Dissect Yellow Swans, Chapter I: If The World Didn’t End (c.1998 – 2000)

Welcome to the first instalment of Dissect Yellow Swans, an ongoing oral history of the seminal noise duo to coincide with their newly launched series of reissues.

In the opening chapter of the story we join band members Pete Swanson and Gabriel Saloman at the turn of the century as their musical paths converge in Portland, Oregon.  Rotating around the creative hub that was promoter Todd Patrick’s 17 Nautical Miles, Saloman and Swanson were joined on the scene by fellow luminaries such as Paul Dickow, George Chen, Ethan Swan and Paul Costuros.

Gabriel was living in San Francisco.  At 23 he was a hardcore fan with a keen eye on the electronic music coming from the Tigerbeat6 label.  He was desperate to find a way to combine those two seemingly disparate sounds, with local promoter George Chen eventually becoming the glue. Joined by bassist Ceci Moss, the trio embarked almost immediately on tour with their friends from The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, stopping in Portland to play at Todd Patrick’s house.

That night in January 2000, a relative scene veteran was present as he almost always seemed to be. His name was Pete Swanson, a precocious young musician from Corvallis with numerous bands already under his belt and a vinyl release with Mur•der doing the rounds. Aged just 21, Pete was about to meet Gabe.

Memories have understandably faded and fried over the years but the best people to tell this story in its richest form are those who lived it.

In no particular order, the cast of characters:

George Chen (Zum Audio, Boxleitner, stand-up comedian) • Todd Patrick (Promoter, NYC) • Paul Gonzenbach (musician, The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up, Lovers Weekend Records, Californiageddon survivor) • Paul Dickow (Strategy, Emergency, The Cold War) • Ceci Moss (curator, author, Boxleitner) • Ethan Swan (Silk Flowers, Emergency) • Paul Costuros (Total Shutdown, Death Sentence: Panda!), and, of course, Gabriel Saloman and Pete Swanson.

I’ll pass the mic now. Let this story commence…

MUR•DER : SILENTIST : THE COLD WAR

Portland
1998 – 1999
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In the 90s, it was so chic to be a “gatekeeper” of sacred experimental music knowledge.  What poser garbage that is.  If you never want people to start good bands I guess keep that shit to yourself?
Paul Dickow

Ethan Swan: Have you had anyone say that Pete reminds them of Keanu Reeves? It was a common comparison around the time I first met him. The momentary pauses mid sentence, the exuberance, the grin that seems to take over his whole body. I think it’s the Keanu of Bill & Ted, but also the Keanu of River’s Edge. They share this irrepressible enthusiasm despite the vastness of true, real, bad energy. Easy laughter, open doors. Which is all to say I noticed Pete before I ever met him. I had spent the summer of 1998 going to hardcore fests around where I grew up – Hellfest in Syracuse, Michigan Fest, More Than Music in Columbus, and the riot grrrl festival in Kalamazoo. I moved to Portland at the end of that summer, into a house with Paul Dickow. I had already lived in Portland for short spans of time twice before – the fall of 1996, and again in the fall of 1997, which is when Emergency formed.

Pete Swanson: The Keanu references are appropriate, especially River’s Edge. I guess broadly I’m an enthusiastic pragmatist and I’m often navigating kind of dark spaces.

Paul Dickow: Pete and I met when I was in Emergency [and we] began to play shows with Mur•der. This was a time of significant cross-fertilisation of Portland’s music scene, where the dying embers of the 90s grunge [and] bar rock scene was being replaced by a youth-driven (but multi-generational) mix of punk, noise, pop, improvisation, and electronic music. Portland was not yet a cultural centre except within counter-cultural circles, so this new ecology was largely one borne of “boredom mitigation,” with groups of unalike style sharing concert bills, rehearsal spaces, and personnel. This activity centred around short-lived all-ages venues like 17 Nautical Miles and various houses whose basements or front rooms formed makeshift venues.

Todd Patrick: There was a short period of a few months when I was doing parties at my house, either after 17 Nautical Miles shows or just for the heck of it. The shows at my house are more memorable than those at 17NM proper, I guess just because they were more intimate and they were fewer of them. We did an Out Hud show, Bisybackson’s final show, Old Time Relijun, !!!, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone [and] a few others [plus] many parties with just DJs, which was unusual for the era. The house was just around a block away from 17 Nautical Miles, which was on SE Woodstock Blvd. It was an enormous old farmhouse and it hadn’t been modernised or updated at all since it was used as such – it had six bedrooms, a basement, an old bathroom with the tiles all falling off, and the shows took place in the front room. A lot of people went through that house.

