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September 7th, 2005 MARK BAUMGARTEN | Music Stories
 

RIFF CITY

The rise and fall of the great pop hopes that ruled Portland's early-'90s music scene.

     
Tags:
Hazel. Pond. Sprinkler. Crackerbash.

To most music fans outside of Portland, these names mean nothing. But to those who spent any time in Portland clubs in the early '90s, these bands represent a long-forgotten hope. Fifteen years ago, the musicians in these bands should have put Portland on the popular-music map, their songs pumping out of cars in Philly, Minneapolis and Atlanta, their videos streaming into living rooms in Denver, San Diego and New York. That never happened. And the story of how they were a John Hancock away from mind-numbing, bankroll-busting, crowd-thundering fame is, in a funny way, a story about Portland itself.

In the early '90s, these four bands-lumped by many critics into the "grunge" scene-filled clubs like the X-Ray Cafe, the Blue Gallery, Satyricon and the Pine Street Theater (later LaLuna). Each played at bone-rattling volume, but that's where the similarities ended. Hazel was known for its tight harmonies, onstage squabbles and its "interpretive dancer"; Crackerbash for its unrelenting speed punk and the histrionic stage antics of leadman Sean Croghan; Sprinkler for its intertwined guitar parts and the unintelligible wail of Chris Slusarenko; and Pond for its grinding pop and Charlie Campbell's sharp pen.

By the time a tortured and charismatic Kurt Cobain led Seattle's Nirvana to the top of the charts with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991, Portland was already thriving as a center for a unique type of noise-pop.

In this small city, those four local bands could draw thousands to a club, and eventually attracted the attention of Sub Pop, the most important independent manufacturer, distributor and promoter of music in the early '90s. Sub Pop's interest was the equivalent of a papal blessing, the sort of endorsement that could forever place these bands, and Portland, in musical history. In May 1992, Rolling Stone pointed to the decline of the Seattle Sound, while proclaiming that "a new nirvana is being born 170 miles south." But it wasn't to be.

After selling Nirvana to the major music label Geffen Records, Sub Pop was flush with cash and started signing more bands than it could handle. The company grew too fast, and the product-the bands, that is-suffered. Promises were broken, Sub Pop's roster of Portland bands was left hanging like an open chord, and the Portland Sound faded into this town's unspoken musical history.

Until now. This week Hazel, Pond, Sprinkler and Crackerbash are all reuniting for a Saturday show at the Crystal Ballroom at MusicfestNW. We thought it was a good time to speak with some of the band members and local characters who filled the clubs in those halcyon days and lived to bitch about it.

THE BEGINNING

sean croghan, crackerbash

In the late '80s, the Portland rock scene was going through a bad time, like everyone was a junkie, everyone was playing blues-based rock. There was this new crop of bands, like me and my friends, and other kids who kind of crawled out, especially the Slusarenko boys who were coming out of Lake Oswego with Death Midget. And this was one of the first new crop of Portland bands with young, new energy.

chris brady, pond

In 1989 I was living in Juneau, Alaska, and I joined up to play bass for this little teeny art film that Charlie Campbell was soundtracking with this other guy, Chuck Thompson. Soon after that, they were moving down to Portland to play music. I had nothing going on, I'd just graduated from high school, so I went with 'em. They bought a van for three hundred bucks, we got on a ferry to Seattle, then we drove to Portland and broke down right in front of Powell's.

brady smith, hazel

Pete Krebs and I worked together at a frame shop when he was in Thrillhammer. I had just moved to Portland from Olympia, Wash., in 1989, and Pete and I started writing songs together. I had seen Jody Bleyle play in a Reed band called the American Imperial Mastodon. They were playing in the Reed Commons and Jody was wearing fur pants and playing drums like crazy, so I was very interested. I took Pete to Reed and we watched her play, and I asked her to join us. And Fred [Nemo], Pete knew from around Laurelthirst Pub, but I'd shot pool with Fred quite a bit also and seen him dance.

steven birch, sprinkler

One day, Chris Slusarenko and I just decided, "Why don't we get together?" And we ended up at his parents' house and played all day. Some of the stuff was pretty cool. I convinced Chris to have his brother Nate, who he played with in Death Midget, come play with us. We got together, had a rehearsal and it just clicked.

