School Sanctioned Punk at the Western Washington Punkapalooza

By Tate DeCarlo

“Yo Tate! We’re throwing a really cool show called Punkapalooza this Thursday, you should totally come check it out!”

Chloe Unflat’s voice on the other end of the phone presented an enticing offer. I’ve known her since the second grade, but now she’s in school about two hours north of UPS at a little college called Western Washington University. Up at WWU, Chloe is the Marketing Coordinator of Arts and Dialogue for Associated Student Productions (ASP), a branch of the Western Washington Associated Students which is similar to our ASUPS. ASP supports a variety of programming events, including everything from film screenings, student comedy shows, and open mic nights to the Punkapalooza concert Chloe told me about over the phone. Our biweekly catch-up call quickly became a frenzied scramble as we tried to figure out how I could make it up to catch the show later that week. A punk concert thrown for students, sanctioned by Western Washington University and its Associated Students? Chloe and I agreed that, as the KUPS Loud Rock director, it would be wrong for me not to check out WWU’s attempt to bring punk to the masses. 

The premise was simple: I’d come up to Western with some friends, see Chloe and another buddy, catch an awesome drag and burlesque show, three sets of semi-local music, and then write a quick concert review. Two days later after our phone call, I was in the passenger seat of a white Subaru Outback flying toward Bellingham. Driving the Subaru was Sara Guillen, an intern at KUPS with a connection to another student at Western, and in the back seat behind me was my girlfriend, Talia Leffel. We fought rush hour traffic to make Punkapalooza’s 7:00 opening, but despite our best efforts, a crush of cars near the SeaTac exit slowed our flight to a crawl. 

Finally, after a three hour drive we arrived at Western. There, we were met by Rowland Harnett, a first year at WWU and long time friend of Sara. I’d been introduced to Rowland at a house show during the previous semester, and tonight he’d agreed to be our tour guide. We parked outside of his house, met his roommates, and after a quick bathroom break, hopped on a bus toward the campus. We were headed for the Viking Union Multipurpose Room (colloquially VU), an auditorium space on the WWU campus that would host Punkapalooza. An opening performance and three acts were advertised via digital flyer on the University’s instagram page: a drag and burlesque show to kick things off, followed by Bellingham locals Careen, Enumclaw –who hail from the Tacoma area–, and Seattle’s King Youngblood. Unfortunately, thanks to the stop and go traffic of our drive up, we didn’t reach the VU until 8:00. 

The doors had long been open, and much to our regret, we’d missed the drag and burlesque shows. A few students were still milling around in stunning makeup and striking outfits, but sadly we were too late for the opener. I scanned the room trying to find Chloe, but was instead distracted by the swagger of the WWU student body. Every other person had a crazy haircut or a sweet jacket, and it was clear that people here took style seriously. It was going to be a challenge to find Chloe, but when I craned my head again to look, the sound of guitar feedback snapped my gaze in the opposite direction. Careen had taken the stage, and the heavy reverb of the first strum vibrated in my chest. 

The band was an approachable trio. Two guitarists, Aiden Blau and Desi Valdez, perched near the edge of the stage on wooden stools and chatted with the audience between sets. Behind them, they were supported by drummer Neto Alvarado who matched their sort of intimately-disassociated attitude. They were eager to engage in one sided conversation with the tepid audience, explaining that their bass player Brian Foster had been forced to miss the show due to a medical emergency. Despite their missing fourth member, Careen played an impressive set that filled the VU with their distorted presence. Blurry, slurred vocals layered over heavy guitar and flowy, shoegaze tempo drew the crowd into a full body sway. Despite the sludgy heft of their sound, Careen pushed back on the punk label and openly questioned their “punkness”. Guitarists laughed betweens sets about their supposed out-of-placeness at a punk show, and seemed determined to carry themselves with a welcoming attitude. Their vocals and comments were softspoken and often sweet, happy to interact with a crowd of students near their age. Their set lasted only a few songs, but built to a memorable crescendo with a pulsing twin guitar breakdown high in both tempo and pitch. 

