Published on August 4th, 2014 | by Jake Frye0
Meet the indomitable Brandon Rowley: hardest working man in the South Sound’s indie music scene
To say that Brandon Rowley is busy would be a criminal understatement.
Between opening a record store in Olympia, booking for the Java Jive in Tacoma and The Northern in Olympia, launching a record label, working at Bing (not to mention commuting from Olympia to Bellevue nearly every day), and hanging out with his two kids on the weekend, this is a man with a very full life. The question burning in my brain before I met Rowley was simply, why the hell does he do it?
I sat down with Rowley and as we talked, the answer became clear: Brandon Rowley loves local music. And he has made it his mission to create ways for independent music to thrive throughout the South Sound.
Most people, when they’re passionate about music, start a band, play some shows, and maybe record some albums, but that’s about as far as they go. While Rowley has been in his share of bands, he’s also had his hands in just about every other aspect of local music, from creating it to appreciating it to sustaining it.
Rowley grew up in Maryland, and has been involved with the underground music scene – specifically punk and hardcore – since 1996 when he booked his first show for hardcore pranksters The Meatmen. Soon after, he opened a record store called Black Circle and sang in a band called None of the Above.
Since then, Rowley—who I suspect has trouble sitting still—has moved around the country quite a bit, from Maryland to the west coast and back again, all the while staying connected to music in one way or another.
He first got involved in the Pacific Northwest hardcore/punk scene when he moved to Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood in 1999 and played in the hardcore (to be more specific, power violence) band hilariously titled Bloodfart. The band was composed of members from a previous hardcore outfit, Hangfire Disaster, and some members would later go on to form acts such as Headache Jackson, da27, and Cervecirrhosis.
Rowley says the Pacific Northwest is “incredibly isolated and insulated from the rest of the union, which breeds a unique culture here.” This Northwest culture has inspired decades of robust, underground music evolution, leading up to the mainstream success of grunge.
But even after Seattle became the epicenter of music in the 90s, bands would still avoid the region because it was expensive to head north and/or it was hard to draw crowds in a region accustomed to its isolation. This is even more true today of cities like Tacoma and Olympia; bands may set up a tour date in Seattle but skip straight to Portland or Canada the next day.
Currently, Rowley has settled in Olympia and it seems he’s putting down roots.
Cassettes have made a resurgence in recent years, partly because music fans still want a physical artifact to hold on to, partly because the generation coming up is young enough to see cassettes as quaint, forgotten technology, and partly because cassettes are much cheaper to produce than vinyl.
Rowley plans to expand the label beyond the Pacific Northwest region and has already signed an act from DC called The Deadlight Projects. Olympia and Spokane-based prog/punk/funk outfit, Bullets or Balloons, is also slated for a release in the near future, along with the DC band, The Osedax.
As if he needed more to do, Rowley also handles the booking for Bob’s Java Jive.
The Jive – a coffee-pot-shaped dive bar in Tacoma’s industrial Nalley Valley – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built in 1927, the establishment has passed through a lot of phases in its 87-year existence, from coffee shop to speakeasy to go-go bar. Nirvana even played there once.
The Jive hosts live music every weekend and is the go-to place to experience local and touring indie rock and roll.
Although Rowley grew up in heavy music, his booking is eclectic, showcasing local and touring bands from a refreshingly wide spectrum of genres. Rowley features everything from art rock, surf, slacker punk, psych, newgaze, garage, and more.
From my own experience, I know how desperately independent music needs people like Rowley. The underground rock and roll scene is a fragile ecosystem, one that can easily erode away or fall to pieces under the pressure of selfishness, rivalry, exhaustion, and petty human squabbles.
I’ve seen it happen a couple times—first, in my hometown of Muskegon, and later, when the venues started to close in Kalamazoo. In our corporatized culture, the truly independent is always at risk.
When I asked Rowley what others can do to help local and independent music to thrive, he had a few suggestions:
“Avoid falling into cliques, be inclusive to all newcomers, and keep it a labor of love.”
All photographs by Kali Raisl.