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Pacific Northwest Indie Rock: The Soundtrack of the Evergreens


Pacific Northwest Indie

(Pictured - Sleater-Kinney)

Scattered across North America lie notable pockets of musical creative expression, each with distinct characteristics that set them apart from their counterparts. Sitting atop a handful of these scattered regional music scenes is the Pacific Northwest, which carved out a unique sound in indie and alternative music starting in the late ‘80s and continuing all the way until today. The region came to prominence in the early ‘90s with the Seattle-Grunge sound, dominating the US in a way similar to how Britpop dominated Britain. Beginning with grunge and eventually developing into forest-dwelling folk, the ethos of the Pacific Northwest dipped its toes into a handful of different styles, all with a creative, Do-It-Yourself, unconforming mindset. Whether your cup of tea is Nirvana, The Decemberists, Modest Mouse, or Fleet Foxes, the dark green forests and gray rainy skies equally contributed a level of unity to an assortment of musical styles.


Grunge


Although our spotlight article today will be focusing more so on the post-grunge indie scene of the PNW (Pacific Northwest), it would only make sense to start our story in Aberdeen, Washington, in the mid-‘80s. Meeting in high school, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic certainly had no idea what was in store down the line for the two of them in the world of music. The two had played together in rehearsal spaces for a period of time, but it was not until 1987 when the two formed what would become Nirvana. The band released their debut album Bleach in 1989, holding a pre-grunge, more traditional late ‘80s American rock sound, somewhat of a more punk cousin to Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth, through Sub Pop Records in Seattle. Upon release in 1989, the album found a little bit of love in British indie spheres along with American college rock radio but did not leave much of a large-scale impact. Retrospective reviews have since been quite friendly to Bleach, praising tracks like About a Girl and their cover of Love Buzz, originally by Shocking Blue. Cobain’s gift for minor key songwriting has been praised along with the album's unnerving feeling that something great and unexpected was on the horizon for Nirvana, with their potential clearly visible. Looking back on the ‘80s now, although its impact at the time was minimal, we called Bleach one of the top 100 rock albums of the ‘80s, although the record was still a skip and a jump away from grunge.

Once Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991, the gloves were off, and grunge became all the rage in the US. Nirvana’s Pacific Northwest brethren, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, timed their grunge releases perfectly with the release of Nevermind. Pearl Jam’s decorated debut Ten was released one month before Nevermind, whereas Soundgarden’s third release Badmotorfinger was released one month after. These three albums, along with Temple of the Dog’s debut album earlier in the year and Dirt by Alice in Chains in 1992, cemented Seattle as the most dominant region in American music for a period of time, resulting in Rolling Stone calling the city “The New Liverpool.” Grunge dominated alternative radio while also gaining attention from metal fans and traditional rock fans. The flannel-wearing, outdoorsy style of dress donned by many in the Pacific Northwest became intertwined with grunge, resulting in people all over the country adopting the dress code. As those from the area will tell you, that’s just how people dress there; it’s not much of a fashion statement. Gray rainy skies, plenty of shade, and an outdoorsy culture simply result in flannel shirts, beanies, and boots, especially given the comfort-over-aesthetic lifestyle lived by locals.

(Pictured - Soundgarden, 1987 Sub Pop Promo Picture)

Grunge was uniquely a Seattle sound, with most bands in the style either coming from the city or the surrounding area. Prior to mainstream success, the heavy hitters of grunge made their presence known in Seattle, frequenting clubs like The Showbox and The Crocodile. The roots of grunge can be traced down two paths: the first path coming from Seattle, and the second path coming from the East Coast. The first path leads back to Melvins, an experimental rock band from Seattle playing with the styles of noise rock and metal. Melvins' sludge sound became an important precursor for grunge, although their style may be more Black Sabbath than Nirvana. The second path takes us to the East Coast with bands like Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth became one of the most accoladed bands in the noise rock category, playing with reverb, distortion, and a plethora of amplifier effects, resulting in an often sludgy, grunge-like sound. Pixies paired jangle-pop guitar lines with haunting guitar effects, also creating a precursor for the grunge sound. Pixies also perfected dynamic contrast in their music, often having incredibly loud choruses paired with softer, mellow verses. Speaking about Pixies, Kurt Cobain stated, “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band - or at least in a Pixies cover band.” In 1992, Cobain remarked, “[When I] heard songs off of Surfer Rosa [Pixies' debut album] that I'd written but threw out because I was too afraid to play them for anybody.” Many journalists have spoken heavily about Pixies' influence on Nirvana and grunge, but nothing says it better than Kurt himself.

