In the early ’80s, a group of young punks living in Spokane moved into a handful of apartments perched on top of the Smith Funeral Home—a partially defunct old Victorian on Division Street where bodies were sometimes stored before cremation. Visual artist T.J. Wilcox and his crusty comrades in punk bands Sweet Madness and Terror Couple spent their evenings on the roof, drinking cheap beer and tossing bottles and insults at the jocks and rednecks cruising the strip below.
“We were looking down from our perch of modernity at these dying dinosaurs, and there was something very comforting about that,” Wilcox says in a scene from SpokAnarchy!, a documentary out on DVD this month and showing at SIFF Uptown Theater Jan. 19. “Seeing the last of the Neanderthals…there in the moment, but knowing that they were on the way out. There was a sort of smug pride in watching their death throes.”
Wilcox has gone on to a career as a fine art photographer and painter, his ambitions to transcend the stifling confines of Spokane shaped by those rooftop confrontations. Seattle receives the lion’s share of credit for birthing the Northwest music scene, but the sordid incubator of small town life is equally important in producing risk-taking artists.
SpokAnarchy! director Dave Halsell grew up in 1980s Spokane. At that time, Washington’s second-largest city held a tiny fraction of the state’s population and was wracked by homophobia, racism, and their attendant violence and hopelessness. “If you didn’t fit in, you were ostracized,” Halsell says by phone from Seattle, where he now resides. “Back then—before cell phones, before MTV, before the Internet—Spokane was a backwater.”
That backwater inadvertently spawned a small but potent cache of bands and visual artists who put on shows in abandoned buildings, wrote fanzines and generally countered their town’s narrow political and aesthetic viewpoints. SpokAnarchy! not only recognizes underrated art-punk outfits like Necromancers and Vampire Lezbos, but illuminates the compressive force of small town life and how it can produce true diamonds.
KARP, a defunct post-punk band, is one such gem. Formed in 1990 under the acronym “Kill All Redneck Pricks,” KARP emerged from Tumwater, a rural enclave south of Olympia that’s one of Washington’s oldest towns and the former home to the Olympia Brewery. KARP Lives!, Bill Badgley’s long-anticipated documentary about the band, traces a path of small-town repression and escape similar to the one depicted in SpokAnarchy!. It’s also out on DVD this month.
“[The name KARP] is almost a line in the sand that says, ‘this is us and this is them and we’re trying to do our thing and these are the people that are trying to drag us down,’” Badgley says from his current home in Brooklyn.
Inspired by the slow, deafening sludge-rock of the Melvins (from the nearby logging town of Montesano), bassist/singer Jared Warren, guitarist/vocalist Chris Smith, and drummer Scott Jernigan came together at Tumwater High School, an institution the documentary depicts as more welcoming toward athletes than artists.
“There was a party where a bunch of jocks took a black mannequin and lit it on fire and started beating it with sticks,” Smith says in the film. “I couldn’t understand how that could be happening where we were growing up.”
Over footage of battered, pea-green lockers and seedy pawn shops, Melvins bassist Joe Preston details the troubles that united the members of KARP. “They were tormented [in Tumwater]. It was like prison,” he says. “They were trying to get out of prison with [their music].”
The trio broke out for a time, releasing three albums on K Records and traversing the U.S. before splitting in 1998. Self Titled LP, KARP’s final release, is often cited by contemporary Northwest metal bands like Helms Alee and Akimbo as a hugely influential work. Warren now plays bass with Big Business and the Melvins; Jernigan passed away in a boating accident in 2003. “Even now, KARP embodies everything I like about heavy music,” says former Juno frontman and Seattle expat Arlie Carstens. “Heavy music that is smart, discerning, and funny is a very rare thing. KARP were the snow leopard of Northwest punk rock.”
Badgley never romanticizes the negative environment that spawned KARP, though he does suggest it had a positive effect on the band’s subversive art. He understands that for many young people, a small town is a trap they will never escape from.
In Halsell’s case, the lessons learned in the ’80s about questioning authority and collaborative creativity served him and his peers well into the future. The impetus for SpokAnarchy! was a 2009 “punk rock reunion” of the scene’s most critical players, many of whom hadn’t seen each other for 30 years. What started out as a short video journal of the reunion evolved into a full-length documentary. Rebelling against their small-town environs not only helped these open-minded punks survive with their sanity, but to locate their own voice.