Image: Seattle Met composite

To celebrate their first year as a band, the members of the Garages—one of the best-selling Seattle artists on Bandcamp—took to Twitch. First, they played their hit single, “Mike Townsend Is a Disappointment,” a fuzzed-out garage rocker. Of the eight musicians on the track, only two—Rain and Yana—were in the same room. The rest appeared in a shifting configuration of livestream windows, beamed from living rooms around the world—one in Portland, another in Seattle, Rain and Yana in Ireland. To call this stream “live” is a stretch, though. The Garages’ concerts are “basically a music video in execution, rather than an actual live show,” says Lamb, a band member in Sweden who generally produces the streaming concerts. (Most Garages members use single names.)

Yet, better than most bands, the Garages can capture virtually a live rock concert’s elan. They were forged in the fires of the Covid-era internet, in the hearth of an absurdist horror video game called Blaseball. As such, the Garages are bizarrely well suited to online life, its heedless pace and niche multitudes, its contradictions, its joys. In a year, what started as a fictional fan band for the game has unleashed a deluge of music on Bandcamp and absorbed 80 or so members, whose ambitions have grown into a record label that’s helping other queer artists release music.

At its peak, at 3:30pm Pacific Time on a Friday afternoon this August, that Twitch stream’s viewership hit 625, nearly the capacity of Neumos. For the second song, an entirely different group of band members—seven this time—appeared on screen and performed “Sun 2,” a piece of epic vocal pop with a soaring, almost Disney-like sincerity. “Darling you’re my second sun,” the singer belted, “watching me where I belong.” A pianist, AirPods in ears, sitting at a keyboard in a sunlit room draped with plants, added a harmony.

Throughout the show’s eight songs, the Garages would glide between members and genres as fluidly as a karaoke crowd. To even call the Garages “a band” is a stretch. The group—or rather, “international, anarcho-syndicalist musical collective that we find easier to call a band,” as Yana told me over Zoom—now comprises members in countries ranging from the U.S. and Australia to Germany and the Philippines. (About five live in Seattle.)

In a year, they’ve released 40 different EPs and LPs on Bandcamp. Their 41st will drop on October 1; Discipline, a double concept album, is the band’s first to be pressed to vinyl and among its most impressively produced. It’d be a decent place for a new listener to start—to really engage with the whole teeming, self-reflective discography requires a devotion generally reserved for Deadheads or Dylanologists.

Most of the band’s albums compile tracks written and recorded by individual members. Then there are “live” albums (such as The Garages: RIV, spawned by that Twitch show). There are auto-cover albums (“this is a covers album. but we just covered ourselves.”). There’s The Skarages! Vol 1 (ska remixes of certain hits) and a greatest hits album released in February (when the band was only seven months old) and Seattle (a tribute to the fictional band’s fictional version of the city). Woven through these are leitmotifs and recurring characters and in-jokes, all nested in songs about “being gay, the apocalypse, and fighting the gods.”

The result feels like Car Seat Headrest’s early Bandcamp output collided with a Jesus Christ Superstar production conceived in a Discord chat and directed by a queer Dungeons and Dragons group. The band is hectic, it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s ironic, it’s earnest. And it started because some people came together online to play a zombified version of baseball during a global meltdown.

 

Last August, Yana, a recent college grad living in California, saw a tweet from a friend; Seattle artist Iris Jay had drawn a Blaseball card, fan art for the horror-themed betting game that simulates a season of baseball in a week. Yana had majored in environmental management, but they’d grown disillusioned with the field soon after starting a fellowship. Blaseball, though, had magnetism. Yana was drawn in by “a bunch of gay baseball players with esoteric names and backgrounds running in an endless simulation.” Due to pandemic-induced doldrums, along with their “neurodivergent hyperfocus,” Yana got hooked. The whole thing was silly, low stakes, recreating the communal joy of watching sports with friends while jettisoning stress and grief.

Blaseball was then only a few weeks old, dreamed up on the fly at video game studio the Game Band. Teams have names like Hellmouth Sunbeams, Canada Moist Talkers, and Seattle Garages. Characters are regularly incinerated, and occasionally reanimated. Blaseball went online on July 20, 2020 and promptly went viral. The crush of fans wrote backstories for players, which were then worked back into the game. In part because of this crowd-sourced narrative, Blaseball has become a queer hub.  