Careen opening Punkapalooza’a first set

In the middle of the set, I felt a pair of arms grab me from behind. Startled, I spun to find Chloe sporting an out-of-character Green Day T Shirt and on-brand ear-to-ear smile. We hugged and she turned my attention back to Careen. “They’re from here, you know,” she explained. “You should hear them play at Animal House.” We talked about the house show scene in Bellingham, and the venues I need to make another trip up to see. We talked a bit about the event itself as well, about the incredible drag show we missed, and about the night’s success. Chloe was especially excited by the freshman turnout, and stoked to give new students a chance to experience local music through the University. She explained that the awkwardness pervading the event – despite Careen’s comfortable performance – was likely due to the social anxieties of new college students. They seemed eager to get a taste of punk’s unfamiliarity in a space that they knew would be safe, but the University’s no-alcohol policy likely prevented most from cutting loose. Plus, for many, this event was likely their first time seeing live music at the VU, let alone a punk show. 

Careen’s members were open and vulnerable on the stage, an admirable effort to connect with the student body on a personal level that I was sad to not see requited on a larger scale. All in all though, I thought Careen to be very accessible, and their late 80s/early 90s first-wave emo sound seemed to appeal to those who may not have identified as fans of punk music. I found their set thoroughly enjoyable, and the talent of the members was emphasized by the band’s chemistry, even while playing one man down. Careen’s set was compelling and mellow, not exactly fitting the punk advertised on the show flyers, but still a wonderful first performance. 

Throbbing drum and bass filler floated through the VU as Careen packed out and left the stage. In the interim, I had a chance to take stock of the space again as the lights kicked back on. Behind us, students manned the controls to the lights, microphones, and speakers while others worked the door and facilitated the event. t one administrator or faculty member was to be found in the crowd that filled the VU. WWU students were truly putting on Punkapalooza not only for themselves, but by themselves. Though planned through the University’s ASP, the student-driven nature gave the show a pseudo-DIY feel that I thought aligned well with punk culture in general and made Punkapalooza feel more genuinely punk than I expected. 

My musings were interrupted as Chloe found her way back to our group. She explained that set-up for the next band, Enumclaw, would take a while, and offered to give us a tour of her office. We agreed, eager to see the facilities that made an event like Punkapalooza possible, and trooped after her into the VU’s underbelly. Down two flights of stairs, we entered a room with posters plastered on every possible surface. Chloe pointed out all the ones that she had designed and talked us through some of the other events she’d helped run – a smattering of art shows, open mics, and concerts, each outdoing the last. The ASP office looked like a bigger, wilder version of our own little KUPS offices in the basement of the SUB, coated in stickers and signatures from students across the years. 

Chloe showing us around the ASP offices

Our conversation somehow turned toward what looked like a purple blob in a chair tucked into one of the corners, which upon further investigation turned out to be a stuffed octopus. Giggling, Chloe reached into the mass of purple tentacles, and with the flick of a switch, an attached string of fairy lights sparkled into life. Apparently, it was more than a stuffed octopus, and Chloe explained that it was a costume that ASP staff occasionally took turns wearing at events. Before we knew it, Sara had thrown the octopus costume over her head, and Chloe was ushering us back upstairs toward the sound of tuning guitars.

Octopus Sara

We returned to the auditorium with our octopus intern in tow, and were greeted by a crush of students at the door. In the short while we’d been downstairs, people had packed into the VU. The previous, awkward, high-school dance spacing had dissipated as people crammed in elbow to elbow, and chatter filled the air. In the few moments we’d been away, something had shifted and a new energy filled the air of the auditorium. Western’s students were ready for Enumclaw. 

The tension boiled over as the band dropped into their first song. Seemingly warmed up and now eager to shed social inhibition, the crowd was on their feet and in their neighbors’ business. A jostle-y and endearingly tame mosh pit opened in front of the stage as sober students hesitantly cast aside their fear of judgment and gave into the music. 

