Independent Venue Week: Cari Simson Remembers The Chophouse

Features
07/11/2019
Ghosts of Seattle Past

KEXP is celebrating Independent Venue Week, a tribute to small, non-corporate-ran music venues around the country. As we raise a glass to these clubs, we're also taking a moment to pour one out for the venues that have closed down and are gone forever. We've teamed up with Ghosts of Seattle Past, an interactive art installation and anthology curated by author/editor Jaimee Garbacik, to look back and remember some of these iconic locations of the Seattle music scene, like today's feature on famed practice space The Chophouse, written by Cari Simson of bitch-core band Vandemonium.


Back in 1998, the now incredibly successful Pike/Pine retail and club district was a string of empty warehouses and the affordable center of a community of small business owners, artists and musicians. Pike/Pine between 12th Ave and Boren Ave linked Capitol Hill’s dingy-but-still-appealing Broadway area with the then-vacant Downtown Seattle. Linda’s Tavern was our main destination along Pine St. In 1998, on any given night Downtown you’d see tumbleweeds of newspaper rolling through Westlake Center, with nothing open for business between Belltown and Pioneer Square. Similarly, 12th Ave between Pike and Jackson St was a stretch of empty lots, molding warehouses, Seattle University’s backside, and the small Ethiopian community at Jefferson St near the Juvenile Detention Facility.

In 1995, I drove by myself across the country to live with a good friend from college who’d just moved here, and I instantly found Seattle to be a city of the young, full of opportunity and energy. There were few computers back then and no cell phones; people would go hang out where they knew they’d see their friends, and everyone convened around the small businesses like Rudy’s and Bimbo’s Bitchin’ Burrito Kitchen. The scene was streaked with rad women, revolutionary anti-Teen Dance Ordinance political action, DIY all-ages and secret warehouse gallery shows, riot grrrl zinesters, Hugo House, Gay City, Vain, Bauhaus, and other cultural gathering spaces.

The building at 1424 11th Ave & Pine St was originally built as an auto parts store in 1924, and was transformed in 2015 into a luxury destination boutique market called the Chophouse Row. But from 1986 to 2013, the Chophouse served a community of musicians through thirty-eight affordable band practice spaces. The brown wood and brick building was nondescript; walking by, you would not have guessed what was in there if not for the muffled sounds of snare drums and power chords being played at all hours of the day and night. A silver fire escape led up from 11th Ave to the upstairs practice spaces and was often a gathering space on clear evenings; the vacant lots to the south and west offered territorial views of First Hill and Downtown.

In 1998, two friends and I formed an all-girl punk band called Vandemonium. Beth, Courtney, and I had never been in a band before, but in our late twenties we suddenly felt an uncontrollable urge to buy cheap instruments, learn chords, find a drummer, and write some songs on endless scrolls of butcher paper. Like many bands, we had a series of drummers over the years, including Eric, Renee, Amy, Jeffrey, and ultimately Diana.

We had important things to say at very high volume that could not wait.

The members of all-girl punk band Vandemonium inside their practice space in the Chophouse.



We found our way to the Chophouse after some guy told our guitarist Beth to talk to a dude named Danny who managed the space and rented half-rooms for $240. We had been practicing after hours at the Penny & Perk store on Pine St that Beth co-owned (the space later became Hi*Score Arcade), and we joyfully moved our amps, butcher paper and markers, drums, distortion pedals, and various ephemera to an upstairs room. We’d creep along the streets to band practice wearing our Fluevog platform boots and thick eyeliner, tight pants and thrift store shirts and think that we had it made. It seemed like a natural and necessary thing to be able to rent space in this neighborhood where we lived, to meet and create the scene around us.

The Chophouse was not fancy; you had to bring your own toilet paper and the bathrooms were beyond disgusting. But for sixty dollars each, we found ourselves with 24-hour access to a private hideaway in the center of our world. The Chophouse became a clubhouse where we could play, drink and smoke, talk shit about people, scheme, dream, party, and rock out. It was our spot, a grimy yet magical oasis on Capitol Hill that we had access to with a golden key.

