Throwaway Style: The Winding Backroads of Careen

Throwaway Style, Features, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Careen, from L-R: Aiden Blau (guitar), Neto Alvarado (drums), Bryan Foster (bass), Desi Valdez (guitar/vocals) // Photo by Aramis Johnson

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, every month on 

In Throwaway Style’s February feature (a little late but worth the wait), Martin Douglas speaks to the members of the (mostly) Bellingham-based art-punk band Careen. In two separate interviews (including one with frontman Desi Valdez, who now lives in San Francisco), Martin goes over the history of Careen, as well as the current Bellingham-Anacortes-Skagit Valley punk and DIY scene and how to keep your up-and-coming band alive when one of its founding members lives in another state.

But First, a Brief Programming Announcement

Image by Tyler Nickell


If you’re reading this column at this very moment, I’m almost certain it’s because you’re a loyal reader who has been reading Throwaway Style for a decent portion of the seven years this column has been in existence. With that said, Throwaway Style will exist as a newsletter in the near future, just in case you’d rather get these in-depth features sent to your inbox rather than chasing down a link to read each month’s column on the website! Nothing about the column will change except for the fact that it’ll be more convenient for you to read: We’ll still have the exhaustive, wordy, “cover story”-style features you’re used to; we’ll still have a roundup of the most interesting new and recent Northwest albums. 

And Throwaway Style will still be written by yours truly, so no worries about the column being diluted in order to gain more subscribers! The writing’s still going to be as potent and lengthy and disagreeable as ever. For the best of the Pacific Northwest music scene direct to your inbox, please sign up for KEXP’s Throwaway Style newsletter!

All photos of Grandma's House taken by Martin Douglas


Bellingham is about 90 minutes north of Seattle, and the length of a decent shower away from the Canadian border. As you might expect from the college town — proud home of Western Washington University — there’s a dearth of bright-eyed college students downtown at lunchtime on a Thursday.

You’re much more likely to find townies, stay-at-home dads with their kids, middle-aged folks who work at the boutiques and banks and furniture stores, nocturnal bar flies, one solitary Black punk wearing a Misfits shirt and face tattoos (plural), and a young guy in a hoodie hanging out at Black Noise Records on his day off. 

In a house not far from Bellingham’s modest downtown corridor, a couple members of the punk rock quartet Careen live and practice their music. The band sounds like they could have been from an hour and a half in the other direction from Seattle — Olympia, Washington’s capital city, both in the literal sense and in terms of weird rock music. Or neighboring Tumwater, where Unwound predecessor Giant Henry came of age (or their friends and contemporaries in KARP). For a certain generation, Bellingham is where Death Cab for Cutie is from, not a band that sounds nearly two generations removed from the present day. 

The home where I have gathered with 3/4 of Careen is called Grandma’s House; a punk house that serves as a practice space, performance venue, and lovably grody living quarters for a revolving door of Northwest Washington punk musicians. When I pull up to Grandma’s House, young people in backpacks walk north from the WWU campus and I find bassist Bryan Foster and guitarist Aiden Blau on the porch chatting, having a quick cigarette before our interview. 

Missing from the Bellingham interview is guitarist/vocalist Desi Valdez, who I talk to via the wonders of video chat days later, beaming in from his home in San Francisco, where he has been living for the past number of months. On our call, Valdez wears a shirt that says, “I SHOULD’VE NEVER LEFT MOUNT VERNON,” memorializing the Skagit Valley town he’d lived in for a good portion of his life. 

Made by the Mount Vernon artist Richard Olmstead, Valdez explains that Olmstead includes little inside jokes in his art portfolio — for instance, there is currently a t-shirt for sale on his website, just text, that says, “All I want for Christmas is Jeff Bezos’s two front teeth.” Valdez says, “There is this ongoing joke-and-not-joke that Mount Vernon is the center of the universe.”

In 2023, Valdez moved back to the Bay Area, the region where he was born and one which five generations of his family have roots in. From six months old to age 30, he has lived in Northwestern Washington, so when it came time for him to stop thinking about leaving his comfort zone and actually do it, San Francisco was a natural choice.

