Seattle is a city synonymous with music in a way that few others around the globe can claim to be, and for people of a certain age in particular, the mere mention of Washington State’s largest city immediately conjures up teenage memories of flailing around in a pair of loose-fitting jeans to the likes of Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
However, the pandemic took its toll on Seattle’s music scene, just as it has to towns and cities elsewhere, with small independent music venues hit particularly hard. Local musician Bovian felt moved to do something to help and came up with a plan.
Stricken by performance anxiety, he had never performed live before the pandemic, but having made a promise to his friend and soulmate Chris, who passed away in 2020, to share his passion for music with the world, and with the city’s venues closed, Bovian took to the rooftops and public spaces of the city, playing songs from his debut album Dom Bovian to people stood at balconies, windows and doorways. These performances began to earn him a reputation for thinking out of the box, and in that vein the idea for the ‘Tour Around Town’ was born.
The tour saw Bovian, along with Bijoux and Yawa perform at several iconic Seattle music venues including Paramount Theatre, Lo-Fi, Café Nodro and Rendezvous. The performances were filmed by Bovian and combined with talking head interviews with local promoters and venue owners were edited into a full-length feature film, Tour Around Town, which will be available to watch free on Youtube and Vimeo from 8th October, with a link to a fundraiser for local venues that by the summer had raised $20,000 of its $50,000 target.
We caught up with Bovian for a virtual tour of his home town, to find out more about how the pandemic had affected the music scene there and to hear his essential Seattle playlist.
What makes Seattle a special place for music and bands?
It’s honestly a little hard to say what makes Seattle so special. It’s a lot of things – the history, the locale, the beauty, the culture and the climate to name a few. For me it was the inspirational and unique music along with the distance from home. Every Seattle band I heard while growing up always stood in a class of its own. This may be due to the fact that until the last few decades, Seattle was far away from most other population centers and hard to get to. As a result there is a very DIY culture that still permeates to this day. I think that mindset of “let’s collaborate and do our own thing” is fertile ground for growing unique and special art of all forms, especially music.
Seattle is of course synonymous with grunge, but are there other scenes or sounds that you would describe as being specific or special to the city?
Grunge was absolutely the hook for me as a kid who needed to escape from my reality in impoverished Buffalo circa the 1990’s, but after I moved here I found that the music scene had so much more to offer.
There is a long-standing history of folk music here which has a really wonderful blend of country/bluegrass/piss-and-vinegar. Names like Brandie Carlile and Head and The Heart come to mind. The city also hosts a strong indie-hip-hop/rap scene that always blows me away. Big names like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore hail from the grey streets of Seattle. And alternative/indie rock bands are notoriously rooted in Seattle. The Pixies, Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, Taco Cat… the list goes on-and-on.
The city’s open attitude toward trying new things also offers just about any type of genre you can think of from hardcore to funk and disco if you go looking for it.
Give us a quick history lesson – who are some of your favorite Seattle bands of the past?
I’ll try to keep this list short, as difficult as that is for me…
Heart – as a little gay boy growing up in a heteronormative and bue collar city, hearing two women rock the fuck out while singing about the complexities of being young women and their relationships with men was a total catharsis for me. I can remember to this day listening to “Magic Man” thinking “Oh my god, people are allowed to write songs like this?”. Until that point the only template I had for a rock star was a super-macho and often misogynistic guy with bad tattoos and long hair. Heart was very inspirational. I still feel like an excited little 10-year-old every time I listen to the Dreamboat Annie album.
The Sonics – the garage band simplicity, the rough-around-the-edges sound, the “we’re making this song and we don’t care if it’s a hit” vibe of it all. I felt like a cool little indie rebel listening to them as a kid. It was great.
Chris Cornell and anything he’s ever done. The uncomfortable feelings that accompanied my prepubescent physical attraction to him aside, I remember thinking (and still do to this day) if I can learn to sing half as well as that guy, I’ll be set. For me and many other Seattleites, the day he died is akin to the day JFK was shot or some other momentous day of tragedy. I remember where I was when I heard the news. I remember crying inconsolably alone in my kitchen as I looked out at the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I’m even tearing up as I sit in the Lost Lake diner writing this. And I remember the weight that I felt in the neighborhood that day.
It was an already confusing time of transition for Capitol Hill and this was another blow. I actually ended up stealing an old telephone pole from in front of the old Value Village building across the street from my apartment that day. I was working on a project at the time which was inspired by the re-development of that particular building where Macklemore and so many others created Seattle history. I’ll spare the details, but it involved several participants from the neighborhood and a lot of whisky to get that sucker into my living room where it lived for a few years until I ended up donating it to the REI design studio. Chris’s influence on many Seattle musicians is powerful.
And who should we be looking out for right now?
I honestly don’t know if I am informed or cool enough to be the authority on this one, but I’m always happy to share what I do know. There is most certainly a feeling of “post-2020” creativity bubbling and coming to the surface in Seattle. I think a lot of folks capitalized on the forced downtime to reflect and reset on alot. One of my favorite bands to form during that time was a neo-disco outfit called Bijoux. I was so enamored with their sound that I begged them to join me for a few shows including some of those featured in the Seattle Tour Around Town project.