Grunge continued to dominate airwaves, both mainstream and underground, for a few years until Kurt Cobain’s untimely 1994 death, which marked the downfall of the style. Increasing popularity led to a handful of imitators, disconnected from the scene, oversaturating a now well-established market. Grunge bands were battling with drug addiction, breaking up, or struggling to create music that topped their prior releases. By 1996, fans of the style were simply more interested in the '91 and '92 records instead of the contemporary releases, which just weren’t doing it anymore. On top of all that, the massive media attention around the scene and the name "grunge" itself was still not loved by what was left of the scene. Post-grunge emerged in the mid to late ‘90s with bands like Foo Fighters, Bush, and Collective Soul, but the style pretty much lost its unity, with bands from all over the world mimicking the authentic PNW style. A few bands peaked their heads out as something special, notably Foo Fighters, but other bands like Nickelback and Creed received the attribution of almost being a grunge parody and never found themselves taken too seriously.

Following the downfall of grunge, the most interesting music coming out of the Pacific Northwest was no longer what was left of grunge or post-grunge, but rather indie rock, with bands like Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Death Cab for Cutie leading the way. This new indie rock emergence saw less unity than the grunge group. Sleater-Kinney combined grunge-style lyrics with feminist ideals, punk attitudes, and noise rock musical characteristics. Both Built to Spill and Modest Mouse centered around lo-fi and a slacker rock sound of often deadpan vocals and catchy melodies. Built to Spill would hang on to that sound more long-term, whereas Modest Mouse would later develop their own sound, turning away from the Pavement-esque sound of their debut album or the Sad Sappy Sucker LP, released in 2001 consisting of recordings from 1994 and 1995 that had been shelved. By the end of the decade, what would have been considered the Seattle Sound in the early ‘90s essentially just meant grunge, with the music now coming out of Seattle varying in many degrees. However, what still stood was a DIY mentality and nonconformist musical ideals coming out of the city, with much of the sound being different forms of indie.


Sleater-Kinney


One hour south of Seattle in Olympia, Sleater-Kinney released their debut album in 1995, picking up where the energy of grunge had left off and reinventing indie rock in a unique punk direction. Centering much of their lyrical matter around third-wave feminism and political motives, Sleater-Kinney presented a dramatically different take on indie rock than what most ‘90s listeners had been exposed to. Although the riot grrrl movement had been around in some capacity for a little over 10 years by the time Sleater-Kinney formed in 1994, the band can still be seen as the quintessential group of the movement, following the barrier-breaking paths of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and a handful of other bands from Olympia. What distinguished Sleater-Kinney from the broader punk array traditionally associated with riot grrrl was their guitar use and song structures. The band utilized catchy, almost Pixies-esque guitar lines, heard in songs like Turn It On and Dance Song ‘97. These songs are way more Sonic Youth and Pixies than, say, Black Flag, although the vocal style of the group is total punk. Sleater-Kinney also achieved a crisp, ominous sound through their downtuned guitar playing without the use of a bassist, an incredibly impressive feat.

Sleater-Kinney's 1996 album Call the Doctor, along with their 1997 album Dig Me Out, both cracked our list for the 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Time. Both records have gone down in indie history as deeply influential, receiving substantial underground and retrospective praise, even though neither album entered the charts — a tale all too familiar for other PNW indie acts. Even without help from mainstream radio, the band was not held back, dominating punk-fueled late ‘90s indie at a time when much of indie rock was being considered quite stale, before the post-punk revival launched by The Strokes in 2001. Sleater-Kinney injected authenticity and raw energy into a music scene now desperately needing it. Although the band received some love from college radio and the local PNW music scenes, they have largely fallen into obscurity in the time since, at least from the perspective of listeners, with their stream counts being dramatically lower than their PNW counterparts.


