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Variant Cause - Excavating 1980's Pacific Northwest

Feb. 2012: Variant Cause – Excavating 1980's Pacific Northwest

Here we go – February,the month of Presidents and love.

For Feb our tasty AotM is Variant Cause. In my press release I send out every month I have a little tag line about the AotM – Always 100% Northwest, always 100% cool. Or at least 100% weird. These guys qualified for the #3 descriptor for sure.Maltese Cross guitar

Variant Cause was one of the many variations of these guys who came over from Spokane and landed in a funky rat infested house on Roosevelt which the shared with last month’s AotM, The Life. They were originally Next Exit, they put out related project like Koo Dot Tah. Most people I knew back when either dug ‘em or hated ‘em. I’ve always thought that is a much better place to be than a boring whatever in between the two. Singer Jan Gregor managed to find one of the few Maltese Cross guitars like Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, which was pretty damn hip (still have it?). A couple years ago they put together a couple CDs of their tunes, of which we will feature the first, Excavating Variant Cause 1980’s Pacific Northwest Volume 1, this month and it is available from CDbaby. They have an extensive web page (, which features a lot of what you read below comes, plus a zillion posters, some vids and other visual stuff.

Next month, we will have a brand new Goblin Market album – Beneath Far Gondal’s Foreign Sky, starring the Green Pajama’s Jeff Kelly and Laura Weller. Also next month on St Patrick’s Day, The Life will play their first show in over 20 years. Sitting in for the late Tony Bortko will be the producer of Alone, Keith Livingston and Greg Morlan of this month’s AotM Variant Cause. Maybe there will be a Variant Cause reunion next, eh?

Happy Valentines!


February 2012


“Top 10 on Pluto . . . Somewhere there’s a planet where Variant Cause is in the Top-40. That planet is not Earth . . . In these days of simplified guitar-only grunge rock, Variant Cause stands out like an Escher print in a Picasso display.”
Backlash, November 1989

“From the first eight bars of this record you know exactly where Variant Cause is coming from and it’s definitely nowhere you’ve ever been before. . . . you want to know what an inventive rock group will sound like in the 90s. That’s what this stuff by Variant Cause is: pop music of the 90s.”
Two Louies, Portland 1987

“Variant Cause are simply f*#king hot sh#t!!! As much as I feel compelled to categorize this band I can’t. The category simply does not exist in the music world today. I can tell you that as innovative as these guys are they are not without fundamental rock’n’roll roots. When you stand back and look at each band member individually you find that these guys quite frankly don’t belong in the same band together. It is exactly this apparent conflict of musical styles that makes this band work.”
The Courier, Salem, Oregon 1987

“In fact, Variant Cause are really freaked androids with their wires crossed. Constantly busy, twisted with manic invention, loopy by nature. these guys are more demented than they know . . . a runaway fling of stimulus-junkie madness. Electric eccentrics, safe in small doses.”
Option Magazine 1987

The songs:Varianr Cause - Excavating 1980's Pacific Northwest Volume 1

1. Kamikaze Cabaret
2. Right Now She’s Not
3. Blue Hotels
4. Push Out Your Borders
5. Last Chance For Losers
6. She’s A Moving Violation
7. Exotic Locale
8. Are You Domesticated
9. I Love You
10. Till the Craving’s Gone
11. Life in the Wind
12. Bad Blood Between Us

The Players:

Jan Gregor – lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Mark Fenton – drums, backing vocals
Greg Morlan – lead guitar, backing vocals
Ryan Collins (Ryco) – bass, backing vocals

Tony Bortko – lead guitar and keyboard 5, 9, 11
Rick Hogan – keyboards backing vocals 1, 2, 12
Frank Holman – keyboard, harmonica 3,4,6,8
Geoff Zehring -lead guitar 12

Some V.C. stories told by Jan Gregor.

Variant Cause was first formed in 1985. We were not new to the scene, Mark and I had been playing in original groups for six years — starting with Sweet Madness in Spokane — and Greg had been playing with us for three years, in Next Exit and Koo Dot Tah and other side trips.

We had already been working on a new sound for the last few years and were really starting to bring it all together. We were trying to retain rock & roll roots but twist it up and try and take it to a new place. Now our goal was to reel in our side projects and to focus on the live band and that sound: Variant Cause.