After his earliest years were spent listening to his mother playing early-and-mid-2000s R&B — he specifically references Usher’s Confessions, as we’re talking the day after Super Bowl LVIII — Valdez moved to Anacortes for the second time in the fifth grade, where he got into skateboarding. “I picked up a skateboard because everybody I met had skateboards,” he says. “Kind of immediately, it was like, ‘I’m a punk rock guy now.’” The call is flooded with laughter.

Valdez ended up going to one of the great facilitators of the Anacortes music scene, the record shop The Business, and picked up albums by MxPx and the Misfits; the latter he wound up being a fan of for much longer than the former. “”Around that time,” he says, "I started to notice this place down the street from my house called the Department of Safety.” 

Converted from what used to be the town’s police and fire station, the Department of Safety was one of the Pacific Northwest’s storied all-ages art and music spaces. From 2002 to its closing in 2010, the DoS was a gallery and venue beloved across the region and beyond, housing a darkroom, an impressive zine library, and for its remaining five years, a well-known Artist in Residence program. 

Unsurprisingly, as a child, Valdez wasn’t impressed. “It was weird music to me. I was like, ‘This is strange stuff. Who are these freaks coming into my small town? [...] So, these are the only live shows I’ve got. I wish I could go to Warped Tour.’ [laughs]”

Looking back at those Department of Safety shows and being able to attend the well-regarded What the Heck Fest, Valdez found those to be formative musical experiences. After a couple years of seeing “freaks swimming in the lakes” and eventually ingratiating himself among What the Heck Fest attendees who were into skateboarding, he started getting more familiar with the Anacortes music scene, going to The Business religiously, eventually meeting then-owner and Beat Happening founding member Bret Lunsford, and having several stints packaging records for the shop. 

“If you ask the current owners now, I’m the last employee they’ve had in the last 10 years or so,” Valdez says with a little laugh.

"I'ma tell my kids this was Slint" // Photo by Aramis Johnson


Back at Grandma’s House, the other members of Careen are talking to me about the music of their childhood. Foster grew up outside of Springfield, Missouri — “cornfields and cows and … boring” — where his dad had interesting tastes in music, so he rifled through Nirvana, Morphine, and Devo records as a kid. His sister moved to Anacortes and went to lots of shows at the Department of Safety, so he followed her out here, even after the venue had closed. He ended up staying because he liked the area.

Drummer Neto Alvarado, who joined us shortly before the interview began in earnest, told me he’s been drumming since he was three years old because his dad played in the church band. Says Alvarado: “I feel like at the time, especially when I grew up in Mount Vernon — [the other guys] are a little bit older than me — there used to be a pretty cool punk scene in Mount Vernon, Skagit County, but I never really saw any of that.” 

As for Blau, his recognizable last name comes from the fact that his uncle is Karl Blau, one of the stalwart talents of Washington’s DIY/indie-rock scene. 

Music has the ability to easily indicate a sense of place. Whether it’s the surf music of lore, or minor-key piano loops being the bedrock for lyrics threatening to stab your brain with your own nose bone, the best music always gives away where it’s coming from. That’s part of Careen’s appeal. Whether or not you think music in 2024 should sound like it comes from a squalid, converted industrial warehouse with a leaky roof in 1992, Careen’s music bears resemblance to a time and place three decades past and 150 miles south. 

The members of Careen gathered at Grandma’s House insist achieving the aesthetic wasn’t intentional — that early Sub Pop, vintage Touch & Go, pre-Sara Lund Unwound comparisons follow them around and were not chased. (Blau uses the term "unconscious expression" more than once during our interview.) And whether you believe them or not, it bears mentioning that the music of Careen and many of their spiritual predecessors hold the gloomy, gray, foggy allure of the Pacific Northwest close to the vinyl grooves. Careen’s songs are aggressive and circuitous like the region’s winter rain. Their style is weirdly majestic, like looking up at the blanket of gray sky and lined with deep green treetops. It’s most certainly an acquired taste for those who without variation crave the accessible (sun and warmth, 16-bar verses and catchy hooks). 

