MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

Young Fresh Fellows celebrate 40 years since ‘Fabulous’ vinyl debut

May 22, 2024, 3:56 PM | Updated: 5:09 pm

Image: Young Fresh Fellows' co-founder Scott McCaughey (left) and drummer John Perrin stand in the ...

Young Fresh Fellows' co-founder Scott McCaughey (left) and drummer John Perrin stand in the driveway of the private home in Seattle where the Fellows' 1984 debut album, "Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest," was recorded in 1983. (Photo courtesy of Ken Zick)

(Photo courtesy of Ken Zick)

They’re considered one of the most influential bands to emerge from Seattle in the 1980s. And while they may not be as well-known as some of their “grungier” counterparts, the Young Fresh Fellows are still going strong, and this week, they’re marking the 40th anniversary – and new remix reissue – of their debut album “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest.”

The Fellows predate that whole “grunge” rise by nearly 10 years, and through popularity on college radio stations – the most powerful outside-the-mainstream musical tastemakers of the pre-Internet era – they became beloved around the United States and in other parts of the world, including Spain, for instance.

The band and their albums, original songs, and live shows don’t quite fit into any other niche, though the choice covers they play and the friendships they forged with other musicians over the decades elevate the Young Fresh Fellows to a plane (or section of the record bin) that might also include the Velvet Underground, NRBQ and Mott The Hoople.

This week’s historic celebration kicks off with the first date of a cross-country tour: a sold-out show Friday night at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Then, it’s on to Portland for a show Saturday night. Next month, the tour continues to Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; Cleveland; New York and Massachusetts.

Four decades after their vinyl debut, several spots around Seattle already qualify as historic places where important moments in Young Fresh Fellows (YFF) history took place, like the Mural Amphitheatre where they played multiple landmark shows, the former location of Cellophane Square in Seattle’s U. District where YFF singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott McCaughey was manager in the 1980s, and the former home of Egg Studios in the city’s Ravenna/View Ridge area, where many of the band’s albums were recorded.

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‘Fine. But there’s at least one more location we wanted you to hear about.’

But first, a little more history: The earliest incarnation of the Young Fresh Fellows dates to 1981. That’s when Scott McCaughey and Chuck Carroll – two friends from California’s Bay Area who had moved to Seattle in 1979 to launch a music magazine, but found someone had already beat them to it with The Rocket – recorded an early cassette-only version of “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest.” The name of the cassette, and the narrator excerpts between the songs, came from a promotional record issued by Pacific Northwest Bell in 1965.

“We think sounds are about the best way of communicating there is,” that narrator says at the beginning of the 1965 phone company disc and years later, repurposed for the original YFF recording. “So, we’ve assembled a collection of typical sounds of the Pacific Northwest. Now, sit back and listen.”

In 1983, McCaughey and Carroll’s friend Conrad Uno offered to produce and record an album-length version of the material in his studio and release it on Popllama, the record label Uno was in the process of launching. Headquarters for Popllama and for the studio was Conrad Uno’s house on a side street in North Seattle.

But this wasn’t the famous Egg Studios in the Ravenna/View Ridge area. That location, which Uno shuttered when he retired in 2017, hosted hundreds of bands over the decades, and is probably best known for being the place where The Presidents of the United States of America recorded their debut LP. That record ultimately was certified Triple Platinum.

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Where was the original, mostly-forgotten Egg Studios located?

‘Here, in a setting as green as England’s turf, thousands of visitors come to listen to words that will never die.’

“The funny thing is, Conrad couldn’t even remember the address,” said Scott McCaughey, standing in front of the modest, post-war Seattle home on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. “We had to go on the Google satellite and look. He kept throwing out addresses and none of them were right. And then finally, something clicked in his brain and we found this.

“Oh, yeah, that’s it,” McCaughey said, recreating the aha-moment when he and Conrad Uno tracked down the right house. “’That’s it, that’s totally it.”

McCaughey lives in Portland these days. He flew to Seattle Tuesday afternoon in advance of Friday night’s show to get in a few practice sessions with the rest of the band, including bass player Jim Sangster and guitarist Kurt Bloch. With drummer John Perrin in tow, McCaughey came straight from the airport to meet and reminisce about the recording of “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” and do it just a few muddy steps away from where the tape – yes, analog tape – actually rolled.

“Conrad Uno lived here,” McCaughey said. “And that was the basement,” he continued, pointing at garage door on the lower level of the house. “The garage was the control room, and the recording room was straight back in the basement, I think.”

“That’s how I remember it,” McCaughey said. “It’s been, like, 40 years since I’ve been here.”

Depending on what happens within its soundproofed walls, recording studios can become something like supporting characters in the often irresistible narratives around a band’s early days, or about the entire musical community of a particular place and time. Even casual music fans can see names like Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road and Electric Ladyland and not feel a need to consult Wikipedia.

Egg Studios – even the original, nearly-forgotten one, which was only Egg Studios for a few years – has seemingly earned a similar place in the recording venue pantheon.

‘And when the last bronc is busted by those good guys of the West, you can drive from cattle country to the big mountain slopes, where timber communities hold their own competition … in the Logger’s Carnival.’

The first YFF album included Scott McCaughey singing and playing bass; Chuck Carroll singing and playing guitar; and Chuck’s cousin Tad Hutchinson on drums. The YFF got help from other musician friends with additional vocals, and both McCaughey and Carroll also played keyboard.

