In downtown Olympia, there’s a corner that figures largely into
the celebrated musical history of the Washington capital. On the right is the K Records office and the Dub Narcotic studio, and on the left is the Red House, where now well-known acts like Beck, Sleater-Kinney and Julie Ruin (among others) made some of their first recordings. For many, this corner represents everything they know and love about Olympia from the ‘80s and ‘90s: riot grrrl, indie pop, DIY sensibility.
Not that far away is a stark black house hidden among the trees. This is the Track House, and while it may not be quite as famous in Olympia scene history, it’s just as important to the city’s past and future.
When I visited Olympia for the first time in October 2015, one of the reasons I was there was to play a show at the Track House. I wasn’t familiar with the space beforehand, and I immediately become bombarded by the local lore surrounding it: how it’s over a hundred years old, or how some of my favorite musicians lived and recorded there; or how it’s owned by a man named “Dwayne The Dark Dentist,” who paints all the houses he owns completely black and doesn’t care who he rents to. I was intimidated, but that quickly went away upon stepping into the building. It’s impossible to be there without feeling an amazing sense of community; it radiates out of every streak of the black paint that covers it.
On the east coast, us participants in the DIY rock scene are so used to our beloved spaces being temporary, and attempting to directly access physical music history in this environment is futile. Try and find the legendary Providence space Fort Thunder, for example, and you just end up at a Price Rite. There’s no past to discover because everything is bulldozed into the present. This isn’t the case in Olympia, though, as the past and present are much more stable and joined together by spaces that last.
The Track House’s current residents—Dan, Israel, Rachel and Matt—will talk and speculate about their house’s past, but they’re also just as likely to be playing in their own bands Ugly Lovers and Blood Orphans as well as hosting shows featuring local and touring bands.
When the Track House was first built in 1895, it was waterfront property sitting on top of a swamp. The history gets a little murky from there, but at some point the water was filled in and train tracks were built alongside it. The town wasn’t much at the time, mainly “just a few biker bars and a lot of nothing,” says artist and former Track House resident Kidd Coyote. “Downtown Oly is built on a bunch of rubble and debris.” Supposedly, in the 80’s, a railroad worker lived in the house and would go to work by simply jumping on the train in the morning, but by the 90’s he’d moved out and it had turned into the creative incubator it is today. Back then the Track House was still grey, and the tenants (including a pre-Moldy Peaches Kimya Dawson) often had Secret Cafe shows in the house, its shed or the backyard garden.
“The garden used to be quite lovely, wild with roses and irises,” remembers artist Nikki McClure. “An oasis in concrete. It felt like it was a piece of New Orleans, and would sink back into the mud at any moment.” It didn’t, but it was on the receiving end of some toxic chemicals sprayed by the railroad company, laying dormant for years after. When this happened again, then-resident Phil Elverum decided to paint signs claiming that it was the “Downtown Olympia Nature Preserve” that warned the workers not to spray the yard anymore.
Phil had moved into the Track House in January of 2000 after living in various other houses around town. During this period, he would walk or skateboard one block over to the old Dub Narcotic studio (now a brewery), where he recorded three Microphones albums: It Was Hot We Stayed In The Water, The Glow Pt. 2 and Mount Eerie, as well as Olympia locals like Mirah and Calvin Johnson. Parts of the first Mirah album were even recorded in the shed of the Track House. “A spot there was desirable because it was very cheap ($170 for me) and downtown, and not thaaaat shitty,” Elverum writes over email. “Before that I lived in the House Of Doom up on Quince for a year. It was a truly horrible place. Legitimately haunted. Raccoons and rats would eat your food right off the shelf. Poison barrels buried in the yard. Rotten. Everything bad. The Track House, with its standing water under the floor that would freeze in the winter, was a big step up.”
At the time, the majority of people involved with the Olympia scene lived within a few blocks of the Track House at the Martin building, and Phil’s roommates included an animator for The Simpsons and friends with various ties to The Evergreen State College. While he describes his early mornings and late nights as periods for solitary recording and songwriting, “surrounding these times my life was super communal and social and utopian. We were in a bubble.” From collaborative dinners cooked at the house or other apartments to a festival in the backyard called “Rock and Roll Pee My Pants,” the Track House was the host of a very special community.
