Enduring Seattle band Gas Huffer shuts off the pump and floors it
A lot has changed in 17 years. When Matt, Joe, Tom and Don first played together in Pioneer Square during the summer of 1989, their band...
Seattle Times staff reporter
A lot has changed in 17 years. When Matt, Joe, Tom and Don first played together in Pioneer Square during the summer of 1989, their band, Gas Huffer, quickly developed a loyal following.
While pals Pearl Jam and other grunge supergroups gained widespread fame, Gas Huffer quietly (though loudly) worked their way through small venues across the U.S., Europe, Asia and New Zealand. They toured with Mudhoney and The Cramps and headlined at smoky clubs. Along the way, they shaped the Seattle music scene and stayed true to their punk roots. They're part good-time bar-band and part video stars with their biggest hit "Crooked Bird" (from "One Inch Masters") airing on MTV in the '90s.
But the days of crashing at friend's houses and sleeping in the van are over. Tomorrow night's gig at The Crocodile Cafe — dubbed, appropriately, The Last Huffer — is the band's final appearance.
As with many of their peers from the early '90s, the Huffers' hair has grayed and their sideburns have retreated to respectable lengths. They have full-time day jobs, kids, house payments — and health complications. Here, a farewell snapshot to the men who helped shape Seattle punk in its heyday:
Tom Price: Aiming for Johnny's downstroke
Tom Price was just 15 when he and kids in his Laurelhurst neighborhood formed a band. He learned to play the guitar from his mom and sister, strummed in his church youth group — and then announced he wanted to "be like Johnny Ramone."
He dropped out of Roosevelt High School and at 18 joined the pioneering U Men. They quickly gained fans across the Pacific Northwest.
When the group split in the late 1980s, Price and roommate Don Blackstone formed a cover band called The Kings of Rock.
Drummer Joe Newton, who worked as a dishwasher at the now-defunct Roanoke Exit with Price, and singer Matt Wright joined up and in 1989, the four decided to form Gas Huffer.
Gas Huffer presents its farewell concert 9 p.m. Saturday at the Crocodile Cafe. Tickets are $8. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Northwest Parkinson's Foundation.
"I knew all of those guys, and none of them knew each other really," Price said. "It took a while for the personalities to figure out how to mesh together. ... We had some of the same tastes, but not exactly. I think ultimately that was a positive thing. Our music isn't blazingly original — but it's distinctive."
The band's first nationwide tour was opening for Mudhoney in 1991. While Price and his bandmates had fun on that tour, he said, "we were in the shadow of a giant."
It's not too late to get a whiff of Gas Huffer. Here's a selective discography.
Janitors of Tomorrow (Empty) 1991
Integrity, Technology and Service (Empty) 1993
One Inch Masters (Epitath) 1994
The Inhuman Ordeal of Special Agent Gas Huffer (Epitath) 1996
Just Beautiful Music (Epitath) 1998
The Rest of Us (Estrus) 2002
Lemonade for Vampires (Estrus) 2005
"I must have some psychological thing where I have to be the center of attention," Price said. "Even if there's six people there, I want them to be there to hear me play, dammit!"
Don Blackstone: "We didn't expect to have our own jet"
Don Blackstone knew great things would happen if he stuck with Tom Price.
"Tom is just one of those guys who has that certain something that is above everyone else musically," Blackstone said. The Kirkland native loved the U Men and said peers in Soundgarden and Nirvana cited Price's band as an inspiration.
"Having Tom was kind of an instant drawing card," Blackstone said. "We never had to beat down people's doors to put out records."
"People would really kill for the opportunities we had in the start," Blackstone said, like playing to a packed club in Croatia and sweaty drives across the Arizona desert in a van without air conditioning — to be rewarded by friends with a relaxing poolside lunch of beer and sandwiches.
Blackstone, Juanita High School grad who attended Washington State University and Seattle Central Community College before picking up the bass, said that although the constant touring destroyed his first marriage, playing music was always his dream.
"We wouldn't compromise to anyone," he says. "We didn't expect to have our own jet or anything — but we hoped to make a living."