Modest Mouse


Coming up around the same time as Sleater-Kinney, and back in the direction of Seattle, was perhaps the region's most popular alternative group following the decline of grunge, Modest Mouse. Formed in Issaquah in 1993, Modest Mouse was, and still is, the product of frontman and songwriter Isaac Brock, remaining as the only original member following the death of drummer Jeremiah Green in 2022. As mentioned earlier, the band began as a lo-fi rock outfit, changing their sound dramatically following the turn of the century. To make it even clearer, the pre-2000 Modest Mouse sound is a totally different sound than the post-2000 Modest Mouse sound, although to be fair, they did both sounds very well. Forming during the height of grunge, Brock made it a point to note the band's suburban and mountainous nature, separating themselves from the Seattle Sound, along with Olympia’s punk sound. Heard early on in the band’s tenure was a flowing, carefree, almost Americana sound, although the Americana aspects of the band would not see their peak until 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

(Pictured - Isaac Brock)

Isaac Brock had a gift for songwriting, particularly in lyrical writing. His words are often characterized by philosophical introspection, symbolic imagery, and existentialism, acquired through what could only be assumed as the wisdom of the mountains and the evergreens. Although the band eventually relocated to Portland, their home base never strayed away from the PNW, and the emotive, almost mystic qualities of their records showed themselves throughout nearly 30 years of songwriting.


The Decemberists


The more traditional Pacific Northwest indie sound tends to be characterized as Americana or folk-infused indie rock, and this is shown no better than through Portland’s The Decemberists. For nearly 25 years, The Decemberists have found a unique way to capture audience attention through lyrical storytelling and a clear and distinct folk presence. Over the years, the band has developed a reputation for creating one-of-a-kind performances through the use of performance art, crowd-work, banter, and historical reenactments. At one concert in Amsterdam in 2007, the band reenacted the 1667 Dutch Victory in Chatham Harbor against the British. In this particular performance, members of the band entered the crowd, while frontman Colin Meloy told the story of the battle in his whimsical tone, utilizing crowd participation and musical motifs to give the crowd a performance they had never seen before. Stage reenactments of historical events and mythical tales are nothing unusual for the band, as they tell local tales through their unique style to different audiences all over the world.


Throughout the band's tenure, Meloy has acted as the primary songwriter for The Decemberists. Born in Montana in 1974, Meloy played in Happy Cactus in high school before becoming the lead singer and primary songwriter in Tarkio during college. His lyrics are deeply mythical, metaphoric, and emotive, similar in vein to Isaac Brock, although the delivery was notably different. Meloy’s biggest project was by far The Decemberists, achieving incredible musical praise throughout the first half of the 21st century. The band has achieved widespread acclaim for both their 2005 record Picaresque and their 2006 record The Crane Wife. The band took a notable stylistic turn in 2009 with the release of Hazards of Love, taking their folk-based style into a progressive rock and metal direction. Their 2009 release split critics and surprised fans, although to be fair, The Crane Wife had already begun to push the band into a heavier direction. By the band’s 2011 release The King is Dead, the more traditional Decemberists sound was back in full swing, although now perhaps a bit more airwave friendly and more traditionally indie rock. Even though it was a later release by the band, by our metrics, The King is Dead sits amongst the Top 100 Indie Rock Albums of All Time (as does Picaresque for that matter). Songs like Down by The Water, Rox in the Box, and Don't Carry it All are each fantastic, Americana-infused indie rock tracks, utilizing traditional instrumentation alongside top-tier production.

Perhaps the band's most celebrated song to date came from Picaresque and is the near 9-minute long, epic shanty, The Mariner's Revenge Song. Live depictions of this tale of an epic sea battle between an outcast boy and a Moby Dick-caliber whale have become staples of live shows for the band. In the live sets, band members can be seen rolling around on the floor playing their instruments, with stage props depicting a whale's jaw, comically devouring Colin Meloy as the audience screams in terror. Tracks like these depict The Decemberists at their absolute best, being deeply creative, clever, and of course, talented.


Death Cab For Cutie


Going toe-to-toe with Modest Mouse for the title of the most prolific post-grunge band in the indie sphere to emerge from the Pacific Northwest is Bellingham, Washington’s Death Cab For Cutie. Formed in 1997, the band was initially a solo project for frontman Ben Gibbard, before being joined by Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and Nathan Good shortly after. For what could be called the golden years of the band, the creative might of the group was characterized as an interesting back and forth between Gibbard and Walla, with Walla producing the records before his 2014 departure. The band’s initial lo-fi, emo sound attracted little attention outside of a small and loyal, high school and college-aged fanbase. The lo-fi sound of the band was dramatically reduced on 2001’s y, their third release from Seattle-based indie label Barsuk. The band saw their breakthrough album Transatlanticism released in 2003, following their 2002 demo album You Can Play these Songs With Chords. Since it's release, the record has been praised to great extents by critics and listeners along with going platinum in the US. Although some consider the record still an emo release, the fact of the matter is that it was a much more straightforward indie rock release than anything Death Cab had done prior, capitalizing on the post-punk-revival hype following Interpol’s debut album, Turn On the Bright Lights and The Strokes debut, Is This It. Death Cab took a more subtle and emotional take on post-punk, with its affiliation with the style being good timing more than anything. The album came with the release of Death Cab staples like Title and Registration, A Lack of Color, and of course the band album-titled, epic indie anthem Transatlanticism.


