Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, (mostly) the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
In this month's edition, Martin Douglas talks with the band Acid Tongue ahead of their sophomore record Bullies.
Cracking open my second beer of the afternoon, I find myself face to face with a huge gig poster for the Sonics' 2018 homecoming show at Alma Mater, hanging on an accent wall in Acid Tongue frontman Guy Keltner's West Seattle apartment. His lovely Parisian wife made us coffee for the interview, which I should have had sooner because I had another interview later in the day – and he should have had because he was nursing a gnarly hangover. Totes of vinyl sleeves rested rear a shelf and a record player; Keltner and his wife had a DJ gig the night before and their night ran predictably late. (At the end of our extended conversation, we said our goodbyes after he threw up over the side of his front porch, quite appropriate for a budding rock star.)
After taking a sip of freshly christened Tecate, I mention to Keltner my first time seeing Acid Tongue live was their supporting role for the greatest band ever to come out of Tacoma in their hometown. He cracks a smile and says, "I heard all these great stories from when they were teenagers. It was such a hometown show, a lot of people who never left Tacoma supporting guys they grew up with."
At the time, Acid Tongue were playing shows all over the world behind their debut LP Babies, a striking piece of music on the slanted and enchanted side of garage-y psych-pop. Splitting personnel between coasts and even countries Keltner (who has lived in New York, Paris, and Seattle since the band has formed) and drummer Ian Cunningham (who moved to Los Angeles in 2017) have been the nucleus of the band pretty much since its inception. Keltner and Cunningham met in 2013 when both musicians were playing in different bands, Fox and the Law and the Mama Rags respectively. Cunningham was a student at the University of Washington; Keltner was working at Neumos (as well as spearheading Freakout Festival in its early years) and was the first person he emailed about possibly playing shows together.
"He was so fucking annoying," Keltner jokes. "But I met him and I really liked him. I knew he had talent because he was so fucking sharp."
Acid Tongue began as a solo project for Keltner, songs which were deemed too polished for Fox and the Law. Cunningham urged him to focus his efforts in this direction, to scale down the shouting and the fuzz and allow the melodies of the songs to stand on their own. The name Acid Tongue came not from the Jenny Lewis song but from Keltner's ability to sugarcoat his words (which throughout our two-hour interview proved to be a bold fact, as well as one of the better conversations I've recently had with someone I had just met).
The group then expanded to a full band, rehearsing in a house on Capitol Hill (Keltner sounded incredulous by the idea of being able to rent there, given where the real estate market is there now). But then the band started utilizing a rotating lineup, which Cunningham said started out of necessity when Keltner and his roommates got priced out of the house and moved to Brooklyn while he moved to Los Angeles.
"There was an unspoken understanding that both of those moves were needed in the best interest of the project overall so we both knew that the roster needed to be flexible for the sake of growth," Cunningham told me via email.
Before Keltner and Cunningham physically went their separate ways, the former recorded the band's debut, an EP titled Beautiful Disaster, with some musicians based in the United Kingdom, so, according to Cunningham, "we were getting comfortable with the idea of regular outside musicians getting involved." Keltner's process of leading Acid Tongue comes from the thrill of working without a proverbial net; during our conversation, we talked about the danger being sapped out of rock music nowadays. In the cozy living room, as we swilled beers and continued to ignore the pitcher of coffee, he reveled in the newness of working with a rotating cast of musicians. "I'm like, hey, if you don't wanna play this way, let's see what you can do," Keltner says.
"I like how Bob Dylan does it when [he applies a] totally different approach to the band. You know, 'Fuck it, I'm going electric.' 'Fuck it, I'm hiring a punk band to back me.' Like, that's so cool."
Cunningham appreciates the artistic value of the approach but also looks at it practically. "The way I've always seen it, I'd rather have the idea of Acid Tongue travel around the globe and be able to play in France or Mexico or take a last-minute show in Manhattan and keep that name in people's minds. I never wanted to be held back by, like, 'Oh, let me check if all four of my bandmates can get the same week off of work so we can take this incredible opportunity -- actually, sorry, we have to pass on that one.' I just didn't want that to be us."
A particular case of wanderlust brightens in Ketlner's eyes when he talks about reconsidering a five-week American tour in favor of traveling other places in the world to play music. He really enjoys places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Madison, Wisconsin, but he knows he may not make a lot of money in those markets without constant touring. He'd rather play environments more "bizarre" and diverse. Australia, Columbia; he has friends who play music all over the world.