Another band I’m starting to hear more about is Bad Beaches. Their EP had a fun “not your dad’s yacht rock” sound to it and I hear they are also back in the studio cooking up some good “thank god for 2021” stuff. I’m sure there will be many others to list as the year progresses and comes to a close.
Where are your favorite places to play/see bands in the city?
There are so many great venues in town, but I seem to gravitate towards the smaller joints. It’s a big reason why I was so motivated to work on the fundraising project for them.
LoFi in Eastlake is just a quintessentially “Seattle” place in my mind. I always end up discovering something great there. Places like Tractor Tavern and The Sunset Tavern are always showcasing some of that “folk/bluegrass/kick-ass country” stuff I mentioned. There is another quirky spot called The Octopus Bar in Wallingford that has funk nights. Clock Out Lounge in Beacon Hill showcases up-and-coming weirdness and has a walk-up pizza window which is impossible to not enjoy for cheese and grease loving folks like me. The list goes on… pretty much every neighborhood has at least one great small music venue to enjoy and support.
Independent music venues in the UK have been under threat, first from rising costs and developers, and more recently as a result of the pandemic and lockdown. Your film is aiming to raise $50k for struggling local venues – how are those places bearing up right now?
It’s been miserable for them. Many have closed for good. Some just skated by deploying various means of reprogramming and robbing from the proverbial Peter to pay Paul. It is no time to turn our backs on the small venues that make our neighborhoods and cities a place where newbie musicians like me can find our footing and thrive. They also bring revenue to other small businesses in the surrounding areas. It makes sense for the community and it makes sense for the economic sustainability of any city.
I will say from every hardship comes opportunity and it is exciting to see that some small venues are capitalizing on this era to elevate themselves. For example, there is a venue called Cafe Racer that is moving closer to the city center and setting up shop in the middle of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I’m excited to see what new acts and audiences come into the space now that so many more people will have easier access to this location.
As part of the film project you’ve played rooftops and public spaces around the city – did you discover anything new about your hometown, or gain a different perspective on it from these unusual gig locations?
One thing that I’ve always found a little curious about Seattle crowds is that they are sometimes too cool for themselves. For example (and often in small venues), there are often very few folks in the crowd who really clap and provide feedback to the performer, while others just kind of sit and stare. I often joke that I am usually the loudest person in the crowd. I was pleasantly surprised and honored when I started getting the cheers, hoots and hollers from the neighbors who congregated at their windows and balconies during my quirky sets. I felt like screaming back “Come to the live venues! They need you there!”
In all seriousness though, the experience was very special and formative for me. I had never performed in front of people before. My performance anxiety was the key reason I had never pursued a career in music until this past year. It was ultimately the push from my dying partner that gave me the strength to try it out. The liberation I felt being up there playing and singing for everyone and noone simultaneously was indescribable. I’ll never look at a rooftop as anything but a potential stage ever again.
Aside from the bands, who are some of the local heroes working to keep music thriving in Seattle?
Dunn is a local developer who has put her money where her mouth is when it comes to supporting the local arts scene, both by creating spaces for artists and musicians and organizing / supporting causes to promote resources for Seattle musicians. She was one of several influential names who drove a fundraising effort called Keep Music Live Washington during the height of the pandemic shutdowns.
Derschang is a local restaurateur and entrepreneur who was instrumental in helping to create the Seattle music scene via the venues she opened and the myriad musicians she has employed over the years. Linda was an immediate “yes” on helping us get the Tour Around Town project off the ground.
Check out Bovian’s Seattle Essentials Playlist below:
Heart – Crazy on You – It is impossible to enumerate how many people have been inspired to pick up a guitar after hearing Nancy Wilson’s solo at the beginning of this song. Infamous.
The Sonics – The Witch – Garage band perfection.
Chris Cornell – I am The Highway, Live at Queen Elizabeth Theatre – this vocal performance is my northstar as a singer.
Harvey Danger – Wine, Women and Song – I taught myself to sing while driving to and from work every day. It was a safe space where no one could hear me or judge me. This one was one of my go-to’s and I fantasize about the day I might go toe-to-toe with Sean Nelson in a local karaoke bar.
Pixies – Hey – Sometimes when I am fortunate enough to be bored, I stroll down Broadway listening to Doolittle. One time a random man on the street yelled in my face, “Hey!”. My knee jerk response was to respond with “Been tryin’ to meet you!” as I continued walking past.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – Thrift Shop (feat. Wanz) – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are living legends in the neighborhood. The first time I walked into the thrift shops of Seattle I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground.
Nirvana – Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle – the story behind this song is so layered that learning about it all could almost be considered a graduate-level research project and one that is worth every ounce of effort I might add. Look into it.
Brandie Carlile – The Joke – the song makes me emotional and hopeful every time. I performed at The Paramount Theatre a short time after she did this past winter and I swear I could still feel her good energy on stage.
The film Tour Around Town will be available to watch on Youtube and Vimeo from 8th October, it will be free to view but donations are respectfully encouraged
Donate to the fundraiser supporting independent Seattle music venues here
Find out more about the artists involved here
Interview by Paul Maps