Faithful readers, both of you, will recall I wrote an article about a local band (Southwest Washington scene) some time back. Now, I have often lamented on the rise and fall of the “Seattle Sound” or, more specific, the Washington Grunge scene.
I was a teen in the ’90s, in Southwest Washington. I look back on it now and realize just how amazing that was. At the time, it was just life. But I saw Mudhoney in concert at the Capitol Theater Backstage – with less than one hundred other people. I met members of Grunttruck and Green River/Mother Love Bone/Pearl Jam – I even met Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone before he died – I was 12, and he treated me like an adult. I will always remember that.
I saw Modest Mouse perform in The Matrix Coffeehouse in Chehalis, Washington, almost five years before they became a hit band. Sleater-Kinney, The Crabs, Beck, The Melvins, Death Cab for Cutie, MXPX – the list of bands that became big, or were influential in the grunge/alternative scene, that I saw perform live in small, smoke-filled venues as a teen goes on and on.
And then, it went away. It was like a switch was flipped somewhere – the scene was overhyped and strip-mined by big record labels and suddenly it was gone. Punk had become grunge, grunge became alternative, and alternative was suddenly mainstream and poppy, and the next thing I knew what they called “alternative” was what I called “mainstream college rock.”
The music was still there, but the scene had lost the spark. The dozens of clubs and coffeehouses that sprang up during the rise of the scene died out. Replaced by Starbucks and chain restaurants. The music went back to being underground.
So, it was with some real shock that I first encountered Captain Algebra. Their oldest member wasn’t even born when I first saw The Melvins live. When I walked into The Matrix and first spotted them, I asked Rick, the man behind the counter, who they were. He leaned in and said, “Would you believe high school kids from Olympia?”
No, I wouldn’t. High School kids don’t play this kind of music. They don’t even know it exists – right?
What kind of music, you ask?
Grunge. Punk. Sludge. Dirty, wet, distorted guitar. Throbbing bass riffs that almost take the lead. A drummer trying to hit every head on his set all at once. Lyrics that are monotone, often mumbled, and sometimes nonsensical – punctuated by a throaty, gravelly scream now and then.
Their live show convinced me to buy their self-printed 5 song CD. Both prompted me to write my original article. The article prompted Jack McQuarrie, singer and bassist, to ask if I would review their full-length debut album and another live show. I eagerly agreed.
First of all, let’s talk about the CD. It has all the marks of the classic punk/grunge self-published LP. Hand-drawn cover? Check. Tongue-in-cheek title? Check. Goofy song names? “Yoga Dog” “Sasquatch Eats Free” – Check.
But it isn’t what is outside that we look for. It’s what is on the inside. And what is on the inside is ten songs, for a total of 29 minutes in length. You just did the math in your head, right? That averages to 2 minutes, 56 seconds per song. For some of you, you are thinking, “They are kind of short.” The punk fans out there are thinking, “Man, how did they manage to squeeze an average extra 56 seconds in each song?”
The answer to both of you is: the songs are just right. Each one is sludgy and rhythmic. There may not be any radio hits in here, but there aren’t any misses, either. You know from the first song to the last what their sound is, there is no sense of trying to find their place – which is often the case with a debut album. It is pure angst mixed with grime packaged into a half-hour of bobbing your head and wishing you had someone or something to headbutt just…well, just because you remember that, in your youth, that was pretty fun to do in the heat of the moment.
If any one aspect of the CD stands out over the others, it is the bass riffs. Not because they are especially complex, or because they are too loud, but simply because the members of Captain Algebra have recognized that the way Jack plays bass makes for a good lead instrument. When he needs to, Taylor Pfeil can take lead on his guitar, and he does it with more skill than you might expect from a punk band, or from someone so young. But, he doesn’t need to, and he doesn’t force it. Each song stands on its own, each one showing the strengths of the members.
Drummers often don’t get their due – there seems to be this idea that “anyone can hold a beat.” I grew up the son of a drummer and I can tell you this isn’t true. Brodey Ristine doesn’t attempt to Neil Perth anything, but without his steady beats and percussive counterpoints, the songs fall apart. He get his chance to showcase his skills as well, but you get the sense in listening that he is holding back. He doesn’t overdo any of the breaks, and he could.
This is the overall sense you get when listening to the entire album: each member can do more with their instruments than they are, but they know they don’t need to. In fact, it would detract from the overall quality of the CD if any one member stood out over the others. They are a band, and perform as a team. Sadly, Brodey is heading off for college, so the band is looking to fill the void – but, for now, they are a team.
This translates well into the live show.
I didn’t get a chance to meet the other members of the band, but I did speak with Jack at some length at the show. Jack is an interesting example of the punk musician – an example that often bears out in the community. Off the stage he is soft-spoken, a little shy, and walks with a bit of a slump as if to minimize the chance someone will see him. Even when playing on stage, he often turns from the audience and focuses solely on his bass. Jack appears to prefer to speak through his instrument – and when he does, he screams for the world to hear.
It is funny, with some bands it is absolutely required they have an electrifying, almost frantic, stage presence. But Captain Algebra is still trying to find its footing on how to act when on stage. Fortunately, their music delivers the emotion and speaks for them.
When they get up there, Jack quietly introduces them to the audience, looking down while speaking softly into the microphone. The members look at each other, talk for a second, and then launch into the first song. They progress from song to song, with little fanfare or interaction with the audience.
Yet the audience is into it. Heads are bobbing. One person, a member of the final band for the night, is desperately trying to not mosh with someone – anyone. He’s bouncing his head and feet, hopping back and forth. He wants to do something – anything – with this throbbing music. I envy him his youth – ten years ago, I would be right beside him, and we’d be hurting each other and grinning.
A group of people sits nearby – clearly there to see one of the other bands and uncomfortable with the music. They are comprised of several people my age or older who keep giving each other glances that speak volumes, “What is this?” “They call this music?”
But then the two younger people with them look back at me bobbing my head and furiously taking notes. One grins and shyly throws up the horns.
Message received: Mom and Dad don’t get this music, but we do.
Captain Algebra’s set lasts about as long as their CD. It starts quick, with little fanfare, but ends with the small crowd cheering. The band mates flash cheeky grins and exit the stage, after a quick and quiet announcement that they have t-shirts and CDs for sale.
The next band to come on stage pauses to seek out the band and congratulate them. It isn’t just professional courtesy – it was obvious from the first riff that Captain Algebra had captured the attention of their peers.
Outside, I talk with the singer of the opening band, a group that describes itself as “glam-psych-pop” (a heady mixture of happy lyrics and toe-tapping rhythm that I hope to write more about when I get a chance to). I casually remark how it is amazing to live in an area where I can see glam-psych-pop, grunge/punk, and alternative all in one night in one venue. He replies, “I know. Aren’t they great?” It takes me a second to realize he is talking about Captain Algebra. I say, “All of you are.” He nods and grins.
Their music has made it into my playlist, and onto my youtube channel – and a segment of this clip made it onto a video game podcast this morning, so they have officially reached an “international” audience of thousands.