The day the music didn’t die

The independent music world came to Olympia 10 years ago for a pivotal event.

Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill.

Kurt Cobain was stuck on the other side of the globe. It was the one week when the whole world—well, a good chunk of the independent rock music world—was converging on Olympia for the International Pop Underground Convention, and the Oly resident and Nirvana leader was not happy.

“I just remember seeing them come off the airplane and coming towards us,” touring mate and Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore recalls. “One of the first things I asked Kurt was like, ‘This is exactly the same time as the IPU thing—do you wish you were playing that?’ And he was like, ‘Fuck yeah!'”

A month after Cobain groused about missing the IPU, his band released Nevermind, in the process torching the blinds that had once shielded Olympia’s underground music world from the mainstream’s prying eyes.

Yet the indie music scene—particularly in the Northwest—has weathered the post-Nirvana influx and fickle withdrawal of attention and corporate cash in large part because of the IPU, which took place 10 years ago this Aug. 20-25. By fortifying the community’s resolve for self-sufficiency, the IPU both energized the scene and set the stage for the spectacular creative flowering that’s taking place right now.

Organized by Olympia’s K Records, and boasting shows by incendiary punk and pop outfits such as Bikini Kill, Beat Happening, Fugazi, L7, Unwound, and Jad Fair (not to mention a picnic, cakewalk, and Planet of the Apes movie marathon), the IPU has served as a model for indie music gatherings like the biannual Yo Yo A Go Go festival and last year’s Ladyfest arts and activism conference, both staged in Olympia. The convention marked the launch of the stridently independent Kill Rock Stars record label, home not only to several of the bands that played the IPU, but also folks such as Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. And the IPU’s Girl Night provided an empowering spark for the nascent Riot Grrrl feminist movement.

More broadly, the IPU galvanized folks who had been creating vibrant pop and punk scenes throughout the country, joining in one place musicians, indie label owners, and fans whose primary contact till then had been through the postal service. It was an infectious week erupting with possibility, where throngs buzzed on Olympia’s sidewalks and in its music halls, proclaiming “No lackeys to the corporate ogre allowed.” Veterans of the Do It Yourself revolution re-upped for a new decade, while scores of new recruits signed on the dotted line.

Of course, that was then. The corporate ogre indeed rushed in after Nevermind, and the ogre’s boardroom expectations sapped the energy of many in the indie world.

This is now. Even if the ogre had kept its clutches to itself, a scene can’t sustain the fervor that permeated the IPU. There’s no going back to Memphis in 1955, or New York in 1975, or Olympia in 1991. Yet today might just be the most fruitful period for American indie-rock since then. Amazing things are happening—bands like Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip; recordings such as the first disc of the new Unwound opus Leaves Turn Inside You; the Mr. Lady label in Durham, N.C.; events like Ladyfest that clearly take inspiration from the self-awareness and confidence that was summed up in the International Pop Underground Convention.

A decade down the line, it feels like the dawn of a new vitality, says Mecca Normal singer and IPU alumna Jean Smith. “I’ve felt this before, where you feel like you have energy and you’re gonna make things happen. But then if you connect up with other people, you’ll find that they’re sort of feeling the same way.”

BEFORE THERE WAS AN IPU, there was a BBQ—a chow-down and get-down fete thrown by K Records’ Calvin Johnson and Candice Pedersen at Pedersen’s folks’ home in the Steamboat Island area outside Olympia. It was the summer of 1990.

Isolation had played a role in the development of the Northwest’s unique brand of rock going back to the Kingsmen, the Sonics, and Jimi Hendrix. Things hadn’t changed much by 1990. Olympia bands were largely content to play for themselves rather than the national stage. Nurtured in part by the independent ethos at Evergreen College and its KAOS-FM radio station, the local arts scene at the south end of the Puget Sound was especially self-sufficient.