Joe Newton: A "Stranger" kind of art guy saw a scene start
Joe Newton never had aspirations of being a rock star (despite being in a high school band called Aerobic Death) — he really just wanted to be an artist.
Newton learned the snare drum in the fifth grade. After graduating from Garfield High School, he took odd jobs before spending a year at The Evergreen State College. He returned to Seattle, took a job at a University District plant shop and was recruited by Price to join him and Blackstone in a new band.
Newton said playing music in Seattle during the early 1990s was like hanging out with family. "At that point the scene was really small," he said. "I don't think there were more than 200 or 300 people involved."
But the success of Sub Pop Records and Nirvana made it tough for local musicians, Newton said.
"People started changing because they wanted to make it," he said. "It became a lot more self-conscious."
Matt Wright: Suburban misfit with some awesome chops
Stage presence has always been important to Wright.
It hasn't been uncommon for him to stomp, contort his face and use outrageous props — whether it be a gigantic plastic bone or a duck call. And he's always had distinctive facial hair.
Wright, a native of Woodway in South Snohomish County, said punk and new wave music helped him deal with his suburban roots.
"My first band was in high school, called The Body Bags. We primarily performed in my parents' rec room," he said. Wright played keyboard and was the lead singer. The band's only two gigs were a birthday party and a soirée at a downtown Seattle restaurant.
"For me growing up there and being a weird, dorky guy not into sports and finding that New Wave culture helped me be happier with myself," he said. "It helped me meet girls."
After graduating from Woodway High School, Wright took off for Whitman College. About a year after arriving he joined a punk band called The Holy Ghost People. "I was real inspired by The Cramps, a band from Tacoma called Girl Trouble and Tom's band, the U Men," Wright said.
While visiting Seattle, Wright ran into Price at a Capitol Hill record store and asked him to bring the U Men to Whitman for a show. The Holy Ghost People were the -opening act. After he graduated from Whitman, Wright became Gas Huffer's lead singer.
"We made a special effort to play a lot of all-ages shows," Wright said. "We definitely are serious about creating music, but we want to have fun ourselves."
Wright said that in the early days of Gas Huffer he had skits to go along with many songs. Price says, "The first time I ever saw him sing, I just thought he was some bizarre version of Johnny Cash. We used to call him 'Gyro' because of the way he moved."
A band that didn't fit in any category except "fun"
Julianne Andersen, who worked as Gas Huffer's booking agent since 1992, said "they were a fun punk rock band."
"They had a psychobilly thing going on not unlike The Cramps," she said. "But they never did sound like anything else. If I had to categorize them I would have to call them a pop-garage band or a pop-punk band."
Nils Bernstein, a publicist at Matador Records in New York who used to work at Sub Pop, said he thought Gas Huffer made quite a name for themselves.
"They made it a lot farther than comparable bands," said Bernstein. "They toured the world several times. They had a national record deal."
When they walk off the stage Saturday night, the four agree it's inevitable they'll drift apart.
Newton, 39, will return to Brooklyn. After working eight years at The Stranger in ad design and as art director, he was hired in May to be deputy art director at Rolling Stone magazine.
This month, Wright, 39, started working at Getty Images as a photo-shoot producer. He has a wife, children, ages 3 and 2 and a home in Madison Valley.
Blackstone, 41, and Price, 42, will continue playing locally with The Kings of Rock. And Blackstone and high-school pals started also band called Totem Lake. During the day, Blackstone is a contractor, renovating a house he and his girlfriend bought in Columbia City.
Price's situation is more bittersweet. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Since then he has struggled to keep up the original fast-paced guitar work he wrote for Gas Huffer.
"I should be fine for the show this Saturday, but I can't really play gigs two nights in a row," said Price, a married stay-at-home dad raising a 5-year-old and 3-year-old.
"I've been playing keyboards a lot, it's a little easier on my body," says Price, who uses a cane to walk. "I figure I will keep playing until I can't play anymore."
A portion of the proceeds from Saturday night's show will benefit the Northwest Parkinson's Foundation.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com