Rocket Queen: Off the Rails

A rockin’ couple seeks to fill a gaping hole in the queer-centric punk club scene.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, the Orient Express in SoDo seems unoccupied, save for a lone bartender and a bemused hostess. However, navigate the rabbit-hole route through the connected line of seven antique railroad cars in search of the women’s bathroom, and you might stumble upon a party of a dozen talkative ladies dining in one of the establishment’s many private karaoke rooms, or a couple of seniors sipping flammable cocktails.

Such is the charm of the space formerly known as Andy’s Diner: You never know what or who is around the corner. Back in the space’s dimly-lit lounge, past the oversized fish tank surrounded by toy train tracks, sits Lars Finberg, the enigmatic leader of art-damaged local punk band The Intelligence.

“Trainwreck” is the new DJ/live music night hatched from the love nest occupied by Finberg and his fiancée, Susanna Welbourne, who also plays keyboards and sings in The Intelligence and choreographs the unconventional burlesque troupe the Atomic Bombshells. The couple happened upon the concept of a queer-friendly, punk-minded dance party while attending a birthday party for Adria Garcia, the wife of Lights guitarist Craig Chambers, whose other band, Love Tan, played in the back of one of the Orient’s cars. Everyone dressed to the nines, and a deliriously good time ensued.

Welbourne suggested they try to recreate the evening with DJs, a drag-queen MC, and their own house band. Christened Puberty, the pair would forgo their instruments to focus on singing and stage presence, with members of Little Cuts, the Cops, and the Shins functioning as their backing band.

“I liked the idea of a residency…like how bands like Suicide did that at Max’s Kansas City in New York,” says Finberg over pints of Stella and an enormous plate of cashew chicken prepared by Orient Express owner and chef Ed Deng, who worked for upscale pan-Asian institution Wild Ginger before buying Andy’s Diner and reconfiguring it as a Thai-Chinese restaurant and lounge.

Ever since the demise of Capitol Hill’s beloved queer-centric punk party, Pho Bang, Seattle has been hurting for a truly edgy night that brings out a diverse, debauched crowd hungry for envelope-pushing art. Fittingly, Pho Bang founder Marcus Wilson (aka DJ Porq) will be holding down the decks before and after Puberty’s “Trainwreck” sets.

“He has great taste in music,” explains Finberg. “He crosses both those lines where he’s playing stuff by the Fall and ’80s disco or Tones on Tail. He doesn’t pander…he’s not going to play Tone Loc for ironic shits and giggles.”

The delightfully foul-mouthed Kissee Simmons, whom Finberg was introduced to after the drag-star-on-the-rise sashayed into an Intelligence gig at the Comet, will MC when “Trainwreck” embarks on its maiden voyage this Thurs., Feb. 4. (Finberg and Welbourne have the first Thursdays of the next three months booked, after which they’ll take a brief hiatus while The Intelligence tours Europe.) Aside from the music and personalities involved, Finberg sees the bizarre, frozen-in-time setting of the Orient Express as a key component of the experience. Most of the vintage accoutrements from the Andy’s era remain, from the framed photos of FDR adorning the walls to the antique light fixtures and well-worn red booths.

“If someone comes in here and says, ‘Oh, it’s too dark, this place is a dump, and they don’t have new micro-beer X,’ or whatever—then this isn’t the place for them,” says Finberg with that impassioned mix of anger and sadness you hear whenever the topic of Seattle’s rapid gentrification arises. “But if you walk in and your eyes light up and you say, ‘Holy shit, places like this still exist?’, then you’re going to love this.”

“The Orient Express is tailor-made for good ol’-fashioned weird fabulousness,” adds Welbourne. “Just eating dinner in there feels like being on psychedelic drugs, so actually having a fun, sweaty dance party, where people are bringing it with their outfits, in a space like that, will be fantastic and something this city needs more of. It’s going to be like some kind of a David Lynch speakeasy.”