We all know Dave Grohl’s story. Drummed for Nirvana. Played on Nevermind. After Kurt Cobain died, he switched to guitar and started Foo Fighters, then proceeded to win Grammys and sell millions of records.
But what of Nirvana’s previous percussionist, Chad Channing? The one who left the band before it became huge, the one who toiled in obscure clubs; who cut a swath through Europe; who helped bring Seattle music to the world; who played on Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach. What of him?
[Above photo: Before Cars, 2013. From left: Chad Channing, Andy Miller, Paul Burback, Justine Jeanotte.]
Like Grohl, Channing plays guitar and writes music. He never became a rock star, but his work is far more diverse, evolved, and deeper than whatever constitutes grunge. His current band, Before Cars, showcases Channing’s musical depth and breadth. The band will release its second record, How We Run, on Tuesday.
Before Cars came into being in 2005, when Channing had accumulated an album’s worth of tunes dating back to his Nirvana days. He had been in a number of bands, contributing a song here and there to each, before finding himself in his old friend Jack Endino’s studio in the late ’90s. (Endino recorded Bleach in 1988.) “There [were] a couple songs [for one] band that he wrote,” Endino recalls, “…and I remember thinking, ‘Well, these are the best songs on the record,’ the ones that he wrote. And I was telling him… ‘Maybe you should make your own record, instead of having to constantly talk other people into doing your songs.’”
“So [Jack] was always like, ‘Man, when are you going to do your own thing sometime? I’d like to hear that,’” Channing remembers. “So, that sort of planted the seed.”
At the time, Channing had been playing in Paundy, a musical collective that includes current Before Cars members Paul Burback, Justine Jeanotte, and Andy Miller. Paundy, at times featuring up to seven members, helped hone Channing’s musical chops. Channing would play various instruments in the band, including guitar, bass, and keyboards. The other members were similarly accomplished, with Jeanotte offering her services as a classically trained violinist. “[Paundy is] like a circus of musical flavor,” says producer Chris Hanzsek, who mastered both Before Cars records. “[They put] together songs that have a little bit of humor to them—and have a little bit of rock aggressiveness—but the overriding thing…seems to be just the inventiveness of it all, kinda like a Mothers of Invention, or Frank Zappa-esque kind of a thing. You just know like there’s too much talent. With Paundy, they trade instruments faster than you can say, ‘next song, please.’”
That musical experimentation and desire to switch instruments carried over to Before Cars. Incorporating Burback, Jeanotte, and Miller into his new band, Channing presented them with a dozen songs he had written over the years, including “That’s My Guess,” an aggressive rocker written while he was in Nirvana. The songs made it onto Walk Back, recorded by Endino and released in 2009. The record overall has kind of a ’90s edge to it, with distorted guitars contrasting with pretty melodies. The addition of Channing’s high, soft, and melodic voice provides the album with a Neil Young kind of dynamic. Indications of the band’s future direction, however, become apparent on “Old Chair,” arguably the record’s standout track. Acoustic-oriented, offering hints of Jeanotte’s violin, “Old Chair” has an almost Eastern European, gypsy-like feel. Whatever Before Cars were to evolve into, they would not live off the fumes of grunge for long.
[Nirvana, 1989. From left: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing.]
Walk Back, although a fine record, did little to differentiate this band. In essence, that album allowed Channing to shed himself of his older songs. Going forward, Before Cars would act more like a band, while continuing to reflect Channing’s vision.
Chad Channing is hard to pin down in terms of influences. With most musicians, you can pretty much nail down where they came from, add whatever twists they’ve discovered along the way, and thus discover the origin of their artistic voice. Not so with Channing. His listening tastes have always run the gamut, from speed metal to punk rock to hip hop to ’70s singer-songwriters. “When [Chad and I would] have house parties,” recalls Miller, “we’d put on Hüsker Dü, then put on a Neil Young record…or something really mellow—put on Mozart [then] Crosby Stills & Nash followed by the Beastie Boys.”
