"You have no idea how hard it is to book a tour," says drummer Anthony Stassi.
Tight as that schedule is, this is the kind of problem bands like to have. It signals success and ambition and progress. It's far from their only worry at the moment, though. The band is facing a decidedly darker, more ominous problem that's both more immediate than the tour and will last long after the tour is over. It's a problem that all bands like Seaweed Jack face -- and, perhaps most troublingly, there's no easy solution.
As it stands now, Seaweed Jack is Spokane's go-to indie band. Whenever some national touring group -- be it indie, bubblegum pop or even live hip-hop -- needs a local opener, they call the Jack. They've opened for an absurd gamut of bands, from Kings of Leon and Some by Sea to the Like to Vendetta Red. They've even gone on in support of former Pharcyde MC Tre Hardson -- and they've done it, quite simply, by being the most experimental, fearless, creative band in town. They've got an insane, infectious live presence and a sizeable following, which has now begun to translate into success and acceptance in bigger venues across the state and has led the four-piece to begin cobbling together that West Coast tour in support of their debut album.
There's just one problem. Seaweed Jack is a college band, and it's almost graduation day. Come Sunday, May 14, drummer Anthony Stassi and singer/keyboardist Geoff Doolittle will earn their degrees from Gonzaga (communication and philosophy, respectively) and step into postgraduate life. Guitarist Brian White and bass player Jack Sheehy, meanwhile, will be enjoying summer break and gearing up for another year of school. (White's a music major; Sheehy studies math.) All of which raises some interesting questions about the band's future.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ollege bands are like high school love. Fueled by idealistic fervor and relative freedom in a vacuum of responsibility, they often seem perfect in their original context. Yet outside that original, perfect context, college bands -- like high school love -- usually crumble. It's a tough situation to be in when your whole crew is graduating, but the situation is compounded when your guitarist is a sophomore and your bass player has an indeterminate graduation date.
Among those bands that have successfully stepped from college rock to post-collegiate success, there's no proven path to success. OAR's Ohio State frat roots and white-boy soul made them a nearly instant success on the state university tour circuit, while the Talking Heads were an art school group that rode new wave after new wave, getting huge in the '80s. The Crown City Rockers (who play the Blvd. Thursday night ????) met at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and cut early tracks with underground beat genius Edan in his dorm room. Both have gone on to successful careers, though Crown City does it with a full band while Edan works almost entirely by himself. That's to say nothing of bands who find redemption late, like UMass dropouts the Pixies, who toiled in obscurity for years, broke up, were rediscovered by an entirely new generation of music fans and got ridiculously huge just in time to plan a comeback tour.
It's a winding, unclear path, and those who burn out after college -- groups like Tarkio, Space Twin Paradox and Wounded Soldier -- read like the backs of milk cartons. Important to those close to them, but unknown to most, they're usually never heard from again. This is by far the largest group.
The odds are long in favor of ignominy, then, but Seaweed Jack has cause to be optimistic. They've got a self-released album that's selling surprisingly well (outselling indie hype-hounds Wolf Parade at local record shops most months), a constantly growing Spokane fan base, at least one Seattle-area promoter who loves them to death (helping them book some phenomenal West Side shows) and a passion for music that goes beyond the average weekend rock warrior.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hough Seaweed Jack has existed in one form or another for much of Stassi and Doolittle's college career, it wasn't until the addition of guitarist White a year and a half ago that things really started clicking. It was then that they coalesced as a band and began working off each other. The band began playing far more extensively throughout town, and within four months the band had completed its first album, The Captain. When Seattle-area rock and hip-hop critic Andrew Matson saw them play Gonzaga's Madonna Stock in 2004, he called them "talk-rapping Modest Mouse imitators." Without regard to the aptness of that description, the band is now much more than they were. And not just because of White's virtuoso guitar: Doolittle's gotten more comfortable with his lyricism. Though always aided by an articulate and emotional scream-shout-sing vocal dynamic, his lyrics have become informed by his philosophic tendencies. And with the help of his vocal coach (one credit, spring semester), his voice pops like never before.
Since then, the album has sold beyond their expectations and has given the band renewed focus. Stassi says he immediately was frustrated with his work. "I didn't like where I was at musically. I thought, 'If I want to do this, I need to get serious.'" The more surprising development, though, is how people's reaction to The Captain has steered the band away from many songwriting elements that dominated the album.
They realized that their best songs were their simplest ones. And simplicity, the band admits, is not their most natural mode. "I can overthink a song really fast," says White. "I'm obsessed with the mathematics of music."