It was pre-Internet time, which compounded the isolation. Snail mail was the only mail. No one offered five-cent phone calls to the other coast, and small indie labels (where a moderately successful release might sell 5,000 copies) didn’t have money for anything beyond bare necessities. At K, which had been “exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt” since 1982 with releases from Johnson’s own Beat Happening and Some Velvet Sidewalk, there was no budget for travel that might allow Johnson and Pedersen to meet other bands and label folks.

The Steamboat Island barbecue turned into an all-night dance fest, and the lightbulb went on. Maybe K could throw something like this to gather together all the folks they never saw—for the friends in bands whose usual stop in Olympia was a revolving door of unload-soundcheck-eat-perform-goodbye.

“It was really built on, ‘What would we like?'” Pedersen says over lunch at the Experience Music Project’s Turntable restaurant. Twenty-four years old at the time of the convention, she’s now an editorial production manager at EMP. (Pedersen left K in 1999 over business differences with Johnson.) “You could certainly make an argument for [the idea that] it was Calvin and I at our most selfish. Who do we want to see? Who do we miss? Come to our town!”

In K’s Olympia loft space, amid flyers and shirts for the 2001 Yo Yo festival, Johnson talks about the IPU in his typically tranquil tone.

“It was sort of an audacious idea of doing something like that,” says Johnson, who was 28 in ’91. “We had hardly sold any records ever, and no one had ever cared much about anything that we did. It just seemed like if just the people who made the music showed up, that would be a success. And then there was other people who showed up, too, so that was great.”

ROSE MELBERG’S MEMORIES of the IPU are hardly so reserved. The future member of gentle pop acts Tiger Trap, the Softies, and Gaze, Melberg performed for the first time in public at age 19, by herself, at Girl Night.

She says without hesitation that the International Pop Underground Convention changed her life.

Girl Night was shorthand for what was formally dubbed “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now,” the convention’s first show. Like many of the IPU shows, it was held at the Capitol Theater. Unlike the rest of the week, Girl Night was suggested and assembled not by the K team but by volunteers including KAOS DJ (and Yo Yo A Go Go co-founder) Michelle Noel, singer/songwriter Lois Maffeo, and Margaret Doherty, owner of Olympia’s Time After Time vintage clothing store.

The show’s architects gathered in the laundry room of the Martin Apartments, headquarters for all sorts of events mapped out by the city’s hipster youth. To outsiders, the notion of Girl Night might seem unnecessary for Olympia’s left-leaning art community. Women, particularly those coming out of Evergreen, had long played pivotal and prominent roles in the town. But younger women felt differently. They weren’t shunned from music (as in most punk scenes), but many observers paid more attention to their outfits than their lyrics or guitar skills, Doherty said.

Early questions about whether males would be allowed on the stage or in the audience were dispensed with by Doherty’s insistence that the Spinanes (singer Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plouf) join the bill.

“It was really about getting the young women in the audience who were sitting on the edge of, ‘Maybe I’m gonna play in a band, maybe I’m gonna pick up a guitar, maybe I’m gonna write a song about how I feel’—to make them go, ‘Yeah, I think I am, ’cause it’s legitimate, and I don’t have to do it well right from the start,'” says Doherty, now a painter in Seattle. “It was mostly about putting a fire under them to get themselves out there, and to know that you can jump off a cliff and your community will catch you.”

Bands hit the stage, played a song or three, then made way for the next artist. Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith, Seven Year Bitch, and an expanded Bratmobile all had their say, as did the nine-member Kreviss and I Scream Truck, a high school duo whose parents picked them up after their set. The show also included one of the earliest gigs by Riot Grrrl two-piece Heavens to Betsy, Corin Tucker’s influential pre-Sleater-Kinney outfit.

And then there was Rose Melberg.

At the time the Sacramento teen landed a spot on the roster, her band Tiger Trap was a band in theory only. When Melberg’s partner in the proposed group couldn’t make the trip north, Melberg found herself with her first solo gig.

It was only after she started playing that she realized she couldn’t see the lyric sheet taped to the floor, forcing her to improvise.