Ethan Swan: [W]hen I got to Portland in September 1998, I saw a flyer for Atom and His Package and a bunch of bands I’d never heard of at a house in North Portland and forced myself to go. I didn’t really have an opinion about Atom’s music, but knew there would be people and ideas I could connect with at that show. I remember sitting outside, reading a book I’d brought with me, and listening in on conversations. Pete was talking about the types of shirts you see all the time at thrift stores: “My grandma went to Aruba and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” or “Property of Jefferson High School.” It was a version of a meaningless conversation that was happening in the front yards of house shows everywhere, but there was a clear sense of Pete being connected to so many people there by so many threads. Given that sense of centrality, I wasn’t surprised that he was in one of the bands that played that night. [Mur•der] were good – fast, jarring, very well rehearsed, and capable of dramatic, drastic twists. Pete was definitely a connective force in the scene, on many different levels.

Pete Swanson onstage with Mur•der c.1999

Pete Swanson: Mur•der were really inspired by Gravity Records hardcore a la Angel Hair and Antioch Arrow. It was pretty derivative, as most bands comprised of 19-year-olds are, but we had fun. We played a ton [and] I think we were a pretty fun band to see. Nate played guitar, Abe was the bassist and ran 17 Nautical Miles with Todd Patrick. Todd was a very central figure in my life in Portland.  He basically put on Mur•der shows three nights a week – it was a kind of nuts time.

Todd Patrick: I might have put Mur•der on twice a week for two weeks one time or something. But Pete was still living in Corvallis at the time, driving back and forth, and he was there at almost every show. Punk on the West Coast had this Mod aesthetic back then: skinny ties, smart shirts, black pants. Kind of formal. It didn’t match the sound of the music those bands were playing, which I suppose was the point. So you had this screaming, pretty confrontational stuff coming from well-dressed guys. And Pete back then was straight edge; he was a straight edge guy, and I think vegan, which was not typical at the time.  But Mur•der wasn’t what you think of as straight edge music – it was heavily influenced by Antioch Arrow, you know, and Gravity Records. Just 30 second songs, screaming. So Pete’s lifestyle was at odds a little with Mur•der’s sound, I always thought, y’know. But he was a really smart guy, a real charmer even then.

Pete Swanson: I did live in Portland at that time, but I was pretty freshly out of high school and new to the town as a resident. I’d had connections there for several years prior from going to hardcore shows.  I was never vegan, but I was straight edge right up until I met Gabe. Not for any fault of his.

Paul Dickow: Pete and I became fast friends during this period. Emergency was not a typical punk or hardcore band: we were inspired by the art punk and no-wave of the 1980’s and early 1990’s and the membership of the group reflected an extremely broad set of musical interests. I knew almost nothing about hardcore punk. Ethan [Swan] had begun the process of schooling me in the history of hardcore and complex layers (and politics, good grief) of its sub-sub-sub-genres, [but] Pete, significantly, was the other source of knowledge in this realm; he had an amazing collection of weirder grindcore stuff like Slap-A-Ham label bands. Pete has said that me, Ethan, and Amy [Heneveld] were those quintessential sort of “older kids” (though I think there’s only three years between me and Pete!) who passed on underground wisdom through the form of mix tapes and record collecting tips. If I’ve done one thing right in my own musical journey it’s been to share the knowledge, ignite someone’s desire to go further “outside” the bounds. Many, many mixtapes were exchanged.

Ethan Swan: Pete and I did an interview maybe 10 years ago that was never published because the website it was for folded, but I went back and re-read it and one thing that jumped out to me was him talking about viewing Paul and I as a bit older, with deep record collections… but it really was more level than that. I definitely remember him making a tape for me of every Charles Bronson song a year or two before the discography came out. He was really meticulous about collecting all the split 7″s, comps etc. at a time when there was no discogs.com to lay that all bare.

Todd Patrick: The Mod thing progressed quite clearly into Silentist – the skinny jeans, the ties, the NYC thrift store style.  We used to call them the “White Belt Brigade,” like fucking Interpol or whatever. But that suited the music more with Silentist, which was more austere, post-punk, some goth, some glam. Sounding like that Cure album – what was that? Pornography? Pornography or The Head on the Door. That era. And Johnny [Jewel] carried that additional flamboyance through to Glass Candy.

