Throwaway Style: The Brief Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Broken Water

Throwaway Style, Local Music
03/01/2018
Martin Douglas

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.


I.

I first saw Broken Water in 2010 at Healthy Times Fun Club, with its painted green wall which made the main room project the image of a low-budget set for television, a vegan crock-pot dish on a chest-high serving table along the north wall, and a cycle map for the city in its bathroom. There was no stage, so most bands played as closely to the edge of the room as they could, whether it was in front of what interior decorators would call the accent wall or more toward front and center of the room.

On this night, however, this particular Olympia trio was set up near the dead center of the space, bassist, guitarist, and drummer all facing each other, their setlist leaning firmly on a handful of tunes from their recently released Peripheral Star EP. The intro to the title track was so thunderous it almost caved my chest in. I stood right on the outskirts of the band’s orbit, no more than two feet away from Kanako Pooknyw’s drum set. The melodic heaviness of “Peripheral Star” eventually made way for a forward thrust augmented by a queasy, distorted guitar line. “Stop Means Stop” was dense and frenetic all the way through. Throughout the set, Pooknyw sang softly and carried a big stick, so to speak; she hammered away on her drums like they owed her money.

They played the sort of sludgy, woozy, shoegaze-y punk which had gained them a pretty formidable reputation among people who pay close attention to such things here in the Pacific Northwest. The space -- in true DIY venue fashion -- was hot as shit, and therefore Pooknyw took off her pants and started drumming in her underwear, a move in defiance of the heat generating from the space in the middle of the crowd. During the set, we were thanked for helping provide a comfortable enough space for her to play without pants and not feel threatened.

The music matched the temperature of the room; balmy, at times downright scorching. The force of the set was pummelling, but the melody coursing throughout the music was pleasing to the point where I closed my eyes and took it all in. The thump of Pooknyw’s drums almost shaking my lungs out of my chest plate, the wail of Jon Hanna’s guitar shredding through my ear canal with utter disregard, the pulse of Abby Ingram’s bass pumping through my bloodstream.

When it all ended and my friend and I raved about Broken Water all the way back to the car, I never ended up at another one of their shows or even sought out their music until at least two years later. They were in the right place at almost-but-not-quite the right time. So much of finding the band that alters the course of our lives depends on happenstance.

II.

Broken Water broke up in November of 2015; it seemed pretty abrupt to a fan admiring them from afar. (As “afar” as my Tacoma living quarters could be from Olympia.) Someone I know posted “R.I.P. Broken Water” on Twitter and I immediately went into Google Investigator mode. I found one article saying their next show (at Reed College in Portland) would be their last and no further information on the matter. I kept checking for what felt like weeks. One day pretty far into the future, I looked them up on a whim and their Facebook page was gone.

Sometimes the internet feels like a shallow pond where everything lives forever. And sometimes things just disappear without much of a trace.

The band formed in 2008; as legend has it, the name Broken Water came from a fountain in the city located in the middle of an Olympia parking lot. The next year, their demo started to circulate, mostly a quite enjoyable homage to Sister-era Sonic Youth (“Want It,” “Coming True”) and sketches of the kind of music the band would later become known for (“Boyfriend Hole”). “Mother,” however supersedes the latter category by arriving fully formed; staticky, off-balance guitar work ambling over the solid anchor of the rhythm section. Even on their early work, they very clearly position themselves as torchbearers for bands like Unwound and the Swirlies.

It wasn’t long after they released their startlingly confident and fully-formed debut LP.

photo by Jessica Orr

 

III.

Pooknyw, a multi-instrumentalist for much of her life, had only started drumming since her time with the band Sisters, where she met Broken Water guitarist and co-songwriter Jon Hanna. Her willingness to learn on the job is part and parcel to the unpredictable song structure of many of the tunes on Whet, the album abounds with thrilling rhythm and tempo changes.

The band’s sense of rhythm is clear on opener “Say What’s On Your Mind,” switching from thunderous triplet blasts to a coasting, steady 4/4 beat. Here, vocals are split between Hanna and bassist Abigail Ingram; the former an ambling, tuneful post-Thurston Moore croon, the latter a shy, comforting backing vocal pushed out in front as the first voice heard on the album. Throughout the album, Hanna’s guitar oscillates wildly between a grind, a howl, a woozy stumble, a twang, a cavernous thrash.

“Heal” plays out a distinct musical narrative over the course of its 5:11 running time. Building from Ingram’s bassline, Pooknyw’s steady, downtempo beat, and Hanna’s guitar line dipping its toes into the ocean, Pooknyw sings like she’s trying not to wake a sleeping beast, but the beast (in the form of the song’s guitar) roars and screeches ⅔ of the way through the song, threatening to split the speakers wide open.

There is a tenderness to Pooknyw’s singing on “Kamilche House,” funneling sweetness and solemn sorrow about the windows and doors of a place close to her heart being replaced with plywood. As the forlorn and nostalgic musical accompaniment -- as close to truly diaphanous as Broken Water gets -- floats just below the clouds, Pooknyw’s voice flutters, wavers, and sounds as though it’s about to break, as if she got lost in her thoughts and a good cry was welling up just underneath where voice meets air. Beneath the din of guitars and controlled chaos on Whet, at the end lies this touching, arresting moment of vulnerability.

photo by Jessica Orr

 

IV.

On her songs with Broken Water, Kanako Pooknyw sounds like she’s singing lullabies in the middle of a tempest. Somewhere in an old, dusty notebook in the graveyard of old, dusty notebooks full of thoughts and observations sitting on my desk, I have that sentence written down as my very first note on the band’s sophomore full-length, released on Hardly Art Records in 2012, its title (Tempest, of course) naturally helping along my train of thought.

