A conversation with Stymie, One of the better Seattle grunge bands who never released a full length album

(Bonus Questions with their former boss at The Rocket, Charles Cross)

With William Pennington

 

Where in the annals of grunge does Stymie reside?  That is a great question, one that I cannot answer. Though after I found their 7” single Others at a thrift store, I contacted them for permission to play it on the Here In Seattle podcast.  Band members Adem Tepedelen, Jeff Kleinsmith, Shane Bastian and James Halada were so open, and gave me way more information than I knew what to do with…so I felt the need to share the Stymie story, because few have been written.  

According to my Google search, a story or interview was done here, and here and here. While they still have a myspace page, it doesn't appear to be active.  Feel free to search for them on YouTube.  (A user by the name of KristinNirvana has posted nearly everything they and almost every other Seattle grunge band has ever released)

The bands ties to the legendary Seattle music newspaper The Rocket was the crux that sparked my interest for an interview.  Most members of Stymie worked at the famous monthly newspaper while they played on the side (though they were never on the cover), and they were right in the heart of Seattle grunge as the movement bled onto the rest of the country.

Listening to Stymie’s vinyl single, I feel happy that its better than what I expected, but also a little sad that I never heard of them before. They are a pretty decent 90s Seattle grunge band. And I think that’s where Stymie is refreshing.  They are completely happy with being remembered as a pretty good Seattle grunge band, and their breakup was basically drama free. I have repeatedly heard from each member that they just wanted to do something else with their lives. When you think of the most famous grunge bands in rock history, you are instantly hit with the fact that the greatest bands didn’t end well.  But with Stymie, they just didn't want to continue and they were fine with that. 

[editors note: Since the publication of this interview, their entire musical catalog can now be heard on the Here in Seattle podcast]

Thank you for taking time out of your day.  Can you give a brief history of the band, for those readers who are unfamiliar?

Jeff Kleinsmith (guitar and vocals): My buddy Adem Tepedelen and I started New Rage Records at the University of Oregon in the late ‘80s, and while we don’t put much out anymore it is still alive and kicking. Adem and I were in Fireclown together when we all moved to Seattle in 1990. And after a couple of years of our brand of grunge-metal I moved over to guitar we started Stymie.
Three of us worked at the Rocket together (have you done a Rocket podcast?) until I left to start the art department at Sub Pop and Adem became an editor at the Rocket.

The Rocket offices (and C/Z Records) shared the floor above the current Palace Kitchen at 5th and Lenora.

Stymie never got an album deal but we recorded some demos for bigger labels that never went anywhere. We probably could have done a better job of pursuing record deals and gigs and such but we were mostly in it for fun. The band was comprised largely of writers and designers with career goals!

Adem Tepedelen (guitar): As Jeff mentions, we had a New York label called Thirsty Ear (who were a sub label of Columbia/CBS, I think) that was interested in us. They gave us $1000 to record a demo. After hearing those five songs, they opted not to sign us, but they gave us the rights to them and we included one or two on some of our New Rage releases and other splits and compilations.

We mostly put out Stymie stuff on our own label, but we ended up releasing just a fraction of all the material we actually recorded. We still have pretty close to a full album of unreleased material. At the time we were “saving” it to eventually put out a Stymie album, but our label ran out of money and no other label seemed interested. That said, the band sort of ran out of steam at the time. Or, more accurately, I think we all just decided to pursue our professional careers, instead of the band. Which was unfortunate timing, because we had just recorded what I think was our best demo.

After our break up, we had a little money left over and some new songs that we really liked, so we recorded one last single and put it out on New Rage. Those are great songs, but the recording/production is pretty bad.

Stymie was definitely influenced by the late ’80s grunge bands, but we were also really influenced by music we had previously explored in other bands, like punk, metal and more experimental stuff like Sonic Youth. I used to say that we were a combo of Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Sonic Youth and Motorhead. We liked heavy music, but we liked good hooks. One thing that stood out about Stymie is that we had three guitarists. We didn’t start that way, but after our first demo, our bassist switched to guitar and my roommate at the time joined on bass.

The core of the band really liked sports. We were big pro basketball fans at the time. We also consumed a lot of music and went to a lot of shows. We really immersed ourselves in the Seattle music scene. We worked for the local independent record labels (C/Z and Sub Pop) and music magazines (The Rocket, Backfire) and three of the members even had their own screen-printing business for awhile, making posters, stickers and t-shirts for bands and labels.

A couple of us (me and our bassist) were really into underground comix. There was a lot of cool stuff coming out during that time, especially from our hometown Fantagraphics.

I’m biased, obviously, but I think Stymie was a really good band that was overlooked. That said, if you listen to all of our material, you can see that we were a little, um, unfocused. We kind of were all over the place stylistically. When we first formed, I wrote most of the songs, but by the time we called it quits, Jeff was writing most of it. He and I had different styles and played well together, but as a band we may have been a bit hard to pin down.

