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Bands to Watch 2016: THE SMOKES 

Rugged and raw garage rock is the rule with this two-man band

click to enlarge FROM LEFT: Matt Slater and Himes Alexander - KRISTEN BLACK
  • Kristen Black
  • FROM LEFT: Matt Slater and Himes Alexander

W e live in an era when recording studio trickery can make any screechy warbler "sing" like an angel, fans willingly pay to watch performers lip-sync at shows and a laptop of pre-programmed sounds often fills in a band's music.

The Smokes are not one of those groups.

The garage-rock duo revels in authentic, gritty rock 'n' roll, and celebrates the imperfections of the music they play and that which inspires them — everything from stomping electric blues and propulsive punk to "hopeful garage-soul," gospel and hip-hop.

You can hear bits and pieces of all those genres and more in the songs created by guitarist Himes Alexander and drummer Matt Slater, cousins and Spokane natives who started playing together less than two years ago. And even though their tastes and sonic approach touch on myriad genres, the Smokes' music — captured on their full-length debut Slave released last fall, and the Black EP that came before — remains deeply rooted in their home state.

"I grew up in the Northwest, and there's an appeal to grunge music, to sludgier, more introspective music," says Alexander, 29. "I just like the sludge."

Slater, 31, praises Tacoma garage-rock pioneers the Sonics for creating a sound so good back in the '60s that bands and producers are still trying to equal it more than a half-century later.

"You listen to a Sonics record, the drums sound like a freight train hitting you in the face," Slater says. "The energy is so palpable there, because shit wasn't perfect. The recording was a little dirty, it was a little bit nasty. It was good. You can feel it."

You can feel it at the Smokes' live shows as well, a palpable energy as the band rips through original songs and well-chosen covers — a recent gig included garage-rock classics by Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs and the Animals.

While both praise the supportive Spokane scene, they're dedicated to touring as soon as they can, both to spread the Smokes' music to a broader audience and to escape some of the racism they've grown up with in the Inland Northwest. In just the couple of years playing as the Smokes, they've been told to show up to one North Idaho club later than typical, "after the regulars have gone home," and been pulled over in rural Eastern Washington after a Moscow gig for probably, as Slater puts it, looking "like we'd been in the sun too long."

"Part of living in the Northwest is that people move here because there aren't people who aren't white," Slater says. Alexander concurs, adding "We grew up in this shit."

The Smokes have a sound that could take them as far as they want to go. They trade lead vocals or sing together. Loquacious drummer Slater delivers most of the between-song banter while Alexander showcases a laid-back stage presence and remarkably pliable singing range. He studied vocal performance in college, and his training goes back a little further.

"I'd been in bands before, singing a little bit," Alexander says, "and then I joined a musical when I was in high school, and I ended up wanting to study music later in life."

"You were in a musical?" Slater asks, genuinely surprised.

"Anything Goes," Alexander says.

Slater's passion for the drums started early, too, well before high school. He got a drum set for his birthday in seventh grade — the same one he plays today.

The Smokes originally started as Slater and another singer/guitarist, with Alexander joining on bass to make the band a three-piece. The former singer left town and the cousins continued, writing new songs.

"We were playing some of the old stuff, but once we started writing together, it had a very distinct flavor and taste to it," Slater says.

The songs arrive out of bimonthly practice sessions they record and listen back to in search of the best beats and riffs to develop further. Asked if the familial bond might have something to do with how easily songs come together, both men demur.

"I think we're always trying to get at the best sound that we both like," Alexander says. "It's like, intense compromise." ♦

The Smokes play Volume Sat, June 4, at 10:45 pm at Red Room Lounge • 521 W. Sprague • 21+

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