“Drown,” the opening salvo of the album, stokes the embers of this idea with startling velocity. Waves of guitar noise crashing over a sweet, solitary voice, it’s a spiritual companion of the Black Tambourine song of the same name, only with an edge sharp enough to draw blood. Of all Broken Water’s releases, Tempest is assuredly the most conventional. That could sound like damning praise for a group so structurally inventive, but also enhances the power of their songwriting.

“Underground” starts at a measured tempo, which gradually progresses in speed gradually, which sounds like an easy thing to do without the song falling apart until you realize how few bands are this adept at keeping in lockstep with each other. “Orange Blossom Stains,” with the forward charge of the band’s rhythm section and the explosive left-turn at the end evokes the feeling of driving 75 miles-per-hour through the winding roads of a forest at night; dark, perilous, an effective way to get the adrenaline pumping.

While the album preceding it and the album after explicitly concern themselves with matters of the political and personal variety, Tempest mostly deals with the idea with danger, the glow of flames, and “seven weeks on the beaten highways” while still taking time to surgically examine situations of toxic privilege and power imbalances.

The “lullabies in a tempest” description also applies to Ingram, very traceable in “River Under the River.” There is this airy, sing-songy lilt in her voice closer to Pam Berry’s than Pookynw; the feeling of her light breath getting swept away in the whirlwind of guitars. On the song “Yanka Dyagileva,” named after a punk-folk singer/songwriter whose body was found floating in a river in 1991, Pooknyw adopts a different approach, trying nearly in vain to sing above the monolithic noise.

That could serve as a metaphor for their subject matter as well, charging against a massive structure built to crush the most empathetic and least privileged of us.

V.

Wrought was recorded at Avast! Recording Co. with Steve Fisk, and although the sound quality of Broken Water’s previous works was far from poor, there is a boldening of sonics on the band’s final record. The drums sound even more muscular, every sign of the personality of their guitar work (dizzy, clattering, spindly, squalling, etc.) is heightened.

The themes in the band’s music have often been typecast as “plainly political,” and while that’s not altogether untrue, the band honed the concept of the political always being personal. Many bands are content to take themselves out of the tumult of being part of the downtrodden they’re singing to (or are sometimes not in the thick of what they’re singing about at all), but the members of Broken Water can’t help but articulate how these injustices affect their everyday lives. “Kamilche House” was a deeply intimate and emotional song about gentrification, for instance. On Wrought, there is a tenderness in the clear and present suspicion of capitalism on “Love and Poverty,” an empathy for those under the thumb of corporately supported police states and aggressive marketing campaigns. “There’s just no need for all this scarcity,” Pooknyw sings.

“1984” is equal parts My Bloody Valentine and George Orwell, as the seasick, grinding grace in Hanna’s guitar walks hand in blurry hand with Pooknyw’s unease under the vigilant eye of government surveillance. As often happens on Broken Water tunes, both the tempo and the tension bolts upward until the song collapses in a heap. Musically, “Close” also sounds like an alternate-universe Loveless outtake while lyrically traversing the mundane purgatory of working in the service industry, “wages garnished for a war.” “Beach” is a twelve-and-a-half-minute epic in the vein of their 2012 EP Seaside and Sedmikrasky, which, like this song, features the harrowing, sensational arrangements of Lori Goldston.

It has been two and a half years since Broken Water broke up. In a world where a band’s narrative can be traced and overtraced into a novella’s worth of words, recollections, press statements, and diverting opinions adding to the folklore, sometimes a band’s demise can end up as a ghost story, shrouded in mystery. It could be simple, it could be complicated; who's to say if we’ll ever know for sure? All we have is the music, and Wrought is a sprawling note to go out on, capturing the musical and lyrical statements Broken Water signified as a band: A sensitive voice trying not to be swallowed up by the harsh, calamitous world around it.

 

New and News

The Moondoggies Share Jangly New Tune "Sick in Bed"

It has been five years since Hardly Art stalwarts the Moondoggies have released an album of new music, but they're finally back to correct that grave injustice with A Love Sleeps Deep, recorded with formerly local production legend Erik Blood (who currently resides in Los Angeles). The album's second single is "Sick in Bed," perhaps the lushest the Moondoggies have ever been in their decade-plus as a band, all swaying guitar lines, stirring harmonies, and an easygoing vibe which sounds a great deal better than actually being sick in bed.

Final Call for BeatMatch 2018 Submissions!

The second-annual BeatMatch, brought to you in conjunction with Do206 and Hella Good, will be taking place on Friday, April 13th at the Crocodile. Do you think you have what it takes to win the sixteen-producer beat battle, which will earn you not only the title of 2018 BeatMatch Champion but also $500 and a slot at this year's Capitol Hill Block Party? Enter here and enter quickly, because submissions close tomorrow, March 2nd, at 11:59 PM!

Live and Loud: This Week's Recommended Shows:

March 1: Monsterwatch In-Store Performance at Sonic Boom Records

March 1: Jamie Aaron Aux, Robin Bacior, and Hamilton Boyce at Sunset Tavern

March 3: Sound Off! Finals at the Sky Church at MoPOP

March 4: Giants in the Trees, Graveload, and Pale Noise at the Sunset Tavern

March 5: Orb, FEED, and Powerbleeder at Barboza

March 7: Shing02 & the Chee Hoos, Cise Star, and Sabyu at the Crocodile

March 7: The Dears (Solo Acoustic Set), Silver Torches, and Tomo Nakayama at Chop Suey

 

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