Ethan Swan: [I] had a hard time connecting with [Silentist] but can see how important it was for Pete to try a radically different kind of playing and working. Like that was very much Evan Burden’s band, and I don’t think it operated like a punk band at all.

Pete Swanson (L) and bassist Todd Corbett pre-Silentist show (c.1999)

Pete Swanson: Silentist had a great work ethic.  It was a very song oriented psychedelic rock [band]. Those dudes sent me down the weirdo rabbit hole a lot further. It was a real education for a 20-year-old, particularly during an era when the internet didn’t involve access to all sounds, or any sounds at all. Johnny turned me onto Dadamah, Gate [and] White Winged Moth.  Evan is still one of my favourite musicians; [he has] an amazing mind and we were all working with him to achieve his vision. There are no official documents of Silentist while I was in the band [but it] was a bit more ambitious. Very epic, heavy psychedelic rock with some avant classical leanings. All of our songs were like 10+ minutes, we didn’t play a ton of shows, didn’t record, but that was like a really great education for me in terms of how to conduct yourself as a band. But that all fizzled out as Glass Candy got going [and] it was a year or two later when Gabe was about to move up [to Portland] that I was in a place where I was thinking about doing a band again.

Gabriel Saloman: The way I remember it is that the first time I was in the same room as Pete we didn’t actually meet. I was in Portland at a show at 17 Nautical Miles [to see] his band with Paul Dickow – The Cold War.

Pete Swanson: The Cold War lasted literally for a few weeks.  It was a band that was entirely based around one specific event that had been in the news at that time. We wrote a set of songs and played two or three shows while it was still in the news.  I think maybe Gabe was at the reunion show, which was with The Red Scare, like a month later. There isn’t any documentation on The Cold War as far as I know.

Ethan Swan: The Cold War was a great band. Paul and I were still living together at that point, and Pete and Joel [Bartell] were living together in a house that seemed built for big social events. I remember watching the Fugazi documentary there with a dozen people after the VHS came out, and another time going to a party there where all the attendees had to wear dresses. They had a practice space behind the house that hosted the one show I saw of The Cold War. The other background that’s important to The Cold War was the accelerating tension between the US and China. Paul and I talked about it every day I felt like – the bombing of the Chinese embassy, anti-American protests in Beijing, the rising xenophobia playing out through TV news. It seemed like we were on the brink of something really bad, and Paul wanted to find a way to talk about it. The Cold War was a very direct, transparent response to this urge, and I remember being really excited by that singular focus. It also circumvented the anxiety he was having about these committed, multi-year projects with regular rehearsal times and ambitions. He just wanted to yell about these bad feelings, to have a pressure valve.

Paul Dickow: The Cold War was a “temporary, single-issue” political band that Pete and I had with our friend (and I think he was a roommate too) Joel Bartell. I played drums. Emergency went on a quasi-planned pause in 1999, and I was experiencing some pretty significant political awakening. Pete, Joel and I seized on the idea of a band that could last for a period of weeks or months, focus primarily on one issue, and have a limited number of songs mainly addressing that topic and whatever spillover might be part of it. The Cold War was born. I think Pete played guitar and Joel played bass and sang. Pete might have sang too. Maybe I kind of screamed into a mic while I drummed too? I really can’t recall. I’m not sure if there are any recordings of the group at all or if I even still have any show flyers. I think we played three shows, one at 17 Nautical Miles, one in Pete’s basement, and one at a house on North Mississippi Ave maybe with…Orchid? I can’t remember. I recall many years later Gabe telling me he was at the 17 Nautical Miles show and was inspired by our free form sound attack that he called “free jazz influenced.” I remember at the time thinking “OK here goes, I’m really in a hardcore band” but as with most of my early music adventures, the result was probably way in left field from whatever I thought I was doing. I did listen to a lot of jazz and improvisation music at the time, so I guess it would inevitably leak in.

Gabriel Saloman: Living in the East Bay, Portland sounded like a cool town and we just wanted to go up and see what was happening. After seeing that show I was really into [The Cold War]. I was like, “man, I could do that,” you know, like in the classic punk way.  Like “the quality is high enough that I want to do it, but the skill level seemingly is low enough that I think I can do it.”  I went back to the Bay Area and was at some show with George Chen and we were talking about starting a hardcore band that also operated as a noise band.