With the name change to Variant Cause and the addition of the considerable talents of bass player Ryco, we started locking in on a sound and building a new following and new rooms to play in. We retained old original songs from Next Exit, and even a few from Sweet Madness that fit our defined band sound and then started writing and recording new music. We were always DIY– Do It Yourself — and we built up our fan base with parties and mailing lists and aggressive promoting.Vogue poster

We managed to retain quite a bit of the local draw we’d built up in our previous band, and we started working towards the weekend gigs while writing and recording new material. We were constantly working up new songs and then recording during the week as time and money allowed. Ryco, Mark and I usually laid down rhythm tracks live. I favored a Mosrite guitar for the studio and Ryco as always was on his trusty Fender.

Our first Variant Cause single was actually the last song we recorded in the Next Exit lineup, with Jeff Morlan still on bass. David Fischer often sat in with us live for the odd sax or clarinet, and he played keyboards on this session. Marathon Man was an interim song we recorded while trying out new bass players. We recorded it on a basement 8-track, with Chas Wheeler (later in Arms Akimbo) on bass.

When we first moved to Seattle in 1983, we had opened for Translator who had the hit “Everywhere that I’m Not.” We had also opened for Nico. We’d try and hustle a gig with anybody that was even remotely related to the genre of music we were creating, because by that time we had two hours of original material — some mellower some stranger — so we could tailor a shorter set that would work for most situations. We didn’t care, we worked a lot. Every week somewhere. For better or worse we played with anybody that did original, we were not cliquish on our bills.

It was a room called Baby-O’s down in Pioneer Square, operated by a Greek family. But the promoter putting on Nico was a guy who had briefly had a stint as a band manager for TKO when our lead guitar player Greg had been playing in a brief-lived touring incarnation of that band. So that’s the connection that got us the Nico gig.

In the afternoon the English band shows up in a station wagon pulling a trailer. They seem tired and anxious for the tour to end. The promoter has two shows planned. He’s going to turn the house. We’ll open each set.

Nico calls him from San Francisco at 5:00 p.m. She had stayed in SF to score heroin now she’s at the airport but she needs him to buy her a ticket. The show’s at 8:00.

He tells us to start and “keep playing” as he races to the airport and gets a speeding ticket on the way. We start playing but she’s not there yet.

We finally stopped playing when he walked in with her. Amazingly the audience had tolerated us for 75 minutes and we were originally slated to play about 35 mintues. But by this time we’ve played too long and the promoter has given up on two shows. She takes forever to go on, putting on makeup and getting stoned.

Then she starts. Great to hear her even though she’s in rough physical shape. They don’t have a soundman, so I even took over running sound after our soundman got bitched at by her. But there was no way around it, she had a friggin’ acoustic harmonium — a small pump organ — right in front of her monitor and she wanted it cranked and there was no way to do it without feedback. And she bitched relentlessy about it over the mic. Wanting it louder. Then bitching more when there was feedback. Live

So yeah, I remember that show.

Any money we made from the band went to recording and band bills, so we all maintained day jobs to pay the rent. The first job I got in Seattle was as a billposter for Rhoda Mueller manager of the Fabulous Rainbow. She ran music 6 or 7 nights a week in the style of New Orlean’s Tippitina’s. Her passion was for national jazz and blues but she packed the club weekends with hot local rhythm and blues. She had a love and passion for what she did and she promoted with a fervor. Although the room was lacking in size and dressing room accomodations, everyone loved to play there as it was a party.

In Washington state, bars quit serving by 1:30 a.m. and cleared people out by 2:00. I knocked on the door about 3:00 a.m. one night, the lights inside though the place looked to be totally dark all lights out. Once I was recognized and let in, as my eyes adjusted I was shocked to see how many musicians were huddled around tables having late night discussions.

Weekends were reserved for blues and R&B but Rhoda ran music 7 nights a week and would give up-and-coming bands a shot.

If a band is out there and working their way towards the weekend they become aware of what we called a “jump gig.” Someone cancels at the last minute. It’s Friday afternoon “Can you guys play tonight.” Now the good thing about a “jump gig” is a group can get a shot at some good nights. The bad thing about a jump gig is you don’t have time to promote so you may not get your best audience, and then that could be used against you. But we were hungry and we took a lot of jump gigs. In this case, Rhoda had gotten the rest of the month booked in time for the Rocket ads but hadn’t gotten this weekend booked, so we put together this co-bill. We were all U-District bands so our audiences crossed over and supplemented each other.
A regional hub city like Seattle has a lot of transplant bands: groups that have gone as far as they could in a Hall of Fame postersmaller town then moved to Seattle. Prudence Dredge had Missoula, Montana roots and like us now had a band and party house in the University District. TheMoving Parts were from Boise, Idaho. Led by the Irwin brothers, they had a great original sound. The Moving Parts and us had a similar but different audience and between the two of us we could co-bill our first weekend stint at the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame was a fairly large club in the basement of a mall mezzanine on University Avenue. It was booked by a man named Dave McGregor who was also heavily involved with the Republican Party. I found this very odd at first, but then I realized that politics and the music biz have a lot in common. Politics, power, draw and money. They share more similarity than difference.

