Unraveling the Mystery of Forgotten Seattle Pre-Grunge Band The Macs

The history of the Pacific Northwest is littered with forgotten bands — before Nirvana put Seattle on the musical map, the region was an oubliette for musicians revered in their own state but unknown beyond its borders. But even amongst these, the story of The Macs is a fascinating one — three great songs, a series of false trails… and then nothing. Music writer and essayist Aaron Gilbreath discovered the band’s music via a chance encounter with Mudhoney’s Steve Turner, and went in search of their forgotten past. This is their story.

The Macs, Capitol Hill, Seattle, 1978. Photo credit: Sheila McDonell
The Macs, Capitol Hill, Seattle, 1978. Photo credit: Sheila McDonell

The first time The Macs entered Seattle’s Triangle Recording studio in 1980, they recorded what proved to be two-thirds of their total recorded output: sides A and B of a 45rpm single. It was the band’s first time in a studio.

Back then, before Nirvana recorded Bleach there, and Mudhoney recorded “Touch Me I’m Sick” and turned the building into grunge holy ground, Triangle Recording was just a nondescript wood-sided wedge set on the corner where 6th Avenue branches off from Leary Way.

Built around 1914, the building used to be a grocery store. When studio engineer Jack Weaver leased it in 1976, the big side windows were broken, rain water pooled on the floor, and homeless people slept inside. He rented the place for $75 a month.

Fire gutted the studio in March of 1980. After they rebuilt in July, Weaver says, “We were jammed with business day and night for years.” He sold his portion of Triangle to his partner Bill Stuber in 1984. In 1986, Jack Endino and Chris Hanszek leased the building and rechristened it Reciprocal Recording. There, throughout the late ’80s, Endino recorded the sessions that media-savvy Sub Pop Records used to sell itself and market sleepy Seattle as a cultural mecca: Green River’s Dry as a Bone, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, TAD’s God’s Balls. When a little-known band named Nirvana came up from Aberdeen to record a ten-song demo in 1988, that old grocery store became the place that forever changed American music. But eight years before Cobain arrived, The Macs recorded six minutes of music that arguably constitute their crowning achievement. They recorded one more song and disbanded that year, before many people ever heard of them.

I’d certainly never heard of them.

I came of age in the ’90s, during that seminal era when underground music crossed into the mainstream and became such big business that oddballs and cool kids could no longer use certain bands to distinguish themselves from the jocks. I’m grateful to have seen many of the well-known Seattle staples play during their heyday, including Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Even now, nearing age 40, I still love the 1986 Deep Six compilation, the record that, along with Green River’s Come on Down, is the earliest document of that diverse regional music that was later simplistically labeled “grunge.” I own the original pressing of Cat Butt’s Journey to the Center of Cat Butt, an album which few people seem to like as much as me, and I’ve read enough books to claim more than passing familiarity with the Pacific Northwest’s rich musical history. I’m not trying to brag. I just really like this music; yet The Macs had eluded me. Then I walked into Jackpot Records in Portland on Record Store Day 2011.

Mudhoney’s guitarist Steve Turner was there spinning records from his huge personal collection. Under the name DJ Dollar Bin, Turner worked two turntables in the back by the stairs. People lined up in front of him waiting for the register, records clutched in their hands. No one bothered him.

As I sifted through crates of markdowns, a song played overheard that grabbed my attention. In place of guitar chords, a simple driving staccato guitar line played over a swift 4/4 beat. And a guy with what resembled a French accent sort of talked over the music: “I’m walking down the street again, I’m walking down the street.” Curious, I walked over to the DJ table and asked what song he’d just played.

“Which?” Turner said.

I told him — two songs before this one — then I hummed the melody as best as I could remember it, which was barely. How embarrassing for a person who can barely play a four-string instrument to have to hum to a guy whose band helped define a generation.

I hummed. His face registered nothing.

In my marble-mouthed way, I sang what I thought were the lyrics — something about walking and a street. Just as I started to fear I’d misheard them, Turner said, “Oh, oh, maybe ‘Walking Down the Street?’” He flipped through his stack of already played records, pulled a 45 from a plain white sleeve and handed it to me. “It’s The Macs,” he said, “an old Seattle band.’”

I wrote down the name. The A-side was called “The Cowboy Song.”

“Good luck finding that,” Turner said, returning the record to the stack. “It’s a hard one to track down.”

I fell so in love with that B-side that I thought about it for weeks. I also marveled that, had I arrived at Jackpot Records five minutes later, I still would never have heard of this band. I found a few copies of the record for sale online; one in Germany went for $105. When I tried to dig up info, though, I found very little.

Clark Humphrey’s seminal book Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story doesn’t mention The Macs. Mark Yarm’s canonical oral history Everybody Loves Our Town doesn’t mention them; neither does the Hype! documentary. The Macs are pre-grunge, not proto-. In fact, they predate the bands that pre-dated grunge, bands like The U-Men and Green River who influenced a generation of Seattle’s sludge, fuzz, and rock musicians.

The web yielded no live photos, no concert listings in zines or old Seattle papers, not even a single flyer that some meticulous music archivist had digitized for posterity. In place of a band history, I found an aging post about them on someone’s personal blog, along with three songs posted on YouTube. However hazy their origins, their body of work was clear: three songs, two on “The Cowboy Song/Walking Down the Street” single, and one called “I’m 37” on the Seattle Syndrome compilation. If the singer was 37 when “I’m 37” came out in 1981, he must have been 68 years old by now. He could be my grandpa — if, that is, he was really 37 at the time of the recording.

Triangulating The Macs’ lifespan by the evidence they left felt like carbon dating insects from microscopic dust. A mention in the first Subterranean Pop fanzine in 1980, the 7″ single, a song on that comp — they appeared to have existed somewhere between 1979 and 1981. The thing was, their singer-guitarist Colin McDowell helped start the band 3 Swimmers in 1980, which suggested that The Macs had dissolved by then, which itself meant that a band this good might have only lasted one year.

I did more research.