Just as Yana was drawn in, June September, a Seattle musician and University of Washington grad student, posted a song on Discord and Bandcamp, inspired by other fan art. “Heart Shaped Hotdog” is a Nirvana-referencing folk track, as much audio hiss as music. It laments the incineration of the Seattle Garages’ first pitcher, Jaylen Hotdogfingers. Others started writing songs for the Garages, too. Yana, who’d futzed around with music in high school but abandoned it, wrote a parody song. “I was like, maybe I shouldn’t share this,” Yana says. “And then a member of the Discord was like, ‘Nope. Do it. Play bad guitar. Make a bad song and share it.’ And I’ll be forever grateful.”

By August 7, five members had combined their tracks into an EP, “We Are the Garages (Vol 1),” which they put up on Bandcamp. Within a week, they had seven more songs and another EP up, then a third EP 10 days after that. “We’ve just kind of been riding that wave ever since,” Yana says.

In the band, they found a pandemic solace, a community of queer musicians riffing out fun songs for Blasballers. In November, the band performed in a fundraiser called Desert Bus for Hope. “That’s how we went from playing, like, a 300-person virtual live show to like a 5,000-person virtual live show,” Yana says. Non-Blaseball fans caught on. Within a day of its release, the “Live @ Desert Bus for Hope” album leapt into the top selling records on Bandcamp, right next to System of a Down and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I discovered the Garages because their releases since then have consistently ranked in Seattle’s top sellers, keeping company with La Luz and Fleet Foxes.

That ascendant popularity cuts to the frictions at the heart of the band. The project started as fan art created by disparate musicians. Band members were their own earliest supporters. Even though the finesse and ambition of the songmaking have grown, they remain some of the Garages’ greatest devotees—the line between fan and artist erased. During that Twitch stream this August, the chatbox coruscated with all-caps glee, some of it from the people currently performing. “Lighters up!” user @thegarages fired off. The song’s writer, while singing on screen, even chimed in: “LETS GO BABYYYYYY.”

Yet they’re no longer merely a fan band. Watching different albums sell, or not, says Lamb, the Swedish producer, drives the band to focus “on quality, making sure that each thing we put out is really good.” They’ve slowed a touch—this August was the first month they released only one album. But the internet-paced output is baked in. Members try to take breaks, a month or two off. “Cue, two weeks later: Oh here’s two albums, back-to-back,” Yana says.

The trouble is, unless listeners are Blaseball fans first—here for the ongoing narrative that Bandcamp wrote is “the biggest punk rock opera since Zen Arcade”—wading through the sheer quantity can be a chore. A listener like me, who likes the sharp punk hooks and weirdo folk, wearies quickly when an album veers toward screamo or dashed-off symphonic metal.

The band, Lamb says, will always be tied to the game, but “we’re definitely looking at constructing something past the Garages.”

 

Fourth Strike Records first appeared last September, a month after the Garages formed, but it didn’t cohere into a functioning record label until earlier this year. About 17 members of the Garages, including June, Yana, Lamb, and Rain, are behind it. Here, their ambitions beyond the profligate absurdities of Blaseball become clearer.

The label is a nonprofit dedicated to releasing the work of queer musicians. So far, that’s meant signing six artists, including the Garages and a few side projects, but Lamb says they’ve started contacting others they’d like to work with. “I’m quite positive that we’ll have something cool to show off in a few months.”

If so, they’ll further expand the goodwill members have found in the Garages. Yana and Rain met through the band and are now partners. “I know I’ve grown as a person just because I’ve had the band as an outlet,” Yana, who’s now Fourth Strike’s outreach director, says. “I’ve gotten lifelong friends and what I would consider family from it... That’s huge, especially when everyone is feeling so isolated.”

That community has even begun directly supporting the music scene of the Garages’ fictional city, Seattle. In June, Fourth Strike announced they were partnering with local indie musician Left at London to release her debut album on vinyl. It’s one of the more gorgeous and ambitious records I’ve heard come out of this actual city recently. Putting it in people’s hands, as Fourth Strike is, seems like a confident step from the fictional to the real.

 

 

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