By Benjamin Leatherman
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Olympia, capital of the state of Washington, is an unlikely candidate for indie-rock capital of the nation.
That becomes especially clear when observing it against the backdrop of the annual Olympia Lakefair, a weeklong festival that draws crowds from all over rural Washington to watch the parade and fireworks and ride the Zipper in a state of inebriation. One fellow visitor even remarked that Oly may be the "white-trash capital of the U.S."
There's not a high proportion of punker kids roaming around, no band names tagged on alley walls or fliers covering lampposts. In fact, Oly's teens seemed more like hippies and hip-hoppers than residents of America's hippest indie town. In short, Oly sure as hell ain't Berkeley.
I was in Olympia the third week in July to attend the Yo Yo a Go Go festival. Like most of the out-of-towners, I was on a pilgrimage to visit the current punk-rock mecca and be part of a subcultural phenomenon.
Thanks to labels like K, Kill Rock Stars and Chainsaw and bands, poets and artists too numerous to mention, Olympia is an anomaly in the national independent-music scene. Oly embodies the ideals of artistic community, diversity, independence and sonic evolution that indie rockers cherish so much.
The Yo Yo festival was an indie extravaganza of unrivaled proportions. More than 50 bands played over five days, representing a broad cross section of the beloved new school of indie rock. Close to a thousand people attended the festival, of which a third were artists and musicians of some notoriety themselves (the name-dropping comes later, hold your horses).
This was actually the second Yo Yo a Go Go. The first took place in the summer of 1994. It was put together by the owners of Yo Yo records, an Oly record label specializing in compilation recordings. The roster that year was similar to this year's lineup except for its inclusion of a few artists, like Beck and Rancid, who've since moved on to MTV and mainstream adoration.
Yo Yo was held at the Capitol Theatre, a somewhat run-down, historic cinema house in downtown Olympia maintained by the nonprofit, underground Olympia Film Society. Unfortunately, the theater was only open during the performance windows, leaving Yo Yoers to hang out downtown with the Lakefair crowd, throw cigarette butts at the Shriners, check out the zine store or catch occasional shows at a small performance space a couple blocks from the theater. This was Yo Yo's primary liability--if you didn't know people who lived there, you were pretty much on your own for extraneous entertainment.
The diversity of artists was Yo Yo's greatest attribute--there was an incredible number of duos, females and gay bands spanning the spectrum from sugary pop to raging queer-core to white-boy hip-hop. Although most were from the Northwest, bands came from as far away as Japan and Washington, D.C., to be a part of the madness.
Indie luminaries like Oly's Unwound, KARP and Mocket, Boise's Built to Spill and D.C.'s Monorchid filled the schedule (the performances were split into two four-hour sets per day that locals and non-passholders could check out for a $6 cover). It would take an entire music section to fill you in on all the bands that rocked at the Yo Yo, so what follows is an abridged recap of notable performances.
Seattle's Tullycraft gave one of the best cutesy-pop performances of the show. Its raging power-pop love songs sung in a nasally male-preadolescent falsetto were a hundred times more captivating than its recordings can capture. Being the gracious guys that they are, the band members invited Yo Yo organizer Pat Maley to kick it onstage and sing on his favorite song, "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About." Such nice kids.
Olympia's girl wonder duo Lois was the most personable band on the Capitol's stage, churning out intimate, near-folksy songs about emotions and relationships and informing the audience where to find the best make-out spot in the theater.
Quite simply, Modest Mouse is the future of indie rock. These three guys in their early 20s are setting a standard for innovation and originality that's beyond most bands. The last song the band played, "Tundra/Desert," off the double LP This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, was the epitome of Modest Mouse's genius--a slow, brooding vocal and guitar intro segue into a wailing crescendo followed by a scream of "SHIT!" and a screeching guitar line played over a Rawhide-esque drum beat.
The buzz band of the year, Sleater-Kinney, drew possibly the biggest crowd to its late-night set. If you wanna know how much beautiful, post-Riot Grrl noise three girls with two guitars and a drum set can make, go see Sleater-Kinney. The girls even let a boy play bass with them for the last song, a hyper version of "Dance Song '97."
Copass Grinderz (one of the five Japanese bands visiting the Yo Yo) went so nuts with its violent, three-guitar sonic assault that the singer spent the next 45 minutes sweating and heaving on a couch backstage. Those Japanese guys can do amazing things with noise.
Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live took queer-core to an extreme, tearing through each 30-second blast of ultrafast, screaming punk rock with the energy of a crank addict. How can you not like a hard-core band that features an older-guy violinist with a mad-scientist haircut, ripping his bow across the violin in an effort to keep up with the band?
While legions of musicians twist and contort themselves to put whatever emotion they can dredge up into their songs, Elliott Smith effortlessly bleeds emotion and sincerity into his songs. His solo set captivated the audience as he weaved through his dark, lo-fi acoustic repertoire. When Smith plays live, it's like reading someone's diary, almost a voyeuristic experience (he'll be in town August 22 at an undetermined venue).
Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System takes its Jamaican-inflected, white-boy funk to new heights when it plays live. Johnson's freestyling over the band's (made up of NW hip-hopper Dead Presidents) groove-heavy beats and bass blows up the ass-shakin' collective to proportions you just can't capture on a recording. DNSS was the dance party of the festival.
The Need was the freshest new act to grace the stage. The girl duo sports one of the only drummers I've seen who stands up when she plays. Strictly anticonventional, poppy girl rock with crackling drums and interweaving vocals made the Need one of the most avant-garde acts at the Yo Yo.
Besides the myriad of good bands, Yo Yo featured a fanzine writer's miniconvention; booths for local causes like the women's shelter, Olympia Community Bikes (which drops pink bikes off on the streets for the public to use) and Books for Prisoners; and an afternoon of no-budget film screenings at the fanzine store.
There was a spoken-word-performance session hosted by nationally acclaimed Oly poet Nomy Lamm and a three-hour "Cha Cha Cabaret" variety show, featuring poets, performance artists, storytellers, activists and schizophrenics from across the Northwest and the world. Plus, for a dollar, you could hit up the kissing booth outside and smooch such indie-rock gods and goddesses as Katherine from Cold Cold Hearts, Nomy Lamm, Chris from Monorchid and Joshua Plague from Behead the Prophet (Josh managed to stick his tongue in the mouth of every boy, straight or gay, within a quarter-mile radius of him), and all the smooching money went to a local AIDS charity.
My main goal in going to the Yo Yo was to figure out how a community of 50,000 people could become such a legendary haven of artistic freedom and independent ideals and serve as a breeding ground to so many incredible artists. I left without a solid answer.
Maybe because Olympia's true spirit was buried beneath the madness of the Yo Yo and the crowds of the Lakefair, I was just too distracted to notice it. Or maybe it's simpler than that. As I left Olympia on Interstate 5, I passed the Olympia Brewery. That's when the message hit me in the form of four-foot-high, bronze letters facing the highway: "It's the Water."
Dub Narcotic Sound System is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, August 6, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Make-Up. Call 820-7117 for showtime.