Throwaway Style is a monthly 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, (mostly) the first Thursday of every new month (we promise we'll get back to first Thursdays eventually) on KEXP.org.
For most of the past six weeks, my office has been my girlfriend's bed. Sometimes we wake up together, sometimes we don't; we get up, brush our teeth, put on clothes. She'll make coffee and walk her dog, I'll wait in bed for my eyelids to not feel so heavy, and then I'll get ready for my day, fumbling around the living room of her condo for my laptop and headphones. The clattering of letter keys tiptoe down the hallway from the office space she set up for herself when her work recommended, then required, everyone to work from home. As I write this article, I'm sipping coffee -- mostly black with a dash of almond milk -- out of a big orange San Francisco State University mug.
The very basis of even having a local music column is largely based on exemplifying the quality and transformative power of the community. Most of us haven't seen our families and friends -- let alone fellow members of the music scene we love, nurture, and rave about -- in weeks. We have gone from a living, breathing body to a constellation; a vast network of small parts, interconnected through Zoom birthday parties and live streaming concerts and social media and texts and the occasional phone call. We make the best out of a stressful and frightening situation by utilizing what gets us through all frightening and stressful situations: through human connection. Even though we have to stay apart physically, we always find a way to come together.
For the past handful of weeks, I've been reaching out to some of my favorite artists covered in this space to gauge how they've been feeling during the pandemic and subsequent shelter in place order, what they've been working on (if anything), and how COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into their lives as artists who largely rely on the gathering of people to supply our community with the vital service of music.
Early this year, rising Tacoma rapper Seaan Brooks was in a different quarantine of sorts, holed up for five days in a bed at Tacoma General Hospital. He was being tested by neurologists as a result of a lifelong struggle with seizures, staving off boredom between scans and doctor's visits by working on music and watching an entire legacy of Star Wars twice. He emerged from his stay cleared, as doctors ruled his seizures intermittent; three days later he dropped a surprise album of unreleased material titled Files (Unmastered), bustling with dark, bass-heavy beats and songs which stand among the best of his young career ("Bail Money," opener "Don't Forget").
After hearing about COVID-19 through his job with Tacoma Public Schools and learning he'd be holed up once again -- this time for weeks on end instead of days -- he focused on his artistic life as much as he could. He told me via email, "Man, it's hard to stay focused when it feels like the world is going to end." As every school district in the state shut down, Brooks and his coworkers had to figure out how they were going to get paid. Once they did, he went headlong into bolstering the business of his music career by developing a website, designing merch, and of course, working on more music. With the surplus of free time, Brooks acknowledges he may not have had a chance to work on the tertiary aspects of his rap career if not for the shelter in place order. It's often extremely difficult to push aside the anxiety of COVID-19's worldwide effects, but Brooks strives to make the most of it.
Last week, he released a song titled "Run My Money," which cycles through the trauma of friends getting killed, wearing the same Chuck Taylor All-Stars every day, and calling out insecure rappers using way too much poetic license: "The only thing you flipped was fries." He plans to continue dropping singles while we're hunkered down and hopes to remain as productive as he can be. "I've really locked in during this lockdown," he says.
When asked about first hearing the news of COVID-19 being contracted throughout Washington State, now regarded as ground zero for its spread throughout America, Cumulus frontwoman Alexandra Niedzialkowski felt as though the events of three weeks ago were already a blur. (A sentiment which I totally agree with; being stuck at home and anxious about our way of life being completely upended, each week has felt like a month.) Cumulus were scheduled to play a show on March 10th, and Niedzialkowski had friends nervous about attending, even feeling nervous herself about making the drive from Bellingham to Seattle.
She recalls the feeling of the day: "[COVID-19] was starting to be talked about in a serious way, and when I got to Seattle that day, it felt like a ghost town. We had about 60 people at our show, and you could tell everyone was uneasy, but also really grateful for a break from the scary news and an opportunity to just hear music and be around people, even if slightly more distanced. A lot of hand sanitizer was passed around that night, and everyone was very attentive to personal space."
Governor Jay Inslee instituted a ban of gatherings over 250 people the next day, and we are all aware of what happened next. Niedzialkowski hasn't left her house aside from grocery runs and the occasional walk since; she is grateful for being able to experience one last taste of community before being quarantined. She expressed to me that she finds a profound sense of belonging through live music, so she feels a void being unable to participate in the experience as a fan or an artist.
