The pleasure principle

Seattle's best rock band floats like butterflies and stings like Sick Bees.

Sick & right: Julio (left) and Starla.

Sick & right: Julio (left) and Starla.

“WE NEED FANS WHO will send us metal trash can lids,” says Julio, the drummer for local power duo the Sick Bees. She’s referring to her kit’s secret weapon, which she utilizes like a cross between a snare and a woodblock. “They don’t last very long—maybe a couple of months. Once the lids split, they’re gone.”

Sick Bees

My Pleasure (Up)

In order to keep this integral part of their sound, Julio and singer/guitarist Starla (both of whom go by nickname only) hunt around town for lids with flat metal handles. “You can’t drill holes in those thin, round handles,” Julio notes. “Ballard has a lot of the [flat-handled lids]—we go there at night and find them in alleys when no one’s around.”

Such ingenuity suits the Sick Bees, who have graduated from their humble beginnings as a four-track-oriented hobby to become perhaps Seattle’s most powerful rock band. Still, even with the release of the stunning new My Pleasure on Up Records, the Sick Bees remain, for the moment, a part-time project. This is mostly out of necessity. In addition to their regular jobs—Starla is a nurse, Julio helps operate the Hothouse, a women’s bathhouse on Capitol Hill—the band members have, as Starla says, “been living up to our name.” Julio is recovering from a back operation (“Part of the reason I look like such a dork when I play is that I’m always in pain,” she says) and, more recently, Starla underwent throat surgery. “She looks like a Pez dispenser,” Julio jokes of the deep scar stretched across her bandmate’s esophagus.

Despite the duo’s medical mishaps, their most recent show, at the front end of an Up showcase at Sit & Spin during CMJ weekend, found the duo overcoming some early technical glitches to operate at full, liberating throttle. Starla found this especially gratifying because she was uncertain how her voice would be after the operation. Fortunately, she’d recovered enough to fully indulge each of her three distinct registers: a low, guttural roar; a plainspoken croon that’s closest to her speaking voice, a good-humored Southern drawl; and the unearthly bird calls with which she trills several songs to a startling close. Her rough, ready, Black Francis-esque guitar and occasional pedal-triggered samples were commented upon and filled out with Julio’s through-composed drum parts. Both women managed the trick of playing rhythm and lead at the same time. By the end, they’d harnessed their enormous, nuanced sound with awesomely offhanded assurance.

SUCH CONFIDENCE was slow in coming. The 33-year-old Starla grew up in the west Texas town of Chandler, listening to “bad country radio” with her fundamentalist parents and dreaming of becoming a preacher—indeed, her dramatically modulated speech patterns still have something of the cloth in them. She began playing guitar as a teenager, eventually moving to Austin and playing for several bands. “I wanted to be the best girl guitar player around,” she says. “I didn’t sing—I didn’t know I could sing.”

Following a divorce, Starla moved to Seattle in 1991, where she met Julio, now 34. Originally from Rockford, Illinois—which, she likes to point out, is consistently voted the “most unlivable city in the United States”—Julio was a nonmusician who’d spent time in Chicago before meeting Starla at a party in 1993, the year she arrived here. Starla insisted upon forming a band—something Julio had wanted to do, even though she’d never picked up an instrument before.

After five years of woodshedding, the Sick Bees released 1998’s On the One on Rx Remedy. The band’s close friend Julie Knolin, an engineer at Bad Animals Studios, produced it and was about to start work on the follow-up when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer; she died last year at age 38. My Pleasure‘s emotional highlight, “Tool Room,” which Starla describes as being “about rebuilding your life after the death of someone close to you,” opens with the last thing Knolin ever recorded: a four-track recording of a house being torn down next to the Denny Regrade-area co-op where Knolin lived and Starla and Julio still do. The new album was eventually produced by Tucker Martin, best known for his work with the Sick Bees’ Up labelmates Land of the Loops. Noted Portland producer Larry Crane worked on a couple of songs; final mixes were handled by longtime Built to Spill boardsman Phil Ek.

Though My Pleasure has the same homemade feel as On the One, it’s sharper, more relaxed, better written, and rocks more steadily. Particularly the fierce, funny opener, “Saint Helen’s,” which was inspired by a camping trip Julio and her girlfriend took to the infamous mountain. “We saw this documentary film talking about the monuments and how people had rescued the land from this natural disaster,” Julio recalls. “Basically, it was this huge boast about technology—’Hooray for people, they saved the earth.’ Starla just started playing the chords and singing about what I told her. I highly recommend it—it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.”

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