Shane Bastian (vocals): I love Stymie! For me, it was exactly the kind of music that I enjoyed then and still do – heavy guitar rock with hooky melodies and just enough weirdness to make it interesting. At the time, around 1990, I was living and working on Capitol Hill while going to the UW. I grew up in a small town outside of Snohomish (north of Seattle) and was eager to move to the big city. The way I remember Seattle at that time is kind of like your dumb uncle trying to explain how awesome Haight Ashbury was in the late ‘60s. Or the mid / early '60s UK music scene.  But I think it’s true - there was a ton of creative energy and something happening every night around every corner - musically and otherwise.  I feel really lucky to have been in the right place at the right time while still basically a big-kid country bumpkin in the big city.  And the DIY spirit was alive everywhere, which is kind of what inspired me to help start the screen printing business with Jeff and another pal, out of Jeff’s  basement. I got to wear my drop cloth to work every day and my rock poster collection is obscene.

Just by not being one of the bands that "made it", you're on many grunge honorable mention lists, which is an achievement in itself.  You both seem like you life happy productive lives, which really begs the question: Did you really want heavy fame in the first place?

Adem: When I started playing in bands as a teenager, I’m sure I wanted to be a famous, successful professional musician. But I had no actual concept of what that meant. I suppose I imagined it just meant “rich and famous.” As I got into my 20s and, like any adult, had to support myself, etc., my perspective changed. My bands were always swimming upstream. At some point I realized that “success" wasn’t meant to be. Part of it was the realization that I didn’t personally have the temperament to “do whatever it takes” to make it big. I realized that I had a better shot at having a successful and rewarding professional career as a writer/editor, which I was starting to develop.
I don’t have any regrets or bitterness that my band didn’t “make it.” I wish that we could have released more of our recorded material, but I’m satisfied with what we achieved, small as it was, and, yes, I am happy with the direction I followed professionally.


Jeff: Oh, would have LOVED for us to “make it big”: play bigger shows and do a lot more recording. I think we were a great band and I loved doing it - I can’t even remember exactly how we ended. There was no weirdness or drama and we all love each other. I think we just stopped doing it.

Shane: For me it was always  just a fun thing to do with friends. That we were making good music, without egos or anything, AND had a good reason to hang out, was just a bonus.  We got to play Bumbershoot a couple of times and opened for bands like Buffalo Tom and Ace Frehley, which was also a ton of fun. I think we all agree that some of our favorite and best songs were written and recorded later, and never really got the royal production treatment that a 7 piece band kinda needs. I’d still like to see them out on vinyl, eventually.   I don’t recall any real reason for breaking up – I moved to Virginia for a couple of months around that time with an ex girlfriend and that was that.

You mentioned comic books, and Fantagraphics.  How close was Fantagraphics to the grunge movement, from your point of view?

Adem: Peter Bagge’s “Hate” comic was basically all about Seattle circa 1991 or 1992—the lifestyle, the music, everything. It was a spot-on caricature (and sometimes realistic version) of what I was experiencing. I loved it. Bagge definitely touched on the grunge scene in those early issues. I can’t recall if other comics during that time did, too, but there were a lot of talented illustrators, cartoonists and comic creators in Seattle in the early 90s. Many of them worked for or did work for The Rocket. They were a big part of the creative scene in Seattle at the time.

Shane: I think I have every single issue of Hate buried in a box somewhere. I loved that series.

The word "stymie" can be defined as "to prevent or hinder the progress of".  Do you find this definition apt for the band, considering the way you said it "ran out of steam"?  Maybe I'm just reaching, but did Stymie fulfill its goals, or was there more it wanted to achieve?

Adem: I distinctly remember a band meeting not long after we’d recorded our (I think) fourth demo, which I think was our best. I don’t remember the specifics of it, but we all just sort of pleasantly agreed that we were kind of done and that the reality of potentially making the band successful required more energy and effort than we were realistically willing to put into it. We were in our late 20s at that point and each had professional aspirations (i.e. more serious jobs) that we preferred to touring and living a vagabond lifestyle. I think we finally faced the reality of what was required to be successful and found that it wasn’t something we wanted anymore. We each continued to play music, but the impetus to get signed to a label and “go pro” was pretty much gone.

Is not getting a full album released still itching at everyone enough to make a comeback?

Jeff: No chance of a reunion at this point, I don’t think. It would be fun but it’s unlikely.
Adem: I don’t think we want to make a comeback or even have a reunion (BTW, we’re all still quite close and see each other regularly, for the most part), but, yeah, I’d love to be able to properly release the best of our recorded material. It would be a total vanity project and only about 10 people would actually care, but I’m bummed that some of our best material went unheard. We’ve batted around the idea over the years of releasing it through New Rage, but no one’s been willing to commit the resources to actually make that happen. And the prospect of being stuck with 500 Stymie albums or CDs in my basement doesn’t really appeal to me.