Shortly before the mass effect of COVID-19 hit, Niedzialkowski began working full-time for a small business, who took a huge loss in the face of the pandemic. Like millions of people in the United States, she finds herself currently unemployed, applying for financial help, and finding much anxiety in being able to afford basic necessities.
To get through this stressful time, Niedzialkowski has turned to writing, which occasionally will turn into a song. She has also been covering tunes and seeking out new avenues to share her artwork people, which includes a newfound personal reward in the form of filming performance videos and live streaming.
To wit, she notes, "I think my main focus has been on my mental health, finding some kind of purpose with every day, but also being really forgiving with myself if I don't get much done. There is so much pressure to be productive right now, and I think it's important to be kind to ourselves and figure out what productivity means to us on a personal level. Some days it's making music and live videos, and some days it's cooking a meal and showering."
Over the past year, Nicolle Swims has been storming the Seattle music scene with the singularity of their band Black Ends; self-described as "gunk-pop," a marvelous blend of classical guitar, Nirvana-inspired heft and distortion, and the thrill of the left turn. When you're in the position of Black Ends, grinding it out in the scene and taking as many shows as you can without burning out, an event as serious as a pandemic can feel like a half of momentum. The last show Swims played was on March 9th, and the feeling of unease has only increased since then.
"Personally," Swims states, "[COVID-19 has] already heightened my already high anxiety to the point where I'm suffering every day and drowning in my own paranoia. It has taken both my jobs away. I have a family member who has been diagnosed with [the virus] and it has been hard to not think about that because all I wanted to do is be there. I'm worried sick, really."
Besieged by what they describe as "doom feelings," Swims has felt more inclined to write and play music. They felt the numbing effects of their day jobs, and the time they would have spent feeling overwhelmed by the notion of working hard and trying to get promoted has been replaced by the freedom of playing guitar. They say, "Sucks it took a pandemic for me to realize it." Much like Niedzialkowski, Swims decries the notion of musicians needing to use this time to be creative, rightly dismissing it while encouraging people to focus on their mental and physical health and helping those in need.
"I have also seen a lot of people say really dumb things like, 'If you're not creating right now, you're not a real artist,' and that's all garbage talk."
Being as though I live a solid 35 miles from KEXP's Seattle Center home, I've already been conditioned to spend much of my time working from the comfort of my personal home base. Although I've spent a lot of time worrying, my daily process hasn't changed a great deal. (Given the amount of worrying I do already, I can actually say my process hasn't changed at all, only the things I worry about.) In the task of conceptualizing this month's column, I thought about musicians whose process was probably impacted the least by being in a global pandemic. My first guess was a triumph of intuition, as AJ Suede could probably be found writing rhymes or punching out drum patterns on a beat pad during a hurricane.
The sequel to last year's excellent Finesse the Cube was released on March 26th, and Suede has been gearing up for its release since January, gathering guest production work on a solemn trip back to the East Coast for his grandmother's funeral. His day job was gearing up for a remodel that would take two or three months, so luckily he had been saving and preparing to be away from work temporarily long before cases of COVID-19 began multiplying at a dizzying rate.
"I was working at my part-time cook job when I first heard of it," Suede relays to me via email. "Didn't think anything of it though; I remember how it was with the swine flu. This was still relatively early on."
Before Governor Inslee's shelter in place order went into effect, Suede was partaking in another of his talents: shooting music videos. He shot two videos for himself (with a third being shot in his room after we were all urged to stay home), and another for a client. Then, shutdowns began taking place, people started losing their jobs, and funds for people who were supporting Suede's creative enterprises began to dry out a little. Being forced to stay home made him a bit stir crazy, so he began to focus that energy on Finesse the Cube II.
The project, as each before it, deepens the range of Suede's craft as he sets out to create a vast interior world in his body of work. As an MC, he strives to bring together his intellectual fascinations (astrology, mysticism, and religious theory) with hip-hop inside baseball. On languid, shimmering opener "Chain Reaction," he raps, "Fucking with that Saturn got your Mercury in Boosie fade." Elsewhere, he recalls in-school suspensions and selling eighths of steamed vegetables for $40, threatens to drop you with a pair of brass knuckles like William Regal, takes a golf cart to do donuts in the parking lot, and writing bars using emoji.