Spurred by their bravery, Enumclaw bassist Eli Edwards hopped into the crowd. Momentarily stunned as he took a wide lap around the mini-mosh’s perimeter, students soon caught on and began to follow his bobbing green trucker hat in a jogging conga line. The crowd became a slow motion whirlpool as Edwards remounted the stage and the next song commenced. Perhaps a bit uncertain what to do with such a level of artist encouragement, the circle pit soon dissolved into comfortable, family friendly bouncing and waving hands. A small group at the front row seemed especially excited for Enumclaw’s presence, but the enamoration was at odds with the crowds’ returning bashfulness. The uninhibited feeling was fleeting for most, and may have overwhelmed the pallets of some. 

Enumclaw bassist moments before leaping into the crowd

Despite the initial hype, a serene demeanor settled over the set. As lead singer Aramis Johnson investigated issues with microphone feedback, the crowd reverted to domestication at the woe of Enumclaw’s members on stage. When the show started up again, the band tried everything to stoke the energy of the crowd, and it was clear that they had been hoping for more engagement. Bassist Edwards alternated between audience outreach and bored reproachful looks at his fellow performers. I think Enumclaw were dissatisfied by the level fun being had, and maybe disappointed by the small, calm turnout. Given their recent explosion into the Washington scene, a school sanctioned show at a small college likely didn’t blow any band members’ minds.  


That is not to say that they quit trying to get students out of their shells. Enumclaw’s various antics were engaging and exciting, and likely would’ve received far more of a reaction with a larger audience and boozier venue. Band members did not hesitate to step down into the crowd, playing woozy, grungy solos shoulder to shoulder with students, playfully shoving in the hopes to incite anything resembling a mosh pit. Though their disappointed attitude made the set feel kind of standoffish, Enumclaw was well dressed and spunky, blending classic grunge and newer low-fi sounds to sprinkle their own flavor on indie rock PNW college students know and love. Between Johnson’s impressive mustache, impressive musicianship (especially from drummer Ladaniel Gipson), the on-trend outfits of the performers, and their quirky decision to throw uncrustables into the crowd, their set was entertaining. 

Enumclaw Guitarist Crowd Surfing

I especially liked the guitar and bass duel at the end of their second to last song that ended with both Edwards and guitarist Nathan Cornell playing flat on their backs. I do think Cornell’s decision to crowd surf through his solo on the last song may have been a little ambitious, as he was almost dropped more than once. All in all, I feel that Enumclaw was a good choice from WWU, as they are a band that demonstrates the fun and approachable side of what can be a very abrasive genre. It was also really cool to see the University choose to support a band with predominantly Black members, a challenge to the white norms of punk and a demonstration that the genre can be played and enjoyed by people of all identities.

The final set was the least memorable for me, likely because we missed a chunk at the beginning to poke our heads into Western Washington’s student radio station, KUGS. Rowland works as a DJ at the station, playing music vetted by the specialty music directors based on requests from labels and artists. While much of the music is predetermined by the directors, he explained that he occasionally gets to throw in a few picks of his own for his show, which runs for two hours once a week. I was surprised to hear that Rowland could only choose a few songs a week, and it seemed as though KUGS was more focused on artist support than student preferences. We were eager for a tour of the station, but found it locked and were unable to enter.

Rowland in front of the KUGS booth

When we returned, we were greeted by a vastly different act. In contrast to Enumclaw, King Youngblood seemed older and didn’t seem to connect with the students as intimately. Dressed in plenty of black with skinny jeans and leather jackets, this band was less aligned with contemporary fashion, and were more reminiscent of a mid-2000s pop punk band. The lead singer Cameron Miles Lavi-Jones had a commanding stage presence, his wild shock of hair and bright pink electrical tape covered guitar complimenting his booming vocals. He was matched well by Chet Peterson to his right who was shredding on a cello like I’d never seen. Not only was this my first experience with a cello in a punk band, but the wild and passionate playing made the performance even more memorable. By this point in the evening, the crowd had thinned out as students began their trek home, but King Youngblood’s energy remained high. The unrelenting tempo of Alix Daniel’s drumming blended with the throbbing bass of Sammy Garcia kept the remaining students bouncing and the band’s live wire sound filled the VU. I admired that, unlike Enumclaw, the slimmer audience did nothing to dissuade King Youngblood’s passion, and their performance retained its intensity throughout the set.