sean croghan, crackerbash

Scott Fox and I just decided at some bar one night in 1989 or so that we should start playing. So we started practicing in his basement. After a couple of practices, our gear got ripped off by these junkies, so we had a couple months' break there. Eventually my dad bought a guitar for me, and we started practicing in my basement, and then we got a show. Because Scott and I had grown up here and gone to so many shows over the years, all these people knew who we were, so our first show, which was at the Satyricon, was a total sellout. Like, everyone came and saw us play, even though we totally fuckin' blew. We thought we were rock stars. We kind of felt like that was it, we were down for fame and fortune.

brady smith, hazel

Pete and I had eight songs and just thought, "Let's play a show." It was a Valentine's Day show in 1992. I had seen Fred in a tutu before and thought he made a fabulous Cupid, so we had him join us as our dancer because of the holiday. During the early days of Hazel, we spent at least as much time coming up with odd things to do at the live shows as we did practicing. We had Christmas lights and giant props. We had all these grand plans, but Fred was the only thing that really stuck. He was officially part of the band from the beginning.

THE SIGNINGS

sean croghan, crackerbash

I didn't know that Sub Pop was fishing around Portland until it was actually really happening in 1991. We would always joke around saying, "Maybe Sub Pop will like us." And of course we thought we were the best band in town. We kicked the other bands' asses (laughs). We were all kind of hoping, and the shows were starting to get better, and more people were starting to show up. When the X-Ray opened up, it changed Portland again. And then you had Satyricon as the old established club and there was the Pine Street Theater for the big shows.

steven birch, sprinkler

We had played a few gigs with the Afghan Whigs, and the band's leadman, Greg Dulli, loved us. The Whigs were playing in town one night when we played at the X-Ray with Pond in August. Before their show, Dulli brought [Sub Pop co-founder] Jonathan Poneman to our show, and he fucking freaked out. While we were loading our gear up, Jonathan came up and gave me a business card that said, "Call me!" with a major exclamation point. And he said, "I love you guys, you've got to call me, we've got to do something." We were downtown on Burnside, it was a shitty night and we were hurrying to get our stuff in, so I didn't even glance at it. Finally I looked at it and was like, "Shit! That was Jon Poneman from Sub Pop!"

jonathan poneman, owner, sub pop

Sprinkler was playing, and they were on fire. They were super-good. What sold me was Chris' voice, and his melodies were really compelling and memorable right off that bat. And I think those guys had great hair. Except for Steve.

steven birch, sprinkler

It took a while, but in early 1992 they signed us to a one-album deal, with the option for two more records [meaning that the label, if it chose, could demand two more albums from the band]. It was a pretty standard deal from Sub Pop, as far as I could tell. We got $5,000 to record the album and $3,500 to buy new gear, because our equipment was pretty shitty.

brady smith, hazel

Pond and Sprinkler were signed before us. I think on one of Jonathan's trips to Portland he kind of stumbled across us. And I don't know that he knew what to do with us, really. Sub Pop was sort of veering toward the pop side of things, and I think sonically we were a bit more edgy than he was looking for. But he saw some potential, obviously, and signed us.

jonathan poneman, sub pop

I had already been told about Hazel a lot. Everyone was saying they had an amazing drummer and "you gotta see Fred." I didn't think that did the other people in the band much credit, 'cause I think Hazel would not be Hazel without any of the other guys. Particularly Pete. They were all so integral.

sean croghan, crackerbash

We played a show in Seattle that kind of changed a lot of stuff for us. We played with Sprinkler and maybe Pond. It was a big triple threat of Portland bands, and Sub Pop loved Sprinkler, and they loved Pond. But they just kind of thought Crackerbash was, like, "Eh." We did get interest fom other labels, though, and we eventually ended up signing with Empty Records.

jonathan poneman, sub pop

Crackerbash was a great band. My only discomfort about courting them was because of Seattle's proximity to Portland. Sub Pop's ascendancy came to be the framing of the story of the "Seattle Sound," and the last thing that I wanted to happen-even though I played into it in some ways-was for Seattle to move into Portland, and for people to say, "Now there is a Portland Sound. Yesterday it was Green River and Nirvana, and today it's Pond and Crackerbash." The fact was that there was this great, intimate music community with these talented people, and we wanted to work with them, but I didn't want to sign everybody. So, frankly, that was the reason why we never approached Crackerbash. As goofy as it sounds in retrospect, it was kind of like, "Enough."