Phil moved out in 2002 and was soon followed by the rest of his roommates, as the house was sold to the infamous “Dark Dentist” in 2003. The house was painted black and joined the legion of other homes bearing that infamous paint job, as well as a now-defunct coffee shop. The house, already not in the best condition, fell into even greater disrepair.
There’s a lot of creative freedom if you live in a black house.
Floorboards disappeared and left gaping holes, the walls became moldier, the air became swampier. Kidd Coyote moved in towards the tail end of this phase, and it seemed like the house’s hundred-year existence was finally catching up to itself. At least one tenant claimed to have been followed around by a ghost dog who’d scratch and whine at the bathroom door and disappear when it was opened. Flowers of rare breeds from the old garden would sprout and bloom out of nowhere. Still, the time was fruitful for everyone who lived there: “I did some of my most creative work in that house,” Kidd Coyote explains, adding that “there’s a lot of creative freedom if you live in a black house, which rules.”
The next wave of tenants to move in formed the “metal empire,” and turned the Track House into a full blown metal venue. As usual with the house, many rumors abound about this crew, but what is certain is that they were eventually kicked out and left the house vacant right around the time that the current tenants moved into town. Though they were initially warned against it, Dan and a few other friends signed the lease in 2014 and formed the Track House Collective that now operates the house, with the aim of reclaiming the space for positivity and creativity. “The place is old and beat, with black paint everywhere. You sweat pools in the summer and see your breath in the winter,” he says, describing the difficulties initially encountered upon moving in. “The walls are covered in images of demons, ghosts and deities, lots of satanic images and witchcraft symbols. The floorboards feel like piano keys and there’s a swamp underneath it that freezes during the winter and turns the house into a refrigerator. If you drop a penny in the cracks you can hear it splash.”
We heard it was a terrifying and unsafe space. Our mission statement was to create a space that was safer and sober.
Over email, Dan describes the goals of the collective established in this ostensibly unwelcoming space: “We never got a chance to experience the Track House in all its evil metal glory, but we heard it was a terrifying and unsafe space. Our mission statement was to create a space that was safer and sober, as free as we could make it of oppressive attitudes. We believe in harm reduction, and decided to go with a sober house mainly for that reason. But it was also in response to the fact that most show houses we go to are drunken parties and sometimes feel exclusive to only a couple crowds that frequent them. We hope to use our space to perpetuate art and hopefully help build a better culture. We try to destroy the cool punk hierarchy and kill the boring passive aggressive
too cool for school status quo of the PNW.”
The beautiful thing is, it’s working. Track House shows have an amazingly welcome feeling, mainly because each member of the collective is so warm and considerate in their own way. All shows are $5 but no one is turned away for lack of funds, food is always available, and there’s even a wheelchair ramp built to make the venue accessible (something that is unfortunately lacking in a lot of DIY spaces). “We are working to shake out the demons and clean out the mold and it seems like the folks here in Olympia are in support of us,” says Dan.
“More and more folks are coming out to our shows and telling us how much they love what we have done with the place. We are seeing a community grow here and we hope to see more houses opening up their living rooms to events. Everyday the place gets a little brighter and another image of the devil gets covered.”
The overwhelming past and present of the space makes the Track House into one giant palimpsest, as every few years a new history is being written within its walls. A new community is being built. “I think the Track House was a lot of people’s first experience of community,” said former resident KC. “I went to my first party there when I was maybe 18? 2001 or 2002 or something? on a road trip, and it seemed like the best, happiest, most creative thing I’d ever seen people agree to do together.” This is just one of many positive stories surrounding the Track House, and now that the current collective is clearing away the darkness there’s no doubt that there will be many more to come, especially as it brings more and more people in on tour or just to visit.
I had been building up Olympia in my head since I was 16 and was ready for it to dissapoint, but it proved even greater than I hoped. Now whenever I talk to someone about my stay there and they ask me if anything is even going on, I take the time to explain just how much is happening now. Like how the town just had its first zine fest, and how the library and Capitol Theatre have amazing things booked at all times, or how it’s currently home to bands like G.L.O.S.S., Table Sugar, Oh, Rose and many others. Olympia’s creative renaissance isn’t confined to its past: it’s right here with us in the present.