We got to know many fellow musicians in the dark maze of Chophouse hallways. Each room had been artistically abused on an ongoing basis for many years, often with thick pieces of foam screwed onto the bare sheetrock walls, broken floor lamps leaning precariously into piles of greasy rags, and questionable Rorschach stains on the myriad of floor coverings. We initially were sharing a space with an unremarkable emo band that we never saw, and then we got to move down the hall and split a room with the Murder City Devils. In 1999, it felt like we’d hit the big time. After a while, we moved downstairs to share with BlöödHag and Blue Collar, who became our de facto brother bands and helped us record and self-release two records. We’d go to their shows with our friends and fill up the front row.

Unlike the many prominent groups found at the Chophouse back then — The Presidents of the United States of America and their rock/hip-hop collab with Sir Mix-A-Lot called Subset, The Fastbacks, Cookie, Amazombies, Billy Shook, Free Verse, and ¡TchKung! to name a few — we initially had no idea what we were doing. It was intimidating to plug in and tune up there for the first time, surrounded by dudes who could hear us out in the hallway and through the wafer-thin walls. After running through our set, we’d emerge from the room to take a break and catch boys hanging out in the hallway. Were they snickering or giving us the thumbs up? Were they hitting on us? We didn’t care — screw them. We called our music Bitch-core, and the raw environment inspired the classics “Get in my Van,” “Mattress in the Alley,” and “Pavin’ the Road.”

We knew the riot grrrl history, The Gits and other legendary women-led bands from the neighborhood, and we were surprised by the initial lack of all-girl or even women-fronted bands renting space at the Chophouse. Whenever we saw other women musicians there, we would immediately meet them and find out when they were playing next. This grew into working with each other to set up shows, and of course, going out to see them play.

We figured out which clubs we liked around town, and then we approached the bookers with a full bill of bands, often with us opening for someone with a bigger draw.

Our first show was at the Rendezvous, and after we played there once, we were able to get shows there pretty regularly; we played at the first Ladyfest in Olympia and at Washington Hall, we rocked Foxxxes with Ursula Android and Jackie Hell; we played for geriatric drunks at Gibson House and the hipster-goth crowd at Bad Juju; we loved Re-bar, Sit & Spin, the Breakroom and Sunset Tavern, and we played once at the old Crocodile. We even played in Bellingham “on tour” with Hell’s Belles. I have so many jubilant memories of coming back in the early morning from a gig, backing the black van with cherry bomb mufflers and blue shag carpeting interior into the Chophouse garage, and unloading our gear over bumpy old wooden floors. We owned the badass world of our making.

The members of Vandemonium at or around their practice space at the Chophouse.

 

At the end of 1999, the World Trade Organization held its global meeting in Seattle and daytime protests erupted into three nights of riots, violence, and neighborhood jubilation. On the first night, a bunch of us had walked up from Downtown after the protests and found ourselves trapped inside Hi*Score Arcade while police in full-on riot gear moved in formation up Pine St. As we stood in the dark peering out of the windows, a canister of tear gas was shot at the building and we were forced outside where the police attacked anyone who protested the violence. A guy we knew had his leg broken by the force of a rubber bullet.

Vandemonium held band practice on the second night of WTO riots and we made picket signs with cardboard and broken drumsticks that said “29 more gassing days til Xmas” and carried them out into the streets. Pike & Broadway was complete carnage. Respectable yuppies and soft-spoken gay men were being pulled from their cars in equal measure and beaten up by police. Rioters were holding a line with sticks and rocks at the East Precinct and throwing tear gas canisters back at police. The chaos was intoxicating. Later, we retreated to the Chophouse for our safety.

A month later, Vandemonium played a Y2K world-ending blowout party at Hi*Score Arcade, and we felt very relieved to wake up the next day and find ourselves in the year 2000.

We continued playing together until 2002, at which point we’d all moved onto other things, including founding and running the biweekly Tablet newspaper with friends and conspirators. By then, Seattle felt like a different city.

There were already ghosts at the Chophouse; the spirit of Mia Zapata roamed the rain-soaked streets after last call urging women to get home alive. There were other shadowy shapes that bent the light in quiet dusty corners of the building. Today, the spirits of the Chophouse are a reminder that life offers us the privilege to temporarily inhabit spaces, rent rooms and fill the voids between walls with our laughter, creativity, pain, and chaos. But these streets, buildings, and skylines are truly not our own.


Ghosts of Seattle Pastthe anthology, is out now via Chin Music Press, available direct and at Elliott Bay Book Company

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