Image: Composite of the Seattle Met
To celebrate their first year as a group, the members of Garages, one of Seattle’s best-selling artists on Bandcamp, turned to Twitch. First, they played their hit single, “Mike Townsend Is a Disappointment”, a fuzzy garage rocker. Of the eight musicians on the track, only two – Rain and Yana – were in the same room. The rest appeared in a changing configuration of live streaming windows, broadcast from lounges around the world, one in Portland, the other in Seattle, Rain and Yana in Ireland. Calling this stream “live” is a stretch, however. The Garages concerts are “essentially a running music video, rather than a real live show,” says Lamb, a member of the group in Sweden who typically produces the concerts via streaming. (Most Garages members use unique names.)
Yet better than most bands, Garages can virtually capture the momentum of a live rock concert. They were forged in the internet fires of the Covid era, at the heart of an absurd horror video game called Blasball. As such, Garages are strangely well suited to online life, its carefree pace and its multitude of niches, its contradictions, its joys. Within a year, what started out as a fictional fan band of the game sparked a flood of music on Bandcamp and absorbed around 80 members, whose ambitions have grown into a label that helps other queer artists release music.
At its peak, at 3:30 p.m. PT on a Friday afternoon in August, this Twitch stream’s viewership reached 625, close to Neumos capacity. For the second song, an entirely different group of band members – seven this time – appeared onscreen and performed “Sun 2,” an epic vocal pop track with rising, almost Disney sincerity. “Honey, you are my second sun,” he sang, “looking at me where I belong.” A pianist with AirPods in his ears, sitting in front of a keyboard in a sunny room draped in plants, added harmony.
Throughout the show’s eight songs, the Garages slid between members and genres as smoothly as a karaoke crowd. Even calling Garages “a group” is an exaggeration. The band – or rather, “an anarcho-syndicalist international musical collective that we find it easier to call a band,” as Yana told me on Zoom – now includes members in countries ranging from the United States and Australia to Germany and the Philippines. (About five live in Seattle.)
In one year, they released 40 different EPs and LPs on Bandcamp. Their 41st will fall on October 1; Discipline, a concept double album, is the group’s first to be pressed onto vinyl and one of their most impressive products. That would be a good place to start for a new listener – to truly engage in all of the teeming, self-reflective discography requires a devotion usually reserved for Deadheads or Dylanologists.
Most of the group’s albums consist of songs written and recorded by individual members. Then there are the “live” albums (like Garages: RIV, generated by this Twitch show). There are auto-cover albums (“It’s a cover album. But we just covered ourselves.”). There are The Skarages! Flight 1 (ska remix of some hits) and an album of the biggest hits released in February (when the band was only seven months old) and Seattle (a tribute to the fictional version of the city of the fictional group). Woven through these are recurring leitmotifs and characters and jokes, all interwoven into songs about “being gay, the apocalypse and fighting the gods”.
The result gives the impression that the first Bandcamp exit of the car seat headrest collided with a Jesus Christ Superstar production conceived in a Discord chat and produced by a queer group Dungeons and Dragons. The group is hectic, it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s ironic, it’s serious. And it started because some people came together online to play a zombified version of baseball during a global meltdown.
Last August, Yana, a recent college graduate living in California, saw a tweet from a friend; Seattle artist Iris Jay had drawn a Blasball card, fan art for the horror themed betting game that simulates a baseball season in a week. Yana had specialized in environmental management, but they became disillusioned with the field soon after starting a scholarship. Blasball, however, had magnetism. Yana was drawn to “a group of gay baseball players with esoteric names and backgrounds running in an endless simulation.” Due to the pandemic-induced slump, as well as their “neurodivergent hyperfocus,” Yana became addicted. It was all silly, low-stakes, recreating the common joy of watching sports with friends while letting go of stress and grief.
Blasball was only a few weeks old at the time, dreaming on the fly at the Game Band video game studio. The teams go by names like Hellmouth Sunbeams, Canada Moist Talkers and Seattle Garages. The characters are regularly cremated and sometimes reanimated. Blasball was uploaded on July 20, 2020 and quickly went viral. Fan crush wrote stories for players, which were then fed back into the game. Partly because of this participatory narrative, Blasball has become a queer hub.