“I never even said my name,” says Melberg, who now lives four hours east of Vancouver in Summerland, B.C. “I went up, played a song, and got off stage. Nobody knew who I was, because no one introduced me. It was just like this weird mystery girl who got up and played this one weird song and left. I was shaking so bad I was almost gonna vomit.”

It was the greatest day of her life.

On K’s The International Pop Underground Convention (1992) live album, Melberg’s fear and adrenaline spring straight from the speakers. Though she’s strumming her guitar with the control of an overdosing caffeine addict, Melberg grows more confident with each verse in “My Day,” her burgeoning power usurping each and every off note. “Happiness day, no nastiness day,” she sings, “All I can say is I’m gonna go out and play today/ Everything I want is so near/Everything I am is so clear/Everyone I like is right here, today.”

For the rest of the week, the IPU conventioneers would talk about Girl Night. For Pedersen, the whole event could have ended that night and she’d have walked away satisfied. “It was a really stunning event that made it really kind of hard even for people who are usually very well-spoken to express what that was. Maybe it’s what it was like seeing the Velvet Underground the very first time. You just didn’t have a language for it, because you’d never heard of such a thing.”

IT’D BE DISINGENUOUS to portray the International Pop Underground Convention as a cultural benchmark for everyone involved. L7 guitarist Donita Sparks remembers thinking it sounded like nothing more than a cool gig when her L.A. hard-rock outfit was asked to play. Ditto for Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch, who performed at the IPU with his early noisy punk group Treepeople. “We showed up and played, and that was about it,” he recalls.

But for many folks the convention was a nonstop high, fueled by all-night disco parties at the Surf Club, furious address trading, and the oddity of finding yourself in a grocery line between indie icon Jad Fair and sludge masters the Melvins.

A fresh-faced Slim Moon bounced between the record stand at the theater and his house, where silk screen artist (and future Villa Villakula record label owner) Tinuviel was drying album sleeves, 100 at a time, for the Kill Rock Stars inaugural compilation album of IPU and Olympia artists, including Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Jad Fair, and others.

“I was nervous that the record was gonna bomb,” Moon, wearing a red Ladyfest shirt, says in his office at Kill Rock Stars’ Quince Street house in Olympia. “And also, I gotta admit, I was in 23-year-old major schmooze mode. I’m sure that I had short conversations with every band.”

He peddled 300 copies of Kill Rock Stars during the convention; the album’s since sold 25,000.

Barstools, restaurant booths, alleys, and living rooms were cluttered with fans and working musicians that most of America had never heard of. Glasgow’s Pastels slept at Pedersen’s house—in matching pajamas. When Washington, D.C., indie-pop band Tsunami found themselves without a place to stay (Mecca Normal’s Dave Lester had beaten them to the Martin’s recycling room), they got the green light to crash on the floor of the Capitol Theater after shows, singer Jenny Toomey says. When fleas descended on them by the thousands, they took cover by pitching tents in the theater balcony.

By Pedersen’s estimates, the state capitol swelled by an extra thousand people that week. That’s no flood, but it’s palpable in a town of 34,000. She recalls the 4th Ave. Tav’s liquor running dry after a day or so.

The non-music events typified K Records’ uniquely gentle take on punk culture. A combination bake-off, cakewalk, and round of musical chairs raised the eyebrow of Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith. “I thought, ‘Is there a hidden meaning here?’ I was this totally angry punk rocker, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do this, but what does it mean?’ I think I was analyzing, trying to figure out why this was all happening—why these nice events for people to socialize were in conjunction with the performance of aggressive punk rock.”

Cakewalks—and disco parties and conventions with childcare—were and are the lifeblood of this punk scene, maybe as much as the music. That’s why Johnson and Pedersen called the IPU a convention, not a festival. Music festivals are about simply watching bands. This was about building relationships.

For kids raised today on Blink-182 and Pennywise, it may be odd to consider punk something other than obnoxiousness or aggression. “I know punk means cuddle,” Toomey sang in Tsunami. Or, really, punk means power. That can take the form of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna shrieking, “Suck! My! Left! One!” at an abuser. But for these folks, it can also be building your own record business, offering health insurance to employees, or helping other bands find gigs.

