Feature

Eccentric exports: what is Seattle’s vibe?

Seattle’s arts culture is infused with a DIY, maverick approach that’s given rise to artists like Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Macklemore. So what’s next for Seattle music and film?

In downtown Seattle, at the corner of fifth and Columbia, the Seattle Municipal Tower reaches toward an expansive overcast sky. Inside there’s the Office of Housing, Seattle City Light and Human Services. Then, on floor 57, is the Office of Film and Music. That office, nestled among the austerity of civil government no less, shows how integral film and music are to making Seattle a stamp of commercial success. It works the other way too. Musicians like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, film director Lynn Shelton and organizations such as Sub Pop, KEXP and the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) have used Seattle as part of their platform for success. But what are the qualities of the Seattle brand that make it so covetable?

The contemporary Seattle identity began to coalesce in the early 1990s with the intersection of grunge, Microsoft and Starbucks, and the merging of community consciousness, a staunch do-it-yourself ethos and social progressivism. As the city has evolved, these are the main elements that continue to be exported as quintessentially Seattle.

“Seattle itself, in about 1990, became a brand name beyond any individual element,” says Charles R Cross, long-time Seattle-based writer and author of best-selling Kurt Cobain biography Heavier than Heaven. “Just the word ‘Seattle’ shifted in popular culture at that time. It meant youth, it meant alternative culture, it meant new money, it meant technology, it meant coffee, it meant coffeehouse culture and, almost more than anything else, it meant music.”

When Nirvana’s Nevermind sold 25m copies in 1991, it was, as Cross puts it, “Seattle’s D-day invasion”. Suddenly, the world wasn’t only enamored with this new music genre but also with its do-it-yourself accessibility and flannel-heavy fashion.

“I moved here from the Midwest in 1993 and at that time the Seattle vibe was unbelievably DIY, like you were the only person who could do it,” says Beth Barrett, SIFF artistic director. “It was incredibly maverick and creative. It was also a super-destructive time – ‘take things down and take down the patriarchy’ was really the vibe of Seattle. We were like the last frontier. And grunge became a style you could buy in a catalogue. My younger family and friends would say to me, ‘Oh, look, it’s the grunge look, I can buy it in Sears.’”

The word Seattle still carries this weight as it exports film and music in the 21st century – you can see it in how major creative institutions are perceived and how they carry themselves in the world community.

For instance, Sub Pop, the indie label that originally put out Nevermind, is still going strong and staying true to its commitment to releasing local, authentic music. And Seattle’s KEXP radio station – which broadcasts worldwide and serves 200,000 listeners each week – has a rule that DJs have to play at least one local act an hour. Both invest in Seattle’s ability to make taste.

“I think that having radio stations such as KEXP is a huge thing for musicians here because they are so popular – you know, people listen to them worldwide – so I think I owe them so much because they play you,” says musician Sera Cahoone. “And labels like Sub Pop and Barsuk support us too.”

Sub Pop chief executive officer Megan Jasper underscores how important the local music community – which has continued to brim with incredible artists like Cahoone, Macklemore, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Porter Ray – is to the label. “The fact that Seattle has this vibrant music community really set the tone and ended up defining who we were really early on. So, if we’re able to document what’s happening in this city then we’re doing right by the city.”

This sense of loyalty has created commercial magic for both the music and film communities, and allowed Seattle’s progressive maverick ethos to be marketed internationally.

For instance, in 2012 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis asked Sub Pop to release their single Same Love, despite vocal plans to release the album The Heist independently.

“When the bill for marriage equality was up for vote in Washington state, the Seattle creative community – including us and organizations like KEXP and The Stranger – developed a campaign called Music for Marriage Equality to get the word out through music about why marriage equality was important,” says Jasper.

“Then Sub Pop was fortunate enough to be given the track from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They asked Sub Pop to release Same Love as a seven-inch single and all the proceeds went to the campaign for marriage equality.”

This collaboration, aside from selling over 2m copies, resulted in helping pass Washington Referendum 74 which legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state and set a precedent throughout the world.

“We are a very progressive, forward-thinking city, and I think a part of why we are is because we care about each other. As a city I think we are far more in tune with the emotional wake that we leave behind,” says Jasper.

