Cheat Sheet: Olympia, WA's Freak(ish) Scene
by Jason Gubbels | May 28, 2013
Washington state capital Olympia, dwarfed by neighboring Seattle and Portland, claims less than 50,000 inhabitants. And yet this perennially cloud-covered city also claims an indie music scene belying its small size, thanks to the nurturing presence of freewheeling Evergreen State College and the impact of seminal 1980s lo-fi band Beat Happening.
Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford not only offered a childlike alternative to the testosterone-laden male-dominated indie scene, they constructed a world platform for amateur expression via Olympia's 1991 International Pop Underground Convention (IPU) and the formation of K Records. Both would directly inspire the burgeoning riot grrrl movement (Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy performed during IPU's now-legendary "Girl Night"), with Sleater-Kinney and their various offshoots proving one of Olympia's most notable indie inhabitants.
But Olympia is more than lo-fi and riot grrrl -- synth-pop (Anna Oxygen, Tracy + The Plastics), post-hardcore (Unwound), chamber pop (Microphones), drone metal (Earth) and indie folk (Lois) all feature in the town's musical culture, while both the Gossip and Kimya Dawson pulled up stakes to resettle in the welcoming environment. Kurt Cobain famously tattooed the K Records logo onto his arm. And while Courtney Love's connection to the city was tangential at best, it would be silly to ignore her quasi-tribute to Olympia ("Rock Star") from Hole's Live Through This. In concert, Love often added the knowing line "I went to school with Calvin" to this song. Many of the artists on this genre-spanning Olympia playlist might make similar claims.