On their next release (which they've begun writing more slowly and deliberately than their debut), it's important that Jack takes these lessons into account, letting fan feedback act like constructive criticism. "Our simplest songs are what everyone embraces," says Stassi. White puts it another way, underscoring how counter-intuitive the whole thing feels to them: "It's the little ditties you write in 15 minutes that end up being the most memorable."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hat is starkly evident during the show played at Rock Coffee last Friday. Though the attendance is good and the crowd is enthusiastic, it isn't until "Open Face Crab Sandwich," a song White says they wrote in "like 45 minutes," that people get really excited. During the song's no-nonsense four minutes, even the most angular-haired, multi-belt-rocking emo kids get on their feet. Stomping, bobbing and jumping around, they looked entirely too animated for their girl pants. By the time Doolittle's got the keyboard over his head like he's about to a) smash it like the Piano Man channeling Pete Townshend or b) break it down over his knee WWE-style, people are in near-hysterics. The song deconstructs into drone and feedback and there's an odd harmony to the way it melds with the crowd's screams.
It's a pretty big show, but they've played bigger. The reception they get at the Rock show, though, carries more significance than mere numbers. Many of those in attendance came to see No-Fi Soul Rebellion, a band far afield of Seaweed Jack's sensibilities. No-Fi is the kind of band that packs Rock with its youngest, hippest clientele; Seaweed Jack is not. It's important that the razor-cut set is dancing because it signals something of a sea change. To this point, the band's gotten by, indeed thrived, on support from the Gonzaga intelligentsia. "Our best shows right now are our friends extended. Like our core friends tell their friends who tell their friends and it moves out in a circle," says Stassi. That includes professors and parents. "We want to change that."
The band members feel a need to move past their core to find what works outside the college vacuum, outside a place where everyone parties together, beyond a crew who all listen to Tom Waits and who get the Robert Johnson influence. Seaweed Jack sees the Rock kids for what they are, then: in many respects, the most music-savvy kids in Spokane. That doesn't mean the band is content to pander to their tastes -- they won't go screamo or neo-wave or freak folk or all wisty-christo Sufjan Stevensy -- but they will use the venue as a litmus test for success in the world at large. Whether there's an actual connection or a perceived one, with the gradual warming of the Rock clique has come more acceptance from outside Spokane, something the band sees as a positive and instructive sign.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen I first approached the band about this article in early March, Stassi and Doolittle had wild looks in their eyes, a little of the Spokane cabin fever. They said their plan was to stay in Spokane, but they looked like they were going stir-crazy. Since then, they've both settled a bit on the idea, Stassi even getting to the point of being stoked "to be a Spokie," which he translates as "working your ass off all day at some job" -- hopefully at Raw Sushi, where he had an interview -- then coming home at night to his drum set. He'll live well off-campus with Doolittle and Sheehy in a house that, he says, has "basement walls that are like four feet thick," meaning easy to soundproof and perfect for rigging a "little ghetto studio."
The band doesn't see staying in Spokane as an act of settling, then, but neither are they content to settle down. "Ten Minutes Down -- that's the cautionary tale right there," says Stassi, referring to the once-beloved GU ska band that has toiled in Spokane for years after graduation with lots of local fans, but not as many outside the Inland Northwest. So, as of graduation day, Seaweed Jack will come with a built-in suicide pact, Stassi says: "If we can't make it in a year, it's over."
That doesn't necessarily mean superstardom, or even leaving Spokane (White's got 18 months at best left on his degree); it just means progress. A more accessible second album, a more cohesive sound, better drum technique, cleaner vocals, a successful tour -- they'll play as long as their success matches their ambitions, which are cautious but hopeful. The trick, for the band, says Stassi, will be negotiating the chasm between college and post-college, and harnessing real-world pressures. The goal Stassi has for Doolittle and himself, on a personal level, is more modest. "Our main goal is to not be hitting on girls at the Bulldog," he says, "We don't want to be super seniors."
Failure wouldn't be the end of the world for these four, just the end of a significant chapter in their lives and certainly in Spokane's rock history. Without Seaweed Jack, Doolittle still has ambitions for grad school, whatever field and concentration that might involve, and an inexplicable desire to be an electrical contractor if nothing else. Sheehy will eventually have his math degree. White and Stassi? Well, they've got their juicing business model pretty much locked up.
"We love to juice," Stassi says, sitting on the Rock stage, surveying the venue they've learned to love, White nodding. "We'd like to open up a juice bar."