‘Mo-Wave: Celebrating Queer Culture in Seattle

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‘Mo-Wave: First Annual Seattle Queer Music & Arts Festival

April 11-14 at Chop Suey, Pony and Wildrose

I always hesitate when I see “First Annual.” The Annual part sounds great, but you have to get over that First hurdle to make it an actual tradition, a yearly event; I’m sure the list of Firsts far outnumbers that of Seconds. I guess my point is, there’s always the question of whether we’ll see this particular event next year – will the roots take hold?

Fortunately for ‘Mo-Wave, though, it already has a bit of a history behind it: the Queer Music & Arts Festival has its origins as a yearly gay pride party held at the Funhouse, the rock club by the Seattle Center adorned by the giant face of a clown; it’s where many a band got its start in this town, showcasing a lot of great punk, metal and more. But sadly for Seattle music community, they were forced to close late last year, throwing one last party on Halloween. But the owner Brian Foss isn’t going anywhere, as he’s running KEXP’s Sonic Reducer – three hours of punk every saturday night – and promises the Funhouse will rise once more (closer to SU, perhaps?). Until then, a number of local figures, among them Jodi Ecklund of Chop Suey and Marcus Wilson of Pony, have come together not only to continue the Funhouse’s tradition of celebrating queer pride, but to build on it, making it a holistic arts yearly arts experience.

While other festivals celebrate gay pride, ‘Mo-Wave is particular about what it hopes to accomplish, as vocalized in their mission statement:

“We live in an age where pride parades are ubiquitous and queer culture is portrayed across all media outlets. Yet for some, televised and marketed gay culture is a vapid and self-deprecating representation of queerness. In our efforts to matriculate into mainstream American culture, we queers sometimes forget what makes us powerful: our ability to challenge the status quo, to push cultural boundaries, to redefine and set global definitions of art and music. Uninspired by mockeries of reinforced stereotypes, ‘Mo-Wave is an attempt to showcase queers as tastemakers and rule breakers in modern society. Additionally, ‘Mo-Wave aims to highlight the particular flavor that Seattle and the Pacific Northwest offers the rest of American queer culture, both historically and today.”

‘Mo-Wave, then, is very true to its Funhouse beginnings, approaching queer culture with an emphatically punk, DIY, Pacific NW mindset. To hell with labels and stereotypes. Be weird! Be whatever you want!

And no better place to do it than stalwart Seattle rock club in its own right, Chop Suey. As long as the Funhouse is on hiatus, it might as well be here.

Unfortunately, my status as a college student requires that I do homework from time to time, so I couldn’t get to Chop Suey until late in the day on Saturday the 13th – meaning I already missed Eighteen Individual Eyes, Wishbeard, Erik Blood, Night Cadet, Magic Mouth, and Big Dipper. Luckily for me though, I got there just in time to see the two acts I was most excited about: Gaytheist and Team Dresch, both from Portland.

For the latter, that’s Portland by way of Olympia, which also gave us Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Excuse 17… fertile ground for bands of the burgeoning queercore and riot grrrl scenes of the late 80s and 90s, of which Team Dresch is certainly placed near the top. Donna Dresch herself ran the zine “Chainsaw,” which morphed into a record label of the same name when the fourth and final issue was put out as a cassette compilation of her favorite bands. It was on Chainsaw Records that Team Dresch released their highly recommended debut/aptly named Personal Best. They disbanded in 1998 but started up again in 2004, no doubt earning a bunch of new fans while delighting old ones.

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Old fans like Gaytheist! Vocalist and guitarist Jason Rivera voiced how delighted he was to be playing immediately before Team Dresch and mentioned seeing them a dozen or so times over years, and during their set I found myself standing next to Tim Hoff the bassist. The queercore group’s impact within the local music community is unquestionable and getting them to headline your festival is huge, but let’s not forget Gaytheist – they have a growing base of their own, as made evident by the full floor and the joyous but considerate mosh pit. Seriously, Jason thanked and congratulated them on their responsible moshing, and said it was the best he’d ever seen (I would have joined in but I was busy taking terrible pictures with my terrible camera). Gaytheist has only been around for a couple years but have already put out four albums, self-releasing the first two but the other two through Seattle’s Good To Die Records, including this year’s Hold Me… But Not So Tight.

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In between swift, potent tunes crashing over the audience at Chop Suey, Jason would offer equally brief explanations for some of the songs’ premises. “Elderly Assassin” and “Poocano” require none, but the story for “Hand Holder” off of Stealth Beats was interesting, and certainly appropriate for the setting: the last two humans alive, presented with the possibility of repopulating the earth, are both gay and thus have no interest in the activity that would make the reconstitution of the human race possible; instead they hold hands and jump off a cliff. Chop Suey approved. Gaytheist moved from one riff explosion to the next, with Jason’s surprisingly melodic and acrobatic vocals cutting a swath, like Tom Bombadil dancing through a horde of Uruk-Hai, taking off heads and limbs and leaving a trail of vividly indifferent wildflowers.

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Then Team Dresch took the stage at midnight, and the crowd made it known how long they’d been waiting. They couldn’t all have been old enough to have seen the band during its initial run,  but the enthusiasm in their cheers and shoulder-to-shoulder throng meant that made little difference, for veterans and new blood alike were all bursting at the prospect of seeing those “crazy Chainsaw kids.”

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They certainly hadn’t lost their touch: when Jody Bleyle proclaimed into the microphone that “Our vaginas are as tight as they were twenty years ago,” she could have just as easily been talking about the songs themselves, as they rolled out one perfect queercore gem after another, performed and received on either side of the mic with jubilation.

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Team Dresch are exactly the sort of tastemakers and rule breakers ‘Mo-Wave was founded to celebrate. Although there’s always the joke that the Pacific Northwest is eternally stuck in the 90s, I’d say it’s more lovingly put that the region is naturally indebted to that decade for the establishment of artistic identity that so many musicians and art lovers have come to cherish. ‘Mo-Wave takes that very same spirit and shines a light where it persists in today’s artistic endeavors.

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So, the verdict is that yes, we’ll most likely see a Second Annual Queer Music & Arts Festival in 2014. It’s what Seattle wants, and certainly what it needs. Here’s hoping they can top this year’s lineup, keep being ambitious, and continue the good work.

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Both Gaytheist and Team Dresch will be playing at Portland’s MusicFestNW in early September, and it would be very silly to miss it.

Geoff Vincent

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