By Colin Rice
It is no secret that Bellingham has boasted many musical talents over the years, among these are Death Cab for Cutie, ODESZA, Car Seat Headrest and Sleaeter- Kinny. Look even closer and one can still find some of the originators and icons who have added to the legacy of Washington’s musical scene.
Hiro Yamamoto, the original bass player and a founding member of famous Seattle rock band Soundgarden, was at The Shakedown to perform with his newfound project, Stereo Donkey. Formed in 2016, the trio record and entertain Bellingham crowds with heavy surf rock music.
Stereo Donkey opened the show for local band The Phone Books and decorated punk rocker Bob Log III.
“In Bellingham, we sometimes get looked over since we’re less than a tenth of the size of either Vancouver or Seattle,” Hollie Hunthman, owner of The Shakedown said. “But we have an amazing music community for a place our size. We have quite a few musicians of former or current well-known bands like Yamamoto that call Bellingham home, we’re lucky to have them.”
Yamamoto said he grew up in Park Forest, Illinois, where he befriended a young boy named Kim Thayil while in school.
Thayil would become a founding member and lead guitarist of Soundgarden. Together, they met singer Chris Cornell and started the group in 1984 after they relocated to Seattle.
Just as the music genre “grunge” was breaking into the music industry, Soundgarden released their debut major label album “Louder Than Love” and achieved critical acclaim. As the band was tasting success, Yamamoto made the decision to leave in 1989 and attended the then-Seattle Central Community College for a year and another at the University of Washington.
“It was such a big place (UW), I’d ride my bike,” Yamamoto said, “I was riding out in frat row and all the frat kids were out playing volleyball listening to Soundgarden.”
Yamamoto is an outstanding graduate of the chemistry department at Western, Yamamoto said, and was pursuing his master’s degree when he formed the band Truly in 1991.
“Truly started touring when I was doing my master’s,” Yamamoto said. “I just stopped and started writing more music. It’s kind of a mistake, but it put me on a great path to music.”
Truly still performs to this day.
“We went on tour two years ago in the U.S., starting in New York,” Yamamoto said. “We came back over and through Chicago and played along the West Coast in Los Angeles up to Seattle.”
Yamamoto is one-third of the personalities in Stereo Donkey which also includes guitarist Pat Wickline and drummer Mike Bajuk, who defy the norm for how surf bands are standard, according to Yamamoto.
“We are more intertwined in the whole unit, I’m a wild free bass player,” Yamamoto said. “That’s how we differentiate ourselves and we’re not necessarily a surf band.”
Wickline agreed with Yamamoto on suggesting that there’s more than surf rock to their sound.
“Prog-rock is something I’m into, it’s an interesting dimension to us,” Wickline said. “We have surf and then add elements of progressive music.”
Stereo Donkey’s website states it’s a garage surf exotica rock band.
“We’re really an instrumental musical compilation and inspired by early 60s garage rock,” Yamamoto said. “Our band’s is garage rock, you do it yourself and make noise.”
Wickline lives in a 129-year-old Methodist church since he bought the place in 2000 and is the location where Stereo Donkey recorded their debut and self-titled EP. He described the console room as Its own universe.
“The room has its mojo, and it became a party place,” Wickline said. “That’s how Stereo Donkey formed was through playing different themes and performing at parties, we were born in that room.”
The band stated they don’t play music for success, but they do it for what they like to play.
“I know this sounds kind of cheesy, but we’re just bringing the music to the people,” Yamamoto said.
Stereo Donkey’s goals are to push it to the limit with the energy and passion they play with.
“We play on the edge of falling over,” Yamamoto said. “We don’t sit back and try to be comfortable, the music is frenetic and builds with energy.”
Yamamoto’s sound and style was influenced in the era of wartime protests in the 1960s and the idea of being free in the 1970s.
“Part of its equality, not growing up white,” Yamamoto said. “Being in a white world made me always know I don’t always quite fit in.”
He mentioned how inspiration would come from popular culture and television during his childhood.
“To me, one of those most important things to me in the 60s was Star Trek,” Yamamoto said. “They had all mixed races and it was very egalitarian, and that’s important to me. That’s what functions me.”
The band just released their first single “Reno 9/11” on June 16.
“We were trying to record it, Mike is really in tune with the metronome and at the end our producer Bill Simpkins did a take without the metronome,” Wickline said. “It was twice the intensity of anything else of the six hours we played over and over again…it may of been the best two minutes of music we ever played.”
The band looks forward to keep performing as their crowd starts growing.
“We’re really excited because we are at the point where people are really starting to like us,” Yamamoto said. “I know part of it is the Soundgarden thing, but part of it is that we’re just having a lot of fun.”
The band’s next performance will be at Surf X Surfest at Darrell’s Tavern in Shoreline, Washington on Saturday, July 27. They also will be playing a rock the vote show at The Shakedown August 1st, hosted by Hunthman.