Foals And The Last Nail In Grunge’s Coffin

Our man in Seattle Mark Russell is on hand to see a baton being passed

The Crocodile Caf&eactute; in rainy Seattle, Washington was arguably the last remaining bastion of grunge until it closed unexpectedly last Christmas. It was the venue that linked many of the bands that the city is still known for, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney all cutting their teeth on its stage. However, booking manager Eli Anderson got a text message while Christmas shopping telling him that his three months worth of shows were now redundant – the Croc would not rock again. Sadly, the joint had lacked pulling power in quite some time. Other local venues like Neumos and Chop Suey all regularly hosted more popular bands, though the rivalry was friendly, and they hosted ‘Unscrew the Croc Employees’ evenings within weeks of the closure to benefit the suddenly unemployed staff.

Since the worldwide recognition of Seattle as some kind of Gen X Mecca during the Grunge efflorescence, the city has kept a relatively low profile. There has been the odd WTO riot and some local businesses have done alright for themselves (Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon etc), but the music went back underground. The last few years, however, have seen the local scene resurgent in a manner completely at odds with Alice Pearl Honey Garden. Instead, Modest Mouse have released yet another quirky album with some Limey dude called Johnny Marr on guitar; Minus the Bear are touring their third album across the world, and the OC-propelled Death Cab for Cutie are gearing up to release their eighth. Even the local hip-hop scene has been shaken out of its slumber by the emergence of Blue Scholars, who held a five-night residency at Neumos last December.

Yet the city is a lot less visible on a national and international scale than it once was. Most music heard on commercial American radio is there as a result of a large-scale coordinated marketing schedule, and hardly any artists on mainstream commercial radio come from the Northwest. At the time of writing, the top three local bands in local record stores were Sera Cahoone, Fleet Foxes and Grand Archives; none of whom are significantly well known outside of the region. One very big reason behind this polarised local music scene has to be KEXP. Being a local, listener supported non-profit radio station, it allows its DJs to operate free from the yoke of the playlist. In contrast to other US stations, this feels like stepping out of a black and white technical drawing of a brick wall into a polychromatic Damien Hirst spin painting. The lack of advertisement breaks and very little in the way of sponsor tags is a bucket of water in the face. In its previous incarnation as KCMU, it was the first station to play Nirvana’s ‘Love Buzz’, prompting a young Kurt Cobain to pull over and dance at the side of the road to the fuzzy reception on his car radio.

The one recognised Grunge-era institution that still remains is Sub Pop records, the label that was once home to Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney in their early days. Although Mudhoney remain signed to the label (who are releasing their 8th studio album The Lucky Ones), things have moved on somewhat since Sub Pop put out Superfuzz Bigmuff two decades ago. Now the stable contains artists as varied as Band of Horses (country-tinged pop songs), Flight of the Conchords (Kiwi comedy duo) and The Go! Team (Brighton joy pop sensations).

Which brings us to five serious young men from Oxford. Since generating a colossal hypegasm at last year’s SXSW festival, Foals have only really been accessible from the US through their mySpace page, although KEXP has featured them many times, releasing ‘Mathletics’ as their ‘Song of the Day’ Podcast in October. After finally signing to Sub Pop at the end of last year, Foals played a free gig at Chop Suey with some local support bands. It began chaotically enough, with the band seeming to accidentally fall into set opener ‘The French Open’ before coalescing and strafing through most of the tracks from the debut album Antidotes. Their style of playing, facing each other across the middle of the stage and feeding off each other’s convulsions, mesmerized the crowd into becoming a part of this jittery but addictive spectacle. Instead of the slightly flat and clinical production of the album, Seattle got the full dichotomous mix of pinpoint accurate guitars and half-screamed, half-forgotten vocals that give them an endearingly organic feel. Frontman Yannis seemed in an upbeat mood, belting a drum on one song instead of his chokingly high Travis Beam, and jumping into the crowd at least twice to mingle with his new admirers. They even came back for an encore of ‘Mathletics’ after a painfully long absence, and chatted freely with the crowd after the gig. One newly converted gig goer announced that it was the second best gig he’d ever been to, but that it unfortunately “didn’t even lick Tom Petty’s balls" – something Foals may be quite pleased about.

This may herald a new approach to Seattle’s music scene; welcoming new worthy bands while holding their old proven favourites close to their hearts. With the last of the grunge era’s stalwarts disappearing, readjusting or dispersing and the death of the Crocodile’s operating budget, maybe Seattle is due for a new resurgence.

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