If You Build It...

Pullman, Washington: home of lentils, football and a do-it-yourself indie rock scene

Tiny, isolated Pullman makes its mark the best that it can. With football, fraternities, aged cheddar cheese, lentils and exemplary veterinarians — Pullman purveys a culture that is centered on the people and things produced by Washington State University and the vast, rolling Palouse hills that surround it.

But because of a man named Larson Hicks, Pullman is becoming known as a solid stop for any independent musician touring the Northwest.

Over the past few years, Hicks, a 29-year-old father of three with a full time job, has built more than just an isolated music scene in Pullman. He’s created a beloved tour destination, a respectable reputation and a way of doing business that bookers and bands around the country are mimicking. And he’s taught people that there’s a lot more to the Palouse than just lentils and hills.

In 2007, Hicks hosted a weekly radio show called Stereopathic Sessions on the University of Idaho’s KUOI station. A longtime music fanatic, he soon realized radio wasn’t enough. He wanted to bring bands to Moscow/Pullman.

And so he started from scratch, planning 20 shows in 2009 — including the massive Birds on a Wire festival, that attracted indie stars like Damien Jurado, Rocky Votolato, Horse Feathers and Laura Gibson to Pullman’s Belltower — an old church-turned-concert house. The festival was a hit, and Hicks knew he was onto something. Stereopathic soon became the name for Hicks’ new booking hobby.

“The more and more I learn about the [music] industry, I think there’s room for serious innovation,” Hicks said in a December 2010 interview with The Inlander. “I have a passion for creating something. It’s this itch I’ve gotta scratch.”

In the span since he said that, Hicks has scratched hard — bringing bands like Pickwick, Fruit Bats, Wovenhand and El Ten Eleven to the Palouse town.

In some ways, his tactics in making Pullman attractive and interesting to a touring band have been groundbreaking. But in the same turn, Hicks says they simply hearken back to the business strategies your grandpa might have used.

“I think it’s like old is the new new,” Hicks says today over the phone. “Following in your grandma and grandpa’s footsteps — which was working hard and being nice and hospitable — that still works best. Being super cool or super hip or using crazy technology, that stuff is not going to have nearly as much of an impact on your success.”

Hicks takes that whole “playing well with others thing” seriously — networking with bookers and bands in other cities, and taking care of bands when they arrive in Pullman. And when he makes an offer he knows will be too low for a certain band, he’ll get on the phone with the band’s manager to explain why they should come to Pullman.

“It’s like a bartering thing. I’ve got two chickens and half a bushel of corn, you’ve got something else I need. My bargaining chips are we’ve got a good stop between other stops,” Hick says. “The bargaining chip we don’t have is lots of money.”

But that’s where the folks of Pullman come in. Stereopathic has mobilized hoards of volunteers to get college kids to the shows they plan. Hicks sells the bands on the allure of playing in a weird old church. And when they arrive, Hicks and his merry band of music fans make them feel like they’re at home.

“We’ve had some really cool music fans in town that have been really eager and willing to volunteer their house or a couple beds to put up a band. Just a little bit of hospitality makes a huge difference,” Hicks says. “By the time [bands] leave the next day, they’re like family.”

And that’s what keeps them coming back. 

Belltower Concert House • 125 SE Spring St., Pullman • 509-334-4195 • For a schedule of upcoming events, visit belltowerpullman.com