Seattle art-punks Raft of Dead Monkeys represented the last vestiges of a time when the Internet didn’t yet contain every microscopic detail of a rock band’s existence. The band was active 17 years ago, but it might as well have been 70.
Formed in 1999, RDM lifted their name from an Adam Sandler-era Saturday Night Live skit. The band careened through sets like a speared bull on fire, and their oft-profane lyrics were delivered by lead singer/bass player Jeff Suffering (née Jeff Bettger) with throat-scraping, neck-muscle popping fervor.
By the end of their two-year run, RDM had gained significant notoriety thanks to two key factors: One, most of the band’s members were avowed Christians who’d started out playing in bands hosted by Christian indie-punk record label Tooth and Nail Records; and two, they augmented their sets with anarchic performance-art excess.
Both of those elements factor strongly into The Complete History of Seattle, a truly singular chronicle of Raft of Dead Monkeys’ place in a strange, under-documented time in Northwest rock history. Ostensibly, it’s a documentary. But it’s also a piece of performance art in its own right—and an examination of the sometimes nonexistent distinctions between religious faith and rock ’n’ roll catharsis.
The story begins with Tooth and Nail, a label that (by accident or design, depending on who you talk to) yanked so-called Christian music forcibly out of its self-built bland pop ghetto. While RDM wasn’t a Tooth and Nail band, several members began in two of the label’s best-known acts, Ninety Pound Wuss and Roadside Monument. That affiliation killed RDM’s chance to appeal in secular circles. But it ensured a readymade audience of Christians, who were either offended or liberated by the band members’ radical variation of the religion. Raft of Dead Monkeys smoked, drank (in moderation), swore and embraced Jesus.
Along the way, RDM played insane gigs peopled by male strippers, go-go dancers and a performance artist who devoured then vomited heaps of bananas. The band formed a demented side project (the Dave Bahnsen Militia, aka DBM) that skewered the fascist tendencies of the conservative evangelical Christian fringe. Fate also induced an intersection with the Paradox, a fabled U-district music venue that once played host to local and national bands and eventually spawned the Mars Hill megachurch.
Today a fair amount of crude video footage of RDM exists online and Bettger has uploaded the band’s official releases onto a Bandcamp page. But great deal of RDM’s history exists only as eyewitness testimony—fragmented informational breadcrumbs laid out in an attempt to fill in the blanks.
Writer/director Nick Toti amplifies those gaps, giving The Complete History of Seattle a tinge of the far-off and archival in its interviews. Band members and journalists are shot in iris-lensed black-and-white like living still photos from the early 20th century—and none are identified until after they’ve initially weighed in.
Toti fills other gaps with surreal visual bridges. A dark-haired madonna gives violent birth to a dwarf in a chimp mask. Odd reenactments of the DBM’s dimestore Riefenstahl parody unspool in slow-mo. True to its title, the movie even includes a quick but thorough account of Seattle history through the prism of sacred and profane that formed the city’s contradictory roots.
The Complete History of Seattle frames its disparate threads in the broader context of humankind’s quest for meaning, and that lends the film a strange but palpable universality. Toti cobbles together his own path through the Raft of Dead Monkeys story with a combination of trace evidence and his own perceptions. The end product is weird, pretentious, inspiring, fragmented and impossible to shake off. And if that isn’t a perfect summation of a spiritual quest, I don’t know what is.
The Complete History of Seattle plays at the Northwest Film Forum Wednesday, June 8. Tickets are available here.