every year there is a new freshman year that has never heard Ska before). All that said, there was a Punk resurgence in Seattle in 1998.

Helping John with his demo tape (OJR)

When John and Stephanie first played together after John had broken up The Bun Family Players, Stephanie was still engaged with her own band. She was cheating on her band, in a sense, but she was pretty coy with him and they phrased it "She was only helping John with his demo" in order to enable him to get a record deal and put a band together later. They hired a bunch of John's friends to record the demo:

  • Stephanie Wicker herself. She had a lot of confidence that her own band would be the next big thing and was therefore not able to help John to start a new band.
  • Michael Shilling on the drums and
  • Bo Gilliland on the base. Both of them were in other bands and Bo's band "Severna Park" was groomed locally to be the next band of cute young guys who were gonna make a shot at going big time, just like Harvey Danger did. They wore nail polish, eye liner, black shirts with black ties and black pants, a Proto-punk-Pop-Emo-band. and they could have been big had they come along 2 years later, but they were just a bit ahead of the curve.

They really liked playing with each other and they were booking a couple of shows as The Western State Hurricanes. At their first show they opened for Sycophant. Sycophant is one of those mid-90:s bands who were able to sell out club shows pretty routinely. They had a stand-up bass player with a pretty good Pompadour, an acoustic guitar and a kind of Toy Traps-kid, very much a Rockabilly-looking setup. They played very violent Billy Braggy acoustic pop music that had found a pretty burgeoning audience of Hippie girls and Rockabilly dudes. People danced at their shows and they had a lot of charisma. The members of Sycophant were fans of The Bun Family Players and John had asked them if he could play with them and they connected instantly.

Seattle's worst band, and growing (OJR)

The Punk scene at the time was split in two camps: One was typified by The Murder City Devils with their black-pants-black-shirt-aesthetic and the other was made up by all those other bands with their twisty pop music. It was kind of a competition in town, promoted by the local paper The Stranger. The paper had been founded by people who previously had founded The Onion and their job was not to report the news, but making an interesting newspaper. If that involved creating controversy, then so be it. They just had opinions of things and promoted what they liked.

At the time, The Stranger hired a guy called Everett True, an English music journalist who had supposedly made his name for discovering Grunge. He previously worked for NME in the UK and followed the Grunge-dudes, covering their stories extensively. Even 10 years later he was still eking out a living as a music journalist and did not become editor in chief of the Sunday Times as one would maybe expect.

His first article was a review of the first show by The Western State Hurricanes, opening for Sycophant and he came out swinging: "I'm the new music editor and let me tell you that this band is terrible". He just ripped them a new one, saying that the band represents everything that's wrong with music: sneaky guitar parts, overly worded lyrics, stupid black-frame glasses, dumb bowl haircuts, and their lame Corduroy pants. Instead, the underground low-fi punk rock scene from Olympia, Washington was the true well-spring of what was good in the Northwest and we need to refocus our attentions on Olympia-bands and away from whatever this new trend was.

The Stranger had always been the paper of the underground alternative, arts, gay, young people scene in Seattle. The other one, The Seattle Weekly was much older and was perceived to represent the middle class, the commuters, people who watched Friends and Seinfeld, the un-hip, still young people of the mainstream, for lack of a better term. But The Stranger was much bigger than Everett True. If the Stranger didn't like you, that would have some impact. He entered the scene with such a polemical, opinionated view that he did have a bit of influence, but he was also controversial for the sake of controversy and he was such an exaggerated person that didn't really fit.

Everybody else at the show raved about it. It was the dawn of music blogging and people who were on the Internet (John was not) were telling them that there was this enormous reaction to the show. Combined with the reaction that Evert True was stoking they booked another show within a week or two. Initially they just wanted to make a demo, nobody had ever committed to be in a band with John, but suddenly all these people were there and they were buzzing audibly. Something was different in the club where John had played 100 times before. The Western State Hurricanes played their second show and the band was clicking and the audience was clicking with them. This time not only their friends were coming to the show, but people who wanted to know what all that buzz was about.

In the following week The Stranger came out with a big article by Everett True starting with "The Western State Hurricanes, Seattle's worst band" and for the coming months he would continue to point out what a bad band they were, but every show they played had double the audience of the show prior. There is no such thing as bad press! In addition to that there was this blogosphere that John still didn't have access to, but people were blogging about the band and it was blowing up in a way John couldn't account for. Until then, if you were not endorsed by one of the two local alternative papers, there wasn't a chance you could blow up. But now the people coming to the shows were the people that John always wished would attend his show, like pretty faces of people in other bands who had never looked at him sideways before. Getting famous really had a terrible effect on people. John was already 29 years old and had spent 8 years in Seattle not being appreciated at all and all of a sudden everybody wanted to be his friend, despite The Western State Hurricanes not even being that big. John was very cynical about all those people.

Dodging a record deal (OJR)

One of the people who wanted to be friends with John was Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop Records. John liked him immediately and after their 3rd and 4th show, he wanted to sign them. The other members were still focused on their other bands and all of this happened so fast. They had a band meeting, went around the table and all three of them agreed that The Western State Hurricanes music was the music they wanted to play and they were going to focus on this band. It was a completely unprecedented experience for John. All of them were really good musicians, were successful in their own corners of the city, they all shared an aesthetic and they all wanted to be in John's band. He felt on top of the world. At age 29 he had achieved all his dreams he had imagined at 23 years old.