By the time of the IPU, “punk” as a genre term had long lost any definition, but that freed the word and distilled it to its philosophical essence. Punk is about definition, about the power to define yourself and your world.

As Pedersen wrote in the liner notes to the CD version of Moon’s compilation album, “All of these bands have faith in the future of punk rock and they are, without question, punk rock. Kill Rock Stars is a collection of people who believe that rules are for squares only.”

THIRTY DAYS AFTER the IPU wound down, Geffen Records’ DGC imprint released Nevermind, and it wasn’t long after that major labels came sniffing around Olympia for the new Nirvana. At least one offered unsuccessfully to buy part of Kill Rock Stars. The national media turned their floodlights on Riot Grrrls not as feminist agitators, but cute fashion trendsetters.

“The whole point of what we were doing was D.I.Y., create it yourself, taking over the means of production for ourselves, and creating something ourselves,” said Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe, who was 21 at the time. “So once the media stepped in, it kind of like ruins the whole point of what you’re doing. Because we wanted to be representing ourselves and getting our own voices out there through our own means or media. And so that kind of destroyed that. I think most of us didn’t have the tools to deal with that onslaught. I sure didn’t.”

Unwound guitarist Justin Trosper and former Nation of Ulysses singer Ian Svenonius say the unwanted attention took a toll. People from outside looked at Olympia and saw something like a kinder, smaller L.A. They saw the artistic success, but forgot the self-sufficiency.

“One of the real damning things about what happened post-Nirvana is that people stopped looking inward to move forward; they started looking outward,” says Toomey, who now heads up the Future of Music Coalition digital-rights activist group. “They started looking away from community and looking at consumers, looking at corporate structures who were supposed to take on some of the burden of star-maker machinery.”

That change is still evident.

“I think the reasons for doing things are still the same, but the context of doing them has changed drastically,” says Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, who now runs mail order at Kill Rock Stars. “That is a hard thing to comes to grips with as an artist. When your motives stay the same but the world changes around you, it’s hard to find a place to live and create from.”

That context of creating punk music now includes the possibility, however remote, of becoming rich beyond Blink-182’s wildest dreams. It’s no longer strictly a passion, but an established career choice.

And yet the underground that has its roots in the International Pop Underground is in the midst of a creative groove. Le Tigre, the latest band from Kathleen Hanna, have released two lo-fi electronic punk discs that up the ante on her previous work by matching their fire and doubling their political complexity. Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One (2000) navigates deft self-awareness while still kicking out the jams.

Meanwhile, women throughout the U.S. and in Scotland didn’t sit back and hope last year’s Ladyfest would be an annual event; they staged their own local conferences this year.

“The female voice out of IPU continues to resound,” says Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. “I think it’s had quite an effect on female youth culture—and male youth culture. I see a lot of young guys in the scene of underground music who obviously have a certain awareness of issues concerning gender and gender politics.”

Sure, the International Pop Underground Convention marked a singular time in Northwest rock history. But every era is a singular time, and what seems like an apex is often just another sideways step. The Wailers couldn’t foresee Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.” Neither could have anticipated Nirvana or Riot Grrrls. Whatever the next movement or moment is, there’s more than a good chance that it’ll have the IPU coursing in its blood.

“It showed that the ideas of how things could be aren’t so utopian,” Johnson says. “It’s not ‘could be.’ It was. It is.”

And the bands play on

Though there was never a sequel to Olympia’s International Pop Underground Convention, its progeny are flourishing in the indie music scene.

Record labels that were integral to the 1991 event—such as K, Kill Rock Stars, and Dischord—continue to release engaging music. But newer labels such as Mr. Lady and Seattle’s own Barsuk also document the community. And though the rise of the Internet means fewer folks produce the xeroxed fanzines that served as town criers a decade ago, e-mail and Web sites have immeasurably strengthened the ties among musicians, labels, fans, and promoters.

