Ambling around his dimly lit Ballard home in stocking feet and an oversized brown sweater, Rusty Willoughby looks subdued, domestic, mature—kinda like his new solo album. Yet this is the same guy whose energetic pop-punk band Flop got hit with shrapnel of fame from the early '90s grunge explosion.
Tractor Tavern, July 9
As the low-key Willoughby's quick to mention, he never bought into the expectations that others had of him and his band, which got some "next big thing" mentions at the time.
"It's easy to lump it all together into one big thing because of the early '90s hype," he says of the scene, nestling into his living room sofa. "Speaking of which, because of movies like Hype!, a band like Flop or Gas Huffer is in the same one-and-a-half-hour movie as Soundgarden and Nirvana and Pearl Jam. So people get this weird perspective."
Hype—and Hype!—aside, Flop had a respectable if not exactly lucrative run, releasing a giddy blast of a debut, 1992's Flop & The Fall of the Mopsqueezer!, that positioned the band as a bridge between the attitudinal '60s pop of the Kinks and the ultra-melodic '70s punk of the Buzzcocks. It also landed Flop a major-label deal with Epic, leading to an underappreciated sophomore disc, Whenever You're Ready, that nobody, apparently, was ready for. After a final indie record, Flop broke up, and Willoughby became just another Seattle musician.
Before long, however, he reentered the music-biz fray—with rocky results. Willoughby came up with a set of songs that recast his sparkling power-pop prowess in a more playful, kaleidoscopic light. By the time of its release in 1997, however, the record was no longer on its intended label, Sub Pop, nor was it a solo debut. Instead, a struggling Sub Pop sent Willoughby to the former Seattle indie Flydaddy, by then relocated to Rhode Island; Willoughby himself had reunited with old friends Lisa King and John Hunnicutt, with whom he'd played in the band Pure Joy a few years before Flop's founding. The collection, punningly titled Getz, The Worm, was thus attributed to Pure Joy.
It received favorable reviews and modest sales, but a follow-up was scrapped. Willoughby, finally free of all band associations, returned to an old haunt (Egg Studios) with an old friend and producer (Kurt Bloch) and recorded the most sincere and refined batch of songs of his dozen-year career—though he'd dispute that it even is a career. And don't even think about mentioning the word mature.
"I don't think of it in terms of maturing," he says, flashing a sly smile. "That, to me, reeks of taking things seriously."
Despite this assertion, the self-titled record marks the first time Willoughby's moved his fragile, coloristic voice forward, resting it atop mostly acoustic instrumentation. The album's lead track, "No One," exposes some morose thoughts that sound uncharacteristic coming from the once-carefree singer-songwriter. With its echoing and forlorn backdrop, lyrics like "Suicide is the only solution that everyone can agree upon" might raise suspicion if the discerning listener weren't marveling over Willoughby's transition to becoming an Elliott Smithlike commentator.
Even on the album's rare moments of uptempo pop, Willoughby downplays the fuzz-and-buzz aesthetic that's marked nearly all of his work. In "Here Come the Weakened," the galloping stride and "bah-bah-bah" choruses come through without a trace of the distortion that placed Flop in grunge's left field.
The album's most notable for its simplicity and sparseness. But it also shows Willoughby offhandedly mixing dour observations into partly sunny pop compositions, without slipping into the prevailing music of his youth: rock.
"I've played since I was 18," Willoughby points out. "I'm going to be 33. It seems stupid to do anything the same way for that long. If you were a milkman, you'd hate to drive the same route for that many years."
One area where familiarity doesn't breed Willoughby's contempt is friendship. His exPure Joy mates King and Hunnicutt make cameos on the new disc, which was released by a new label of loosely affiliated Seattle music vets including Willoughby, Bloch and his Young Fresh Fellows mates Scott McCaughey and Tad Hutchison, and Chris Ballew (of the Presidents of the USA). It's called Book Records.
"It's all these people sitting on little records, like side projects, and there's nobody to put them out" is how Willoughby describes his Book cohorts. "Even small labels don't have the resources to put out little one-off records anymore."
What these accomplished and nearly all famous musicians have realized, it seems, is that the current climate of record-company consolidation calls for the type of ingenuity and independence that sparked the fabled Seattle scene in the first place. Call it an imperfect circle.