Band To Watch: Enumclaw

Brook Jones

Band To Watch: Enumclaw

Brook Jones

Saying a particular artist has a “Pacific Northwest vibe” has gotten a hell of a lot more convoluted than it was back when the region was synonymous with flannel shirts, fuck-it-all attitudes, and cheap Rainier beer. Riot grrls, coffeeshop folkies, Cascadian metal weirdos, bookish twees, and (as much as I hate to admit it) rappers who refuse to Mackle less have all done their part to throw a wrench in the gears that churned out the early ’90s stereotype of the damp upper left part of the country. But I’ll be damned if my brain didn’t scream real PNW shit in the Trap-a-Holics voice the second I heard Enumclaw’s debut single, “Fast N All.”

OK, maybe my synapses were already on high alert upon seeing a band named after a 12,000-resident Washington town seated at the foot of Mount Rainier, but Enumclaw’s regional bonafides go beyond their name, their origins, the plaid shirts in their press photos, and the I-5 name-drop in “Fast N All.” The slackerific single is awash in guitar leads that chime through a reverb-y mist, harshening up into a full-on downpour once a distortion pedal beckons us into a begrudgingly anthemic chorus. Musically, this thing could’ve dropped in 1997 — it’s got the sticky Built To Spill guitar tones, Harvey Danger or Everclear-style pop sensibility, and the K Records “so easy a caveman could do it” thing going for it. It makes affording a two-bedroom in Seattle on barista’s wages seem feasible again.

What separates “Fast N All” (and Enumclaw’s music in general) from both the past and the hordes of contemporary bands continually trying to ape it is frontman Aramis Johnson’s distinctive pop sensibility. His lackadaisical delivery suits scuzzy indie rock, but his songwriting is too sharp not to cut through the haze. “I’m just not for everybody, it’s hard to accept/ But what’s the point of even trying if there’s no one left?” is delivered in a sing-song cadence that nearly masks the words’ bummed-out introspection, but there’s no mistaking the hook’s strikingly universal cry of dissatisfaction: “It’s always too much, too much, too much/ Or it’s never enough.”

On a Zoom call with the rest of Enumclaw, Johnson debates with himself about which personal favorite is more of an influence on his songwriting, Kurt Cobain or Noel Gallagher, but then guitarist Nathan Cornell interjects: “Also, we’re all fans of pop music and I think that shines through on the hooks Aramis writes: short, sweet, and repetitive… We all love Drake.”

Johnson takes it one step further: “I probably wouldn’t be in a rock band if it wasn’t for Drake.”

Hailing from Lakewood, a suburb of Tacoma that’s sandwiched between the Puget Sound and a massive joint Army/Air Force base, Johnson grew up listening mostly to hip-hop. “I remember when my dad bought 50 Cent’s first album, and shit like that,” he says. “So rock and indie rock, it was completely self-discovery. Nobody put me on to anything. I didn’t even know about indie rock until maybe I was like a junior in high school. I’m from a suburb, so there were maybe like three hipster kids at my school.”

This meant that, until recently, Johnson’s forays into music-making revolved around hip-hop. He knew “very early on” that he didn’t personally want to rap (“I don’t have that kind of an ego and I’m just not good at rapping”), but at age 17, he and some friends formed a music collective. “What we wanted to be is what Brockhampton became,” he says, having acted as the group’s in-house producer. After that splintered, Johnson fell in with the Tacoma-based rap crew BBE (Boiler Boyz Entertainment), comprising rappers like Ghoulavelli, bujemane, Yung Fern, and CRIMEWAVE who’d grown up listening to hardcore punk. He picked up DJing, and for a time, his and BBE’s thing was rocking shows with mixed punk/rap bills (they even played a house show with Texas thrash metal greats Power Trip in Olympia back in 2016). “Ghoulavelli started to take off and he was picking up steam,” says Johnson, “so I thought that was gonna be my ticket [out], as his DJ.” But that fizzled out too. Before Enumclaw, his last venture of note was Toe Jam, a fairly popping series of rap parties that he and a friend threw around the South Sound region.

Throughout his years of hip-hop endeavors, Johnson remained a fan of the indie music he’d discovered in high school via issues of The Fader at Barnes & Noble, such as King Krule and the Smiths. Once the right pieces were in place, he decided to give it a go.

Johnson met Ladaniel Gipson, Enumclaw’s drummer, in summer 2019 when Toe Jam was nearing its logical endpoint. “For a while he helped me make and push my own music career, says Gipson, “and then he was at [iconic, coffee-pot-shaped Tacoma bar] Bob’s Java Jive and called me like, ‘Hey we should start a band.’ We had nothing else going on, COVID had hit, we were just sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to hear back from our jobs, and we all played music from time to time, so we figured why not? And Aramis, being the big ego he is, had big dreams for us from the jump, so that was kinda cool and exciting.”

