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, every month on KEXP.org
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the next couple editions of Throwaway Style will be published a little later than the first Thursday of the month. In this month’s column, Martin Douglas drives down to Olympia to speak with the members of Debt Rag about reimagining their old band and reconfiguring their own ideas of what it means to be punk.
Somewhere in the hills of Northeast Olympia is a very cute mid-century single-family home with a bunch of instruments neatly stacked in the garage. Titles on the bookshelf that look familiar to me (because I own a few of the same books). A comfy couch, a shelf for records, a big backyard with vegetation desperately clamoring for warm weather. All in all, the exterior looks pretty unassuming; the only tell that the people who live here might be a little off-center is the hatchback sedan with a bumper sticker which reads, “Keep Honking! I’m Listening to Alice Coltrane’s 1971 Meteoric Sensation ‘Universal Consciousness”.
This is the home shared by two-thirds of the minimalist, guitarless punk band Debt Rag. After moving back to the area from Oakland, bassist/vocalist Marissa Magic, along with keyboardist/trumpeter/vocalist Max Nordile, reconvened with an old friend and bandmate — drummer and occasional vocalist Lillian Maring — and reinvented their old band.
A decade ago, Wet Drag were incinerating every punk house in the Bay Area. Their decidedly lo-fi aesthetic, truncated song lengths, and left-of-center structure gained them an erroneous reputation as part of the Bay Area’s widely canonized garage-rock scene. (When, in all actuality, Wet Drag was a garage band the same way Coachwhips was a garage band, which is to say “not really.”) You could listen to both their Bandcamp releases in immediate succession while air-frying french fries and corn dogs and still have time for plating and answering the door when your neighbors come to complain about the noise.
Wet Drag formed in a kitchen. Nordile was playing his final show with a different band; Maring and Magic were both in attendance. Nordile thought it would be fun to play with them and told them so. Magic knew Maring from Olympia; the former member of Grass Widow moved there from Centralia to attend The Evergreen State College.
“We spent years being in the same rooms as each other,” Nordile says. “Seeing shows, playing shows, barely knowing each other. [We] all have different styles and come from three different places [musically]. So, to me, that seems like a no-brainer; two cool people I want to get to know better.”
Maring adds, “It was a really exciting moment when we joined forces, because whatever we were doing beforehand magically shaped and prepared us to just be really present for the songwriting process in a very interesting way. We’re having this very organic process of contributing parts and welcoming each other’s ideas and not modifying them that much.
“That’s not to say that’s better than any other process, but with Grass Widow, we would work and work and work songs to the point where the final product was completely different from what we started with, which is also a magical kind of alchemy. It was refreshing to have a different approach [in Wet Drag] and straight up collage each other’s ideas together.”
It’s easy to think that, with its full lineup intact and the rhyming sounds of each band name, the transition from Wet Drag to Debt Rag was swift and seamless. But the truth is Wet Drag were inactive almost three times as long as the period they made music together. Maring moved back to Centralia to attend grad school and there was a slim likelihood that she would ever create music with Magic and Nordile again.
But, as fate would have it, Magic and Nordile found themselves in Olympia and a new configuration of an old band would eventually come to fruition.
Debt Rag’s alluringly peculiar brand of guitarless punk music manifests itself to spectacular results on their full-length debut Lost to the Fantasy, released on the last day of March via Dean Spunt’s revitalized label Post Present Medium (regularly referenced by its initials, PPM). The album clocks in at a microwaved cup of coffee shy of 20 minutes. It’s filled with drum clicks, clatter, and crumble (occasionally in reverse); a keyboard that sounds like a melodica bleats, sometimes next to a sputtering trumpet; and minimalist bass serving as an anchor, as any good bass playing often does.
Sometimes the music sounds like the Slits reimagined as a fucked up carnival ride. Other times it evokes an alternate-universe take on the Raincoats’ too-far-ahead-of-its-time LP Odyshape. But mostly it is a document of singular imagination; the sound of three truly original musicians coming together to face down the banality of adulthood and strike against the plague known as complacency.
I’ve exhausted a lot of space on this website and elsewhere decrying the influx of young professional normies into the ecosystem of independent music, but what about the young professional weirdos? What about those of us who plow through soulless and boring day jobs, avoiding questions about our writing or our bands or our hand-sewn quilt coats, or our paintings? Those of us who try our damndest to not put every bit of ourselves into earning a living so that we can enjoy being creative and putting something into the world that is offbeat and meaningful? Something that adds beauty to the world or makes people think? Something other than the fucking goddamn soul-draining deluge of “product” and “content”? Debt Rag makes music for those people. Us people.
Look, I know I’m one to talk. I make a pretty good living, I live pretty comfortably in a crushingly expensive city, practicing my art of putting words to a page. But as the saying goes, a job is a job. And even though I’m not incredibly far removed from freelancing and working at a supermarket to pay the bills and I love the work I do, this work can be work.
Even if you’re doing what you love, you still have to somehow manage to fill 40 hours of your week with work. I still have bosses. I still have meetings. I still have complaints.
