When people think of Seattle, a few things usually come to mind: rain, Frasier, Jimi Hendrix, grunge music and more rain. Long after the city’s musical heyday, though, Seattle’s music scene is still as vibrant as ever. From legends like Hendrix and Kurt Cobain to the up and coming artists of today, there just must be something in the rainwater out there.
At least that is what music writer Greg Prato says. Prato, author of the book Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, chatted with Travelwise about Seattle's music history, how to embark on a "grunge tour" of the city and why Seattle is such a great music town.
Q: Why is music so ingrained in Seattle's culture? Was it always that way, or was Jimi Hendrix sort of the impetus for it?
A: The fact that Seattle isn't a big city like New York or LA may be why it's been such a hotbed of great, great rock bands over the years. Especially in the '60s and '70s. Now you have the internet, so it's a bit different. Back then, you kind of had to make your own thing and you wound up putting your own personal spin on it. There weren't as many outside sources dictating what you should be doing musically. That's why you would get so many people like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain coming out of there.
Q: Speaking of Kurt Cobain, is there something about Seattle that lent itself to becoming a breeding ground for the grunge movement?
A: Yeah, Seattle tends to be kind of rainy, so you could say some of the music such as Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are kind of low and tuned down. It's not a sunny type place, so you don't expect to hear Beach Boys type stuff coming out of there. So I guess the climate could have something to do with it.
Plus, it's so far away from any place like LA or New York or Chicago, so I think it's kind of its own thing. One thing I learned doing research for my book was that a lot of the vintage clothing and thrift stores in Seattle contributed [to the aesthetic] of the whole grunge movement. And it wasn't because people were trying to look hip or cool, but just because musicians didn't have much cash at the time.
Q: How do you think Seattle became such a hub for music - attracting musicians from all over the world?
A: It mainly started attracting people from other places after it hit big in 1991. I know Eddie Vedder [for example] was from Chicago by way of San Diego. It just seems like most of the musicians started moving there after Nirvana hit and after Pearl Jam hit. Though, starting from the early '80s it was a very fertile scene, influenced by punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, which helped pave the way toward grunge - although it was a combination between punk [influences] and bands like Black Sabbath and Kiss.
And, it's close to Canada as well, so that might have had something to do with it. Touring musicians can easily play shows there too.
Q: Is grunge really dead in Seattle? Or are there bands that you've heard about trying to bring that sound back?
A: I'm not really too sure that there are. I think Sub Pop Records went on to sign a wide variety of bands. It's still a really organic type scene. That's what's great about Seattle - and what's been great about it since the '60s. It's different musicians playing with each other and seeing which styles match with other styles to create new ideas. That's what makes it different from, for instance, LA, where there'll be a band like Guns N' Roses and then a year later, there'll be a ton of bands sounding like that. Seattle really marches to its own beat.
Q: For folks whose hearts are still in the '90s, what are some must-see places to visit for a "grunge tour" of Seattle?
A: The Crocodile Cafe is a pretty famous spot there. It was around in the '90s and then it closed, but it recently reopened again. It's a pretty cool place to see shows. Also the Showbox is one of the most famous venues that's still around. There's also the Paramount Theatre that's bigger. That's where Nirvana filmed concert footage for their song Lithium. And also Soundgarden filmed a home video called Motorvision and I believe Heart also filmed a live DVD [there] in 2002.
Easy Street Records has been around for a very long time. It's a store that I know the guys in Pearl Jam dig because Pearl Jam played there a couple years ago to promote an album.
Pike Place Market is another great place. They have really fresh fish, and the vendors out there sell all types of vegetables and things like that. And I believe that's where the guy named [Artis the] Spoonman used to perform [playing the spoons]. On their Superunknown album, Soundgarden wrote a song about him called Spoonman. The fish market is also famous because there are fish vendors that do this crazy fish throwing thing where they throw the fish a pretty long distance and then catch this cold, flying fish with bags. [Also] A Sound Garden, located in Magnuson Park, is a metal sculpture, from which Soundgarden later took their name.
Q: Any spots for music celebrity sightings?
A: I went out there [Seattle] in spring of 2009 to do a book reading and I went out one night to the Crocodile Cafe and I happened to see Kim [Thayil] from Soundgarden there and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana. I think if you hang out at those places long enough you probably are going to run into people you recognize from the original scene there. It's still a close knit community. It's a cool, friendly scene that's very down-to-earth. The thing I always said was so special about those bands is there was no differentiation between the artists on stage and the people in the audience. They were telling the audience, you could be up here too.
Q: Can you recommend lesser-known venues for live, local music?
A: Gasworks Park. It's a park [built on the site of a former gasification plant] which is a pretty cool looking place. It's a pretty weird kind of industrial looking place with all these pipes [and gas generator towers] and things but it's really cool. And sometimes they have live music [events] there.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: The people in Seattle are super, super nice and they're really outgoing. I would highly recommend visiting Seattle on a trip or vacation. It's not like you get a feeling of people who are trying to be hipsters or people who are trying to come off cool. It's just a nice place with people who are down to earth.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.