Spokane band The Smokes on surviving the pandemic, civil unrest, and finding hope in making art.
So we’re going to write about it every once in a while, in a way that feels true to our mission. Let us know what you think. We really mean it when we say we want to hear from you. — Luke
The Smokes have always been a very Spokane band. Bandmates and cousins Himes Alexander Jr. and Matt Slater started here. They built a loyal following here. They made the city’s kitsch history part of their act, including playing a cover medley of commercial jingles from places like Banner Fuel and Ziggy’s Home Improvement. Feel free to take a moment to let “Ziggy’s, YEAH Ziggy’s” echo around your head.
When the pandemic lockdowns came, though, they were in the Upper Midwest. Himes had moved there in April 2017 to complete a degree in vocal performance at a college in St. Paul. Matt joined him in June, and the two lived together in Minneapolis, keeping The Smokes going and performing in an all-POC improv comedy troupe.
When police murdered George Floyd in 2020, the uprising was right outside their door. Matt even gave a firsthand report to the Inlander. The duo had planned to record a new album when the pandemic struck, but gravity of the moment forced them to pause. Himes says the two asked themselves, “Are we gonna devote time and money and energy to this thing when the world might be ending?”
They decided instead to participate in the struggle and look for a way through.
When Covid-related rent protections expired, the two decided to trek back to The Lilac City in early 2021, and they started working on the album again. The result is G.O.V.T. Graffiti, which they’re celebrating with an album release show this Friday, March 25, at The Big Dipper.
“Battles,” the first single, debuted March 9, while “Tact” followed March 21. Like the rest of the album, these songs sound crisp: clean but not saccharine. For a band that typically goes lo-fi, it’s exciting to hear results of their collaboration with producer Jack Endino — a Seattle legend who produced Nirvana’s Bleach and early albums by Soundgarden and Mudhoney.
In Endino’s studio, the duo created a record that’s aggressive and punk (the heaviest track, “Mentat,” disturbed my dog) yet softened by soaring, effortless vocals properly spotlit with higher-quality recording. It’s in control and chaotic: The Sonics meet Sonic Youth. TV on the Radio crossed with Death.
I sat down with The Smokes in late February around a table of crunchy snacks and lentil soup. This is an abridged version of that interview, edited for clarity:
In the song “Emerald Glass,” you sing, “Your dreams become your mission.” What was the dream, and what was your mission?
HIMES: So basically this album was scrapped and shelved for the past two years. We were about to record right at the beginning of the pandemic.
MATT: We were gonna do a little West Coast tour.
HIMES: So that fell through. We had 10 songs at that point to record, but we knew we only liked about two or three. So the next year when everything happened, we wrote [new] songs and came back to Spokane. The lyrics were the last thing to come.
“Your dreams become your mission” was kind of, you know: Don’t give up on the things that are here right now. Basically, follow your path — not necessarily what seems practical.
I think that holding onto that a little bit helped us see it through. ‘Cause it was a lot of: “Are we gonna devote time and money and energy to this thing when the world might be ending?”
MATT: At the very beginning of the pandemic, venues we played at [in Minnesota] were literally getting burned down…. We just didn’t feel creative. It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah! Pandemic! Uprising! We gotta write about this.’ It wasn’t like that at all. It was like, ‘Holy shit! What’s going on?’ We were going to protests and stuff. Doing that was just all-consuming. And then you’d get a wave of like, “Yeah, we need to play.”
HIMES: Then it became less about being creative but more about channeling all the emotions we were having: Figuring out how to not compartmentalize or hold any of that in, just letting it flow at a time when it was coming in constantly.
MATT: Where do you place yourself within that, through, like survival, you know?
HIMES: So the album cover is kids covering up a stamp that says Government Graffiti. Because the Man stifles our creativity, but we can always paint over it. We can always re-appreciate, rewrite the story, shift the paradigm.
And this album is definitely turned in that direction, in terms of advocating for ourselves, for self-love, for standing up for yourself regardless of who you are, and making sure that you set your boundaries and get what you need.
MATT: I feel like a lot of [our] stuff before was based on some sort of anger, frustration, you know. But this is more, like: As we reflected through the pandemic, I guess moving forward, how to do that in a healthy way. I feel like the album is a self-reflective thing, but also a letter to people hearing it, being like: “Keep going. There’s hope.”
What part of improv do you bring on stage and apply when you’re doing a musical show?
HIMES: Well, musically anyway, there’s going to come a point where you’re going to play wrong, you know? So it’s all jazz, if you will. Play something wrong enough, it becomes your style. There’s nothing wrong with playing wrong. It’s actually a part of what makes a live performance purely creative. Like it’ll never be played that same way again. And I love that element. Everything goes, just keep going.
MATT: I think that’s like the literal spirit of improv is to just like, be completely in the moment, creating it there.
What about the element of humor that you bring to your sets? Do you identify at all with the concept of the sacred trickster?
MATT: You teach lessons through hard jokes. I guess I’ve always liked that the jester’s the only one that gets to speak truth to the king. I think in that sense, Revolt [The Smokes’ 2017 live album] was awesome. So you could hear the stuff in between the songs. The humor side of it, to me, helps it. We can use it on stage too and have more control over it, you know? It’s like disarming to be funny, but we can still use it as a weapon.
Himes, you tend to work in the service industry. Why have you taken food-focused jobs?
HIMES: I’ve gone a lot of different ways with it. A lot of people in the industry are getting out, or have served for a long time. I feel like with food there’s so much possibility, to not only tackle the problem of somebody’s sustenance, but also to fill them with love. How — through your intention in preparing that food and how you feel — you have an opportunity to bestow that onto someone. I have reverence for it.
I like to be around food because I like to eat. Also it was cool to help out kitchens distribute food in times of need. That was one thing I was really thankful that I could fall back on, to be able to offer a chance to help. I don’t think those opportunities and situations will be in short supply, unfortunately, in the near future.
Matt, why did you choose education?
MATT: I like working with kids, and I really like teaching art and stuff. I think it comes from not really liking teachers when I was younger and being like, ‘What would it be like if I had a teacher I thought was cool?’
I’ve taught adult stuff too, but I think that there’s this beautiful, magical age of like 11 to maybe 13 where kids are aware of what’s going on, but they’re still open. You get to a certain age and you’re just, like, stuck. Your personality is developed to a certain point; you kind of already have a way you approach stuff.
But it’s just a cool age. I love seeing those types of minds fire. It’s inspiring. And honestly, that knee-jerk reaction to like, “The world sucks! It’s not fair. Why do we have to do this work? Why do we have to go to school?” I am like: “100 percent there, right there with you [kids]. Totally feel it. What is the point of coming to school? Let’s talk about it.”
There’s a lot of hope in that. Not to sell the generations ahead of me short, but the generations behind me, they look at the world as ready to change, you know, and not falling apart. I think a lot of the older generations just see it as falling apart. Sooo don’t wanna be around those losers! [laughs]