Then there’s the SIFF and Northwest Film Forum, which, since the early 1990s, have helped distribute local films and put Pacific Northwest filmmakers such as Megan Griffiths and Lynn Shelton on the map.

“If we’re being compared with LA, then yeah, that sort of industry doesn’t exist here,” says Barret of the SIFF, which has grown into one of the world’s largest film festivals. “But the interesting thing about the Seattle film community is its collaborative nature. Everybody works on each other’s films and when someone does a test screening of their film, the filmmakers from Seattle all come and give their opinions and have a conversation.”

Shelton, director of films like Laggies (2014) and Humpday (2009), says the Seattle community – not to mention its well-designed incentive program – has been essential to her success as a filmmaker and to the success of her friends. Also, in turn, Seattle’s eccentricities are exported through the films.

“I mean, Griffiths made this movie called The Off Hours around 2011 and she had created so much good karma by assistant directing on so many films and had been such a community builder that when she said, ‘I’ve got two dimes I’m rubbing together to make this movie,’ this huge tidal wave of support came out and people said, ‘I’m going to work for you for free for four weeks, and I’m going to help you with your vision,’” Shelton says. “It ended up getting nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and went to Sundance. It was so beautiful to see this highly ambitious script coming to fruition through this group of incredibly talented people who all just came together to support their buddy Megan.”

Shelton also brings up how much filming in the physical environment of the Seattle area has put her apart from competitors and influenced productions set in the area, like Twin Peaks, Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight.

“There’s something else about the physical quality – the light. It’s really special here, I think because we’re more northern. Plus there’s something about the slant of the light, it just has this diffusion. It creates a very low contrast and a very flattering light. It’s like having a soft box on every face,” Shelton says.

It’s this overcast gloom that, aside from pushing filmmakers and photographers outside to document it, sends musicians into their basements to record. It gives everything made in Seattle a certain romantic melancholy.

“We’re a city that gets nine months of rain a year, which causes us to stay indoors and find outlets for that depression. And artistic communities feed on themselves. If you’re an artist and you want to be in a creative place where you might have some opportunity with jobs as well – here’s Seattle,” says DJ John Richards of KEXP.

But the 21st century has meant a rapid influx of tech industry and real-estate development. As a consequence, the Seattle brand is being forced to evolve as the tech community and grassroots arts world scramble to connect and work together – especially around affordable housing. As Jasper says, it’s like Seattle is going through puberty.

“There’s a lot of tension between old Seattle and new Seattle, a lot of changes happening all at once. It’s a matter of: how do we keep the favorite parts of our character and get through it in one piece and together?”

That’s the question for Seattle right now as it moves from provincial afterthought to a major player on the global market. Although the answer is unclear, one thing is for sure: the need to come together, innovate and persevere has always made Seattle’s music and film cutting edge. Odds are, this next phase won’t be any different.

What is Seattle’s vibe?

Porter Ray, rapper who is signed to Sub Pop Records:

In general, Seattle’s vibe for me is really eclectic. I grew up with a multitude of friends from many different races, backgrounds and cultures. I was also exposed to a lot of different art as a child – really eclectic, kind of eccentric too, for sure, and quirky in many ways. Also, it was very jazzy here when I was growing up – there is so much jazz influence. We have a lot of gray days with the rain, so it slows everyone down. There aren’t many people outside, so it has this kind of bluesy feel.

Mary Lambert, singer who performed the chorus on the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song Same Love:

What I’ve noticed about Seattle is that if there’s not enough space for people to create things, people will create space. That’s what’s so rad about it. We had one poetry slam, but instead of trying to fit everyone into one, they made a different slam. And with music, there’s always a space to perform. There has always been people who want your music, and a lot of opportunities to play.

Ben London, principal at Northwest Polite Society, the marketing agency involved with Capitol Hill Block Party, Seattle Pride and brands such as Nordstrom and Patagonia:

One of the hallmarks about the lead-up to the grunge explosion and beyond was the emphasis on DIY culture. We weren’t LA or New York, and this was the pre-internet era, so we had to build our own thing here rather than just try to imitate what was going on at a national level. A lot of the music that came out was just what people thought would be fun to do – it wasn’t specifically trying to be whatever the flavor of the month was. That sort of incubator created some great bands that had a worldwide impact.