Olympia Ladystyle

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Newcomers sometimes benefit from this kind of closeness. Members of the Gossip are living an Olympia success story. They all arrived from Searcy, Ark., in the past two years, formed a band last fall and played local house parties until Calvin Johnson invited them to cut a record in K's Dub Narcotic studio. The band's self-titled, four-song EP is anchored by the thundering, bluesy vocals of Beth Ditto, while Kathi Mendoncha on drums and Nathan Howdeshell on guitar pound home a sense of languor and urgency born out of Southern heat and teenage boredom. As the opening act for Sleater-Kinney's spring tour, the band earned nationwide buzz, but that hasn't killed its appetite for things Arkansan. "I still like things like okra, and I love my fat Southern grandma," says Ditto, who's still only 19. Adds Howdeshell: "We want to play a tour of weird places in the Midwest, where only 15 kids will show up."

Speaking of the gossip, everybody in Olympia's scene seems to have heard just about everything about everybody. At parties, young men and women stand on the porch and the lawn, drink beer, flirt and discuss, among other things, who is sleeping with whom. Then they go inside, watch one or two astonishingly good local bands, comment on the performances and return to Topic A. "If you do something stupid here," says Ditto, "the next day everybody's talking about it."

But living in a small town has its advantages. People you meet on the street strike up a conversation, and cheap rents allow for a casual approach to making money--something sorely missed by musicians in big cities like New York, where bohemian neighborhoods quickly become too pricey for bohemians. Plus nobody minds if you make a fool of yourself in public. At a karaoke party in the back room of the Voyeur cafe, kids sporting tiaras made of Christmas lights delivered unorthodox performances of Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love and Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child o' Mine and whooped and hollered like being cool was so very last year. Olympia may get claustrophobic, but it's friendly.

And ambitious. The Transfused, a rock opera written by the Need and fellow Olympian Nomy Lamm, is another testament to the town's capacity for organizing large-scale productions. The elaborate score mixes thrash-metal riffs with Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter, in which characters deliver lightning-fast, tongue-twisting lyrics to dainty, speeded-up musical accompaniment. With help from Donna Dresch (former guitarist for Team Dresch) and keyboardist Scott Seckington, the Need (Radio Sloan and Rachel Carns) played all the music at the opera's eight performances at Olympia's Capitol Theater in July.

The Transfused pits a gang of vaguely humanoid animals against a corporation that has ruled the world for 100 years. A huckster's "People's Army" promises salvation from the regime in return for obedience. Some creatures pledge allegiance to the bogus army, and some choose to find other means of battling "the Corporation."

Rock's ambivalent relationship with corporate record labels is, naturally, a big issue in Olympia. Will Sleater-Kinney ever make the leap to Billboard stardom, turning Olympia ladybands into the next big thing? Probably not. "The major labels give you a bank loan," says Brownstein. "You have to pay it all back." The band, she says, has always been fairly sure that's not what it wants. "We've always been almost 100% sure that we wouldn't sign with a major label."

On Kill Rock Stars, Sleater-Kinney's songs may not make it to MTV's Buzz Bin, but they're perfectly accessible to the band's audience of hundreds of thousands on 120 Minutes--and even at Wal-Mart. "Better to burn out than to fade away," Kurt Cobain allegedly wrote in his suicide note, quoting a Neil Young song. What a choice. How about a third possibility: don't get rich. That's choice C, the Olympia option.

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