Elliott Smith relaxing at an outdoor cafe in early 1998, while on tour for the album Either/Or. (Dave Tonge/Getty Images via NPR)
Ed. note: The author formerly worked at the label Kill Rock Stars.
Before Elliott Smith performed before national audiences, or signed to a major label, or cracked the Billboard 200, he was just one of seven musicians in a van touring California. Slim Moon, the founder of the seminal independent label Kill Rock Stars, was also in that van, and it was on that 1994 tour the two Northwest artists became friends.
“Something that people don’t know about Elliott is he was loose all the time, always just cracking jokes. It’s the type of experience where you get to become really good friends with someone really quickly.”
Elliott Smith was well known in the Pacific Northwest at the time as an “artist’s artist,” Moon says. Smith had played for several years in the band Heatmiser, a band that featured Sam Coomes, Tony Lash, and Neil Gust, one of the few openly gay front men in the hardcore scene. With a mix of power chords, heavy drums, and lyrics about gay life, Heatmiser was labeled “queer-core," and soon built up a strong LGBTQ following in Portland.
Yet, while Gust’s voice seemed to find a natural place in Heatmiser’s heavy music, Smith’s singing often sounded strained in the crunch of the band’s guitars. So even after Heatmiser signed to the major label Virgin, Smith was looking for a home to release his solo work -- marked by introspective lyrics, catchy acoustic guitar riffs, and a lo-fi aesthetic.
It was this side of Smith’s music that Slim Moon became a fan of during that van tour through California.
“We were playing at this place called Jabber Jaw in Los Angeles, which was a small all-ages punk rock club, and the sound went out, and there was no light,” Moon recalls. “And so they went out back to the backyard, which is this tiny little courtyard. Like 50 or 75 kids poured out into this courtyard. And Elliott just sat on a chair, and played an acoustic guitar completely unplugged with no amplification, and he was so gripping that all of those kids stayed dead silent for an hour listening to every song."
"This was well before he was famous," Moon notes. "Most of the kids had come to see the other bands playing that day.”
Meanwhile, Moon -- who was running Kill Rock Stars at the time -- thought Smith’s solo songs should find their way to an album.
“I thought my record label was too small at the time, but the other labels weren’t interested because they thought he sounded like Simon and Garfunkel,” Moon says. “By that time, we had become pretty good friends. And he said ‘Hey man, why don’t you put out my record?’”
Ultimately, Kill Rock Stars would, releasing Smith’s second solo record, Elliott Smith in 1995. The album featured the sleeper hit "Needle in The Hay." Moon -- as he did often during the early days running the label -- signed Smith on a handshake deal.
“We really believed in handshake deals,” Moon says. “We did one record at a time, on handshake. ‘Oh, we still like each other? Let’s make a record on a handshake.’”
Elliott Smith was dark, sprarse and brooding. So when Moon first heard the songs that would make up Either/Or, he was surprised by the fuller sound.
“Even though it’s his most loved record, and it’s the one record of his that’s considered truly a classic and all that, I was a little disappointed, because I’m a big fan of true solo artistry,” Moon says. “I didn’t like the songs with a big bass sound.”
The album featured several songs with a driving bass, including "2:45 A.M." and "Ballad of Big Nothing."
But it was the five songs featured on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack -- four from Either/Or -- that would catapult Smith’s work into the mainstream.
Fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant directed the movie, and told Say Yes from Louisville Public Media that he heard Smith’s songs through his then-boyfriend.
“He was starting to become listened to from select people, super hip people,” Van Sant told Say Yes.
The Oscar-winning director says the music came to him in the most Portland of ways.
“I knew him through my boyfriend, who worked with his girlfriend Joanna [Bolme],” Van Sant says.
That association would change Smith’s life. Either/Or would be his last album with Kill Rock Stars, and Smith’s friendship with Moon would fall apart. Moon -- who was a close friend of Kurt Cobain and is himself a recovering addict -- was concerned about Smith’s drinking and erratic behavior. At one point, Moon helped organize an intervention in Chicago for Smith -- an intervention the singer-songwriter would later say fueled the anger in his songs on later albums.
Those albums, published by major labels to much attention, would feature a glossier, more accessible Smith. Both albums would chart, doing particularly well in the United Kingdom.
But Slim Moon says Either/Or was Smith’s last real collection of “Portland songs.”
“You know, he had this early solo life as a solo troubadour, and this later life as a pop genius," says Moon. "Either/Or is where he’s both."
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.