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A Sonic History of Seattle’s Music Microscenes

The world was a very different place for musicians in the 80s and 90s. Back then, getting exposure to new music was mostly limited to buying albums at music stores, listening to the radio, and seeing live shows.

Live shows came with particular challenges in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike the East Coast, where major cities are close, the northwest’s biggest municipalities are spread apart. Bands like Nirvana, who lived in southwest Washington, had to drive at least an hour to get to the next major city and even father to visit Seattle.

Nirvana artifacts at MoPOP

This distance meant that local scenes grew independently, with each developing a style unique to the tastes and experimentation of the artists living there.

MoPOP Curator Jacob McMurray wanted to make sure these microscenes were represented in Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, so he enlisted the help of Steve Fisk. Steve’s vast and varied work in the Pacific Northwest music scene — from DJing at KAOS-FM in Olympia to recording bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden — made him a great resource for identifying some of the region’s key scenes, bands, and songs.

A close-up of MoPOP's PNW scene map

Together, Steve and Jacob created a map, with a corresponding listening station, so museum visitors can hear the many sounds of the Pacific Northwest.

We took some of the tracks from that list and put them into this playlist so you can take a sonic dive into music history. Which tracks resonate with you? Were there any that surprised you?

Selected Bands

Aberdeen: Melvins / Nirvana

Bellingham: Death Cab for Cutie / Mono Men / Posies

Boise: Built to Spill / H-Hour / Septic Death / State of Confusion / Treepeople 

Ellensburg: King Krab / Mark Lanegan / Screaming Trees

Eugene: Mike Johnson / Snakepit / Some Velvet Sidewalk 

Olympia: Beat Happening / Bikini Kill / Heavens to Betsy / Lois / Unwound

Portland: Dead Moon / Hazel / Heatmiser / Neo Boys / New Bad Things / Wipers

Seattle: Alice in Chains / Fastbacks / Green River/ Imij / Malfunkshun / Mudhoney / Skin Yard / Soundgarden / TAD / U-Men

Tacoma: Alphabet Swill / Girl Trouble / Green Apple Quickstep / Metal Church / Seaweed / Subvert

You can check out the full track list in Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.

Full Microscene band map

Nirvana, Music

About the author

Adrienne is a writer and editor from Seattle and is MoPOP's Content Wizard (patent pending).