Miles and miles and miles beyond the gentrification sweep and subsequent housing crises and high costs of living that comes from existing as a human in a major city these days, you can occasionally catch the throwback (or simply slower changing) charm of small-town America. Though many Washington cities that were once considered backwater locales have morphed into suburbs, like Issaquah and Puyallup. Mount Vernon is one of the towns in Washington that has built their sprawling suburbs around its relatively small downtown area. Similar to places like Olympia, Ellensburg, Montesano, and a host of others, Downtown Mount Vernon looks fairly unchanged over the course of decades — at least in comparison to Seattle and Tacoma, which have been rendered hardly recognizable even in the past five years. 

Arguably (maybe even personally), Mount Vernon’s centerpiece is the Skagit Valley Co-Op, a cooperative grocery store famous for having (again, “arguably”) the best sandwich counter in the state. This is where the seeds for Careen were first planted, in the deli department after Valdez moved to Mount Vernon as an 18-year-old. (The long and short of it was he didn’t want a curfew anymore.) Valdez was invited to play bass for a Joy Division cover band and his journey as a punk musician began in earnest. “And then,” Valdez says, “I quickly got bored of that.” 

Being in a cover band didn’t take long to lose its luster for him; he wanted to try out his own musical ideas. There was a thrill that came from writing originals with others and playing them for his friends at house shows. After the buoyant DIY scene in Skagit County (along with its neighbors Bellingham and Anacortes) dissipated — once driven in no small part by the organizing prowess of Lunsford along with his artistic brilliance, matched by that of Karl Blau, Phil Elverum, and others — there wasn’t a lot going on musically in Northwest Washington for quite a few years. 

But then, a new generation of punk artists in the area followed the credo punk instituted about a half-century ago: If there’s no scene where you are, the onus is on you to build the scene yourself.

The members of Careen speak fondly of a house on 3rd Street in Mount Vernon. It was more or less the incubator for the current punk scene in that corner of the state. According to my interview subjects, there were basically two bands that kickstarted the present-day scene, and Careen was one of them.

The 3rd Street house is where Valdez and Foster formed Careen. According to Foster, he “lived on the couch” for a handful of months before he moved into one of the rooms. “Desi was in a couple other bands and I don’t think he was satisfied with what they were playing,” he says. “We like a lot of the same music. So we were like, ‘Let’s do something really noisy.’”

Careen’s original lineup didn’t have a guitarist; it was just Valdez on bass and vocals with Foster on drums. Valdez says it stemmed from a band they had with their friend (called Your Favorite Boys, Gone Back to Hell, named after a Scott Walker song). Valdez says, “Me and Bryan were creatively aligned and [guitarist] David [Shasteen] had different idea, so we kind of separated [from the band].” Valdez played his bass through a selection of pedals, which gave the early Careen recordings (most notably, the Spring EP) a sludgy, Jesus Lizard sound (with a little Melvins sprinkled in for some authentic Northwest flavor). “We just recorded some stuff at the Unknown and just kind of released it,” Foster says. “We didn’t play it live because I was too scared.’”

Valdez says of the early stages of Careen, “At that point, we had never played live together and there was no prospect of playing live. We were going to pay money to record this thing and never play live. I just liked the music so much.” He played in a couple of other bands to scratch the live performance itch playing bass, and then picked up guitar and became entranced by its possibilities. “I was playing a lot of three-note [motifs]; I was listening to Lungfish a lot.” 

Initially, there was a need for Valdez to move on from playing in Careen except as a pastime to write songs with Foster, but then the bassist-turned-guitarist came to an important realization: “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever had musically and, no offense to anyone else, but I felt more creatively inspired in Careen — and more free [playing] with Bryan because he was open to more things.” 