One place the band has a particular fondness for is Mexico; Keltner's mother is Mexican-American and he has family living in Mexico City. After having had the whole SXSW experience, he thought about how cool it would be to tour with the Mexican musician friends he's made. Why not hop in a car and drive through Mexico? "That's badass," Keltner says. "Like, what American band has the balls to tour in a car through Mexico right now?"
He continues: "[The social climate] is fucking stressful. We had a couple close calls with cops and drug dealers. It was crazy, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend jumping in and [and driving through Mexico]. I had a Mexican band that speaks the language and knows how to get around. But don't fucking do it, don't just hop in a car and go. Americans have a bad perception of what's going on down there. They don't understand the reality and our effect on it. I think our country is responsible for a lot of the ills of theirs. And so it's pretty gnarly, but the roads are better. The venues are pretty great. The crowds are great. People are very supportive, they're really nice and welcoming. And there's no pretentiousness to the rock scene. So I feel like that allows for a creative element that's not contrived."
Keltner has been to Mexico several times at this point, after being warned by his mother and various family members, but speaking to him about it reveals a certain attraction to the danger. It's what he loves about the country's rock scene how the social climate influences the sound. Throughout our interview, he bemoans the state of American rock music, noting its safety and blandness in the face of all the problems we face as a country. The first time Acid Tongue went to Mexico, Keltner had the time of his life.
"And Ian was a big reason [we went]," he says. "He was just fascinated. He was like, 'Dude, we've gotta fucking do this.'"
Cunningham also raves about his experience in Mexico, watching Lucha libre matches with members of Stonefield and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and catching a Dwarves set in the center of a bustling skate park. He says, "Mexico is such an amazing experience as a musician -- they have such a welcoming passionate community. I feel like in this age of social media and Spotify playlists tailored to your personal algorithmic needs, it seems impossible to have another physically localized 'scene.' But Mexico City seems like the exception to the rule. It just feels like everyone -- local DJs, promoters, other musicians, kids in the audience -- are coming at it from this very pure place of fandom."
Bullies is the sound of a promising band stepping into their purpose. Its title is derived from a song written around the time Babies was released; a huge-sounding pop song that could have been a smash had it been released a decade ago -- when the playing field first evened out and independent artists started infiltrating the mainstream. It could become a smash today. In our conversation, Keltner speaks about the rich kids sung about in the same breath as the titular bullies, describing his not-exactly-pleasant upbringing while his classmates went on snowboarding trips.
Acid Tongue's sophomore album is an extension and expansion of Keltner's vision for the band, itself an opportunity to explore his psyche, examine depressive spells, and craft a bright world that hides the shadows of his lyrical themes. Babies' best song -- titled "Why Can't You Just Lie to Me?" -- is the foundation on which Bullies is built: a grandiose, skyward stunner centered around a man begging for false hope. ("The songs are pretty fucking dark," Keltner says with a twinkle in his eye.)
Bullies opens with the infinitely danceable "Follow the Witch," stewing in the thoughts conjured up by isolation and mortality. It ends with a low-key, bongo-assisted groove dwelling in the longing for understanding and how the show always goes on without us, titled "Am I the Only One?" Between these bookends are power-pop love songs with distortion-heavy guitar solos ("Candy"), lush power ballads about the other side of love ("Liars," "Sometimes," and "Forty Years"), and a pulsating, rollicking track rejecting arbitrary societal rules ("Walk Don't Run"). There's a gorgeous tune delivered at a moderate pace -- titled "Jenny Lewis," a sly wink to its namesake having a song called "Acid Tongue" -- where a love affair is ruefully reduced to an inside joke.
The album is vaguely reminiscent of the New Pornographers, retrofitted for the kids in three-days-worn outfits smoking cigarettes behind the middle school. Both Keltner and Cunningham credit the album's artistic success to maturity, focus, and the invaluable insight (and string arrangement prowess) of producer Matt Drenik. Says Cunningham: "I think you can really tell from listening to it that there was more of a deliberate vision."
In Keltner's living room, we floated in and out of talking about Bullies while listening to reggae playlists and Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's 2019 classic Bandana. Leaning forward and taking a sip of Tecate, he told me, "I've never been as happy with a piece of recording I've ever done as this record. This was the first one. I've always had to make compromises on every other thing. I just haven't had the money or knowledge to do what I wanted to do. This is the first one that really fucking nailed it."