Do you feel like Stymie should have gotten an album?  

Charles Cross: On that I can say yes! Their songwriting was excellent, and their musicianship was also high, so I would have liked to have seen them go far.

Did working for the Rocket make you more likely to be on the cover?

Adem: We were never on the cover of the Rocket. I think they did a short feature on us in the “Up Front” section, but it was tricky for them to cover us, because at any one time 3 or 4 of us worked for the Rocket in some capacity and the editor was always very hyper conscious of avoiding conflicts of interest. And, quite honestly, we weren’t cover material. That was reserved for bands who drew big and had full-length releases out. We were neither of those things. 

Jeff worked in the art department, Patrick and I wrote for the mag and did a whole bunch of other stuff (proof reading, production, delivery, etc.) and James even wrote for it a bit. James and I also worked for another magazine owned by the same guy who owned the Rocket. So, the point is, we were very entwined in the magazine and it sometimes worked against us, in a way. On the other hand, we were occasionally thrown a bone. We got to play at the magazine’s 15th anniversary party opening for a some bigger local bands, which was cool. 

It’s unfortunate that no one has put the Rocket online, because it was quite an amazing local magazine. There’s a lot of history in those pages—seminal articles on bands who became huge. It was published for 20+ years. It was monthly for the first 15 and them it went to twice a month, so we’re talking hundreds of issues covering the most important years in Seattle rock history.

People have talked about doing books about the Rocket, but so far nothing has materialized. The interesting thing about it is that there are sort of 2-3 generations of the Rocket. There was the first generation that started it, when it wasn’t especially locally focused. Then the second generation when the scene suddenly exploded around it and the Rocket was forced to cover local bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, etc. And then the third generation, after Cobain’s death where everything in the Seattle music scene had changed completely. The different staff (editors and art directors, mostly) each played a role in how the magazine was shaped. 

Shane: With most of the guys working and writing  for The Rocket and SubPop in some capacity, I always felt that they had their finger on the pulse of a lot of what was happening in local music. This insight made any sense of rock band fame seem kind of unappealing for me, personally. The commitment to touring, the war stories and all the other stuff I’d hear about - that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. We did do one 6-or-7 gig “Tour de Farce” around the Great Northwest which was a blast, but also was just enough of a taste to tell me: no, this is not for me.

Was Stymie ever considered for cover status of The Rocket?

Charles: No. They didn’t get that far in their career. We reviewed them just like every other band. The fact that a couple of them worked for us, didn’t reflect our coverage — we had a number of employees in bands.

What do you remember about them, as workers? 

Charles: Great guys. Lovely people. Fun people to talk about music. Adem is a great writer as well.

Just curious, was the grunge scene (or the Rocket) tied to Almost Live!, a famous Seattle skit comedy tv show? I wonder why they didn't have more music, a la Austin City Limits or SNL...

Adem: Almost Live actually had a close relationship to the Rocket and, by proxy, the Seattle music scene. One of the hosts of Almost Live, comedian John Keister, was really good friends with Rocket publisher Charles Cross. Keister would stop in to the Rocket all the time. Though they didn’t have bands perform on the show, they had this one recurring sketch called the “Lame List,” where they would list these different things that were lame and then cut to a bunch of local metal musicians who would chant “lame, lame, lame, lame!” Then inevitably they’d list one item that confused the headbangers who would just sort of stand around wondering whether it was actually lame or not. The headbangers portrayed in that were the Rocket’s metal writer Jeff Gilbert and his musician friends who were in high-profile Seattle metal bands (including Soundgarden). 

Anyway, I can’t speak for the entire early 90's music scene, but me and my friends liked and watched Almost Live. It was hyper local, though. You really had to know the local stereotypes about, for instance, the kinds of cars people in Kent drove (beat up Camero's) and the ethnic make up of Ballard (elderly Scandinavians who were bad drivers). 

Yeah, it was corny, but I think people liked that it was all local stuff done by local comedians and performers. We were making fun of our own city/scene, sort of typically self-deprecating Seattle humor. 

In your opinion, was grunge timely or timeless?
Adem:
I think grunge has proven to be a crucial part of rock history. The bands from that era that succeeded have had a profound and lasting effect on the music industry at large. These bands are now being played alongside Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath on classic rock radio. Their legacy is substantial and I think has helped elevate the importance of the entire Seattle punk and hard rock/metal scene from about 1980 to 1994—small and big bands alike. Seattle’s relative isolation and blue-collar aesthetic pre-Amazon and Microsoft helped foster a homegrown arts and music scene that, it turns out, was historically significant. It was an incredible and inspiring time to live in the area.