But "Independent music " was for John just an euphemism for "couldn't get signed" and he was convinced that they could just as well get signed by Sony or Universal or all the other big labels. He didn't want to hand press their records, driving around in a Ford Econoline, selling them to people at youth centers around the states. John did not see himself as underground. The fact he was living in a car didn't make him underground!

Through a series of bad decisions they alienated Sub Pop and proceeded as though the fame and good fortune was inevitable. They had no recordings, no hit on the radio, but were just a buzz-band in Seattle for a moment. They were together for exactly one year, they achieved all the milestones you would dream of as a young Seattle band. They went to SxSW, played at The Showbox, sold out some shows and had all of their heroes come up to them. It was a really nice year, but over the course of the year a couple of things happened:

First, John realized he wasn't any happier. He got everything that a 23 year old man would ever want, but now at age 29, he wanted something different, but wasn't sure what. Over the course of that year the tempo of their popularity did not keep exploding upward, but the parabola started to level off. Plus, they still hadn't made an album or signed a record deal. It wasn't even clear if they had a hit single in their holster. Everybody was waiting for John to write The Song.

Everett True hadn't picked one out yet and continued to despise them. John was working at the Newsstand at the time and Everett came into the shop in order to buy NME. He explained to John that his bad reviews were nothing personal, but just business and John replied that he had done them more favors than he could possible realize because after every bad review their audience grew. After that exchange, Everett came in every day to hang around, maybe because he was lonely and recognized in John what he aspired to be: Somebody who could intelligently talk about music. They would shoot the shit together. He never changed his tone and never wrote a good review, just some appreciative little blurbs about John as a person.

Fun Facts

John had a mailing list for this band, sending postcards to people, but it was not worth it. It were the days before the Internet. (RW60)

The Breakup (OJR, RL249)

Within a year, The Western State Hurricanes had become a bloated dinosaur. The experience of being a big buzz band inflated all of their egos and what had been John's project to put a demo tape together had evolved very quickly into the repository of all four of those people's ambitions to be a rock star. It wasn't happening fast enough and it wasn't happening the right way and John became difficult to deal with because he was such a curmudgeon. None of them had any idea of what they were doing. If a manager had come along and taken charge over them, they would have been exploited and taken to the races. Their friends of Death Cab for Cutie were selling records in Sacramento or Austin and The Western State Hurricanes were still selling cassette tapes at their shows. (OJR)

At the same time, John was offered the opportunity to go to South Africa for the Comparative History of Ideas class at the University of Washington in order to study the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. John's advisor Jim Clauss didn't want them there as students, but he wanted them to watch the students and then write a book about their observations. It was very thrilling and felt like a super-secret spy mission to do some world-historical college work. Had he done it, John would probably be very "collegy" right now. When he told the band about it, they argued that they were about to blow up and he can't just leave now and expect them to still be there when he comes back. John looked at the crossroads in his life at that moment: Going to South Africa to write a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seemed really cool and he had been aiming towards something like this during his college life for a long time. But he was in a successful band - finally! - that might have a shot at being Rock 'n' Roll and he was in one of those situations where he had to choose for himself. He made the decision based on which of the two options were more of the type "strike while the iron is hot": The shot at being a rock star or the shot at being a university professor? It seemed like if you don't take the Rock 'n' Roll shot when it comes, it is never going to come again. John couldn't go to South Africa. (RL249)

In March of 1999 they played at SxSW. John had hoped that when they got there they would maybe find something that would fill the empty halls in his soul, but not even having achieved the next rung of the ladder, the band was already breaking up in kind of a mealy mouth way. (OJR) When they came back from this trip, they took a break for about a week before their first practice session. John had written a bunch of new songs and they had some shows booked, like for example their first headlining at The Showbox, which was a really big deal. The drummer and bass player had been meeting in secret and in the middle of the practice session they announced that they were leaving the band. They had been on their first 10-day tour and they realized that they didn't want to be on tour and didn't want to be in a band, because they didn't have their own pillow every night. (RL249) They hadn't had a van, but took Stephanie's mother's minivan and drove it down to Texas. It was unsafe and uncomfortable. John's perception was that every future tour would become more comfortable, but the others said they don't want to do that ever again. Some people really dream about being in a rock band, but they don't want to leave their home, they don't think about what life is gonna look like. When they come out of the van the first time, they realize that life sucks and they want to be at home. (OJR)

The drummer had found a job as a copywriter for a sports equipment company and the bass player was going to work at Microsoft or something. John was pretty mad and exceptionally sad because he had staked his hopes on this band. There was no way talking them out of this. They were pretty smug dudes and always thought they had it figured out, so also this time. It seemed that their reality and John's reality didn't have the same parameters and couldn't even coexist. In their cosmology, breaking up the band didn't preclude continuing to practice. After all: they did have a show coming up. Although the only reason to play this show was to continue to play shows, they ended up playing their final show. If you experience two very different realities, you have to break down your reality and ask yourself what piece you are missing, because it can't just be them! You do certainly contribute something to this insanity as well! John has not figured that one out yet. It makes you question how you can successfully share a single reality with a lot of people, or if you just did not stumble into the hole in the ground yet? (RL249) This was one of the hardest breakups in John's life. (OJR)

After the breakup of the band, being in a rock band was the only dream John had and having it taken away by other people and their needs was like a strike by a lightning bolt to him. At their last show he was standing there, stone-faced with horror and Jason Finn from The Presidents of the United States of America offered him a job as the drummer, but there was something in him that felt devastated, like it was meant to happen this way. So John quit music. (OJR)

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