THE SCENE

sean croghan, crackerbash

Before Sub Pop got involved in the scene, all of us were playing to full houses of 1,500 people with a fairly captive audience at the Pine Street Theater. It was all-ages, which was awesome, and we'd have four local bands on the bill. We'd make $200 or whatever, but at the same time we were playing in a place with a great system and a full house. They weren't making any money on the door. It was all beer sales and taking a risk on making a name for themselves as a club and as promoters.

jody bleyle, hazel

We had this really intense little feminist world at Reed, but it didn't extend beyond the borders of that. So when I got into Hazel-and at the time I was young, gay and coming out-the sexism in the scene was inescapable. All the bands were filled with guys. The audience would be 90 percent guys, and people treated me badly. It was ugly, and I spoke out about that-from the stage, wherever.

pete krebs, hazel

Drugs-and by drugs I basically mean heroin and cocaine-they just weren't a part of this group of bands. I don't want to make a class thing out of it, but I think that the scene that those bands were coming out of was just too smart to get into heroin. No one wanted to be hanging around drooling all over themselves. Everybody was too into playing music, working on their witty repartee and shagging each other. It just seemed like a hell of a lot more fun. I would be surprised if anyone at that time did anything more than dabbling in heroin.

sean croghan, crackerbash

Satyricon was a great club, but it definitely was kind of smarmy, lots of junkies. You'd go in the bathroom and people would be shooting up. And then this new club, the Blue Gallery, happened. It was a spot that gave the scene a voice. George at Satyricon [owner George Touhouliotis] was a hard-ass, a businessman. Sure, he loved the kids, but he was definitely in it for the money. And Tim Brooks, who owned the Blue Gallery, and Pamela, his wife at the time, they were in it for the excitement. They wanted to create something, and they did. They would have flag-burnings, and they were booking the weird bands that Satyricon was passing on, which wound up being the bands that changed everything, like Nirvana and Mudhoney. Not that Satyricon was just ignoring all those bands, but Blue Gallery was eager, like, "Yeah yeah, we'll take that, we'll take that."

THE MEMORIES

chris slusarenko, sprinkler

In 1992, the Portland Music Association, who were responsible for putting on the Mayor's Ball every year, put together the PMA Awards. They asked us and Hazel to play, and we were really excited. Ed Whelan, the sportcaster [from KOIN], hosted it and all the Geffen A&R people were hanging around. It was before our album had come out, so the nominees for Song of the Year were Pond's "Young Splendor," the Spinanes' "Suffice" and the Blazers'-as in the Portland Trail Blazers-"Bust a Bucket." We were all joking that that stupid song would win it-and then it did. There wasn't even anyone from the Blazers' organization there, so Steve ran up, grabbed the award and said, "I accept this award on behalf of Pond."

brady smith, hazel

We were playing a show in San Francisco, and Fred was on a stool with a pitcher half-full of water on his head. It looked like he was standing still, but he was using his muscles to sort of twist around very slowly. It was probably during "King Twist," because he always liked to put on a special show for that song. So he's spinning around with this pitcher on top of his head, and somebody threw a balled-up piece of paper from about 30 rows back. It floated through the air and landed in the pitcher. It was incredible. It was one of those things where something was very right.

pete krebs, hazel

I think that was the same night that Jody busted her knee during the show and had to go into rehabilitation for a while. It was always risky playing a Hazel show. There would be bricks falling, pitchers of water being poured over your head, Fred up on a ladder stretched out over you, unplugging you. He was definitely the X-factor.

mike jones, salem promoter, owner of schizophonic records

The best show that I ever put on was in late 1991 at this place called the Westside Station, and the bill was Sprinkler, Pond and Crackerbash. It was a 21-plus show and was poorly attended, but I remember there being more kids out back trying to hear the bands through the back of the building than there were people inside, and these kids were just screaming and making all this noise. There were like 35 of them behind the stage listening to the show, and we opened up the back door so they could hear it.

john chandler, portland editor, the rocket

The first time I saw Crackerbash I really didn't like them. I guess we were used to bands with an ice-cool demeanor that didn't really jump around a lot and just kind of looked cool. And Croghan was just going ape-shit, having a conniption fit up there, and we were all just kind of, you know, dismissive of him. Like "Oh brother, try to contain yourself, kid. Show a little dignity up there." Eventually, I came around, especially after I got to know Sean, and understood. He's the genuine article.

