Only 1,000 or so feet from Washington Hall—where Miss Lillian Smith’s Jazz Band played 100 years ago—half veiled in overgrown trees and blackberries and weedy lawn, sits the 118-year-old Spruce Haus. It’s moderately dilapidated, playfully defaced (a pineapple, a pink flamingo), and currently home to members of many of the city’s major bands: Tacocat, So Pitted, Lisa Prank, Childbirth, Big Bite, and Sleeping Lessons. Add artists caught in its orbit—Chastity Belt, Gazebos—and it becomes a musical nucleus.
Bree McKenna, bassist for Tacocat and Childbirth, first moved in about a decade ago and says in that time the house has had some 60 tenants, mostly musicians—Shannon Perry (Gazebos), Nicole Snyder (Slutever), members of the Pharmacy. “At one point it was mostly hesher dudes,” says McKenna. “It was kind of like Pleasure Island from Pinocchio, just gross.”
But around the time So Pitted singer-guitarist Nathan Rodriguez and Robin Edwards (who plays as Lisa Prank) moved in four years ago, Spruce Haus began to mellow. These days it’s more akin to an adult artists’ dorm, or a punk bed and breakfast: “My room is Cafe Robin in the morning because I have my coffee maker,” Edwards says. “So I’ll text Bree and Nathan, Cafe Robin is open.”
“I literally come in here with a cup,” says McKenna.
The house’s shift in culture also owes to a shifting city, though. A bunch of drunk youngsters in a punk shack is a musical norm, but the Spruce Haus tenants are now serious touring musicians, many of them around 30. The cheap rent and central location allows them to get by on service industry jobs—at Chop Suey, at Linda’s—that let them take off on tour for months at a time.
That may not last long. “Every six months or so, there’s a panic that we all have to move,” Edwards says. “And magically it works out.” But while it lasts, Spruce Haus remains a hothouse for artistic growth. A few years ago McKenna and Edwards were jamming together. Then they got their friend Julia Shapiro (Chastity Belt’s singer and guitarist) playing some drums they found in the laundry room, and a new band formed: Who Is She? Last year they released Seattle Gossip, which takes the sugary threads that run through all their bands and spins them into 17 minutes of pop punk cotton candy. Where Tacocat and Chastity Belt songs may catalogue Seattle’s tech-bro entropy, Who Is She? has a smidgen more optimism: “My hometown is boring / the East Coast is snoring / I don’t believe in the Seattle freeze,” a symptom perhaps of the house’s friendly vibes.
So Pitted’s Rodriguez first moved in because his U District house was razed to make way for “apodments.” His band, which makes noisily cathartic punk, was in talks to sign to Sub Pop and he found solace at Spruce Haus, a communal counterpoint to an increasingly isolated world. “I think it’s healthy. We all try to be good to each other in this house,” he says. “We can all find a space for each other. It’s just nice to be quiet for a second in a very loud place.”