As the band toured to support Walk Back, it began to realize it had an identity broader than that record, one that reflected Channing’s tastes as well Jeanotte’s presence on stage. The band began to shift to a new aesthetic…quieter, acoustic-based, almost folky. “And that kind of evolved from—we did a set at the Rendezvous in Seattle,” Burback recalls. “Before we went on tour, we scaled it down. We thought, ‘Well, it’d be fun—that’s a smaller club—to just do everything more acoustic.’ And everybody that went that night said they finally really got what we were trying to do….they could finally hear our vocals. And the violin came across….It just had more dynamics.”
That experience would lead Channing and Before Cars to create the lush and beautiful How We Run. While Channing remains the primary writer, How We Run would feature a more collaborative approach. Before Cars would use the new record to experiment with studio wizardry used on big ’70s albums. “Chad loves all these little overdubs you hear on old records in the ’70s,” says Miller. “[In] the ’70s…the art of recording was a big deal. [Similarly, we would use] the studio as an instrument, [like] doing a track of just triangle twice in the song….So this second record was our opportunity to…put [those] nuances on.”
The new record, painstakingly recorded on 37 tracks, would also feature Jeanotte’s violin on almost every song, replacing the traditional lead guitar with her softer, poignant melodies. “Justine is [Before Cars’] secret weapon,” says Endino.
“When we play live, it does seem to get a lot of attention, just that there’s violin in there,” says Jeanotte.
From the opening track, “Listen to Me,” How We Run evokes deep emotions. This record, both musically and lyrically, feels rich and powerful, even though it’s much quieter than the previous effort. For example, in the ukulele-based “Jerkwater,” Channing sings: “Down the street, there lives a boy. People always called him ‘Stupid Roy.’ Likes to play all by himself. Hide and seek, no one has seen him since.”
“The songs on this latest album have a very personal feel,” Hanzsek comments, “like almost as if [Channing wrote the] album and said, ‘Ok, I’m not gonna say anything untrue.’ And you literally feel like you’re being allowed to peek into someone’s honesty and forthrightness. And when you sense that that’s the case, in my way of thinking, that’s something I respect.”
How We Run continues down that path. “Trip to Mars,” with its use of keyboards and “ooooh-ahhh-ooooh” backing vocals invokes Channing’s debt to ’70s singer-songwriters. The record picks up with an almost New Wave-like feel when the electric guitar predominates in “Everything I Do.”
How We Run concludes with perhaps its strongest track, the haunting “Gas Stop.” The lyrics come from a true story whereby five year-old Channing found himself accidentally abandoned at a gas station during a family move. “I could be standing here for a long time,” Channing begins, and then intones: “We could be older, with nothing to lose. We could be younger, with nothing to do.” “Gas Stop” takes the listener through a bridge of electric guitar and violin, then raises goose bumps with a harmonic repetition of “Fly away, fly away. No excuse,” until finally resting in an acoustic space as Channing repeats the opening line, “I could be standing here for a long time.”
As the band plans for a CD release party, a tour is in the works, although no specifics have yet been nailed down. Possible destinations may include the US West Coast, Europe, and perhaps even Australia. When playing locally, though, Before Cars has some rudimentary logistical issues to deal with. Hailing from the west side of Seattle’s Puget Sound, the band must take a 30 minute ferry just to get to the city, and is then tethered to the boat crossing schedule. “We have to get done in time to catch the last boat home,” says Miller. “I’ve actually walked off stage before saying, ‘I gotta go. I gotta catch a boat. This is our last song.’”
Despite the band’s low key approach on How We Run, Before Cars’ combination of gorgeous songs, creative dynamics, and powerful musicianship demands attention. “There’s a kind of an intimacy and a delicacy to their songs,” Hanzsek observes. “They almost don’t fit in a rock club setting, to some degree. You almost want to see [Before Cars] as a concert, where everyone kind of listens and doesn’t just drink beer and make idle chatter.”