King Youngblood closing out Punkapalooza

King Youngblood’s dramatic performance was a fitting finish for the night. Though the crowd as a whole never fully seemed to give into dancing, this set may have had the most energy. Thanks to the thinner crowd I was able to spot crust jeans and studded battle jackets, alongside plenty of boots and patches. As many left the VU, students who presented in accordance with punk aesthetics stood out.  I think that the newfound buoyancy may have had something to do with the fact that those left in the audience seemed like more active punk fans, as students looking for a taste of the genre had filtered out by King Youngblood’s set. I was even surprised to find kids two stepping, a style of dance originating in the hardcore punk scene, and one that I had not expected to come across at a University sponsored punk show. I would argue that King Youngblood’s sound was the most traditionally punk of all the bands that performed, which was reflected by the audience of Punkapalooza’s third set. Given the crowd’s nervous nature throughout the course of the night, I think it was a smart decision to save this heavier set for the end, and by building up to it WWU students of all punk interest levels were able to experience something enjoyable.

Western Washington’s Punkapalooza was not a very over-the-top concert, nor would I go so far as to deem it even very punk. However, I think it served a different, and even more valuable purpose than simply appealing to self-identifying punks. Punkapalooza was an admirable effort on the part of the University to bring a genre outside of the mainstream to students who may not have otherwise felt comfortable exploring such a concert. Though the on-campus setting, strict sobriety rules, and small crowd may have rendered the event less immersive or less of a genuine punk show, the fact that the Western Washington AS Media Productions were willing to put on such a concert makes me smile. Simply put, I believe that the decision to give anyone a chance to experience a punk show in an environment that they are confident will be safe is admirable, and I hope that UPS can learn from their example.

Punk is abrasive, outside of just a musical context. It is a genre that can be intimidating, scary, and even threatening for some. Despite historical roots of racial and gender diversity and activism, contemporary punk has to a large degree been co-opted by white men and associated with exclusionary practices. In many circles, liking or being punk is something that must be proved. Often, nonstandard nonwhite, nonmale, and queer identities are further subjected to proving their punkness, unnecessary gatekeeping that makes the genre less accessible. Punk is a genre that is difficult to enjoy passively, and thus one that is hard to even get a taste of due to its often gate kept nature. Even the genre of punk is nebulous and hard to pin down, exclusive enough that many likely wouldn’t even consider Punkapalooza “punk”. I’d like to push back on this notion, not necessarily the categorization of the show but the motivation for categorization itself. It doesn’t matter how “punk” this show may have been, how rowdy the audience was, or how heavy the music. What matters is that Punkpalooza offered a musical experience that not only was out of the norm for a University event, but also made punk accessible to people of all levels of interest and all identities. 

Western Washington didn’t just throw a punk show. No, they gave students a chance to explore something new while simultaneously showing students who were already punk fans that the University wants to support them. Not only did the school welcome a concert out of a norm, but they did it in a way that breaks the norms. To confront punk’s masculine norms and heteronormativity, they paired it with a drag and burlesque show. To challenge punk’s whiteness, the University promoted two bands that centered Black performers, and King Youngblood’s tagline “reclaiming rock music” gave the show an even more inclusive feel. What matters is not that Western Washington decided to throw a punk show, or quantifying how punk that show turned out to be. Instead, what matters is how they went about doing it. Punkapalooza was a success because it had something for everyone. Not only was it an effort to facilitate student exposure to a nonstandard genre of music, it gave students a chance to explore a genre of music that can be very exclusive in a space that was guaranteed to be both safe and welcoming. 

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