Although Spokane is the second largest metropolis in Washington in the new millennium, in the 1980s it was as isolated and unknown as the surface of the moon. No one understood this more clearly than Spokane’s early and fledgling punk music scene.
Fast forward twenty years and still little is known about these early, oddball pioneers.
Enter David W. Halsell and Erica K. Schisler. These former punks and (not easily admitted) Spokane ex-pats teamed up with a few friends to create a documentary that showcases some of the most underrated punk talent Spokane had to offer.
SpokAnarchy!, debuting Jan. 12 at SIFF’s Cinema at the Uptown, includes interviews with band members and rare footage of Spokane’s humble punk beginnings. In total, 60 people were interviewed for the film, with over 100 hours of footage shot over 18 months on location in Spokane, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA, San Diego, and New York City.
“We discovered people had a lot of photos and video footage,” Schisler said. “We were amazed with the stuff people saved.”
Schisler and Halsell, who both grew up in Spokane’s punk scene, said the idea for the movie blossomed after getting together with friends during Punk Rock Reunion. The pals were half-seriously kicking around the idea of creating a 15-minute YouTube video documenting early punks in Spokane. Almost two years later, the crew managed to bang out a feature-length documentary that’s been gaining notoriety from viewers and critics alike.
As one might imagine, creating a documentary from scratch is tough. What’s even tougher is creating a documentary about a little-known subculture, comprised of little-known people, in a little- known town.
“It wasn’t much early on,” Halsell said. “Back then, the scene was very small and events were few and far between.”
Was Spokane really that isolated? Well, Halsell said there were no touring bands until about 1985.
“Styx came once,” he joked.
Other than that, young people looking for live music on a Saturday night could turn to the "local bar bands."
“There was nothing for anyone that was into anything different,” Halsell said.
Spokane was (and in some ways still is) a one-stereotype-fits-all kind of place, he said. Back then, there was one type of music, and young people segregated themselves into three groups: jock, stoner or dweeb. The punks were for everyone else.
“It was such an isolated microcosm,” Halsell said. “Two guys might be into mod revival, another into reggae, or hardcore punk, or new wave. Everyone mixed up together.”
Because these groups were small, the punks found solace (and power) in numbers.
“It’s not just the people who were into weird music, the punk scene was for anyone who was weird,” Halsell said.
“It was hugely empowering,” Schisler said.
One theme the filmmakers kept coming across was Spokane’s isolation. The notion that when you’re in Spokane, you’re stuck there.
That idea was reinforced by no cell phones or internet and only a rare, lucky few had cable television and access to MTV. At the time, only two record stores were cool enough for punks to frequent – Strawberry Jams and The Magic Mushroom, Schisler said.
Clubs and venues for shows were also few and far between. When Spokane punks began to find each other in early 1980s, producing shows was a pretty amateur affair. Musicians often produced their own shows and they played in small-town community centers, basements, or warehouses. There was also that one time, Halsell said, when the punks hosted a show next door to the Cheney City Hall’s Police Department.
“The theme was very DIY,” Schisler added. “They just made it happen.”
Although there was no outright rivalry between the punks of Spokane and Seattle, many other differences existed. Perhaps the starkest boiled down to culture. One thing the movie attempts to point out is the fact that punks in Eastern Washington had to contend with a much stronger undercurrent of conservatism than their neighbors to the west.
“It seems like people don’t remember the history at the time,” Schisler said.
She mentioned coming of age during the Reagan era, preparing for nuclear bombs, seeing horrific anti-abortion billboards advertised around her town, and of course, the prevalence of the Aryan Nation Church.
“If none of these things are your personal values, you just think, ‘what do I do,’” Schisler said.
The punk scene taught young people about ideas, and a world outside of their small towns.
“That was so exciting,” Halsell said. “We were all grasping at anything outside the cow-town stuff.”
Starting out, Schisler and Halsell thought they were making a 15 minute movie for YouTube, but it morphed into much more. They realized the movie is not really about Spokane or about the music.
“It about how you survive when you’re from a small town and don’t fit in,” Schisler said.
In the end, Spokane’s punks didn’t really care where they were, she said, they just wanted to make music.
“Maybe this group of people, no matter where they were, was going to make something happen,” Schisler said.
VIEWING AND PARTY
Check out SpokAnarchy! tonight at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. Tickets: $10 | $5 SIFF Members | $9 Youth (20 and under) and Seniors (65+).
Halsell, Schisler and the rest of the directors are hosting a record release party Jan. 14 at Radar Hair Salon and Record Store. Half of the proceeds from the event will go to salon owner Betsy Hanson, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. For more information, visit www.radarhairandrecords.com.