As large, thinning clouds of smoke floated through Keltner's living room, we talked more about the band scaling up for Bullies and the idea that this was the time for Acid Tongue to step up and become a bigger band. "Like, [Ian] just really gets, 'We need to produce the shit out of this.' It's got to get out of the bedroom and we've got to step on a bigger stage now. There are a lot of famous bands in Seattle that are, in my opinion, hobby bands." He says Cunningham, living in Los Angeles with a child, has good reason to want to build a career out of music.
Throughout the course of our interview, Keltner referred to Cunningham as his "soulmate," which is clear through the connection shown in their music. I asked Cunningham what it is about their bond that made them such a great fit. He replied, "I think it's the yin and the yang of our personalities -- he's a ball of energy and a bit more impulsive; I'm extremely organized and want to have a plan for everything. He's the life of the party, bouncing from Paris to wherever, while I'm sober and focused on being a dad. It's been really good to have that balance because he pushes me to try new ideas." There is a familial bond between these two men who share a band; Cunningham says he is closer to members of Keltner's extended family than he is to some of his own family members.
"I've seen the world with this guy. We're in this thing together."
Bullies comes out Friday, March 13th via their home label, Freakout Records. They will also be playing an album release show that day, which they have kindly decided to livestream due to the regulations on public gatherings in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. Order the album here and catch the livestream for what looks to be an awesome show here.
During Tres Leches' incredible Capitol Hill Block Party set last year, they debuted a ferociously fun song about the politics of playing music festivals. Alaia D'Alessandro recently reached out to me about the long-awaited vinyl release of their excellent debut album Amorfo and told me the very exciting news that a live version of "Two Fifty" will exist as a bonus track on the twelve-inch version of their album. She also had a lot to say about the song and the politics behind the creation of it, so I'll save my full thoughts on the track for another time.
“Two Fifty” was a long time coming. It’s no news that artists are undervalued and rarely payed for the work that they do. Art is expected for free and seen as unnecessary. But remove art from the world and think about what would be left? No creativity in restaurants, no fashion, no innovation, no songs in bars. If music is really unnecessary in your bar then why do you have that little stage there in the corner in the first place? Even if you are just a small bar, you should be paying the artist you hire for the night just as you would pay out the sound person, the bartender, the door person, the security or any other worker in your establishment. Maybe it’s minimum wage per hour that they work, but give them something. “Two Fifty” is for every band at every level of the industry that gets taken advantage of, whether they are making a measly $2.50 at a bar or $250 filling a 600+ capacity stage at a sold out festival charging $250 a ticket.
This song was inspired by the all the failures to honor artists who deserve it. Guayaba (Guay) definitely was on the forefront of our mind when we wrote this. Guay had made a post in a private group on facebook in 2017 about Capitol Hill Block Party offering them $150 to play CHBP with blackout dates 90 days before and 45 days after the festival within a 200 mile radius of Seattle. They told CHBP $300 was their minimum for festivals of that size and that the blackout dates would have to be modified. CHBP shot back the offer of $250, saying it would be under the terms of not headlining any shows in July. Guay mentioned their frustration with being “given absolutely unacceptable terms.” And “feeling like a token, and one that isn’t worth paying fairly.” When we spoke with Guay they told us how frustrating it was turning down a festival that might have brought them some kind of “exposure” and to feel like the venues with the most power don’t care about you while the ones with the smallest budgets and/or in communities that have the most POC take better care of you.
Playing festivals like Hoodstock taught us how much value art has. Selena Whitaker-Paquiet (NighTraiN, Foklife) runs that festival out of her house once a year in her back yard. We didn’t have nearly the following that we do today and that festival was huge in exposure to us, not only for the audience that was there but for the bands that were booked like Whitney Mongé, The Black Chevys, Trick Candles, The Black Tones, Bear Axe, Mirrorgloss… Looking back on those lineups not only were we so lucky to be a part of it, but the community lifted up these bands to a point where large festivals now want these bands to play. Hoodstock did that without blackout dates, and we still got payed a couple hundred from it.