Sitting around Magic and Nordile’s dining table, as I’m often wont to do in what I feel is likeminded company, I broach the topic of punk and my interview companions have a lot to say on the matter. Says Nordile, “I still grapple with what punk means and how useful it is and how big the tent is, like what is included as punk. And that’s an ongoing conversation I have with myself in this community.”
Magic notes that she feels the term “punk” is the most straightforward way to describe her sensibilities and beliefs. “But I feel like in reality,” she continues, “when I’m trying to explain myself, I generally identify more as a weirdo or freak because I feel that covers more space. Punk can be a little competitive and binary. I’m just anti-capitalist and I just want to do stuff my own way. I’m not trying to make something that can be sold easily."
As a member of many bands including Stillsuit and Girlsperm, Magic has been creating aesthetically and intellectually challenging work for much of her life. Debt Rag is merely the latest stage of that lifelong path.
Maring goes deep on the subject of punk, noting the power of community and creating spaces of safety and inclusion for people on the margins of whatever we call society these days, while decrying the exclusionary aspects of many punk scenes. She was a teenager living in rural Washington, but it was moving to Olympia that helped her think of punk as a community and somewhat as a political stance.
She says, “It’s interesting to see generations aging with the punk identity. I’m enjoying aging with that awareness and seeing what that means, because [punk was] initially a youth movement and is often this process of indoctrination for youth and liberation. What does it mean to look back at the history of punk and [learn about] all the really fucked up shit, like [a lot of it] was actually kind of racist, you know?”
Maring speaks on looking at why the less savory aspect of punk was what they were instead of turning away from them in willful ignorance or dismissal. About 15 years ago, she was one-third of the beloved Bay Area trio Grass Widow; categorized as post-punk but often going down much more interesting musical avenues — like often jettisoning three-part harmonies and erecting three altogether separate vocal lines. In some of their most inspired moments (of which there was no shortage generally), Grass Widow sometimes sounded like they were singing three different songs in unison.
That was Maring’s first encounter with the “sellout” claim; a few scattered voices in a field of praise. She didn’t necessarily feel Grass Widow were gate-kept out of the punk scene so much as lumped into the “women in music” scene against their best efforts to just be, you know, a fucking great band.
As we speak on the continued evolution of punk, I thought a lot about the self-adopted descriptor of “adult-punk,” coined by Nordile when first conceptualizing Debt Rag. Writing about the sorts of things adults go through. Being suspicious of capitalism but knowing you have to make money to survive. The big, black compost bin out back that makes its way onto Lost to the Fantasy opener “The Feeding Grid.” The blight of rich people and their excesses. Numbing yourself out from the drain of the 40-hour workweek with “white wine and bad TV,” as Magic notes on the single “Cognitive Whirlpool.”
Magic notes to me that she felt adult-punk doesn’t have anything to do with writing about adult themes, because she has been penning tunes regarding the crushing state of the workforce for decades now. She told me a story of playing a show in Concord, CA to a crowd where its oldest attendees were still only barely past the legal drinking age. Magic and Nordile at the time were 30; “And they were like, ‘That’s so fucking cool,’” Magic says.
“I feel like adult-punk is more just a reference to [the fact that] we’re still playing punk and we’re not 20. We’re all adults and we’re still doing the punk thing.”
There is no shortage of thoughtful artists who consider the idea of inspiring people the same way they were inspired as youngsters. Being the change you want to see in the world and all that. Maring speaks to the great opportunity to be a model for aging the way she wants.
“At the same time,” she says, “I’m like, ‘What message does that send?’ I’m concerned with being exclusionary in any way. Young punk is important, but what about old punk? Old people are dehumanized in our society; ageism is a huge thing. So to get anywhere near middle age, [I’m] like, ‘Whoa, I’m still interfacing with this [idea of being a punk]. What’s next?”
Nordile says choosing not to have a guitar in Debt Rag provided an opportunity to divorce themselves from their own past, which is his idea of punk: “Growing up and allowing your definition of punk to change with you.”
We live in a place where the Jeffs of the world hoard a vast portion of the money and resources available to us. Nordile says, “In regards to work, it probably sucks no matter what you do. And also, no matter what you do, your boss makes more money than you. And that’s fucked up. You’re generating capital for someone else. I don’t like that idea.”
Lost to the Fantasy closer “Jeff’s World,” like pretty much the entirety of the album, is about survival. I mistakenly read the song as being about a very specific Jeff, one who leverages his billion-dollar corporation to skip out on taxes and contemplates leaving behind the workers in his company warehouses to piss in empty water bottles while he galivants on a spaceship. Nordile explains it actually uses another Jeff — Survivor host Jeff Probst — as an analog device.
“It’s about control. And it’s about taking these ideas, like you need certain things to live. Actually, it’s very easy to live. It’s a lot simpler to live if you just don’t participate or play at all.”
Lost to the Fantasy speaks to this experience I was ranting about earlier in this feature; about the blanket of capitalism being so suffocating that there’s hardly any time for creative people to have an artistic life. Between personal relationships and downtime and just fucking decompressing from everything, who really has the space to have a sufficient amount of time to create art?