Transatlanticism was a beautiful collection of emotional lyrics paired with catchy melodies and depicted through rapidly advancing recording technology. Lyrical elements of longing are depicted beautifully by Gibbard on the record, with him stating, “I had this fantastic idea of what if people were just able to transport themselves across the places or events that separated them,” when speaking about the record's title track. The tracks on this record invoke goosebumps and massive introspection in the listener, following songs written throughout a period that Gibbard described as the lowest point of his life. Two years following the stellar record that Transatlanticism was, the band found a way to top it with the release of Plans in 2005.

Death Cab fans often find themselves at a fork in the road when debating the band's best release (something hardline music fans have been doing since the creation of rock and roll), with fans more often than not settling on Plans or Transatlanticism. As emotional and complete as Transatlanticism was, Plans found itself with even more memorable and repeat-worthy songs like Crooked Teeth, Soul Meets Body, Marching Bands of Manhattan and what I would call Death Cab's best song, Brothers on a Hotel Bed. Finding its home on Plans was perhaps the band's most well-known song, the impromptu Ben Gibbard solo track I Will Follow You Into the Dark. The uptempo emo-laden folk tune unexpectedly struck deep into the hearts of millions of listeners, just showing how sometimes, the most perfect things come with limited thought and planning.


Death Cab has since become one of the most prolific groups in indie music, capturing a level of undivided attention and adoration seen only by bands like The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, and a few others. The band found a distinct way to connect with all kinds of listeners, not just those looking for emotional and relatable lyrics, but also to those who care even more about the instrumentation than the lyrics.

Other Notable Artists


Aside from Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, The Decemberists, and Death Cab For Cutie, bands like The New Pornographers (from Vancouver), Built to Spill, The Dandy Warhols, and Band of Horses all played significant roles in establishing the PNW as a late '90s and early 2000s hub for indie rock, rivaling the prominence of New York in the genre. The region also attracted outside acts like The Shins and Elliott Smith, who both relocated to Portland for the bulk of their careers. Whether in the bigger cities like Portland and Seattle or in places like Issaquah, Olympia, and Boise and their surrounding areas, there's something in the PNW air that yearns for creativity and boundary-breaking. The indie rock scene in the Pacific Northwest following the decline of grunge can't be viewed as a clear-cut “movement” in the same way grunge, slacker rock, Madchester, or Britpop can, with their distinct beginnings and endings, but rather as an extensive period of creativity that may have reached a peak but by no means disappeared.


(Pictured - Doug Martsch of Built to Spill, 2015)

(Pictured - The New Pornographers)

The most notable peak of Pacific Northwest music at the end of the day was the grunge era of 1990-1994. However, when focusing on PNW indie music more specifically, the period from 2003 to 2010 stands out. During these years, the region witnessed a remarkable concentration of top-tier records. Bands like Death Cab For Cutie, The Shins, The Decemberists, and Band of Horses all hit their creative peaks. Additionally, this era featured significant releases from Modest Mouse, Fleet Foxes, and The New Pornographers. The Pacific Northwest indie scene presented an intriguing contrast to New York’s post-punk revival. While still fundamentally indie, the PNW sound was more emotionally charged, more infused with folk elements, and placed a greater emphasis on storytelling. Both the PNW and New York indie scenes excelled in their use of the guitar, each contributing significantly to the reinvention of modern rock music.

The Pacific Northwest region burst into a vibrant musical scene in the '90s, a legacy that continues to this day. Local, independent labels like Barsuk, Sub Pop, Kill Rock Stars, and K-Records played a pivotal role in fostering this deep sense of creativity. More than just the influence of these small labels, the forests, mountains, and the overall mystique of the Pacific Northwest greatly contributed to the region's unique sound. This deep connection to folklore and creativity has been instrumental in shaping the world of indie rock. As avid listeners, we've likely all recognized a consistent pattern: an exceptional amount of top-notch indie rock consistently emerges from the Pacific Northwest and although we've only scratched the mere-surface today, the regions musical legacy is a deeply impressive one.

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