This led to Hunter Listiak joining the band on bass and a caveat from Valdez to Foster: “I said, ‘We have to play live; there’s just no way around it. I’m 24, 25; there’s only so much time left.” With the eagerness of playing live and the perceived notion that in his grizzled mid-20s the clock was running down, Valdez convinced Foster to give playing live a real shot. “We ended up rehearsing a lot — like, a lot — because Bryan was so nervous,” Valdez says. “He was like, ‘We can do it if we have it dialed, if we have it so we know exactly what we’re doing. I want to feel as confident as possible.’ Mount Vernon was the perfect template for that, because it didn’t feel like there was anything to do.”

Foster puts it much more simply: “I just got over the stage fright finally.”

Careen’s first show was in 2019 at Grandma’s House, where I find myself sitting with everyone except Valdez, with its scratched-up hardwood floors. Two of them, Blau and Alvarado, joined after one of the bands they were in (called Triage) played alongside Careen in Listiak’s final appearance with the band in 2021.

Between those two events, Careen put together a couple of EPs; one just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit (Valentine’s Day 2020) and one exactly one year later. The musical growth and marathon practice sessions manifested themselves clearly on both Careen and rot, crystallizing their identity as a band through bleary, overcast rippers rife with blaring guitars and a rhythm section bathed in muddy water. Both releases culminated in obliterating tracks hovering around the seven-minute mark.

They are songs split asunder by dissonant guitar harmonies, light drizzle followed by ripping torrents of downpour. And just when you think Careen would be like so many other of their post-hardcore peers and forebears, meaning long on volume and short on emotion, a song like “Wolves” reaches its halfway point, with Valdez’s mournful refrain of, “You’re my brother,” the screaming guitars serving as catharsis for a cryptic pledge of fraternal bonding (or regret). 

Around the time COVID lockdown restrictions slowly began to lift — maybe to the detriment of long-term public health, but that’s another feature-length essay for another time — and bands started playing gig (in punk houses or otherwise), Valdez was playing guitar in the earliest iteration of Spiral XP but was eager to get Careen going again. Two musicians he knew from Mount Vernon had moved to Bellingham: Blau (whose mom’s basement was one of the town’s choice DIY performance spaces) and Alvarado (the child prodigy who had a workable facility with music before many kids have a workable facility with the toilet).

Valdez glowingly references some of the bands they were in and describes them as “weird County kids.” The aforementioned Triage sounds like if Godspeed You! Black Emperor had a homicidal younger sibling, and Blau’s other group, Contra, was a droning, astral jazz/blues/prog hybrid; both regularly recorded songs that scaled well past the ten-minute mark — and occasionally more than doubled that running time with ease. Interestingly enough to note, according to Valdez, Alvarado was only 14 when Triage was formed.

Around the time Blau and Alvarado joined Careen, Valdez was moving out of Grandma’s House, Blau was moving in, and Alvarado was 17. Listiak left because he found out he was going to be a father, as good a case as any to find more stable work than being in a punk rock band. Foster moved to bass to make way for Alvarado on drums, and Valdez and Blau both played guitar. Regarding moving out of Grandma’s House, Valdez says, “I only lasted nine months living in that place. I had a hard time. There’s too many people, too many factors to make things dirty.” I’ve had the good fortune of never living in a punk house, but being as though I visited Grandma’s House four days prior to my interview with Valdez, I shared laughter with him about it.

The only way I could see an actual grandmother living there was if she had been buried under the floorboards for a decade.

“Desi says he can’t jam,” Foster says. “Those songs [on Careen Love Health] came out of jamming.” 

After Careen’s lineup change — with Alvarado, who had been a fan of the band’s work since he was a literal child; then with Blau half-jokingly volunteering his recording and managerial services — Blau was sitting with Valdez, who asked him to just play guitar and observe what he was playing. That’s where Careen Love Health’s signature closing track “Longest Piss” came from. Explains Valdez: “We were like, ‘Let’s just really repeat this [riff] and make it a blowout, like eight minutes long.’ Their bands were playing 20-minute songs, Contra and Triage, so Neto and Aiden were so used to that.”

It’s not that “Longest Piss” is this intricate, masterpiece study in dynamics. In fact, one of the reasons why the song works so well is because it doesn’t sound like it took much longer than its 8:04 running time to write. Inside the quiet-loud-quiet structure (which hits a violent climax and peters out beautifully) is some great, subtle guitar work that feels like the product of slow-burn improvisation. 