THE POLITICS

nate slusarenko, drummer, sprinkler

We played one show opening for Mudhoney and Nirvana at the Fox Theater in late 1991. It was the day that Nirvana's Nevermind went gold. People in the crowd were in tears to see that band; that was just a freaky scene, very weird and just out of control. That's when I knew that everything had changed.

sean croghan, crackerbash

As soon as Nirvana hit, we all just freaked out. We thought we were gods. We felt like they were a part of us, and they were doing it. At that point, we thought we could all do it. And it was like this magic.

charlie campbell, pond

A couple of years later, bands had this planned trajectory where they thought they would sign with Sub Pop, move on to a major and then become a big deal, get famous. At the time we signed, we had no idea about the possibilities.

nate slusarenko, sprinkler

In mid-1991, around the time The Rocket ran that "Sub Plop" story [which spelled out the financial troubles the label faced after losing much of its roster to major labels], Sub Pop, as an office, had dwindled down to two people. And then after Nirvana, in one or two years' time, they had become a megaforce in the business and had this big, beautiful conference room. I think they were just out of their minds with everything-they were signing tons of bands and spreading themselves way too thin.

chris brady, pond

After the first record, we toured for, like, six and a half months straight. I remember calling our publicist and he asked if he could call me back. And I'm like, "I'm on a pay phone," and he's like, "Are you guys still on tour?" They were three records down the road already, and we were sitting in the middle of Kentucky, thinking, "Our label doesn't even know we're on the road."

sean croghan, crackerbash

All the bands, to some degree, started getting these calls from major labels. I would get calls from Blake [Wright, owner of Empty Records] and it would be like, "Hey, Geffen called. They want to know if you'd send 'em a CD and talk to them." And we were always like, "Fuck that, no. Hell no. Fuck off." We still believed in the idea that indie rock was different from being on a major label. We thought if we got signed to Touch and Go or Matador that it would be totally different, that we would get paid more for every album sold. Then we found out from our friends that signed to bigger indie labels that a label is a label is a label is a label. They have their constraints, and they have their good things and bad things.

charlie campbell, pond

Stuff kind of soured between us and Sub Pop. We had a three-album deal with them, but were able to get out of the third album when Sony's Work Group label signed us.

chris brady, pond

At that point, major labels were just throwing money at bands. It was a gamble, like they were playing keno, and they would put their money down and would just root for that No. 44. We put out one record we really liked on Work Group, but they didn't do anything for us.

pete krebs, hazel

Toward the end, we decided that we would go for broke and try to get a deal before the band self-destructed, which it was well on the way to doing. So Jody and I hired a publicist to set up some showcases in L.A. where we could get courted by the major-label reps. We were just about to sign when the company we were talking with got absorbed by a larger label and the guy who had been working on us got a new boss. The new guy saw us and hated us, and that was that. We were so close to signing this crazy deal, like the one the Screaming Trees signed. It would have gotten us, who knows, doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Can you imagine that? Hazel playing the Super Bowl.

