Matson on Music
Capitol Hill's Cairo arts movement gives good 'Vibrations'
Posted by Andrew Matson
Ian Judd stands in front of Cairo on Capitol Hill, the multipurpose arts salon where he is a curator. The name "Cairo" was chosen by founders Joel Leshefka and Justine Ashbee because they both like desert art and wanted to convey mystery and power. Photo by Erika Schultz / Seattle Times
Outside the honeydew and orange street entrance of a tiny storefront on Capitol Hill, young artists and musicians dressed in vintage clothes mill about.
Stenciled on the wall above them, in squashed, lowercase Falstaff font is "Cairo," the name of the multipurpose arts space and record label inside.
By day, Cairo staffers and volunteers supervise racks of carefully chosen vintage clothes, handmade accessories and a community silk-screen studio. By night, you might see a screening of "Encino Man," the '90s Hollywood comedy now appreciated as kitsch, or a photography exhibition paired with live music.
"The way the music and visual art go together with the screen-printing workshop — it's an odd but specific aesthetic," says local photographer Ryan Furbush. "I think Cairo is the epicenter for creativity in Seattle."
Meeting place, fashion center, idea salon, record label and showcase for music — they all come together at Cairo, small as it is. As Furbush suggests, the place is starting to look like the vortex of an exciting new movement, especially since the launch last month of Cairo Records (templeofcairo.com), an attempt at bottling the energy around the space.
Much of the credit goes to Cairo curator Ian Judd, 24, whose biggest project to date is "Vibrations," a free music festival Saturday at Volunteer Park, featuring experimental takes on rock, R&B, hip-hop and visual art. It's mostly local, including Cairo Records' unorthodox, flagship band Flexions — which uses hip-hop production techniques such as sampling and looping — and local art/design collective Dumb Eyes — scheduled to light up the lawn with what Creative Director Christian Petersen calls an "immersive visual atmosphere for the people."
As the bass player in the band Stephanie, and in his public role at Cairo, Judd is the public face of this Capitol Hill hot spot.
"He has no shame in chatting up a stranger and being like, 'Hey dude, next time you come to town, give me a call,'." says Robin Stein, the main man behind Cairo Records. "He puts people so at ease, because he's not a cool guy — he's a good guy."
Broad-featured, dark-haired, wearing a vintage Ralph Lauren button-down shirt, Judd laughs through bites of muffin at Victrola Coffee on 15th Avenue East, remembering his days as a teenage concert booker at Shadle Park High School in Spokane. He booked more than 50 shows before he graduated. Growing up with no great all-ages music scene made him a self-starter. Being an only child made him relate to adults better.
"My mom would let bands stay the night at our house in high school, bands I would book shows for," Judd says. "It was like, 'Hey, Mom: Can I have these six 25-year-olds stay over?' She was always really cool about that."
Judd started hanging out at Cairo after moving to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where he recently graduated with a degree in English. He has seen the space expand from a gallery — started three years ago by artists/curators Joel Leshefka and Justine Ashbee — into something influenced by other partners.
Stein (bassist in Flexions and a local photographer) brought music into the mix, releasing a CD/LP/cassette compilation called "The Cold Jungle," a reference to Seattle's climate. Handmade and screen-printed on site, a message in the liner notes reads, "This is what Seattle sounds like to us." The songs were mainly focused on mood, with rock instrumentation next to synthesizers, electronic drums, computer software and digital samplers.
Local vintage-clothing connoisseur Aimée Butterworth helped make Cairo's shift to its current boutique/silk-screen/art-events identity. Through hanging out and being interested, Judd integrated himself into the community, where the ethos is DIY — "do it yourself" — but looks like "do it together."
Judd says he found booking the "Vibrations" festival — coordinating with bands, managers, booking agents — stressful but also creatively fulfilling and fun. Others seemed to agree it was a good idea. After securing permits for the park, he got a surprise sponsorship from Whole Foods, which helped Cairo pay the musicians.
At the coffee shop, he still seems surprised by that. Like many idealistic, arts-focused people, he never expects money.
"There's always this concern that arts and music can be an irrational, impractical way to spend your time, because there's no payoff," he says. "Because yeah, financially, I'm not going to be rich — I'm not going to buy a house. But I'm definitely going to be supporting a community of people. Bringing people together. And that's the payoff with the festival, trying to bring all these different groups of people together."
And that's the promise of Cairo, too — tiny, but open to anything.
'Vibrations' with Grass Widow, Purple & Green, Flexions, Witch Gardens, Stephanie, Charles Leo Gebhardt IV, Metal Chocolates, Seapony and Dumb Eyes. 2 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, Volunteer Park, 1247 15th Ave. E., Seattle; free
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