Marissa Magic has been ruminating over this question and plenty of questions similar to it as a songwriter. She says, “I have basically had office jobs for a million years, and a lot of the time when they’re full-time, it’s a temp job. So I just have to get through six fucking months of it and I don’t have to work for a while.” She explains the process of what she refers to as “divorcing myself from my real self,” which includes avoiding the redundancy of talking to her coworkers about playing in a band when it’s far from a career pursuit for her.
“‘Cognitive Whirlpool’ is about working full-time and just being like … all the time, all the time I’ve spent working full-time in an office, I’m always just like, ‘How the fuck do people do this? Does anyone like working this much?’”
In no uncertain terms, Maring calls the entire ordeal a trap. She feels very lucky to be part of a community that has fostered creativity — even through the unhealthiness of living in grody punk houses — but having a career (or in her case, going to grad school so that she can have a sustainable career she enjoys) is antithetical to the idea sold to us that we can make our own way in the world. “I feel as though when we were growing up, we had options,” she says. “And I feel those options have really dwindled down.”
As the options for capturing the ever-elusive “American Dream” circle down the drain, as we fry brains trying to earn a decent living, the idea of making art becomes more and more precarious, and more and more crucial to existing in the world and connecting with other people. Bands like Debt Rag speak to the idea that although we are mostly in our little cubicles or home offices, struggling to get through the day, we are all in this stifling existence together, hoping to find relief in the throes of creativity. Because as much as being in a band is a lifestyle for some, for others it’s the thrill of making art which drives them, which helps them survive an increasingly tenuous existence.
Around these parts, Calvin Johnson needs no introduction other than his first name. For over four decades, the Olympia-based, somewhat accidental creator of indie-rock has followed his muse to the ends of the earth; a muse completely inaudible to pretty much every other human being sharing this planet with him. For his fifth solo album (and umpteenth as a primary collaborator), Calvin journeyed to Columbus, Mississippi (perhaps most notable for being the hometown of Tennessee Williams) to record with the psych band Hartle Road. The results — which include the snarling “Pink Cadillac” (a song that Calvin reportedly wrote when he was 16), the propulsive, glimmering pop song “Sugar on Sunday,” and the slow burning title track, among many other bangers — make for arguably Calvin’s best work in decades.
Staying in Olympia just a bit longer (as well as the feature’s topic of bands reinventing themselves), the critically acclaimed rock band Milk Music — which has been around somewhat sparingly in one form or another for the past 15 years — is now known as Mystic 100s (named after Milk Music's 2017 opus). Their full-length debut under their new name is a sprawling, 75-minute masterwork that takes its Crazy Horse-by-way of-the-Meat Puppets aesthetic and stretches its legs mightily, adding hints of Dinosaur Jr. and Seattle punk legends the U-Men and throwing in a 19-minute stunner on Side 2 for good measure. Absolutely one of the best rock albums of the year so far, On a Micro Diet is highly recommended for all your psilocybin-assisted self-exploration needs.
The newest effort from the rapper who “popped up out the Rose like Wiz Khalifa’s kid,” a scant couple of months after his excellent Televangel collaboration Neutral Milc Hotel (and its equally great remix project), finds the torchbearer of a new generation of Portland MCs collaborating with another of its most talented beatmakers. Alongside great verses from UGLYFRANK, Blake Anthony, Big Kahuna OG, and Rich Jones, Milc uses the Goldenbeets palette — the chopped soul of “Smithsonian,” the rather mournful-sounding “Slam Cover,” and the midnight blues of “Skinemax” — to render his refined tastes for both food and women; to explore the drug culture of pre-gentrified Portland; to apply his granular knowledge of NBA stars of yesteryear. It’s a delectable small plate offering from two artists who are helping shape the future of Northwest rap.
The newest addition to the Ishmael Butler Cinematic Universe — accompanying Butterfly, Palaceer Lazaro, Purple Tape Nate, and countless other characters occupying interstellar realms far beyond the galaxy we find ourselves in — leans into the spacey R&B Ish has been flirting with since 2017. As the maiden voyage of Ish’s label Glass Cane Records, Illusions Ago, as you might imagine, sounds largely beamed in from id-based sector of one of the most brilliant minds in music — peep the loose recitation on “Mind Glow Radio” (referencing both Fruity Loops and Stanley Kubrick) and the soulful, AutoTuned “Lord of the Fjord” — and feels like the perfect soundtrack for once Seattle emerges from these endless late-winter doldrums and actually basks in some nice weather.
A shimmering, emotional display of the power of mostly-instrumental, largely ambient music, Daniel Onufer’s late 2022 musical treasure is the product of several patient hands extending to whatever gods may exist in the sky. Recommended if you hate easily digestible RIYLs, made-up subgenres, and people who use the word “jazz” to describe any manner of arrangement-centric music they don’t really understand. An ideal musical accompaniment for wandering through the space between consciousness and rapid eye movement sleep. A reclamation of “far out” as the highest compliment.
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