MSM: Newest Vein of Gold in Seattle’s Hard-Rock Quarry
Seattle is to the world of hard rock these days what Manhattan’s Park Avenue used to be to the world of high society: just about the most desirable address anyone could have.
In the past year, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, all hailing from Seattle, have hit the jackpot with gold, platinum or multiplatinum albums. That has sent record company talent scouts scurrying to the Northwest like prospectors to a gold strike, searching for the next Seattle find.
Now comes My Sister’s Machine, one of Seattle’s newest contenders for national attention. Its first album, “Diva,” arrived in February, and the band’s first tour will bring it to the Marquee in Westminster on Saturday.
MSM’s singer and lyricist, Nick Pollock, doesn’t try to play down the band’s geographical pedigree. But, speaking Wednesday during a pit stop along the road between Houston and Austin, Pollock said a trendy address invites as much skeptical scrutiny as it does positive hype. It also makes it harder to escape from the shadow of some of Seattle’s already-established exports.
“I think there’s a certain amount of people who look at us and say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to be Soundgarden or Alice in Chains,’ without knowing these people have been our friends for years. We’re all fans of what they do, but we’re not trying to be like them.”
Pollock, in fact, played guitar for more than three years in an early incarnation of Alice in Chains that also included the band’s current singer, Layne Staley.
“We all grew up together, so there’s going to be some similarity,” he said. “I hate to go, ‘We’ll change our sound because we’ll be too much like (other Seattle bands).’ Bands like Soundgarden and Green River (a precursor of Pearl Jam) broke things open in Seattle. They made it so much easier for bands like us to get noticed.”
On the other hand, Pollock said, “People are really skeptical. They look at us and say, ‘Impress us. We’ve heard Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. You’ve got to live up to that.’ We’ve got good songs. I think we step up to that plate quite nicely.”
There are some clear Alice in Chains echoes in My Sister’s Machine, but one can also detect similarities to sources beyond one scene--you can hear some of the Cult’s catchy hard-riffing, and some of Axl Rose’s contorted, word-bending phrasing. “Diva” moves at a more rapid gait than either Alice in Chains or Soundgarden, and it dispenses with the leaden grunge that characterized the Seattle sound until a year or so ago (recent efforts out of the city, including “Diva,” tend to be far more melodic and better written).
It’s in lyrical outlook that MSM differs most from its Seattle hard-rock kin. Typically, the Seattle bands are a markedly angry, doom-laden bunch, sticking to the dark side and giving shape to feelings that come with being part of a generation that faces the likelihood of being materially worse off than its parents.
My Sister’s Machine is far more even-handed. The aggression of “I Hate You,” which will be the band’s next video, is countered by the stricken apology of “I’m Sorry.” In “Pain,” Pollock talks about a dog-eat-dog world, but he also states a higher ideal: “Love is a beautiful thing / It makes you understand what you’re living for.” In one of the album’s ringing refrains, Pollock brightens an otherwise self-condemning song, “Wasting Time,” by affirming, “All will be forgiven.”
On “Monster Box,” MSM takes a radical departure from standard heavy-metal ideology by condemning libertinism and sex without emotional bonds.
“ ‘Monster Box” isn’t about AIDS, but about morality,” Pollock said. “It’s just me going off about my beliefs, and how life should be.
“I try to walk my talk,” he added. “I’ve been promiscuous when I was younger. In the old Alice in Chains, I was a pig, and I’d feel horrible the next morning. ‘I slept with a beautiful woman last night.’ Who cares? But I’ve never cheated on a girlfriend in my life. I have respect for people who are nice.”
Opportunities certainly have presented themselves on the road in after-hours visits from female fans. “We just spend all night talking,” said Pollock, who has a girlfriend back home. “I think it surprised them that I didn’t want anything more out of it. There’s a certain power and liberation” in keeping things platonic. “But along with that, I’m only human.”
Pollock said there’s no calculation involved in taking on themes and outlooks that might separate My Sister’s Machine from the Seattle scene’s gloomier stars.
“I don’t think its a conscious effort. The important thing is honesty. Just write songs about your life and who you are and where you think you’re going and where you see the world going. My view of the world is not as dark as some other people’s. Life is such a drudging, 90% (excremental) thing. But the other 10%, to me, is unadulterated bliss. What makes it worthwhile is all the (excrement) you have to go through first.”
Pollock, 24, said he was still in high school when he joined Staley in Alice in Chains during the mid-'80s. There was no famous “Seattle scene” at the time. In fact, Pollock says the band dabbled early on in some of the trendy fashion-consciousness that later became virtually taboo among Seattle bands.
“I was thinking I had to wear something one way, or spray my hair the other way,” Pollock said, confessing that he used to wear leather chaps on stage. “Then one day I looked at myself and said, ‘What am I doing?’ ” The change came after he met some Hollywood-based glam rock types who visited Seattle and started putting on airs. “This is when if you were from Seattle you were a joke. They’d laugh at you. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be anything like these guys.’ ”
After the early version of Alice in Chains broke up on friendly terms, Pollock played for a year with older musicians in a funk band whose prime influences were Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic (he still lists Prince as a key influence on his songwriting). In 1989, he joined guitarist Owen Wright, bassist Chris Ivanovich and drummer Chris Gohde to form My Sister’s Machine. None of the members had ever been a lead singer. As the band’s lyricist (having scribbled many of his verses between customers while working at a gas station), Pollock got the job by default.
Last year, My Sister’s Machine signed a deal with the small independent record company, Caroline--something of an unusual step among capable new Seattle bands, who nowadays are coveted by the major labels.
Pollock said MSM signed the deal early in the year, before any of Seattle’s biggest names had scored hits and driven up the value of the surrounding musical real estate.
“We know if we would have waited two more months we would have gotten any contract we wanted from a major label,” he said. “The band’s standpoint is that it’s not time. We consciously decided to go with an independent, so we could (have the freedom to) say, ‘This is the way I want the cover to look,’ and ‘I want to be part of producing the album, even though I am not a record producer, because it’s a learning experience for me.’ We have a really good relationship with the label. When the time comes when we’re ready to move on, they’re more than willing to sell the contract” to a major label with the resources to put on a bigger marketing push. “All things in good time. I’ve got the utmost confidence in the songs we have. I don’t care if the hype goes away from Seattle. We’ve got good songs.”
Pollock is as enthusiastic as he is confident--an upbeat and more-than-willing talker who sounds delighted to be on the often grueling trail that a rookie band must follow.
“I don’t want to stop touring. I want to be going until February of next year, do another record, then tour for another year and a half. I’m a ham, and I love being in front of people. I have a real passion for communicating the way I think the world should be, and this music is the summation of my feelings.”
Riches and fame aren’t big motivations, Pollock said. “I have a wonderful life right now. When I go home, I want to grab my guns, go out in the woods and go target shooting, shoot pool, and play my guitar. It’s one of the best lifestyles in the world.’
My Sister’s Machine, White Zombie, Voodoo Saloon, Fused and Amen play Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Marquee, 7000 Garden Grove Blvd., Westminster. $10.50. (714) 891-1181.