Olympia’s Indie Music Scene, 1980 to 2002

By Molly Gilmore

The word “history” typically brings to mind images of times long past, but a new project underway in Olympia will preserve and present an important piece of recent history — the city’s influential indie music scene.

The Olympia Heritage Commission’s Olympia Indie Music History Project is focusing on the city’s music scene from 1980 to 2002, a time when abundant local music festivals, affordable all-ages venues and KAOS radio’s focus on independent music set the stage for a vibrant DIY culture that brought musicians to town and attracted national attention.

“Now is the time to capture that history,” said Marygrace Goddu of the heritage commission. The commission hopes to tie the project, inspired partly by the success of the Washington State History Museum’s 2016 show of indie music memorabilia, into the downtown creative district.

“We can capture stories and memories from people who experienced this history firsthand,” Goddu told OLY ARTS. “It’s a great way to awaken people to this newfound sense of the immediacy of history. … It’s really different than talking about pioneer history where you had to squeeze your eyes shut and imagine. It’s really fun and compelling.”

Kelsey Smith, a longtime zine creator and former librarian now working as a researcher and copywriter (http://leftycopywriting.info/ – under construction), and Elaine Vradenburgh, whose nonprofit Window Seat Media (https://www.windowseatmedia.org) helps communities tell th,eir stories, are heading up the project.

In the first phase of what’s planned as a two-year project, Smith and Vradenburgh are doing research and holding community meetings and focus groups, and will be interviewing such significant figures as Tobi Vail, Arrington de Dionyso and Sarah Utter and creating a resource guide and, Smith hopes, a zine.

Future possibilities include an exhibit, a downtown walking tour and possibly opportunities for live performance. “We want to play on the fact that this is recent enough history that it’s continuing,” Goddu said. “We’re asking ourselves how we can support the ongoing music scene.”

The commission dove into Olympia indie history in May with an exhibition of vintage show flyers curated by James Maeda of Rainy DayRecords. The show, on view at the Capitol Theater through the end of the year, has informed community conversations about the project.

“It’s a really inspiring exhibit,” Smith told OLY ARTS. “We really wanted people to be in the space. Being around those flyers, people were telling stories and reminiscing.”

The stories the historians are hearing are shaping the direction of the project. “When we first took on this project, the focus seemed to be specifically on K Records and riot grrrl and Kill Rock Stars and that part of the music scene,” Smith said. “But when we talk to people, we’ve been hearing over and over again about the influence of the jazz scene, the influence of the bluegrass scene and the intersectionality among those musicians playing together.”

The do-it-yourself nature of Olympia music of the time — the idea that anyone could make a record or headline a show — is another major theme, as is the importance of stories about one-time events and little-known projects. “Those stories can be just as important as the ones that we’ve heard a lot of times,” Vradenburgh told OLY ARTS. “Part of our work is finding those stories.”

And this history won’t be only about musicians. “We’re hoping to document the ways the music scene touched a lot of different parts of our community,” Vradenburgh said. “We want to interview not just musicians but also people who owned venues and promoted shows and made fliers and all of that, so that we have a broad selection of people who were involved.”

Smith is one of those people. She moved to Olympia in 1998 and attended shows here even before that, witnessing many of the musicians who shaped the scene. She’s been a key part of Olympia’s zine culture, co-founding the Olympia Zine Fest and running Community Print. And she was a longtime volunteer at the all-ages venue Northern and produced countless after-hours shows while working at the Olympia Timberland Library. She runs Community Print, a community letterpress printing shop, and co-organizes the Olympia Zine Fest. “I have a lot of cool memories,” she said.

The City of Olympia has put up a website where people can upload documents and share stories and comments here: https://www.olympiawa.gov/community/arts,_culture___heritage/indie_music_history.php

Olympia Indie Music History Project Scan-a-Thon

6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1

Olympia Timberland Library
313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia




Photos from the flyer exhibit at the Capitol Theater curated by James Maeda of Rainy Day Records

3:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday now through December

Capitol Theater
206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia

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