By Evan Marczynski/The AS Review
On the stage at the Wild Buffalo sits a single keyboard with long white candles placed on either end. A crowd of 30 or so drinks and mingles around the bar. Then a tall girl dressed in a white wedding gown climbs onstage and takes her position behind the keys.
After a brief introduction and a smile to the audience, Western student and singer/songwriter Nicole Zapel begins another performance.
Music in Bellingham varies widely from bands like Yogoman Burning Band and Sugar Sugar Sugar, which have attracted notable followings, to solo songwriters who strum guitars at open mic nights in coffeehouses.
Those involved in the local music scene have differing perspectives on how a town like Bellingham, which can produce an occasional rare musical gem that captures the attention of fans nationwide, is able to maintain a vibrant musical identity to rival other Pacific Northwest cities like Seattle or Portland.
Zapel said Bellingham’s loyal and supportive fans have created a great environment for her to begin getting her name out and she has received positive responses from people who have attended her shows.
However, she said that attention has been hard to come by and it has been difficult for her to find opportunities to progress. A lot of venues in town cater to musicians who are already well established, she said.
“You really have to know the right people to get shows,” she said.
Cullen Beckhorn, a local musician who goes by the stage name Future Man, said many people in Bellingham go to shows to actually listen to music instead of just party. Unfortunately a relatively small population and a lack of interest in talented but less well-known bands makes it difficult for Bellingham to truly develop its full musical potential, he said.
Beckhorn is the lead singer of Future Man’s Circus of Delusions, a band he described as a combination of jazz, tribal music and metal. It is made up of eight members, including two drummers and a clarinet player.
During a show, Beckhorn will improvise the direction of a song by signaling his bandmates with a series of flashcards. This experimental approach, coupled with Beckhorn’s style of singing through a microphone hooked into a series of sound-altering effects, makes each performance different from the last one.
However, not every venue in town has been friendly to the band’s music.
During a show at the Hot Shotz bar on State Street two years ago, the band was kicked off the stage by a bar manager after playing only three songs, Beckhorn said.
Perhaps it was their musical style or Beckhorn’s interpretive dance moves. The bartender might have taken offense when Beckhorn ripped off his street clothes to reveal a skintight, black unitard underneath. But for whatever reason his music might be misunderstood, Beckhorn takes it in stride.
“I’ve been kicked out of two bars and one reggae band for being too weird,” he said, smiling.
Marketing and Development Coordinator for Western’s radio station KUGS-FM Casey Nolan said Bellingham is well known for its large house shows, but city noise ordinances make it difficult for them to be viable alternatives to shows at bars around town.
Nolan also said the lack of a strong all-ages music scene is another obstacle to local music, as many fans and musicians are not old enough to play shows in bars or attend them.
Nolan is also the secretary and treasurer of Whatcom All-Ages Arts and Music (WhAAM), a nonprofit all-ages music venue located in The Old Foundry Building on 100 E. Maple St.
According to WhAAM’s Web site, it is currently the only venue in town for all-ages shows besides Western.
Nolan said she started attending events at WhAAM when she was in high school and became very involved with local music. Now she helps book bands at the venue.
“WhAAM was kind of cool because it was just kids running shows for kids,” she said. “They taught me how to do everything.”
Nolan said Bellingham has a deep music history and quite a few nationally-known bands had their beginnings in town. She said the Grammy-nominated indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie used to practice in a house on Ellis Street, just blocks from Western’s campus.
However, a history of producing musicians that go on to capture the attention of millions does not necessarily translate into Bellingham being a hot spot for touring bands and major record labels.
ASP Pop Music Coordinator Hallie Anderson said the amount of money needed to attract big name bands to town is the biggest problem with getting such acts to play. The cost to set up a performance for a large band on tour can be huge, she said.
Anderson said that in order to book big name acts she will occasionally have to rent additional musical equipment such as drum sets or amplifiers. She said this is necessary because bands based in cities on the other side of the country typically do not want to take the time and expense needed to ship their equipment to Bellingham to play a show.
“A big name artist takes a lot of time and a lot of planning,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to get that one act on that one day.”
Another factor that makes it hard to attract nationally touring bands to Bellingham is the town’s small size and location. Anderson said it helps that Bellingham is situated between larger music markets like Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, but the attention those cities receive does not always trickle down to smaller areas.
Back at the Wild Buffalo, Zapel ended her show with an a cappella song after encouraging the audience to join her by supplying the bass line. Zapel said one thing she loves about music fans in Bellingham is that they are always willing to give a listen to something new or unusual.
“Everyone is pretty open to all sorts of different music,” she said.