Q&A: Codeine On Playing Slow, Being On Sub Pop In The '90s And Almost Recording With Jack Endino

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Mike Galinsky
Even before Sub Pop struck gazillions gold when punk rock broke in 1991 with Nevermind, the Seattle label was abiding by and stamping its merch with its tongue-in-cheek, yet notorious (and now complete) "World Domination" credo. But back in their cash-strapped early days, that domination only extended to its Pacific Northwest throng of miscreants. That is until label heads Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman looked east and scooped up slowcore godfathers Codeine, who were the aesthetic antithesis of Sub Poppers like beer-swilling, skuzzo-punk goofballs Mudhoney and woods-dwelling grunge kings TAD—their music was majestically glacial, and their look was clean-cut and studious.

In 1991, Sub Pop unleashed Codeine's monumental slowcore movement life-changer Frigid Stars alongside TAD's gargantuan grunge sprawl 8-Way Santa and Mudhoney's shredding garage-rock classic Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. The trio—bassist/vocalist Stephen Immerwahr, guitarist John Engle and drummer Chris Brokaw—operating at a snail-like, yet exhilarating crawl, wove a maelstrom of shoegaze glistening, hammerhead propulsions aided by Immerwahr's crippled voice on dragging, gorgeous anthems like "Pickup Song" and "D." An EP ('93's Barely Real) followed shortly thereafter, and Brokaw left the band by the time '94's finale The White Birch was released.

Immerwahr and Engle completely dropped out of music, taking jobs at the Department of Health and in market research. (Brokaw continued to make music with Come and solo.) This year, though, archival label Numero Group reissued the entire Codeine output in a box set complete with liner notes by the band, Poneman and experimental guitar hero Alan Licht. With something to rally for in the form of the box set, the members of Codeine decided it was apropos to play some shows.

Sound of the City talked to the surprisingly jovial trio to ask where the hell they've been, what it's like to sit on a throne atop the slowcore movement, and what it's been like to play again after eighteen years of dormancy.

Chris, the Voice interviewed you last year at the time of the Come reunion. Is it surreal to revisit both Come and Codeine in each of the last two years?

Brokaw: I think with both of the reunions, the only thing that I expected was that it would be weird and in both cases it hasn't been weird at all.

Why did Codeine break up in the first place?

Engle: Uh-huh. Steve?
Immerwahr: [Laughing] Uh... yeah. The main reason why I think the band stopped is because it stopped going and there stopped being, like, new songs. For whatever reason, the muse comes and goes. For some people it's around for a long time, and different projects are around for a long time. I think that was what we had and we had some interpersonal stuff too that was, you know, playing rock music as a way to make a living sucked. Chris could probably tell you more about that. But I went legit. I think those two things: we had a really long European tour after The White Birch came out and not having new songs, or having barely any new songs, really just takes a toll on your spirit. So it's actually kind of a nice thing about playing now—there's not this pressure of like "We have to have new songs," or "We need new songs to keep going instead of celebrating the songs we have done."
Engle: I think the scope of Codeine was very narrow. We didn't really ever envision—we said so in the box set—Codeine as a band that just kept on turning out material. So we had somewhat narrow parameters, let's say. There was a time when [The White Birch] was done where we were thinking like "Well, all we have to do is come up with eight or nine new songs and there could be a new record." But that seemed really a stretch—not just in terms of, you know, Steve finding his muse—but I think maybe your muse only has so much if you're focused on this one particular way and style. I know that in the liner notes, the introduction to Barely Real in the box set, Alan Licht talks about the Ramones... and... Steve, I don't really remember. Was he quoting you? Or was he just talking in his own opinion, saying, like, "Why did the Ramones ever do anything beyond the first three records, because at that point they had made their point?" [To Steve] Do you think it took us three records to make our point?
Immerwahr: Uh... two and a half.
Brokaw: Yeah, right. OK. [Laughing] When we first started the band, Steve said to me at one point "Ya know, I don't really see this band lasting more than like a year and a half or maybe two years," which I thought was really interesting. I hadn't really worked in any sort of creative process where it's sort of like an end goal to this, or a perfect thing we're gonna try and accomplish. The band ended up lasting four or five years instead of that, but—Steve, I'm going to fawn over you a little bit [laughing] in a very fascinated way—my first exposure to a lot of Steve's songwriting was on this compilation tape he made which was like six or seven bands, all of which were basically Steve's under some different guises. There were a few different styles and one of those guises was basically a pre-version of Codeine, kind of an outline toward the template of Codeine. My sense was that Steve had several different ideas of a kind of music to explore and that Codeine was one of those styles to explore. But then like, you know, you would explore it and see what it was and see what you could do with it and once we're done with that, you could move on.

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