Thirteen years ago, Joe Syverson played his first show in Seattle in the upstairs room of what was then Cafe Paradiso and is now Caffé Vita on Capitol Hill. He was playing in a punk band called Sidecar, which is about as far away from his current project as he could get.
Joseph Giant With Pearly Gate Music, Soft Hills, Jared Mees & The Grown Children. Comet Tavern, 922 E. Pike St., 323-9853. $7. 9 p.m. Fri., April 29.
"I never thought I would be playing country music!" he exclaims between sips of coffee in the exact spot of his live debut. "In fact, I had a friend come out to a show recently, someone I used to hang out with way back in the day, and he was like, 'Dude, I remember when you said you would never play country music!' "
The songs on Syverson's self-titled solo debut (he performs under the moniker Joseph Giant) recall the old-school, freewheeling days of country music—what Syverson calls "trucker country." It's rootsy and rough-and-tumble, but it's got a lighthearted spirit; it's the kind of loose summertime music you'd throw on during a sunny day's barbecue. Call it country with an indie-rock buoyancy. And Syverson says his foray into country isn't just an experiment.
"It just feels right," he says. "I grew up listening to all these old-school country songs, and hearing my dad play all these old-school songs. To me, now, I get that it's really similar to punk, in a way. It's not super-poppy, it's not Top 40. And the people are always fucked up and crazy, and they're bitching about the same shit."
So, how does he think a punk-pedigreed person from Seattle should go about doing country music? "Man, that's a scary question," he says, shaking his head. "We were talking about this when Pearly Gate Music started playing. It was about the Ballard country scene. We were talking about how if those bands went to Nashville, they would get fucking laughed out of the room. So I guess for me, it's basically not thinking about it in a technical aspect, like as far as accents or how many bendy licks you can put in the song. It's more about relaxing, the soul of it."
Syverson, 34, has been playing music—guitar, bass, drums—for more than half his life. He was born 40 minutes away in Maple Valley, where his father, who'd been a Columbia Records–signed folk singer in the '50s and '60s, raised him on the likes of Willie Nelson. By the time Syverson was a teenager, though, punk had taken precedence. He's had a good run in Seattle, where he's lived for the past 15 years. He made a number of friends. He worked at Hot Mama's Pizza, where he picked up the nickname Joseph Giant (he's got a football player's height and build). And he kept up with the rock thing, playing with bands like indie-pop favorites Throw Me the Statue.
"[Joe] somehow understands the essence of live music in a deep way," says Scott Reitherman, lead singer for TMTS, "and the energy he brings to a performance makes it uniquely special and exciting for the audience. I guess they call that experience? He's a veteran."
Syverson also played bass for Pearly Gate Music until two life-altering changes shook things up. Last summer, Syverson opted out of Pearly Gate's national tour to stick around Seattle for the birth of his daughter, Poppy Josephine. Syverson and his family (Poppy, his fiancee Terese, and two stepkids) moved from their tiny house back to the very same Maple Valley farmhouse where he grew up. It was around that time that he found his way back to country music—change #2—and went into the studio to record Joseph Giant.
Syverson describes Joseph Giant as a joyful album—he recorded its first song, "A Place We Made," just three weeks after Poppy was born—and it's true. Listening to Syverson's easy, gravelly voice and rapidly strummed guitar licks, a listener can instantly discern that he's fully comfortable with the music. Syverson Senior, the country-music veteran, loves the album, by the way.
"No one ever thinks they'll go back to the places they leave," says Syverson, sipping his coffee in the first room he ever played for a Seattle audience, "but it was a natural full circle."