Those aspirations — evident in Enumclaw’s “Best Band Since Oasis” Twitter bio — were indeed grandiose, especially considering his and Gipson’s complete lack of familiarity with the instruments they now play. “The same time we started the band I just started drums — I had never played before,” says Gipson. Similarly, Johnson picked up a guitar for the first time in Summer 2019, and to this day says that he doesn’t know how to play any song he didn’t write. The two bandmates are mostly self-taught, but assistance came in the form of Nathan Cornell, who has played guitar since his early teens and previously collaborated with Gipson. Taking a cue from his days as a high school wrestler, Johnson christened the band “Enumclaw” after a rural rival town whose team he had admired in his youth (“They had dudes that were filthy”). More importantly though, according to him, it “sounds cool and looks cool.” Together, the trio wrote and recorded the songs that form Enumclaw’s debut EP, Jimbo Demo, starting last April.

Jimbo is, across the board, completely no-frills. The drum patterns aren’t complex, there’s only a few chords per song, and the band never deviates from verse-chorus-verse structure. It’s not particularly hard to tell that this is music made by guys who’ve only been playing their instruments for 18 months. But with the type of songs that Johnson writes, Enumclaw’s approach to instrumentation is pristinely tasteful and fitting. This is the most ‘90s Northwest aspect of the band: the notion that you can make beautiful music as a novice as long as your heart, personality, and ear all shine through.

From the urgency of bite-sized opener “Cents” to the stoned melancholy of closer “Fruit Flies,” Enumclaw catch a vibe and hold it for 15 minutes, which is a lot harder than it sounds when they’re working with such a limited palette. It’s dreamy, it’s nostalgic, it’s bored, it’s frustrated — it’s pure-ass indie rock. The aching simplicity of Johnson’s lyrics — “I’m not the person that I wanna be;” “I don’t wanna be a loser;” “It’s summertime always” — remind me of my favorite quote by Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson: “Rock’n’roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages — they could be 15, 25 or 35. It all boils down to whether they’ve got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit.”

“I just had a lot of time this last year to sit with myself in a way I’d never done before,” says Johnson when asked about the itchiness lurking behind his words. “I spent the most time of my life by myself, and I’m in therapy, so I had a lot of time to think about the stuff my therapist told me. I just feel like I’m in a really transitional period in my life, but there’s also no change — I’m still in Tacoma and I’ve just never left. Being from a place like Tacoma or Lakewood, people will get stuck… I just don’t wanna get stuck. I wanna get the fuck out of here as soon as possible. All the songs are just me trying to process where I’m at in terms of life.”

The Tacoma area has never gotten the same shine as Washington’s state (and indie rock) capital, Olympia, nor obviously Seattle. Home to the Sonics, the Ventures, and the Wailers, it was the epicenter of the Northwest garage rock boom of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but since then, it’s lived in the shadow of the two cities that it sits between on the I-5 corridor. “We joke about there being a curse on the city, because whether it be in sports or in music, people will get really close to breaking through and getting out of here and then something will come up and they’ll get stuck,” says Johnson. Case in point: Literally the day before my interview with Enumclaw, Passion Of The Weiss ran a story on the demise of ILLFIGHTYOU, the city’s once-promising rap crew that had faded from the spotlight without much prior explanation. “Everything south of Seattle, I think people assume is ghetto or doesn’t exist,” says Johnson. “But it’s like, there’s a community here, and tradition, and culture that thrives completely separate to Seattle.”

Enumclaw’s music reflects the age-old desire to get out of your hometown, but it does so with a constant pang of nostalgia, like when Johnson pines, “Can you make it last?/ Can you bring it back?” on “Cents.” When asked about this underlying thread in his lyrics, Johnson is quick to respond: “Oh yeah, I love this place. I love Tacoma with all my heart, I’ll probably raise my family and kids here. But I just wanna prove to myself and to everybody else that you can be from this place and make it.”

Since finishing up Jimbo Demo late last year, Enumclaw have added Johnson’s younger brother, Eli Edwards, on bass (Cornell played bass in addition to lead guitar on the EP) and already have a batch of new material under their belts. “I think Jimbo Demo definitely shows us at our starting point,” says Johnson. “But Ladaniel just learned how to play the drums, I’m still learning how to play the guitar and sing, and we have a fourth person now. So I think the new songs give a better progress report of where we are as musicians.”

“I hope more than anything,’ adds Gipson, “that people can feel my desperation through the music — all of our desperation to be good musicians and make good shit. I count on that a lot.”

Jimbo Demo is out 4/30 on Youth Riot.

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