The whole of Careen Love Health has that feel of being created on the fly, full of long instrumental passages — and in the case of “Slacker,” a fully instrumental song whose only vocals come from a partly warped sample of someone on a Zoom call. “Unalloyed” is carried by its dreariness (also reflected in Valdez’s soft, low-octave vocals), while opener “In the Light Of” gets a lot of mileage out of its tightly-wound verses and the open-air blast of its chorus section. 

Careen Love Health, in all its (black) cloudy splendor, is the release that took its creators out of the forest-shrouded Northwestern Washington community and into the wider spotlight of the entire region’s punk scene. But the one thing the members of Careen will tell you about their breakthrough would be in agreement with how Valdez described the EP: “A big, rushed experiment.” 

Each of the band’s players mention the project was something they knocked out quickly so that they could go on tour in 2022. “We feel like, listening back to it, we could’ve spent more time on it,” says Valdez. They recorded each song in a small number of live takes; in the case of “Unalloyed,” only one. Valdez remembers with much affection how easily that particular song came to the band. 

Going back to the Unknown — the famed Anacortes studio (converted from a Catholic church) which has hosted several names, from Mt. Eerie and Black Belt Eagle Scout to Fleet Foxes and Angel Olsen — most of the songs on Careen Love Health were written weeks, some even days, before being recorded. The band has said amongst each other that they should rerecord some of those songs.

“We know each other musically now,” Valdez told me on our video call. “We rehearsed once a week before I moved. What Cycle 3 is to me is like, ‘Oh, we finally understand each other.’” Blau agrees. “We definitely found our stride.” 

Once again recorded at the Unknown — none of Careen’s members, Valdez especially, seem too motivated to record their material anywhere else, and for good reason — Cycle 3 feels more structured in its songcraft. Throughout its five songs (and the bonus instrumental demo bonus track on the streaming version), there are no shortage of rippers, like singles “Last Winter” and “The Slice,” the latter of which holds space for the heaviest Careen breakdown yet. “Neto” feels like a showcase for its namesake (Alvarado), whose drumming drives the song’s direction. Cycle 3 closer “Model Kit” opens with a soft touch (acoustic guitar!) and pulls the ripcord for a tempo change that feels like it’s sending the song rolling downhill. The EP’s songs do scan as a lot more considered in their development than the ones on Careen Love Health, to the detriment of neither release but certainly displaying the growth of its creators. 

Valdez feels a considerable sense of pride from taking more time to craft the songs on Cycle 3. He mentions the democratic process of writing the album and the members coming to their work with a more critical point of view. “We were so comfortable with one another that we were critical of one another,” Valdez says. “We were butting heads here and there, kind of forcing [a] majority rules [approach]. I learned from art school that there’s always another way.” 

In considering Cycle 3, Valdez views it as a piece in the body of work of Careen. It represents what he refers to as Version 3 of the band. “Love Health is, I guess, v3, but [Cycle 3] is [proof that] v3 is actualized now.” 

As Careen v3 embarks on a West Coast spring tour, it may be a little premature to ask the band what’s next, but I do anyway. What happens to a band whose frontman lives 900 miles away? 

Blau is optimistic, saying, “We’re trying to make it work; we can be a little more patient now.” Alvarado has a restless creative spirit and works on several different projects, so he is particularly looking forward to taking a break from Careen and stretching his legs on other musical projects. 

As for Valdez, he says Careen has always had long breaks of inactivity, to the point where they are ingrained into the process of the band now. He doesn’t see himself moving back to Washington in the foreseeable future. He says, “I need to focus on life here a little bit after this tour. But at the same time, I would love to go up there for a week and write music, sit on it, and come back and record at the Unknown. I think because I’ve moved, it’s been healthier for the band. I was kind of pushy about playing all the time, and I think that was causing tension. Neto and AIden play in other projects. Again, this is our formula now. If there is going to be another Careen [release] it’ll be when it’s time, not a matter of a certain due date.”

