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.

"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."

Among the places on the planet Watts knows best is Great Falls, Montana, where he lived until he was eighteen. He doesn't remember it being a musical hotbed. "There's not much going on there," he says. "There's agriculture and farming and an Air Force base, but not a lot of music. I can't even think of anybody I know from there who's doing music now besides me." That includes Watts's parents and relatives: "There are no artists on either side of my family." But his father was a jazz buff and his mother, a native of France, felt equal passion for European vocalists such as Edith Piaf and Nana Mouskori and the proto-funk of James Brown. The roots of his musical diversity were planted early and deep.

After Watts saw Ray Charles on television when he was five, he announced that he wanted to play piano. This declaration led to eleven years of classical training on the instrument, supplemented by eight years of violin study. But in his teens, he also got into the Top 40 music of the '80s, which he continues to admire despite the low esteem in which much of it is now held. "I loved everything from Michael Jackson and Hall and Oates to Foreigner, Boston and Asia. I still think Asia had some great songs."

He was also a fan of the Cure, and at age sixteen he was testing a synthesizer in a music store by playing the group's hit "Just Like Heaven" when he heard the tune's guitar line ringing out from an ax "played by a really handsome white dude with big-ass hair." This bit of sonic serendipity led to the formation of Autumn Asylum, Watts's first band, upon which he looks back fondly. Nonetheless, he didn't immediately commit himself to a career in music. During this same period, he was heavily involved in theater and comedy improv, and he hoped to study drama in New York. "I told myself that if I didn't get into acting school, I would go to Seattle and pursue music," he recalls -- and that's the way things worked out.

When Watts pulled into Seattle in 1990, the local music scene was on the cusp of going national. Once it did, everything changed, although Watts says the transition was more subtle than outsiders might believe. "You know how it is when you're at the epicenter of something; it seems bigger in surrounding areas than right where it's happening. We knew things were going on, and you would hear about people playing secret shows and so on. But for the most part, my modus operandi was pretty much the same. We were all just having a great time." He was part of "a million bands during that time," many of which had only the most tangential connection to the grungy vibe commonly associated with the city. "There were black bands that played rock, like Action Buddy. There were funkier bands, and groovy, weird rock bands, too. Obviously grunge was huge, and it certainly influenced a lot of bands. But there was a lot more stuff than that going on."

The national spotlight that had been trained on Seattle was starting to dim by 1996, when Maktub was born of the same improvisational instincts that fueled many of Watts's dramatic projects. To this day, the musicians write songs by jamming, and frequently play club gigs at which all the sounds audiences hear are made up on the spot. But while Watts has an appreciation for jam bands like Phish, about which he wrote an admiring essay in the Seattle Times, he doesn't believe Maktub belongs in the same category.

"Most jam bands are similar to jazz, because they go off on these huge odysseys, and that's great," he says. "But what you see us do on stage is relatively polished, and all the songs are crafted in a way that's finalized as far as we know. We have a set list that's designed to have an arc throughout the evening, and we're trying to create an atmosphere of something that's tight. And when we improvise, it's more like pop improvisation, because we try to the best of our ability to create songs right then and there that sound as if you're listening to constructed songs. I've had people come up and tell me, 'I haven't heard that song before. You guys are doing a lot of new material.' But there's a reason they haven't heard it before. We don't rehearse on those nights. We just show up and play everything for the first time.

"When we're improvising, our songs usually range anywhere from five to ten minutes. On occasion, they'll go longer. But in general, I think everybody has an internal clock that goes off when they start to wonder if we're going on too long. I'd prefer to err on the side of being too short than being too long."

This methodology eventually led to Subtle Ways, Maktub's 1999 debut, which was named the year's Best R&B Album at the Northwest Music Awards. Khronos, put out by tiny Ossia Records, has generated just as much acclaim and is selling briskly by indie standards. But that doesn't mean the performers have reached the point where they no longer care about inking a big-league contract. Beyond music, Watts has become a well-known Seattle personality; he often does standup and sketch comedy in the area, and he was the namesake of A Very Reggie Xmas, a 2001 holiday revue at one of the city's hippest theatrical venues, On the Boards. But, he acknowledges, "We're not making enough money to live comfortably, by any means. We're still having to supplement by looking out for other gig-related music jobs to pay the rent.

"It's an interesting dichotomy, because, on the one hand, it's great being an independent entity. And I have to give it up to the rest of the band. I serve more as the PR guy, but they work really hard updating our Web site [www.maktub.com], designing posters, making sure orders are fulfilled and all of those things a label would normally do. But on the other hand, it takes a lot out of you and can get tiring. At a certain point, you have to ask, 'Is it working, or is it not?'"

In Watts's opinion, a definitive answer to that query is a ways off. Maktub's first significant performances in the Northeast, which took place late last year, went well, and several tours slated for the next couple of months will help the band inform more of the populace that it exists. "Good things are happening," Watts says. "I think this year will tell a lot about the future of Maktub."

The same can be said about the Seattle scene as a whole. At present, mention of the city's music sounds more like a historical reference than a contemporary one. But Watts hopes to reverse that equation.

"I love Seattle, and I'm very proud of everyone there from whom I've learned," he says. "People's perceptions pose a challenge for us. But my dream is to see some new Seattle bands emerge and put the city back on the map in a new way."

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