Suede's musical compositions on Finesse the Cube II possess an ethereal beauty gestured toward in previous releases, and the beats supplied by producers such as Benji Socrate$, Grimm Doza, SadhuGold, and Argou follow suit. The former offers the dreamlike music for "Pandemic" and the latter crafted the gorgeous beat for "Carbon Emissions," with Suede eventually giving the project an A-side and a B-side. His beats provide the backdrop for the first half and the second is built by work from the project's guests.
While he is currently working on a project with Televangel from production duo Blue Sky Black Death (followers of Seattle's rap scene may recognize the name from their work with Nacho Picasso), Suede strives to shut out the world long enough to keep working. "I'm definitely anxious with all the uncertainty, but that has to do with my family [being] on the East Coast," says Suede. "I channel everything else into being creative."
When Eva Walker of The Black Tones first realized COVID-19 was getting serious, her and her twin brother Cedric were gearing up for a seven-inch release show performance at Easy Street Records to celebrate their predictably great new single "The Devil and Grandma." She was at home and SXSW had just been canceled, but there was a part of her that didn't fully want to accept the seriousness of the pandemic. "But as more and more restrictions came in, I knew it was the real thing," she writes to me via email. "Seattle hasn't been this quiet since I was a kid, before the flocks of transplants!"
Walker has spent time at home finding inspiration in music, as well as continuing her duties as host of KEXP's Audioasis and co-host of Video Bebop along with her brother. She has been immersing herself in repeat viewings of Stop Making Sense and plans on celebrating the anniversary of the Black Tones' wonderful debut Cobain & Cornbread on Sunday, April 12th along with Cedric for a special live stream where they will perform songs as a duo and talk about their album and the power of family.
"Other than [missing] being a performer, I really hate that I have to stay distant from my family. We talk every day, but anyone who knows the Black Tones knows how family-oriented we are. I want to hang out with nieces and nephews and hug my mom and that takes a toll on a person."
I had plans to attend Acid Tongue's record release show for their great new album Bullies up until hours before when the seriousness of COVID-19 began to really settle in. The show was affected by the swift and sweeping changes, moving from Tractor Tavern to Belltown Yacht Club on very short notice.
When I emailed frontman Guy Keltner, he explained that after Governor Inslee's ban on gatherings over 250 people -- which seems like a lifetime ago now that even getting takeout feels like an extravagant treat -- the Tractor canceled months of shows and closed their doors immediately, seeing the writing on the wall earlier than most venues in town. Being close with the owners of Belltown Yacht Club (and its sister space Screwdriver Bar), who started losing bookings, had an opening the night of the Bullies release show, and the band jumped on what they knew would be one last opportunity to perform in front of people for a while.
When asked how he felt the show turned out, Keltner replied, "Well, the show sold out. So that is a good thing. But we had a lot of ethical hang-ups the day of the event. This was basically the week everything we now know as fact about COVID-19 became common knowledge, at least in Seattle. So everyone was extremely on edge the entire night, about getting sick, about getting each other sick. On the other hand, there was an energy in the air that this would be our last night together for a very long time. [...] Most of the crowd came to the after-party and stayed up until 5 am celebrating. And then that was it. We haven't seen each other since, unless you count happy hours on Zoom or frequent phone calls to our closest friends. All of the local bars were shut down the following Monday."
Since then, there have been a couple of Acid Tongue live streams (including their Belltown Yacht Club performance); Keltner utilized his fluid vision for the band in very interesting ways (including an acoustic set with Phillip Peterson on cello). He was also lent some recording gear and mics from various friends (including Smokey Brights), which offered him an opportunity to record some material from home he's proud of. He has been busy writing material for other groups in hopes to eventually compile a full-length. "It has been a productive few weeks for me," says Keltner.
"I'm obviously experiencing a lot of the same anxiety as the rest of the world. It's hard to wake up in the morning and read the news, but I do it every day."
Both Keltner and his Acid Tongue partner Ian Cunningham have mothers who work for hospitals, and the former had just found out his cousin was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was transferred to a hospital in Sacramento. Keltner has been trying to keep busy to block out the stress and worry, and making music is therapeutic and relaxing for him. "Ian and I are using this time to build something exciting. We're going to experience a lot of tragedy over the next few months, and we all have our own ways of dealing with it."
As I spent the day writing this article, something Eva Walker said to close her interview stuck with me: "I hope there is a light at the end of this tunnel, I think we all want a second chance at being even more grateful for what we had."
For the installment of his growing and immersive Darth Sueder series, the Seattle transplant leans into the hermetic, spiritual, and compassionate sides of himself.