A Special Northwest Albums Roundup, in Memory of Stevie Pohlman of Mope Grooves

Photo courtesy of Mope Grooves' Bandcamp


Early in February, the Pacific Northwest DIY music community suffered a sudden, profound, and incalculable loss when friends in the Portland scene revealed that Stevie Pohlman, the brilliant mind behind Mope Grooves, passed away. Stevie believed in music as art even as it is pushed as this weird lifestyle thing; she believed in music not as “labor,” but a labor of love. While a slew of artists grandstanded and soapboxed and virtue signaled, Stevie put her money where her mouth was, offering a discounted price for Mope Grooves LPs for any person who was low-income, disabled, or “not a cis white man.” In 2020, she protested her inclusion in Willamette Week’s Best Portland Band Poll, declining to be interviewed and instead giving a statement striking back against WW’s “editorial mishandling of sexual assault cases, support for technocrats, and prevaricating on anti-fascism.” Not only that, but the music was odd, technically impressive, and flat-out leagues better than a lot of the music that has come out of the Pacific Northwest in the past decade. 

In a world where a lot of people are plenty satisfied with talking the talk — or rather, just posting about it on social media — Stevie Pohlman really walked the walk, and served as a model for how to operate ethically in underground music and still record banger after banger. Rest in power to a real one.

Joy (2017)

It’s hard to boil down such a wide-spanning album down to a thesis statement, but if one can be made for Mope Grooves’ debut full-length, it’s that joy is more often than not hard-fucking-earned. Joy is maybe the “punk-est” of Mope Grooves’ four full-lengths, right down to the cough that kicks off opener “Hair Grows On,” though it’s easy to detect the indie-pop bonafides which are variously emblematized, scuffed-up, and totally fucking warped throughout the Mope Grooves catalog. The specificity of Stevie’s songwriting marks a variety of universal human experiences, like the anxiety of buying a vehicle (“New Car”) and trying to live through the slow collapse of civilization (“Y Try?”). Joy’s songs come through in short, potent bursts (13 tracks at 25 minutes), which makes the depth of its musicianship and lyrical themes all the more impressive. 

Vanished (2018)

Vanished might be the closest thing to a traditional “guitar record” for Mope Grooves, but the brilliance of the musical arrangements are continuously spellbinding, even after the 100th listen. (Which is easy to say for yours truly, as Vanished, my favorite Mope Grooves full-length, probably has about that many plays at Throwaway Style headquarters.) The guitar interplay on opener “Read the News,” the vicious put-down on “Old Friend,” how all the instruments come together and end up in a full sprint for the finish on the title track, the Marine Girls cover (“In Love”), the bloom of “Secret Life,” how “Last Seen” is funkier than most any band that refers to themselves as “dance-oriented” — all phenomenal stuff. One of the modern classics of Northwest music as far as I’m concerned.

The Waves (2018)

Mope Grooves’ third LP is when Stevie and the band really starts to lean into the psychedelic properties of indie-pop music. A bright allure shines through the songs, not least of which due to the sonic influence of keyboard-led tracks like “Inside Out” and title track “The Waves.” But as with the entirety of the Mope Grooves catalog, that brightness casts a blinding light on adversity, mourning, conflict, blood, and all of the things you have to wade through to find a quiet spot in the water while the waves wash around you. 

Desire (2019)

Throughout the musical ambition of Mope Grooves, the final album released in Stevie’s lifetime might actually be the most ambitious. The arrangements are vast and come with a subtle touch, with parts floating in and out, or just buzzing in the undercurrent of the song. The therapeutic nature of Stevie’s songs are served well by the thoughtfulness of the arrangements, but there’s also some avant-garde dance jams like “Smashed Landscape” and jams like “Many Variations” and “Swimmer,” which would sound right at home next to your favorite Leaving Records exploration into space. Words like “homespun” are bandied around a lot when it comes to the music of Mope Grooves, but that belies the impressive musicianship that courses throughout all their albums, but especially Desire.

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