Just as Yana was drawn in, in June-September, a Seattle musician and University of Washington graduate student posted a song to Discord and Bandcamp, inspired by other fan art. “Heart Shaped Hotdog” is a Nirvana reference folk song, as much audio whistle as it is music. He deplores the incineration of Seattle garage’s first launcher, Jaylen Hotdogfingers. Others also began to write songs for the Garages. Yana, who had played with music in high school but had given up on it, wrote a parody song. “I was like, maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this,” Yana said. “And then a Discord member said,” No. Do it. Play the wrong guitar. Make a bad song and share it. ‘ And I will be eternally grateful.
On August 7, five members had combined their tracks into an EP, “We Are the Garages (Vol 1)”, which they put on Bandcamp. Within a week they had seven more songs and another EP, then a third EP 10 days later. “Since then we’ve kind of been riding this wave,” says Yana.
In the group, they found pandemic solace, a community of gay musicians riffing funny songs for the Blasballers. In November, the group participated in a fundraiser called Desert Bus for Hope. “This is how we went from a virtual live show of 300 people to a virtual live show of 5,000 people,” says Yana. No-Blasball the fans got it. Less than a day after its release, the album “Live @ Desert Bus for Hope” surged into the best-selling records on Bandcamp, right next to System of a Down and Jason Isbell and Unit 400. I discovered the Garages because their releases since then have steadily made Seattle’s bestsellers, keeping company with La Luz and Fleet Foxes.
This rising popularity reduces friction within the group. The project started out as fan art created by disparate musicians. The members of the group were their first supporters. Even though the finesse and ambition of songwriting has grown, they remain among the Garages’ greatest loyalists – the line between fan and artist is blurred. During that Twitch stream in August, the chat box was filled with all-caps glee, in part from the people currently performing. “Light up! The user @thegarages has triggered. The songwriter, while singing on the screen, even rang: “LETS GO BABYYYYYY.”
Yet, they are no longer just a bunch of fans. Seeing different albums sell or not sell, says Lamb, the Swedish producer, prompts the band to focus “on quality, making sure everything we put out is really good.” They slowed down a bit – this August was the first month they released just one album. But the rhythmic output by Internet is integrated. Members try to take breaks, a month or two off. “Cue, two weeks later: Oh, here are two albums, back to back,” Yana says.
The problem is, unless the listeners Blasball fans first – here for the ongoing tale that Bandcamp has written is “the greatest punk rock opera since Zen Arcade” – wading through quantity can be a chore. A listener like me, who likes sharp punk hooks and bizarre folk, quickly gets bored when an album turns towards screamo or stripped symphonic metal.
The group, Lamb says, will always be linked to the game, but “we’re definitely looking to build something beyond garages.”
Fourth strike records appeared for the first time last September, a month after the formation of Garages, but it was not included in a functional label until the beginning of this year. About 17 members of the Garages, including June, Yana, Lamb and Rain, are behind. Here, their ambitions beyond the debauchery absurdities of Blasball become clearer.
The label is a non-profit organization dedicated to disseminating the work of queer musicians. So far that has meant signing six artists, including Garages and a few side projects, but Lamb says they’ve started reaching out to others they’d like to work with. “I’m pretty sure we’ll have something cool to show off in a few months.”
If so, they will expand even further the goodwill that the Goodwill members have found in the garages. Yana and Rain met thanks to the group and are now partners. “I know I grew up as a person just because I had the group as an outlet,” said Yana, who is now Fourth Strike’s director of outreach. “I have lifelong friends and what I consider family from there … It’s huge, especially when everyone is feeling so isolated.”
This community even began to directly support the music scene in the fictional Garages town of Seattle. In June, Fourth Strike announced their partnership with local indie musician Left at London to release their debut vinyl album. It is one of the most magnificent and ambitious records that I have heard coming out of this city recently. Putting it in people’s hands, like Fourth Strike is, seems like a sure step from fictional to real.