Every time new census numbers come out, Spokane buzzes like the Grand Coulee Dam. It’s not the raw population figures residents care about, but how their city of lilacs stacks up next to its cross-state rival. Since 1991, Spokane has claimed the second largest population in Washington—though its lead over Tacoma has been so narrow at times, all it would take is a few Puyallup Whitesnake fans packing the Dome to eclipse Spokane’s #2 title.
In Seattle, it’s easy to write this off as the dubious feat of an also-ran, but it provides important insight into the city’s psychology: Think of Spokane as the middle child at the Washington dinner table, all too often ignored or forgotten out there on the eastern plains. If population data was calculated as it is on, say, a report card, Spokane has earned an honorable B: a solid grade to present to the parents and de facto validation that it is part of Washington, not Idaho.
Likewise, it’s a stated goal of Volume, the ripping music festival in Spokane next weekend, to force Northwesterners to take notice of the vibrant music and arts those 209,000 people have come together to create. While everyone from country singer Tom T. Hall (“Spokane Motel Blues”) to our former sister paper L.A. Weekly (and once, this one) has written Spokane off as a cultural wasteland, in recent years new venues and musicians relishing the cheap industrial space Spokane has in spades have spawned a legitimate scene. Seattleites will find plenty of familiar names on the bill this year—including Rose Windows, Wimps, and The Flavr Blue—but those great acts should be used like water wings to strike out into the uncharted seas of the Lilac City. In that vein, we chatted up Kent Ueland of Terrible Buttons—Spokane’s best band two years running, according to its alt-weekly Inlander—about what makes Spokane, and its bands, tick. (Read the full interview at seattleweekly.com/reverb.)
SW: Driving to Spokane from Seattle, you have to pass through that part of the state that looks like Oklahoma on a bad-hair day. Any advice for powering through that last hour?
Ueland: 15 miles on either side of Ritzville, don’t go one mile over the speed limit. That is the Washington speed trap right there. I would also suggest getting comfortable with some of the [local] acts playing in Volume this year, like Dead Serious Lovers, the best band in this town. It’s pretty tough to find a goth rock band in this state that rivals their last record. [Album] Les is perfection, top to bottom.
Spokane has a fast-food place called Dick’s where you can get a good hamburger for cheap. Any other places Seattleites can go if they are feeling homesick?
The Seattle-vs.-Spokane Dick’s controversy is a tale as old as time itself. Ours gets a bad rap because one time they found a dead body in the dumpster. Now all of a sudden the burgers don’t taste as good to Seattle people. I don’t get it. We do burritos right over here; Neato Burrito, which is also called the Baby Bar, hosts a lot of live music; that’s one of the best burritos I’ve ever had. A good $8 stomach bomb.
What’s the most offensive nickname for Spokane you’ve ever heard from westsiders?
“Spokompton” is the most popular one, which is funny to me because the crime rate in Seattle is astronomical compared to ours. “Spokanistan” ’s another one. That one’s probably a little more offensive since it plays to the hickish stereotype—we’re just a bunch of mountain people who just came out of the Caucasus and raped and pillaged our way to what we are now. Both of those paint us in a certain light that isn’t quite fair. We’ve got our share of problems, but so does everywhere else.
On to music: Your album cover for 2013’s Runt shows you all camped out beside a just-cut wheat field. Does the landscape of eastern Washington influence your music?
It’s a very different vibe here than in Seattle, and that definitely goes into the music. There’s definitely a believability in the despair that isn’t in cities with better reputations. There’s a darkness that can’t be ignored, and is believable on account of the wasteland that surrounds us.
I understand that your last show as a band will be at Volume, but in the five years Terrible Buttons has been around, how have things changed? You mentioned that Spokane is experiencing a cultural renaissance . . .
It was tough going getting started in this town. [Within our first year of being a band], we put out a record that was produced by and engineered by Ryan Lewis and Macklemore, and it still took us two years to get our name into the local alt-weekly. We had to fight tooth and nail to get where we are. Now it’s like you start a band, play these awesome shows, make sure you sound good, and you can get your foot in the door. It’s just a whole new place.
Other cities have that, but the difference is . . . people think we’re a piece of shit and we work harder because of it. There’s a certain amount of pride that comes from being the retarded little brother of the city that thinks it’s the hottest shit in the world [Seattle]. There’s really something to the underdog appeal.
VOLUME FESTIVAL 80 bands performing in eight venues in downtown Spokane; see volume.inlander.com for lineup. Two-day wristband tickets, $17. All ages (some venues 21 and over). Fri., May 30–Sat., May 31.