The grunge boom of the ’90s didn’t happen in a vacuum. Before the world had heard of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, Northwest clubs were ringing to the sounds of acts like Hitting Birth, Vampire Lezbos, Chemistry Set, and Thrillerhammer.
Clark Humphrey’s “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” and Mark Yarm’s oral history “Everybody Loves Our Town” were among the few books that put the grunge scene in this wider context. Now comes the audio equivalent, “No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North-West Grunge Era 1986-97,” set for release September 9, in CD, vinyl, and digital formats.
The compilation features 23 different bands, largely unknown today but featuring a fair number of familiar names in the lineups. The Ones featured Jack Endino on bass, before Endino became Sub Pop’s go-to producer for the burgeoning Seattle music scene. When Bundle of Hiss went their separate ways, drummer Dan Peters joined (and still plays with) Mudhoney, while bassist Kurt Danielson took up with the heavyweight TAD. And after her tenure in Kill Sybil, drummer Patty Schemel became the drummer for Hole.
The set was compiled by London-based Nick Soulsby, author of the acclaimed book “Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide,” a detailed examination of Nirvana’s 1992 compilation “Incesticide.” After its publication, Soulsby continued waxing on all things Nirvana on his insightful blog, eventually wondering about all those other acts that supported Nirvana in the band’s early years: “All these curious bands who have disappeared into history, all the names that are on flyers from back in the day,” he said. “I decided to go find them and see if they had memories they were happy to share.”
Soulsby’s investigations resulted in enough material for another book, “I Found My Friends,” set for publication next year. “It’s the story of Nirvana told through the lives and experiences of 210 individuals from bands who played alongside Nirvana,” Soulsby explained. “It’s about showing them as part of a wider community of equally dedicated individuals, all of whom were sharing this musical life in the underground. Letting the musicians speak for themselves and tell their own stories was pretty crucial to me because they were there, they lived it, they shared the same world Kurt Cobain and the rest of the band inhabited.”
Soulsby’s interviewees also gave him copies of the music they’d recorded at the time. “I kept hearing things and thinking, ‘Wow, how did people miss this?’” Soulsby said. “It seemed strange to me that so much music was still unreleased, or had only been shared on homemade tapes and self-released vinyl. So I got this idea that if I could persuade a label to do something with their music it’d be one small way of showing my respect and admiration for them.”
Stuart Baker at UK-based Soul Jazz Records, a label known for its well-packaged archive releases, agreed. Together, he and Soulsby assembled a collection of music meant to show the diversity of music being created in the region. “My feeling was it was possible to make the Northwest look far more varied in sound, far richer in creativity,” said Soulsby. “And make it clear that the Northwest had a lot of women kicking it on stages, and a lot of bands who weren’t just re-heating Seventies rock for mainstream hard rock palettes.
“I felt it worked best as a snapshot extending from just before to just after the explosion of interest in Seattle,” he continued. “A way of showing there was lots happening immediately before and plenty happening even after the music industry had stopped ‘selling Seattle.’ I wanted to show that it wasn’t just about the town that owned the industry infrastructure, that the entire state had exploded, music everywhere. Seattle bands are prominent but not out of all proportion to the presence from Tacoma, Olympia, Aberdeen, Spokane, Bellingham, Portland. Plus, for the Nirvana fans, this is the musical world Kurt Cobain walked through; a lot more Helltrout and Treehouse, a lot less Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.”
Indeed, a connection to Nirvana is the album’s primary underlying theme; three of Nirvana’s six drummers appear on the compilation, and the liner notes (written by Soulsby) devote one page to a “Six Degrees of Nirvana” listing. The cover art is also inspired by the underwater shot on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
But overall, “No Seattle” is a terrifically fun look at the spirited energy of the times, providing an engaging history lesson by giving a cache of unheralded acts their moment in the spotlight.
“Frankly I had moments of nervousness where I’d listen back over the tracks from everyone and think, ‘Is it just me thinking this is amazing? Am I wrong?’” said Soulsby. “But every time I’ve gone back and looked again there’s a reason the bands are all here, there’s a reason the songs selected were chosen. There was an incredible amount of creativity at that time. Every town had its punk bands at a time when it took some blood and guts to make something happen. There’s a feeling on the record of peering into a moment in time that can’t come again. The innovation and invention that comes through isolation just can’t be reproduced.”