In 2019 when Tres Leches was offered to play CHBP, we had an almost identical email to Guay’s where originally we were offered $150, the highest they would go was $250 and they would not remove the 45 day before and 45 day after blackout clause even after we explained we could make much more than that from our draws headlining. We had already been working on “Two Fifty” at this point. It was more of a jam with general complaints about the music industry, but after the email we decided that if the value wasn’t going to be there monetarily, we would find value through expression of our art. So we quickly made a modified version of the song to play at CHBP. We asked Bearaxe, The Black Tones and Guayaba if we could use their names in the song and they all said yes. One of our friends in the audience had performed at CHBP the day before and had to buy a ticket to get in the next day (CHBP only offers a pass for the day you play), so effectively all their pay went back to the festival. It was really empowering to disclose the entire situation to a full room at Nuemos. The response seemed otherworldly. It made us so happy to hear everyone yelling with us, “Music is a reasource!” over and over again, and then thrash around to get all that energy moving. No matter if you’re playing to a small DIY crowd or if you’ve filled out a 600+ venue, it’s important to know that your community is there. We definitely know that our community will always be with us, and that is going to make us stronger as our audience grows. That’s why we wrote “Two Fifty” because of our community. They have wrote this song with us.
The community is always going to be the ones that lift us up, because for every new level of the industry we get to, there’s a new way to undercut us. The argument about exposure is a fallacy. No matter how large or small your event is if you didn’t have the performers then you wouldn’t have anything to sell a ticket to. We are providing a service that the promoters are going to make money off of and we need to be compensated for that. When Tres Leches asks bands to open for us, we don’t expect them not to play other shows. We understand that when we headline, this is our gig and we are going to take ownership of it. We also know that people are going to look at the entire lineup and decide whether the curation of the event is one they want to commit to for the whole night out. The bands we hire are going to help manifest a space for our community to celebrate in and so we give them a portion of the profits for helping us put the night together.
When it comes to festivals, if the thought is that they are giving us so much exposure that they don’t need to pay us because “exposure” is worth some monetary value, why then would us playing to a different audience be a threat to the festival? They put up non-compete/radius clauses around festivals because they want our draw. If that’s the case then pay us out for it. Thankfully in Washington, a new law RCW 49.62.030 has been implemented to make it so a ban on playing in a certain radius will be limited to three days. The law came about initially to protect workers from non-compete agreements at Jimmy John’s and other large corporations. We hear from some of our friends who run smaller festivals that the new law may have a negative impact on their events and that musicians should have been considered in a separate law. We are happy that musicians are being included alongside other workers and think that as there’s a buyout for other workers there could also be a buyout for musicians. Whatever the case, it’s nice to see musicians represented as workers.
Tres Leches will be playing a release show for the vinyl version of Amorfo on April 17th -- provided COVID-19 doesn't get any worse than it is -- at Belltown Yacht Club.
For whatever reason -- location, outer perception, whatever the fuck -- Seattle's hip-hop scene remains one of the most slept-on rap scenes in the nation, regardless of the fact that it's also one of the most diverse, talented, and in a lot of cases, formally daring. Gary Campbell, a steward of the scene and founder of Crane City Music, has applied his filmmaking prowess to document our bustling landscape of hip-hop artists in the form of a film titled NEWCOMER. Shot entirely on iPhone and remastered for the big screen, NEWCOMER features clips from over 50 concerts and features almost 100 local hip-hop artists, including many whose work has been featured in this very column (por ejemplo: Bruce Leroy, Chong the Nomad, DoNormaal, Perry Porter, and so many more). Stay tuned for rescheduled screenings of the film.
You might know Wolftone as one of the most talented producers in the city, working with Throwaway Style favorites such as AJ Suede and DoNormaal. He's gearing up for the release of his very first instrumental album (something I've personally been waiting on for years), titled Fortress Files Vol. 1. "Wandering," the first single from the project, flips a melancholy folk track perfectly fitting the grey skies of the accompanying video, where Wolf explores various points of the area; walking through the woods, messing around on playgrounds, sitting in holes dug on the beach. It's a playful visual backed by a gorgeous piece of music.
With shows being canceled or scaled down all over the city to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, I can't in good conscience offer a list of shows to go to. More are being canceled every day, and even if we're not all under quarantine starting next week, the most responsbile move is to stay home and practice the new buzz term being floated around: "social distancing." I'd like to take this time to enthusiastically recommend supporting your favorite artists in Seattle and beyond by buying their music, ordering some merch, or otherwise kicking some money their way, as many musical acts are already feeling the crunch from having to cancel their shows due to the virus. Support local music, support all music! See you next month!
This past Sunday evening, the legendary Tacoma band The Sonics played their first hometown show in six years. Martin Douglas explores their influence from the perspective of his twenty years as a Tacoma resident.
Barboza has served as the launch band for many Seattle Band's careers throughout the years. It was only fitting then that on Friday at Capitol Hill Block Party, local bands dominated the Barboza stage. Sets from Acid Tongue and Black Whales showed the strength of Seattle's music scene, and left a...