11 Questions: Henry Szankiewicz
Interview by Brent Cole
While there are a lot of folks who have inspired the music scene, the magazine and myself along the way, few have been as unknowingly important to me as Henry Szankiewicz. Of course, I knew he inspired me early on – HE had no idea, not until recently, that he was a major influence on me becoming involved in the music scene.
When I first moved to Bellingham in the summer of 92, Henry was booking bands at the Up and Up, playing in my soon to be favorite local band, Medelicious, as well as putting out music on his own record label, Szanktone. He was doing EXACTLY what I wanted to do and doing it without any fanfare or self-involvement – traits that made him one of the most respected people in the scene during that time. He cared about the music, the people and the community and I remembered that. Henry had no idea who I was and up until two years ago, he had no idea what an influence he’d been on me.
It’s not difficult to explain the importance of Henry and the Up and Up; without it, I don’t think the music scene would be where it is today. He and the Up were ground zero (as I mentioned in Ian Relay’s story) and we ALL owe him a debt of gratitude. Twenty years later, I’ve gotten to know Henry just a bit and he’s what I expected him to be – totally awesome. And now you get to know Henry just a bit too, as he is this month’s 11 questions.
Who are you and where did you come from?
Born at Madigan Army Hospital near Tacoma, WA. Lived in Japan when I was very young then grew up in the 60s/70s in what is now Lakewood, WA. Our house was right next to “The Woods,” an undeveloped lot where all the neighborhood kids would play. All my high school buddies applied to Central Washington University. I applied to WWU and embraced Bellingham.
As someone who has been around since, what can be best described as, the beginning of the modern Bellingham music scene, how has it changed and evolved over the years?
From my point of view I came in at it when there were no real venues where younger, less refined or “alternative” musicians could perform regularly. By the mid 80s many drinking aged youth just didn’t fit in with the blues, cover band and folk scenes that had dominated Bellingham for so long. I was lucky enough to partner with the Up and Up. I was allowed free reign over booking, sound and posters. I clearly remember the staff from Bucks (at the time the established music tavern down the street) periodically coming by to see what all the commotion was with all these noisy, weird bands. They would scratch their heads and head back to whatever band they had playing Mustang Sally that night. With the addition of Speedy O’Tubbs and what would eventually be The 3B the town exploded with original, entertaining and at times challenging music different from what had been the norm up until then. Since those days I have witnessed a gradual build up to where there are so many choices it is probably difficult to decide where you may want to go on a given night. That’s a good thing.
Do you have a favorite memory (or three) from your time booking and doing sound at the Up and Up?
We had booked The Afghan Whigs on a Wednesday night in July. They were on tour and they needed to fill in a date. It was my birthday. Only about 12 people showed up including the opening band. I’m pretty sure it was a $1 cover charge. They took it in stride, put on a great show and played Neil Young covers for me as a birthday present. I remember all of us yelling at some rowdy pool players to keep it down.
We had this industrial band that had these large kettles on the stage. About half way through the set giant roaring flames erupted singeing the ceiling tiles overhead. Several bouncers got up and prepared themselves to deliver some form of punishment. Ian, the owner, pulled them back and stood at the front of the stage, arms crossed, with a strange smile. He let the flames continue. I think he enjoyed the notion that his establishment was quite possibly on the verge of catching on fire.
The Squirrels were always a blast to have come play. For the uninitiated they are this brilliant Seattle band lead by Rob Morgan who has the genius ability to twist well known songs until they either caused laughter, uneasiness or a combination of both. That night an older fellow stumbled in to get some beers and enjoy the “cover” band. I think they were doing “Seasons In The Sun” or “Take A Letter Maria” as he took a table up front. He started looking agitated and began looking over his shoulders to see if anyone else felt the same way. Perplexed he started yelling at the band, lit some napkins and threw them on the stage. I think most people thought this was planned and part of the act. He then proceeded to jump up on stage and put his fingers down his throat throwing up by Rob’s feet. It was then that the bouncers realized what was happening and lifted him off the stage. There was loud applause as he was brutally tossed out the front door.
As a follow up – what was your favorite memory from “back in the day” of the music scene?
Probably the Weenie Fests that we put on. All original Bellingham bands. Joint cover at the Up and Up and the 3B. People running back and forth between the two. It really was a tight knit musical community then. A lot of love and friendships that still endure.
The old owner of the Up, Ian Relay, recently passed after a battle with liver cancer. For those who didn’t get to know or experience Ian, what can you tell our readers about him?
Well he was that guy watching those flames in a previous answer. He was the one who afforded me the opportunities I had at the Up. At the time he was working as staff at the Up with his intent to possibly purchase if my memory serves me right. He convinced Don the owner to give me a chance. I got to know Ian prior at WWU and saw him evolve into the Ian that we all know and love. He was the best friend I ever had and I’m certain others can claim the same. Honest, fair, funny as hell, generous, extremely well read, a trivia king, a dedicated family man, hard working… the list goes on and on. He was a complex guy as he could also be very intimidating. Running a tavern most certainly toughens one up. Watching him cook and prepare a meal was a wonder to behold. He would put on a Holiday potluck each December and anyone who came in was welcome to it. I’m certain to many this meal was their only holiday feast for the season. I only recently found out that he had been assisting people financially when in need. He never spoke a word about it. That’s the type of guy that he was. He was also really good at cracking my back after a long night’s work at the Up. Miss him.
Was there a moment while working at the Up and Up when you realized there was something special happening with the music scene in the Pacific Northwest?
Yes. When people started showing up! It was strange. First it was your friend’s band playing. Eventually word of mouth brought in a larger audience and attracted more bands wanting to perform. Soon bands from Mt Vernon and Seattle wanted to play. Quickly it became national. My phone number would circulate and my answering machine was full. Tons of promo packs arrived. I felt a shift around 1988-89. It all happened very quickly.
If you didn’t live in Bellingham, where would you live?
Hawaii. It would make my wife very happy. The food, I am told, is quite delicious and I look the part.
It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Bellingham, what are you doing?
I like to putt around. I have my “to do” list. A bit of alone time to recharge while killing the moss in the back yard type of thing. Thinking about what I will be barbequing later that day is pleasant as well.
If you could have lunch with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Ian Relay. I didn’t have that last conversation with him that I should have.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Vanilla. All varieties of vanilla.
Of all the bands from “back in the day,” who would you most like to see play a reunion show?
Just brought up that question last night to my Cindy and when I said “Flop” she just knew I was going to say that. I saw your post on facebook this morning and was surprised. Yes they were a great band. Great live and recorded. The Purdins, Game For Vultures and Chemistry Set were on the tip of my tongue as well.
Tell us something about yourself that maybe even your closest friends don’t know.
I’m sure they don’t know that I have webbed feet. Because I don’t.
What are you listening to these days?
I don’t seek out new music like I used to. It really is much easier now to explore and listen to new stuff out there but I probably need a tour guide at this point. Recent spins at home have been: Zombies, Kinks, Posies, Elvis Costello, Shoes… I think you see where I’m going. I occasionally put on some Dylan if I need the house to myself. When in the mood the louder stuff comes out of storage.
Any last thoughts?
Not really. Just thanks for jogging my memory.