At that time, there were not very many rooms in Seattle that featured original music. And the Hall of Fame, while they did feature original on the off nights, but with a few exceptions most weekends were still cover bands. Finally we were given a weekend headline shot at the University District Hall of Fame. Not the best weekend — early January — but a weekend nonetheless. I really liked Girl Trouble from Tacoma and offered them an opening slot.

In the audience that night was a singer from another local band, a guy who wanted to be Iggy Pop, a guy who thought we weren’t as cool as him. While helping Girl Trouble load out he and his buddy stole French bread from the kitchen and threw pieces all over our stage. Then once we started playing, they proceeded to drunkenly bash around. They knocked over Kathy our ad artist and gave her a concussion. My girlfriend — on the dance floor — grabbed the said singer in a neckhold. “You’re outta here.” Kathy had to go to a doctor so I ended up having to negotiate with the club to get her covered on insurance.

Thanks, pal, you’re really helping the scene. We finally get a weekend slot and try to bring in another original band. Just what we need, since it invariably reflects on our judgment. I called up the singer, “Sorry we were drunk, I can’t remember.” For years I fantasized about sending him off on a false booking somewhere, 400 miles out to nowhere in the middle of Idaho, where he’d arrive to find no gig and a loaf of French bread. Aah, but some fantasies never get realized.

We gigged a lot and slowly tried to branch out regionally.
It took us awhile to get into the legendary Central Tavern in Pioneer Square. Our draw mainly came from up in the University District — we weren’t yet considered a “downtown” band — so it was a question mark as to whether we could pull a crowd downtown.

The Central Tavern was fire-rated at 199, but that was just kind of a starting point. A good night was considered 400 or 450 people, two and ½ times fire capacity or so, and nights of 600 people rolling through there were not unheard of.

If you stood out front at the end of a sold-out show, it was hard to understand how all those people could even fit in there. At the end of the night people would just pour out of the door along with the steam and the smoke. But if you did it right, you could sure make good club money. Doors of $2000 to $3000 were quite common. You could make some serious money there.

You will hear aspiring musicians bitching about not being able to get a weekend show. But really, all they have to do is draw. I’ve never been one to believe it’s the club’s duty to help bands create their draw; I believe the bands need to do it on their own with parties and creative planning.
Single cover
In a club, the door money usually pays for door staff, P.A. and lights, postering or promo and the band. But it is the booze sold that pays the bills at a club. At that time an average person walking in a beer and wine joint would spend $6. As in two beers. And an average person in a hard liquor joint might spend $10 or $11 a head. So that is why it was so crucial to move the people through. It didn’t matter if they stayed, but get them in for a drink or two and if they moved on other people would take their place.

The reality for us at the time was that we weren’t absolutely certain that we had the drawing power to justify being weekend headliners. We were not signed, we were doing almost entirely original material, and we were not in a “honeymoon” period as far as draw. But we resolved to work harder and smarter than other bands in order to maintain weekend status.

First off I always made sure to try and put together a decent co-bill, another band with similar but a bit different draw. Down in Pioneer Square anyway, we usually took the middle slot, the one about 11:00 p.m. seemed to be the best. So if I had a choice we’d always take that middle slot.

Pioneer Square went joint cover one weekend a month. What that meant is that you could pay $5 at one club and move around the Square, getting into all the other clubs with just the one cover charge. A lot of bands hated it, as it meant that someone might pay cover at a different club and then show up and hear your band without paying. So if a band was playing for the door like at the Central you could have an audience that paid cover somewhere else.

What we realized is that it just boiled down to starting earlier, whatever club had music blasting out of it grabbed the first customers of the night. What we would do is shoot for an 8:30 start with some kind of assemblage of musicians getting up and jamming blues. Some musicians were too cool for it, they thought it too blatant a hustle. But for us it was survival, do whatever we had to do to hang onto the weekends that paid our recording bills.

Mark and Ryco were on bass and drums, maybe I’d sing a few songs. Maybe someone from another club would play harp or sing a few. Eric from Life In General — a great guitar player with a dry sense of humor — he was always game when we co-billed with them.

It was funny, but there was always people out in the Square waiting for the first sounds of music, and once we would start, the first few customers would come in and within 20 minutes the place would start to fill up. The beer taps would start to flow and the room would start chattering and everyone was happy. It didn’t even matter if the first people in the door even stuck around; that was not the point. The point was to get them to pay at the Central, get some customers for the bartenders, and get the club hopping before the later 10 and 11:00 p.m. crowd started showing up.

