Sound & Vision: Pickwick's Galen Disston on Making it as an Artist and his Role in the Musical 'Rock Of Ages'

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Melissa Wax

The musical Rock of Ages is wrapping up at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre this weekend. And if you go expect to hear a lot of 80s rock covers. That's Galen Disston we hear singing the musical and his voice might sound familiar. He's also the lead singer of the Seattle based band Pickwick. In this week's Sound & Vision, Disston chats with KEXP's John Richards about the musical and how he can kind of relate to the character he plays in the show. 


John Richards: You play a wannabe rocker who's hustling a side job – this sounds familiar, but where it changes a little – in a bar in L.A. while he tries to make connections in the music industry. So does your character's story resonate with you personally here in Seattle? 

Galen Disston: Yes. As you know, I'm a window washer by day and then I flirt with rock and rolling with Pickwick in the evenings. And Drew, the character I play in the 1980s Sunset Strip, is doing the same thing but he's a barback. 

Do you sometimes run into fans when you're doing your regular day job? 

Yes and I've been cleaning windows and they're like, "Wait a minute!". 

Does it shock them that people who make music... because if you don't make music, you don't know. You just think everyone makes a living through music. Are they sometimes surprised that you have a full-time day job? 

Yes, they are surprised. And, you know, if I were to go back in time and tell my young self... I would go through some of the experiences that I've been through like opening for Neko Case. I would have thought I would have been a millionaire. It's like we all don't know how hard it is to be an artist. 

I was walking down the street in Green Lake one day with my family when out of nowhere I heard the tones of Galen from Pickwick yelling at me in his overalls. And you love your day job. 

Yeah, it's a good job. 

And so from that job, ironically, have you had to take a break from said job to do this show about the side job? 

Yeah, so I mean this experience at the 5th Avenue Theatre here is a new experience for me. It's six days a week, eight hours a day for the rehearsals and then now we're just into performances. But yeah, I just had till my window washing boss like, 'Hey guys, I'm gonna be gone for two months.' But they're accustomed to that because I have done that on tour with Pickwick where, you know, 'Hey, I'm going to be gone for the next three months.'. 

As a musician, when you are looking for that day job or you're part of that day job, does that become part of the dialogue? Does that become kind of the search? Do you have to find people who will support somebody who's an artist? 

Yeah. No, absolutely. And I'm fortunate that Crystal Panes, the window washing company that I worked for, is owned by Noah Gundersen's bass player and another music fan and all the employees are all musicians. It's kind of been an inside secret that if you need a flexible job that allows you to tour, let another musician teach you how to clean windows. But you can't be afraid of heights and you might die [laughs]. 

So, Galen, you've entered the world of actors and you're in the world of musicians, what do the actors have to do to make this work financially for them? 

So they have to go between auditions. These contracts sometimes are short – just a couple of months [of] rehearsal and then the performances. A friend in the show, he works construction when he's done and he's waiting for the next seasons of theaters – the 5th Avenue and other local theaters – to decide what they're gonna do and then he'll see what he wants to audition for, what he wants to do. And then the Banana Republic, that fancy store at the U-district; CB2, the furniture store. Yeah, they have jobs and it's impressive that, like window washing, they have been able to find things. Because that's like the golden ticket. If you can find a job in this city that allows you to be creative and make your art, but is also flexible enough where if your art starts to take off you can like take a couple of months off and do it and then come back to it. 

Well, it's what? Six days a week, it's eight hours a day and you have to maintain a day time job. 

I mean that's impossible. They work in the evenings doing retail for that period. But the rehearsals are paid, it's well-paid. It was enough where I could say like, 'I don't need to work windows for these two months and I'm just going to focus on the musical.'. 

Let's talk more about 'Rock of Ages' and the story. Can you give us a quick rundown for people who don't know what the story is about? 

I mean the story is it's 1980 Sunset Strip. It centers around a bar. So it's the story of a guy who wants to, by association, be around all this rock n roll because he wants to be in a band. And then he gets an opportunity to do that and then he does it and then it kind of morphs into something that he learns he doesn't enjoy it. Just the business of being in music scares him away, sort of. And he makes some choices. And then – I don't know, I don't want to spoil the whole thing – but it's a happy ending. 

Well, it also touches on the issue of gentrification and growth. 

Right. So, the bar is being pursued by a developer so they can replace it with a Foot Locker. So you have the bar owner, who's Mickey Thomas, and then the narrator – the sound guy at the bar – who are kind of like my buds through this whole show. It's interesting, it's very timely. It's very [much] what's going on in Seattle and its very my personal story. An artist-musician who's lived in this city since 2005 and just this summer had to move out to Olympia to be able to afford my family and buy a house. 

And it touches on what's going on currently with The Showbox and other bars and venues I'm sure we'll hear about it and many we've already lost over the years. This isn't a new thing to Seattle. But musicians moving out, as well. There have been waves of this happening. As a musician, when you see that happening and happens to yourself, what do you think that does to a city? 

I mean, I don't know how to say it doesn't take away from the life of a city and I don't want to oversimplify, but when you have a city of people that are primarily there for a different reason than to contribute to the culture and the art of a city and the population grows and they can sustain their life there, but it's not through the arts... And I really respect Seattle musicians that can adjust to the paradigm. Like I will never have any sense of security. But that's OK because I've chosen this life and this is what I love. And I will continue to pursue this just to be in the proximity of this city. But for me, I needed a little more security.

I worry for the city, obviously. I worry because it's not the place that I knew even five years, ago 10 years ago. It's not the place where I could come as a destination and just like be in this place with my friends who also had other crappy jobs and just afford a gnarly apartment off Aurora. That was enough. That was enough for us to start our band. So I worry about that for the future. But I don't know. I mean, art finds a way to survive. I'm gonna keep making art even though I'm an hour away. 

What's the Pickwick future? I have to ask. We love that band at KEXP. What are you guys up to? 

I mean we're fragmented. I've had to take the time off to do this musical. We have a lot of material but it's just sort of like, can we really emotionally be open enough to go back in and honestly write another record and finish what we started? Is that material that we wrote then still relevant now and what does it mean for us to be open like that even though we know it probably won't lead to any financial success or security? What do we love about this and how do we reconnect with that? So it's like a big task. It's a big emotional task to be open and re-enter into that. And I don't know. I don't know if we'll get there but I'll keep creating. I'm loving like collaborating with people. 

Would your character continue to make music in Pickwick? 

Yeah absolutely. Similar to me, he has found his love interest. He has this satisfying, rewarding relationship that feeds him, keeps him grounded and anchored, and then he gets to go into the garage and make what he wants to make as a creative outlet. I've been fortunate enough in Pickwick where sometimes it was my job and I did only song-write. But that financial pressure put on the art was weird and it kind of soured it in a weird way. So it's like having a family, window washing. These are all healthy things for artists, I think. Where like, if you're not putting that financial pressure on your art when you go into the garage and you start making something it can really be what you want to make and not have to support your family or whatever. 

So put the love first. The window washing second. 

That's the hierarchy. And then give theater a whirl. [laughs] 

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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