George Chen: I think Gabe is referencing a show we put on in San Francisco for the band Nervous System.  It was a really fun hardcore band where everything sounded like a blur except the drums and some of the vocals, so I just suggested to Gabe that that was all we needed to be a band: drums and vocals and noise. I had the name Boxleitner as a joke name for many years. I was doing a cover band and had tried doing this other band with my friends and my sister called Megaweapon. Megaweapon just evolved into a noise project of cassette overdubs, so that was going to be a feature of [Boxleitner]. I had a lot of concepts and so did Gabe, and we kind of jumbled them all together.

Gabriel Saloman: In the Bay Area in the late nineties there was this emerging artsy weird punk scene that overlapped with the electronic music scene that included Gold Chains, Kid606, Blectum from Blechdom and Crack: We Are Rock, but also Total Shutdown and Erase Errata and The Flying Luttenbachers. It was a bizarre convergence of New Wave music, No Wave and electro, y’know, which for better or worse became electroclash. The more punk, no wave and noise rock scene was super live, really fun, really chaotic, like some of it – like Total Shutdown – was just completely demolished, deconstructed noise but still looked and sounded like a rock band, and other stuff was a little bit tighter and more angular and self-consciously sort of post punk. It was really really fun music but it felt really limited aesthetically; it was fun to be around but it wasn’t like the most edgy or technologically savvy music. And the the other scene, which was like the Tigerbeat6 scene, for lack of a better catch-all, to me on record that music felt way more energetic and strange and alien. But I remember distinctly when Kid606 moved to the Bay Area and played his first show. [I was] so excited to go and experience it and it was just watching a guy check his email, y’know: the music still sounded cool through a big system but it was just tediously boring. So I turned to George at that show and I said, “I really wanna do a band that sounds like Kid606 but feels like Total Shutdown.” And George said, “I think you’re gonna have to buy a lot of gear.”

Paul Costuros: I met George Chen at an indie rock show; he had recognised me as a member of The Fisticuffs Bluff. So we started talking about that history. It was at a later show that I mentioned that I was not into indie rock and that I had another band in the works, [which was] Total Shutdown. [H]e mentioned that he started a band that was also playing “crazy music,” which excited me because at that time in San Francisco I was not aware of this kind of stuff happening. They were called Boxleitner, after the actor who was regularly cast as a second-hand James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc. so the idea was that they were a second-hand band in that way, which I thought was really funny. He also mentioned that they were a cross between hardcore and Andy Kaufman (who I was actually obsessed with at the time) so I thought it sounded really cool.  So we talked about our bands playing together at some time. Soon after that I saw a flyer for a Boxleitner show at Aquarius Records that was a plastic FedEx sealed envelope with the flyer inside as well as a banana, which would clearly rot. Immediately I knew these guys were cool. I think Gabe made that flyer.

CALIFORNIAGEDDON 

January 2000
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Boxleitner had a very goofy energy… ALWAYS. 
Pete Swanson

Paul Costuros: As soon as [I met Gabe], we had an immediate connection. We talked about music, bands, art, performance art, etc. He talked about wearing multiple white belts as a riff on the mid 90s emo scene we were all part of [and] he did wear when we first played a show together, at Kimo’s, [which] had a history of bands having to play in drag.  By then it was no longer required, but I remember Boxleitner played in a drag-type way. Ceci had a painted-on moustache.

Gabriel Saloman: Boxleitner went on our first West Coast tour on, I think, 1 January 2000, so it became like our Y2K tour – if the world didn’t end, we would have a jump on every other band who wasn’t on tour around that time. The Californiageddon Tour. We ended up in Portland playing at Todd’s house not far from 17 Nautical Miles.

Gabriel Saloman (L) and George Chen perform as Boxleitner c.2000

Paul Gonzenbach: We left on 2 January 2000. I’m not 100% sure you could call it a tour. It was a dumb, fun road trip with friends where we played a few shows more than it was a tour. It was the first time [The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up] had played any shows outside of California, and it might have been Owen [Ashworth, of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone]’s and Boxleitner’s first out-of-state shows too. There was almost literally no planning done for the trip. We weren’t adult enough to think about the fact that we were going to be driving over the Siskiyou Pass in the dead of winter and ended up caught in a pretty bad snow storm completely unprepared.

George Chen: It was very silly and the first time any of us had gone on tour.

Ceci Moss: I was a senior in high school [at the time] and we made the trek during the winter break. George had this huge and noisy van, which we drove up in. It would set off car alarms when we drove down the street. We hit a storm in the overpass between California and Oregon. At one point, due to the poor visibility and icy roads, I remember holding hands with everyone in the van. But we made it!