We would exploit anything going on. Did we think that many of the people getting out of a baseball game would Liveactually be intoVariant Cause? No, probably not. But when that crowd was walking through the Square looking for a place to have a beer, you can bet that R.B. Chop Chop was up on stage banging out some white-boy-blues. Our own audience would show up later. Our sole intention was to do whatever it took to hang onto weekend status. And the harsh reality is that weekend status is established solely by numbers through the door and how much business the bar did.

That was a great strategy which worked for us and works in any kind of central location where there are a lot of clubs, in those old downtown club areas that some many cities have.

Iggy Pop had not played Seattle for years due to an infamous lawsuit incident relating to a minor riot and a speaker stack falling over. He had chosen not to enter the state rather than risk being arrested.

With the release of Blah Blah Blah, his best record in years, he was out on tour but the closest he would come to Seattle was Portland. We managed to hustle ourselves on as opener for the Portland show at the Graceland Ballroom.

We had played Portland and Salem enough times to know we had some fans but still, opening for a performer like Iggy I wondered how we’d be received: after all we were just the time-filler till the legend appeared.

We opened with our standard opener “Freeway” and got a great response. By the end of three songs, the applause was indicating that we would do fine. I heard later that the only guy booing us loudly was sitting up in the mezzanine. Wouldn’t you know it, it was the same singer from the Seattle band that had try to screw with our Hall of Fame gig. This guy idolized Iggy and thought that his band should have the opening slot instead of us. Sorry, pal.

I passed Iggy standing in the darkened shadows of a backstage corner. He was standing back by a big Leslie speaker cabinet they had as part of their band gear, waiting to go on. I quickly put away my things and went out front so as not to miss a thing.Iggy was taut and wired and “on.”– clean and sober and back to reclaim this crown. His band was automotan-tight, just unbelievable. Really really great. What a show!

We were always interested in widening out and finding an audience anywhere we could, and our guitar edge meant that we went over with a metal-leaning crowd. Brent worked at Tower Records on University Avenue and he promoted hard rock shows on the side. He put us on co-billing with Alice in Chains and Ruff Toiz.

Alice had changed their name from Sleeze — they were kind of a big hair glam band from the suburbs. At this time we played with them — 1987 — they were still bringing their sound together. When I saw them again a few years later at a showcase at the Central, they had really honed their sound and I was very impressed.

We opened for the British group the Godfathers. At the time they were riding high on a hit song called “Birth, School, Work, Death”. The Ballard Firehouse was a room we never played just because of the bad rep of the promoter, but we wanted to open for the Godfathers so we hustled and got the gig. We would be paid $400.

When I showed up in the afternoon the old man was behind the bar loading his handgun, getting ready for another lively night. In these club settings, the headliner sets up their gear and leaves it so the opening act doesn’t get much room. But we crammed onto the stage and made it work and had a great set.

When I walked offstage after playing an encore I remember thinking, “Man I can’t believe how good this is going. Maybe I’m wrong about this room.”
Central Tavern poster
Then it was like the channel just changed. Like that! Red lights start flashing outside the fire trucks have shown up as the show is way oversold. The Greek family’s son is running around trying to open doors and move tables and make double-capacity look like less people. Fire marshalls come in and make the rounds. Finally, finally it all gets worked. 50 tickets to the Fireman’s Ball or something. And theGodfathers start their set.

Our sound man had been running the PA just under max — it was not a large sound system. But their sound man chose to crank it up, and he starts clipping the system and he shuts it down. Dead. The mains go silent and the band is up there moving and mouthing into dead mics.

The Godfathers storm off and go upstairs to the dressing room, PA cools down and gets worked out. When the band returns to the stage they want to get things going so they come out and do their one hit. And their sound man has it cranked again. And once again he shuts the fuckin’ PA down. Same thing once again. And then a third time. Now the singer is cursing about the club. Screaming. Bitching about the room. And telling people to go and get refunds.

And the old man –the Greek owner– has to be contained because he doesn’t know these English chaps from any local band, he just knows they’re bitching about his club. “Get them outta my club! Get those muthafucka’s outta my club!”

Needless to say, we didn’t get paid. And they didn’t either. I approached the booker at the end of the night and he stood there with his pockets pulled out, “Sorry, I had to give refunds,” he said. “But I owe you a juicy one.”

Wait a second, I guess I never collected on that juicy one. Too late now . . . Funny.

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