THE END

chris slusarenko, sprinkler

Jonathan Poneman used to come down to Portland all the time and sleep on our floors when the label wasn't doing well, and then, when everything changed, he did, too. He actually told me that I should cut my hair-that long hair was out.

nate slusarenko, sprinkler

We wished Sub Pop would have done more, but we were pretty naive in knowing what to expect. We definitely could have done a lot more as a band, but we just kept waiting for Sub Pop to set things like tours up for us. At that point, we were looking at doing other things and we were not happy with the way the band was being treated by the label. I don't even know if we were breaking up or just taking a break, but we did have to get our equipment out of our practice space.

steven birch, sprinkler

Sub Pop kept promising again and again to send us on tour to Europe, but it never happened. It was basically because of their lack of confidence in us as a live band. Whenever we played Seattle, we were horrible. We'd been taken out by Geffen Records to some big, fancy dinners, and the guy from Geffen was hot on us, but we just couldn't keep it together. I do think that if we had stayed together, we could have been kind of a mediocre band that got signed to a major label.

jonathan poneman, sub pop

With every single one of those bands, I have my regrets with regard to how we, as a label, dealt with them. At that point in time, we had been a record label for somewhere between five and seven years. I've been doing it now for about 17 years. I've learned a lot over the years. So I just look back at that and think, "Oh my god, I can't believe I did that."

sean croghan, crackerbash

Tin Toy came out [in 1993], and then we toured Europe. We got to do our one European tour, and it was mind-blowing. We came back, and then it just turned sour-the band and the scene, too. We burnt ourselves out. We all had day jobs, so working and then going to band practice, and having shows every weekend, and driving eight, nine, 10 hours every weekend to go to some show and driving back was exhausting. And I know that I was an emotional wreck at the time.

alex steininger, fan and publisher of in music we trust

So, Sean started dating this girl, they broke up, and then Scott started dating the same girl and Sean fucking got livid about it. Crackerbash was supposed to play a show in early '93 at the X-Ray Cafe; people were lining up around the block. And when people got there, they looked up and the marquee said "Sean Croghan." And people were like, what's up? And the guys at the door were like, "Crackerbash broke up, Sean's playing solo acoustic tonight." And that was the end of Crackerbash.

chris brady, pond

The person who was supposed to do our day-to-day marketing and publicity at Work Group had gone AWOL. She had disappeared on the road with Jamiroquai [the large-hatted Brit responsible for 1996 radio hit "Virtual Insanity"] for four months. In the meantime, any momentum our album had gained was gone. So they let us go, and since we had signed a three-record deal, we each got a good little paycheck. But that first album for Work was our last album. And then a few months later, Sony dissolved Work Group.

brady smith, hazel

Did we ever break up?

pete krebs, hazel

That's the big joke, that we never really broke up. Which we didn't. But after touring with Veruca Salt, things were stressful, and the band was embattled. We were a feuding family. We would have these huge arguments on stage. Jody and I had such wonderful creative chemistry and just the most awful personal chemistry. Eventually the strain became too much. We didn't break up, but we needed time away to heal from the damage.

jody bleyle, hazel

Well, I am kind of the one that broke up the band when I moved to San Francisco. That last album, [1997's] Airiana, was so great. We were at our prime, but it was just time to move on.

riff city residents

CRACKERBASH, 1989-1993

Sean Croghan: guitar, vocals

Scott Fox: bass

Ted Miller: drums

DISCOGRAPHY

Crackerbash (Empty, 1992)

Tin Toy (Empty, 1993)

POND, 1991-1998

Chris Brady: bass, vocals

Charlie Campbell: guitar, vocals

Dave Triebwasser: drums

DISCOGRAPHY

Pond (Sub Pop, 1993)

The Practice of Joy Before Death (Sub Pop, 1995)

Rock Collection (Work Group, 1997)

SPRINKLER, 1991-1994

Steven Birch: guitar

Eric Moore: bass

Chris Slusarenko: guitar, vocals

Nate Slusarenko: drums

DISCOGRAPHY

More Boy, Less Friend (Sub Pop, 1992)

Peerless EP (Sub Pop, 1993)

HAZEL, 1991-1997

Jody Bleyle: drums, vocals

Pete Krebs: guitar, vocals

Fred Nemo: dance

Brady Smith: bass

DISCOGRAPHY

Toreador of Love (Sub Pop, 1993)

Are You Going to Eat That? (Sub Pop, 1995)

Airiana (Candy Ass, 1997)

a guide to riff city

The Afghan Whigs: Cincinnati alternative rock band fronted by Greg Dulli that signed with Sub Pop and won critical acclaim in the early '90s.

Blue Gallery (222 NW 10th Ave.): Alternative-rock venue that operated from the late '80s to the early '90s, owned by the late Tim Brooks.