Paul Gonzenbach: We didn’t think to ask whether the people who were generously offering places to stay actually had enough beds for all of us, which they didn’t. So a few of us ended up sleeping on the hardwood floor, fully dressed, with no blankets or pillows. There were two shows in Portland – one house show and one in the basement of a tiki bar – and one or two in Seattle. Boxleitner didn’t have any merch at that time, so they sold old dollar-bin records without jackets on which they had dribbled words and phrases in hot wax or maybe glue. Mine says “the scarecrow and mrs. king” on it.

Paul Costuros: Boxleitner always played incredible live shows. I remember George using pool sticks for drum sticks at Rockin’ Java on Haight Street. They always had a non-serious vibe that was shared with Total Shutdown even though we were very different bands. [I] always loved their chaos [and] line-up changes (my old high school friend Joe Munsinger was even in the band at a time, which I don’t think went well but I loved it). They always kinda took the piss out of “cool” bands, emo bands [and] riot grrrl, and made it their own. [They were] a very important and special band at the time: I loved them!  They would always start with a song called “Oero,” which they would play as if it their were last song, smashing all of their equipment, throwing over the drums, making a complete mess – it was beautiful.  Then they would pick up and set everything up again for the rest of their set.  Incredible.  Ceci sang on this one song and would always go completely ballistic! One particular time I remember she smashed a pint glass on the stage just before launching into her ferocious vocal freak-out.

Top: Ceci Moss performs with Boxleitner on the Californiageddon Tour
Bottom: The bear’s demise.

Ceci Moss: Our live performances were outlandish and fun. I brought fairy wings and some other costume items [on tour]. We somehow obtained a gigantic teddy bear, which was affixed to the front of the van and used as a prop in our shows. [When] we played at 17 Nautical Miles in Portland, all 14 of us on the tour spent the night there

Gabriel Saloman: That bear got utterly destroyed at a house show in Olympia put on by members of The Gossip. It was “snowing” inside the house. [It is] hard to explain [Boxleitner] – it was like a self-reflexive joke on the west coast emo hardcore scene at the time. Almost like if a band from Gravity Records got infected by no wave and possessed by the ghost of Andy Kaufman. We actually went to see Man on the Moon in theatres as an official “band practice.” I would say it was the closest thing to being in a band with Muppets you could imagine.

Todd Patrick: I didn’t know Gabe back then. Everyone knew George Chen; he was kind of my equivalent in the East Bay where he was putting on shows. That was how Boxleitner got booked. It was like, “oh, it’s George’s band,” so we had them at the house. They stayed the weekend and I was like their tour guide in Portland. It was the first time I met Gabe; he was funny. I remember he was a funny guy, and he’s really smart. But honestly, years later when I booked Yellow Swans in New York, I didn’t think, “oh yeah, that’s the guy from Boxleitner.”

Pete Swanson: A friend of mine, Debra, who I met through punk shows in Portland, did radio shows in Stanford and through her I met Ceci and George.  I knew they had a band together and that’s why I went out to the show [at Todd’s house]. I think Debra had talked about [Gabe] to me, like, I think he played at her high school graduation party or something like that.

Ceci Moss: I knew Pete previously through our friend Debra, and I’m pretty sure I introduced him to Gabe at the Portland gig. We were all hanging about after the show. If I remember rightly it was a small crowd.

Pete Swanson: I remember meeting Gabe at that show at Todd’s house and there was no one there.  But it was like Gabe and I just hit it off, like, “Oh! Cool! Yeah!”

Gabriel Saloman: We just, y’know, we enjoyed each other’s company. We had things in common, listened to the same music [and] were excited about similar things.  We had a good sense of self-awareness and sense of humour about what we were doing. I think we just weren’t “cool guys” about stuff, we were just down to have a conversation and get into it and have fun about it.  And right away it was like, “Oh yeah, Pete’s a dude that if we’re ever in the same town we would kick it and probably be in a band together…”

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Heartfelt thanks to all who agreed to help put this section of what I hope will be an evolving oral history of Yellow Swans together; you have my undying gratitude for your cooperation. If you are reading and would like to add your memories of the band or its many precursors to the story, please get in touch. Keep an eye on the site for Part II, coming soon.

Photo credits:

Main image courtesy of Johnny Jewel • Pete Swanson onstage with Mur•der courtesy of Todd Patrick • Gabriel Saloman and George Chen perform with Boxleitner courtesy of George Chen • Ceci Moss performs with Boxleitner and The Bear’s Demise courtesy of Ceci Moss