I’ve always wondered why Empire Records, a film that both impliedly embodied the climate of underground rock music in the 1990s and appeared during one of the lower morale points in modern music, found most of its charm in flighty humor and outright silliness. Though the “Grunge Explosion” of the decade’s first half had already begun to rapidly subside with the death of Kurt Cobain, which happened on the heels of the heroin deaths of 7 Year Bitch guitarist Stefanie Sargent in 1992 and Mother Love Bone lead singer Andy Wood in 1990, the film all but sidesteps every potential genuine allusion to disaffected youth, drug use or depression. Even Robin Tunney’s botched suicide attempt and cry-for-help head shaving stunt are treated with a strange type of levity by the filmmakers, which is surprising considering this is the sort of melodramatic material that mass audiences at the time would have eaten up.
It’d probably be easy to find parallels between the heroin and suicide fatalities of rock stars of this era and the string of deaths in the late 1960s of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and many others as being the sort of world shaking events that soberly remind people that grunge, like psychedelia, was never anything more than entertainment; with that, it makes perfect sense that no fun-seeking music listener would feel like being constantly reminded of the past, but would instead the decade proceed purely on a footing of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. And just as the 1970s quickly brought on an era of artistic posturing so pretentious as to be a barefaced parody of the beloved late 60s, the late 90s gave us a generation of rockers capable of nothing more than over-dramatic negativity and shock-value arena music.
However, Empire Records somehow has always existed in the middle of those two halves of the nineties without really being an artifact of either: the film probably never spoke volumes to kids who heavily absorbed the mass culture appeal of the grunge era (you’d be hard pressed to find any Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains or Soundgarden shwag on the walls of this record store), but also appealed a great deal to kids who didn’t have much use for the the late 90s Limp Bizkit era.
Nonetheless, as is obvious at this point, the set dressing of Empire Records is riddled with obscure references to music of the twenty or so years before it. And one, possibly the most cryptic of them all, appears as a tiny “Stomach Pump” sticker on a first aid kit in the back office. As it turns out, Stomach Pump, a defunct barely-was grunge band from Seattle in the late 1980s, both represents that seemingly ignored link between the film and the grunge era and provides some possible insight into why the filmmakers’ made such a lighthearted picture at such a dark time in popular music.
Stomach Pump, essentially an off-shoot of an earlier band called the Thrown Ups, came together when half of the latter group (Mark Arm and Steve Turner) jumped ship to join Mudhoney. Thrown Ups bassist Seighton Beezer, considering his former band mates to be “sellouts” to the burgeoning scene of ultra-noisy punk soon to be known as Grunge, partnered up with a fan named JCX9 (who now, as a successful radio personality in Austin, TX, goes by the name Jack Blood) and recruited bassist Max God and drummer Duff Drew (formerly of My Eye) to form a sequel band of sorts.
The basic premise behind Stomach Pump was the same as it was with the Thrown-Ups: all music, live and recorded, was totally improvised with only song titles and vague lyrical concepts haphazardly contemplated beforehand. Their resulting modus operendi involved messy, drug and booze-fueled live performances that found the band heckling audience members almost as much as (and often more than) they themselves got heckled, making Stomach Pump something of a unabashed – even proud – black sheep of the Seattle punk scene.
Often times, as was probably the goal all along, things would get completely out of hand. Singer Jack Blood would later relate: “At a gig in front of Seattle royalty on Eastlake, I pissed everyone off by wearing L.A. Poser red vinyl chaps and covering “I Put A Spell On You”, which ended in me kicking a girl in the tits for throwing a beer on me. They weren’t in on the joke, and the audience never was.”
Unfortunately, Stomach Pump’s penchant for obtusely vulgar in-jokes and outrageous onstage antics would eventually catch up with them. After pissing off every other band in town and being allegedly involved in the late night drug use that resulted in Stefanie Sargent’s heroin overdose, they were universally avoided by everyone from Steve Albini (who was supposed to produce their debut LP) to Sub Pop Records (who had originally courted them for a time).
As a result, Stomach Pump’s only official release was a Penultimate Records seven-inch (containing the tracks “Cake Hole” and “Log Clench”), which today is extremely difficult to find. Nevertheless, the band did manage to hold true to their shit-to-the-wind writing style for a slew of demos and home recordings (many with the aid of Jack Endino, producer of Nirvana’s Bleach and Soundgarden’s Screaming Life) such as the anti-rape trip “My Pussy’s Got Teeth”, the North Seattle catcall “North End Slut” and the locally-true pederast story “Bad Plaid Daddy”.
In spite of their short and woe-ridden lifespan, it’s undeniable that Stomach Pump refused to take themselves or their career aspirations seriously. More than anything they sarcastically reveled in their negative image, touting Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell’s extreme distaste for their music and purporting Kurt Cobain to have once described Stomach Pump as “the punk version off Spinal Tap”. Because ultimately the members of Stomach Pump, like most artists who haunted the city of Seattle in the late 80s and early 90s, were less concerned with dollars and cents than they were with recklessly enjoying the most unique and incestuous era in the history of American music.
Seighton Beezer can be seen in the 1996 documentary Hype! humorously demonstrating the subtle differences between punk and grunge – differences so trivial that the term “grunge” was seen as laughable to almost everyone who played in and around Seattle at the time. The documentary perfectly dispels the myth of “Hate Myself and Want To Die” mainstream grunge, instead portraying the scene as something more akin to a tight-knit network of friends who – in between emulating glam idols like Kiss and drinking to excess around countless bonfires – enjoyed playing music that was outrageously gritty and earsplitting simply because there was a certain degree of hilarity in doing so.
Hype! also brought to light a snarky, irreverent sense of humor native to the region and typified by Stomach Pump that was inevitably lost on the rest of the nation when the genre reached mainstream critical mass. Though – whether by design, subconscious digestion or complete accident – that subversive, lighthearted, brilliantly lowbrow sense of humor wasn’t lost in Empire Records.