Thursday, September 18, 2008

Just skimming through Mogwai's tour diary tonight:
"Ah Vancouver, there’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring and life affirming as stepping off the tour-bus and seeing 2 people emerging from a huge dustbin. We even had a special guard to look after the bus while we were away from it."

I did a twin set of interviews for my Ascend piece in the upcoming Unrestrained! magazine. I talked to Greg Anderson first, then followed up with Gentry Densley the next day. They're both fascinating chaps in their own ways: Anderson earnest and talkative; Densley laid back and thoughtful. Densley works as a prison librarian in Salt Lake City, which is one of the greatest day jobs I've ever heard of. Anderson, of course, runs Southern Lord Records and tours the world with SUNN O))).

One of the reasons I wanted to cover Ascend was the chance to talk with Anderson about Engine Kid, his band from 1991 to '95. Engine Kid toured and released a split LP with Iceburn, Densley's jazz/hardcore outfit from the same era, but the pair's roots go back even a few years before that.

Engine Kid were a misunderstood band at the time. I remember a review of their first single, which the writer declared a Slint rip-off before smashing the record to pieces. True, the band's approach on the "Astronaut" single and Bear Catching Fish album owed a lot to Slint and Rodan. I saw them once opening for Sebadoh at the Town Pump in 1993, and I'd never heard a band play so quietly during quiet parts. The stage microphones barely picked anything up. Then they'd stomp on their pedals and bend back your ears with the incredible volume.

They quickly outgrew the obvious influences and displayed an altogether heavier and deftly dynamic sound on their next LP, Angel Wings.

And that was about it, apart from the split album with Iceburn. So when I got Anderson on the phone I wanted to ask him about his impressions of the scene at the time, and why Engine Kid sounded the way they did.

Was that era actually a good time to start a band?

"Well it’s kind of funny. We were always kind of misfits in Seattle. We started the band in '91 and we lasted till about '95 during the whole explosion and boom of the grunge scene. I liked some of those groups—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Skin Yard—I thought those bands were great, but that’s not really musically what we wanted to do. We were a lot younger than a lot of those bands too.

"The irony of Seattle is that all those bands came out of a scene that was the 21-and-over bar scene. Seattle had these really messed-up, strict laws. If you were under 21, there were just no venues and it was impossible to have an all-ages venue too because the insurance costs were so high. So all the all-ages venues closed down in the city and you basically couldn’t go see music unless it was at a huge venue, like a 2000 or 3000 seater. So as all these bands were really happening and this community was happening, we were too young to go to those shows. And by the time we were 21, and those bands had exploded and they were playing in front of thousands and thousands of people, you could go to their shows anyways! They were all ages. But at the time it was like we were more involved in the hardcore community and our tastes were diverse. We were into bands like the Melvins and stuff like that, but we really couldn’t go see them play. So we really missed out on the blossoming and the exciting time of that happening. The only band I really got to see in a small club setting back then was Nirvana, but other than that, we weren’t really a part of that. So I think Engine Kid’s sound stems from being outcasts and trying to do our own thing, even though we were taking cues from what was happening in Louisville, Kentucky with Slint and Rodan and Bastro. We weren’t trying to mimic the Stooges and Led Zeppelin. Our heads were elsewhere and our energy was elsewhere too. Engine Kid was more aggressive in some ways and eventually we splintered off into more of a metallic sound, and that was because we were just young, energetic and had a lot of aggression in what we were doing."

That isolation had some artistic benefits then…

"Yeah, again it's completely ironic because to me the whole concept of the grunge scene and all those bands coming up was based on isolation as well. It was hard to get to Seattle if you were a touring band, so we didn’t get a lot of the really cool touring bands from Los Angeles or from Chicago or from New York coming out our way because they’d basically get past San Francisco and it was kind of a dead hole. It’s a long drive to Portland, and it’s a longer drive to Seattle. So to me that was the thing with grunge, it’s like we’re going to do our own thing and we’re going to do our own bands, and that’s how they started. And ironically it trickled down also in theory to what Engine Kid was, where we just felt isolated from that as well. So it was like double isolation!"