“We fancied ourselves being Mott the Hoople, or The Who, or The Kinks, and when you listen back to it doesn’t really sound like that,” McCaughey said. “It sounds like we might have wanted it to sound like that, but it’s kind of great because it became its own thing. It’s a very original sound, you know.”

Listening back to “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” on original vinyl is a bit like time travel to a simpler era before MP3s and laptops. The recording technology is all analog, and the sound is pretty raw. But above all, McCaughey’s songwriting – with an eclectic mix of punk, folk and rock opera – stands the test of time and mostly defies easy categorization.

The same could be said of Scott McCaughey himself. He has masterminded or has been integral parts of countless bands and musical projects, and is probably best known internationally for touring as a guitarist with R.E.M.

However, the Young Fresh Fellows is clearly his flagship band, and Egg Studios – brainchild of Conrad Uno, who recorded most of their albums and built a record label around the YFF – is the protozoic humdrum spot on the map, tucked away on a quiet street in North Seattle, where it all began.

‘There’s a drum full of other colorful sounds, too.’

“Wow, this is brings it all back,” McCaughey said, surveying the front yard, driveway and porch of the mostly non-descript residence. “If we go inside, Uno said to check and see if there’s any egg cartons on the wall” in the basement, “because that’s why we called it Egg Studios, because that was the thing back then, that was the high-tech soundproofing.”

“I don’t think it does anything, honestly,” McCaughey explained, dismissing the value of the egg carton material which was once ubiquitous on the walls of lo-fi studios everywhere.

“But yeah, everybody did it,” McCaughey said.

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Like the reliance on those overvalued egg cartons, one of the secrets of “Fabulous Sounds” was a certain naiveté or maybe even innocence pervading the entire process.

McCaughey says Conrad Uno’s offer to record the album for free and to release it on his label was a no-brainer.

“So, we’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds awesome,'” McCaughey said. “We didn’t know that he didn’t really know what he was doing, but we didn’t know what we were doing either. So it worked out really good. It worked out great.”

“And he actually got really great sounds,” McCaughey continued. “I mean, I just remixed the record, which is right here.”

McCaughey had with him a vinyl copy of the new remix of “Fabulous Sounds” which is due for official release in June. The front cover features slightly updated artwork of the original release and includes more photos of the band members; the back is a photo taken inside the original Egg.

“That’s in there,” McCaughey said, holding up the new LP and pointing down the driveway. “That’s Uno right there (in the photo), and this is the room right inside the garage there, it’s right on the other side of the garage door.”

“And (there are) pictures of us in the tracking room, too,” McCaughey explained. Then, pointing at the photo on the back of the LP again, he continued, “But later these shelves were completely covered with tequila bottles, mostly Arandas Tequila, which is the cheapest tequila we could buy. We went through so many bottles of tequila, he just had them lined up all over this entire studio. It was amazing.”

Unfortunately, nobody was home at the old Egg Studios house on Tuesday – or, at least nobody answered a knock on the door – so we were not able to get inside and check for egg cartons. Chances are pretty good that the current occupants probably have no idea of the history that took place on the lower level of their home, alongside their trusty furnace and water heater.

‘What’s that, not enough action you say? Listen.’

Still, even being outside jogged Scott McCaughey’s memory of indelible occasions there. He pointed to a retaining wall forming one side of the driveway, below the walkway to the front porch, with maybe a five-or-six-foot drop from walkway level to driveway level. Forty years ago, McCaughey said, they always entered the house through the front door because the driveway always had Conrad Uno’s old truck parked there. Uno’s day job meant the bed of the truck was filled mowers, trimmers, edgers and other lawn care gear.

McCaughey said Conrad Uno and the band threw a big party there sometime in November 1983 to celebrate the record being finished. Early in the evening, Scott says he was already passed out in the front yard.

‘Well, now you know the score here in the Pacific Northwest.’

“At some point, I woke up in the bushes and the party was raging inside,” McCaughey said. “And I dragged myself up and I just staggered and I fell over backwards off this precipice, and landed in the in the back of Uno’s truck full of lawn mowing equipment.”

“I think I’m lucky I didn’t die,” McCaughey continued, explaining how he did end up pretty bruised from the fall. “I think if (Uno’s truck) hadn’t been there, I might have been even worse.”

“But yeah,” McCaughey said, chuckling 40 years later at the memory, “this is a really proud moment for me.”

‘Uh-oh. Here’s one we missed.’

Though they had played in bands together in the Bay Area, Scott McCaughey and Chuck Carroll hadn’t considered making music a career. McCaughey says it was Conrad Uno offering to record that first album for free and then launching a record label and mailing copies of “Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” to college stations around the country that changed all that.

Word of the band’s growing popularity spread slowly in those days, at the speed of the U.S. Postal Service, with mailers arriving from faraway and exotic locales.

“We got one from this place in Bloomington, Indiana, the college university station there and we were No. 1,” McCaughey explained. “We’re No. 1? We can’t even figure it out, you know, we’re like what the hell? It’s such a weird record, too. It’s a funny little record. But I mean, at the time we thought it sounded like (The Who’s) ‘Quadrophenia.'”

Over the years, the lineup of the YFF has changed, and McCaughey has taken on many other projects with a head-spinning eclectic range of artists and subjects. He also bounced back from a health scare a few years ago.

“I never, never planned on it being a career or anything like that. I just never thought it would be possible,” McCaughey said, taking another look at the standard-issue Seattle house, the rain coming down and the late-spring grass looking well watered and a bit overgrown.

“So it’s kind of amazing that I actually did, or do, have a career, and it kind of really started right here,” he said.

‘Those are just a few of the sounds of this big country.’

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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