A conversation with members of Stymie, a decent 90's Seattle grunge band
With William Pennington
Where in the annals of grunge does Stymie reside? That’s a good question. 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. They were so great that they gave me WAY more information than I knew what to do with. I felt the world needs to hear another Stymie story, because too few have been written.
According to my counts, 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 everything they and every other Seattle grunge band has ever released)
The band members ties to the legendary Seattle music newspaper The Rocket was the crux that sparked my interest for an interview. There isn’t much of the Rocket online, or even an official retrospective. Yet. This link is a video presentation at the EMP, about the history of the Rocket, to give you a sense of what the paper was and why it was interesting and important. A few members of Stymie worked at this famous monthly newspaper, so they were right there at the right time in Seattle to experience the best of the grunge movement.
When I listened to Stymie’s vinyl single, I felt happy that it was better than what I expected, but also a little sad that I never heard of them before. They seem like a decent 90s Seattle grunge band. And I think that’s where former members Adem Tepedelen and Jeff Kleinsmith are unique. They are completely happy with being remembered as a pretty good Seattle grunge band, and their breakup was basically drama free. 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 kinda just didn't want to continue. End of story. Here’s the tale of a grunge band with a happy ending. Whatever that means.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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
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.
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.