One of the most invigorating examples of the D.I.Y. spark catching fire anew is Ladyfest. In Olympia last year, organizers of the inaugural feminist arts and activism event urged participants to stage their own Ladyfest conferences. Eight months later, Ladyfest Midwest took place in Bloomington, Ind. Glasgow, Scotland, and Chicago will stage their events next week, while a Ladyfest East in New York is set for September.

Meeting allies face-to-face is imperative, particularly when so many bonds today are forged over the Net, says 24-year-old Jannika Bock of Hamburg, Germany, one of the women planning Ladyfest Scotland. Like Bock, Ladyfest organizer and Glasgow resident Lee Beattie, 22, returned from the Olympia conference last year brimming with ideas. “We wanted to see the event in the context of our own culture and to see the women in our own locale create, organize, perform—and for networks to be created and strengthened thereafter,” she says.

Here at home, the grassroots Vera Project is ensuring that underage kids have opportunities to get involved in the Seattle music scene at all levels, from playing to promoting to engineering.

Josh Ayala, the 25-year-old chairman of the board for Vera, says the International Pop Underground Convention and musicians who were in turn inspired by it played a key role in encouraging his own involvement with the scene. “Watching people put on concerts and events with not a whole lot to work with other than themselves, and getting the word out via ‘zines and word of mouth, it was inspiring and made me realize that if I put a little effort into it, I could put on concerts or help be part of an organization that did.”

Chris Nelson

Slim Moon speaks

Though Slim Moon originally envisioned Kill Rock Stars as a spoken-word imprint, the release of the label’s self-titled compilation album at the International Pop Underground Convention quickly turned it into a thriving music venture. Since then, KRS has issued albums by pioneering Riot Grrrls Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Bratmobile, as well as sets from Unwound, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, and Tight Bros From Way Back When. He’s also dedicated the label to releasing new work from veterans still making important contributions to the scene, such as Ronnie Spector, Mike Watt, John Doe, and the Raincoats’ Gina Birch. Moon, 33, spoke in his office in Olympia.

“A real strong idea for Kill Rock Stars from the beginning was that most labels exist to make money, therefore they make all these decisions that are not really in the best interest of the artist. That doesn’t necessarily create the best music. If our motive was just to make great records, with money as a necessary evil, then we would make different choices. . . .

“Even though the Kill Rock Stars record went really well, my mental state was one of total nervousness for years. Because I kept putting out another record, and then worrying about that record doing OK, and always not really having enough money. . . . I got this idea in our heads to always push it. So every time something did well, we hired another employee or put out some records that we knew we’d lose money on but that were just really cool. By ’97, I think it was, we were actually in really scary financial straits. And then the Elliott Smith Oscar nomination hit [for Best Original Song with “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting], and that saved me from having to do layoffs or something like that. And then ever since ’97, for the past four years, I’ve been trying to practice a more mature—well, basically I’d explain it by saying that we realized that the growth period was over, and it was better to just try to be stable. . . .

“The music that I’ve tried to put out, we’ve always tried to hope that it’s meaningful. Some of it’s meaningful because it explores new musical ideas or because it’s just really high quality. Maintaining a high aesthetic quality in the face of Britney Spears is its own meaningful thing to do. And some of it is political. But I think a lot of political bands out there are hackneyed and ill thought out, or their music’s really terrible. Mostly the political bands that we ended up working with were those [Riot Grrrl] bands. Because what they had to say was really important, really exciting, really meaningful. . . .

“Even when I was 24, I had this big obsession—and now I just live in it—punk rock is so youth oriented, what is the place for career musicians and people who keep these values and this idea and this music for their whole life? I really wanted to support people who keep up a high quality and a high integrity for their whole career. And now that I’m in my 30s, it’s even more of an issue for me. It’s not that I want to age and mellow the label. But I just think it’s tyrannical to have music only be about 18-year-olds.”

Chris Nelson