Beyond Nirvana

Maktub aims to prove that there's more to the Seattle sound than grunge.

It's tough to believe, but just ten years ago, musicians from Seattle routinely received more attention than did performers from practically any other locale. And why not? Thanks to the success of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and many of their peers in the so-called grunge movement, talent scouts looked upon the Pacific Northwest as a geographical cornucopia that produced a seemingly endless supply of disaffected but hugely popular rock stars.

Oh, what a difference a decade makes. Today, each of the bands mentioned above is defunct, with only one -- Soundgarden -- having shut down without suffering casualties. Yet the public appears to lack the sort of exploitable nostalgia for grunge that regularly crops up after fads have faded. The 2002 death by heroin overdose of Alice lead singer Layne Staley hardly sparked an inferno of renewed interest in the group. Likewise, the release last October of Nirvana, a collection featuring "You Know You're Right," a previously unreleased tune penned by celebrity suicide Kurt Cobain, caused only modest ripples despite the torrent of hype that preceded it. Courtney Love, Cobain's widow, publicly predicted the long-player would sell millions of copies, and maybe it will -- after a thousand years or so.

Meanwhile, current Seattle acts are discovering that hailing from the home of the Seahawks doesn't have the cachet it once did. Maktub, an innovative multiracial quintet whose latest disc, Khronos, was among last year's finest, is a case in point. Last July, readers of the Seattle Weekly, a popular alternative newspaper, chose the group as their favorite, with none other than Pearl Jam finishing second. But to date, no major label has moved to sign Maktub (pronounced mock-tube), or given the collective much more than a cursory sniff.

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"We've heard all the excuses," says Reggie Watts, the combo's frontman. "Like, 'Oh, you've got a lot of talent, but the songs aren't there.' Or, 'You need to work on your style.' Or, 'We're really interested in what you're doing, but we definitely want to see more development.'"

Watts and his fellows (drummer Davis Martin, keyboardist Daniel Spils, guitarist Thaddeus Turner and bassist Kevin Goldman) have also been told that their music is eclectic -- a compliment of the back-handed kind. "They see a band that has many influences and is hard to define. And they're right," Watts admits. "I look at what we do, and I don't even know what it is, so some of that criticism must be valid. It's not rock; it's not funk; it's not soul in the classic sense. It's definitely pop, though, and a lot of different types of people like it, which you'd think would be an advantage. Cross-marketability has a huge appeal; that's what artists try to do all the time. But it's hard for a record company to imagine how to market it, where they should put their money, and how to budget it, no matter what the readers' polls say.

"I guess you could call that a form of stupidity," he goes on. "But it's also a form of fear -- and fear obviously breeds a lot of weakness. It makes sense, because in shaky times, you want sure bets. You want to keep making money, keep making the salaries you did in the heyday. But the heyday is winding down. They've got to try something new."

Maktub does just that. Most reviewers have focused upon the outfit's R&B leanings, as typified by "You Can't Hide," Khronos's opener, which finds Watts slipping in and out of an elegant falsetto over a rhythmic backdrop that compels fingers to snap. But subsequent tracks are more difficult to peg. "Give Me Some Time" rides along on a relaxed groove that's transformed at the song's midpoint into an aggressive metal riff; "Just Like Murder" starts benignly before revealing itself to be a notably sinister power ballad; "No Quarter" offers an eccentric take on the Jimmy Page-Robert Plant-John Paul Jones staple; and "Motherfucker," a tune that rocks as energetically as its title implies, is juxtaposed with "Then We'll Know," a smorgasbord of contemplative moods that ends the platter on an especially trippy note.

Such shifts in gear have a purpose, Watts says. "I'm hoping to always surprise people. Whether we create a record that sounds like Journey with Sly Stone singing or whatever, I'm interested in changing the perception of what you expect when you see a black singer on stage with a soulful voice, but singing rock. And not just the rock you think of from bands like Living Colour, because aside from one song, they didn't really rock. When you hear a lot of bands that are black rock, they are so almost there. You know what I mean? But we want to go all the way."

At times, groups that aim for unpredictability seem self-conscious, even pretentious. So Watts is proud that Khronos comes across as thoroughly organic.

"To me, it's all very natural, because we fuse things together without really planning the fusion -- it just happens," he notes. "We're just trying to write the best songs we can, but then we look back on them and think, 'That's an interesting mix,' because we're into so many different things. I want to rock, but rock in a real way, so that even the whitest white kids from the suburbs will wonder, 'Who's this band?' But I also want the goth kids to say, 'I really like this music; it's really crazy,' or middle-aged folks to go, 'I really like that. It's got a lot of soul.' And that's what tends to be happening right now, at least in the Northwest. I don't know if it applies to the rest of the world."

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