Tim Brooks: Bassist for the late '80s hardcore punk band Bold, bouncer at LaLuna and owner of the Blue Gallery.

Candy Ass Records (1992-1999): Independent record label started by Hazel's Jody Bleyle in 1992 that released records by Team Dresch, Rebecca Gates and Sleater-Kinney, as well as Hazel's final album.

Death Midget: Portland experimental band formed by Chris and Nate Slusarenko in the mid-'80s.

Empty Records: Independent record label founded in Seattle in 1987 that helped to promote aspiring grunge/noise-pop bands in the Pacific Northwest.

Geffen Records (a.k.a. DGC): Founded by David Geffen in 1975, Geffen Records was part of Warner Bros. Records before being purchased by MCA in 1990. It is currently part of Universal Music Group. In 1991, the label released Nirvana's Nevermind.

Heatmiser (1992-1996): Best known as the group in which Elliott Smith started playing publicly, this distortion-drenched rock band played many shows with the bands in this article, releasing three full-length albums and one EP in the process.

Indie rock: Originally used to refer to music that was recorded, manufactured and distributed without the help of major labels, the term "indie rock" is now used to represent anything that sounds like it was recorded, manufactured and distributed without the help of major labels-although it probably was.

LaLuna (221 SE 9th Ave.): Known during its lifetime by many names-including the Pine Street Theater-this 1,000-capacity music hall in inner Southeast was known as LaLuna starting in 1992. The club was operated under that name by Monqui Presents until 1999, when it became a rave club called the Womb. The latest club to call the space home, Solid State, had its final show last month; a catering company is moving in (see Bite Club, page 64).

The Mayor's Ball: An annual charity event, started in 1984 by Mayor Bud Clark, that featured local bands and drew 10,000 people in its first year. The last Mayor's Ball was held in 1992.

Major labels: Large international record-production companies. Following a series of recent consolidations, only four majors remain: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

Matador: An independent record label founded in New York in 1989 that has released albums from artists such as Spoon, Sleater-Kinney and Modest Mouse.

Nevermind: Nirvana's second album, released on major label Geffen Records, that went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in 1992 and sold 10 million units in America.

Nirvana: The band, led by Kurt Cobain, that formed in Aberdeen, Wash., in 1987 and went on to popularize the musical style that became known as "grunge."

The Rocket: Started in 1979 as a monthly tabloid based in Seattle, The Rocket became the bible for the Pacific Northwest music scene. In 1991, The Rocket opened a Portland bureau, which existed until the magazine closed up shop in October 2000.

Schizophonic Records: Salem independent label started by Mike Jones in the late '80s and responsible for the I-5 Killers compilation series featuring Pacific Northwest artists.

Sub Pop: Seattle record label started by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt in 1986. Sub Pop is credited with developing the Seattle Sound, a.k.a. grunge.

Satyricon (125 NW 6th Ave.): The longest-running rock club on the West Coast, Satyricon was open from 1983 until 2003.

Screaming Trees: One of the earliest grunge bands from Seattle. In the early '90s the band released two albums on major Epic Records.

Thrillhammer: The 1980s Portland rock band that claimed Pond drummer Dave Triebwasser and Hazel's Pete Krebs among its members.

Touch and Go: Chicago-based indie record label that released albums by Urge Overkill, the Jesus Lizard and Laughing Hyenas in the late '80s and early '90s.

X-Ray Cafe (214 W Burnside St.): A short-lived and very weird all-ages rock club, the X-Ray was owned by Ben Ellis (who moved to New Orleans in 1997-see Q&A at www.wweek.com) and Tres Shannon, current owner of Voodoo Doughnut. This venue is also the subject of the excellent documentary X-Ray Visions.

-David Muller


Hazel, Pond, Crackerbash and Sprinkler play Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Crystal Ballroom for MusicfestNW, a three-day festival co-sponsored by WW. See HeadOut on page 52 or www.musicfest.com

WW would like to thank these additional contributors:

Larry Crane

Chanda Helzer

Mike King

Tim Owen

James Rexroad

Dawn Radtke

Alice Wheeler

 
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