Jeff: Elements of both

Shane: I still don’t really know what defines “grunge music” as a category. I guess I  just consider it music from a simply distilled place of creative freedom, with no pretense of style or camera-ready MTV-type sensibility. Straight-up dirty basement rock. I’ve always been attracted to the scratches, dents, scars and bruises in everything, so maybe that's what defines grunge. And a slightly out of tune guitar string. I recall Stymie being referred to more so as “sludge music,” which is also inaccurate. I’d also throw TAD in the mix as a a musical comparison for sure. As a listener, I was always intrigued by the lyrical obtuseness of Ronnie James Dio, which may or may not have been part of my approach to writing lyrics in those Stymie songs as a 22 year old. My dad at the time was semi-homeless and semi-suicidal, so when it came to writing words for Stymie, I made a choice to try and compartmentalize all of the emotions that a I was going through in dealing with that.  It was definitely a stab in the dark for me creatively, yet one I never really wanted to confront lyrically in a rock song. When I rewind the tape and think about where my head was emotionally on a day-to-day basis then, I hear a plaintive voice kinda going 'what the fuck is going on?'. My friends who know me and love me probably consider me a light-hearted and playful person but I think those songs really do cast a darker shadow on what I was personally going through at the time. Tension. Confusion. Hope. Anger. Optimism. Those are all there. It’s also a little like a lyrical crossword puzzle and those songs became sort of an outlet to dispose of those demons. At least that’s how I see it now. Like everything, once you get a little distance or time away from it, you experience it differently  But it was also a super fun experience at the same time. Four guitar and bass lines left a lot of options to weave a vocal melody line. 

What are you doing nowadays?  Still in a band playing music?
Adem:
I’m a full-time freelance writer. I have written or co-written a few books. I still do a little bit of music writing for Decibel magazine in Philadelphia, but my focus is more on craft beer, wine and spirits. I haven’t actively played in a band since the late 90s.

Jeff: I am VP of Creative or art Director, or whatever, at Sub Pop. I basically run the art department. I have been there for 25 years.

Shane: I have a vintage furniture business, a lovely wife, and am in constant training of my 5 and 7 year old boys’ semi-pro wiffle ball careers. I occasionally sing and play my acoustic guitar for them and our cat, Elliot. Most of us still try to get together whenever we can.

Does being in Stymie kind of give you a little street cred at Sub Pop? Certainly the experience of being in that particular band helps you in your job, no?

Jeff: Absolutely no cred at all. It’s our job to work with bands everyday so I doubt anyone cares all that much that I was in a pretty good, unsigned rock band in the early nineties. It’s a good question!

What do you think of the Seattle music scene now?  It probably doesn't compare that much, but perhaps there are few bands you like?
Adem:
Since I no longer live in Seattle, I don’t really closely follow the Seattle music scene. I’d say that since establishing itself (internationally) as a vibrant and influential music scene Seattle has continued to produce many very successful artists, from The Postal Service to Macklemore. The live music scene seems to be as active and exciting as ever. Seattle has firmly established itself as a music town, in its own regard, and it’s very supportive of both touring bands and local talent. Loud, heavy music continues to be well supported, but the kinds of bands making it continue to change and evolve. I can’t imagine a time in the future when Seattle won’t be a source of talented bands and musicians. Maybe there’s something in the water.

Shane:  I still get out to see shows when I can. I love the Victory Lounge, Kraken, Substation. Although they’re not local, it’s great to see bands like Diarrhea Planet, FIDLAR, or Twin Peaks out there completely rocking out and putting a smile on every face in the room. There's is still such a variety of great Seattle music. The music world has definitely changed commercially  since then, but I still have amazing luck accidentally catching great music from bands I’ve never even heard of by just showing up to see what happens.

It seems as if you guys are just all completely modest and self aware of your place in Seattle grunge history

James Halada: It was a great time, playing some pretty decent music with my very favorite people. I’m not sure we were the best band from that era to not get an album, but I think we were one of the better bands to not release a full-length. I think we were a good band and I’m proud of the shows we played and music we put out, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were the best band of that time period to never release an LP.

Adem: Yeah, maybe if we had toured more and got out of Seattle we would have found more fans. We were just another loud, guitar-heavy band in Seattle. Hard to stand out when there are dozens of bands doing variations of the same thing. 

Shane: I think we all agree that it was a great musical outlet for all of us and most of remain close 'til this day - but never really aspired to be a big band on a big label, given all the typical requirements to make that commitment (touring, etc). We all had other careers in mind. Looking back, I think we all agree that those songs probably could have had bigger and better production, but for the most part, the songs sound mostly hold up after all these years.