You may know Chris Walla as the former multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the Grammy-nominated indie-rock band Death Cab For Cutie. He is also a music producer, having worked with such bands as The Decemberists and Tegan & Sara.
You may know that in 2015, Walla left the band, signing off in a statement to Seattle's The Stranger that his goals were to "continue making music, producing records, and erring on the side of benevolence and beauty whenever possible."
What you may not know is that Chris Walla called Bothell, WA, home. Born and raised there, Walla experienced much what Death Cab's songs are all about - the joys of being a kid, the pains of adolescence and the self-awareness of young adulthood.
Another thing you may not know is that back in the day, Walla performed for hundreds of fellow Bothell High students on a regular basis. (Sure, he was just a teenager at the time, but still...). In the early 1990s, along with his creative writing teacher Laura Drumheller, Walla co-founded and emceed what they called Open Mike. Kids of all talent ranges were encouraged to get up in front of their peers during their lunch break to sing, play music, recite poetry or read their stories. As it evolved, Open Mike even expanded into nighttime sessions at Anderson School.
Mrs. Drumheller spoke in 2015 about her time at Bothell High, forming Open Mike:
Chris Walla was a student in my Creative Writing class at Bothell High School. ... He and his friends were an amazing, creative, fun group. We all wanted to try new ideas. Chris approached me about an open microphone [forum], and we decided to spell it differently as Open Mike. ... Our motto over the years became "aiming hate free." ... Tolerance, acceptance, compassion and free expression were all a part of our goal. Special ed kids were able to perform and still get rousing applause.
Chris agreed to be the Master of Ceremonies for Open Mike with a girlfriend and the drama teacher agreed to let us use the theater at lunch. There were virtually no adults involved except me, and I never took the stage encouraging students to perform and take charge. A student crew ran the lights, the sound, created the art for posters. I did take responsibility for what the kids performed. Honestly they were amazing and Chris especially. He wore a crazy, multicolored juggler cap and would often perform as well, teaching himself to play the guitar along the way.
...[T]he wildness of the whole event was sometimes a stretch for me, but I loved it. I warned the kids we could be shut down if it got too crazy. At first it was quite the experiment to let kids get up on stage and do whatever they wanted. We tried to get original student work, but also celebrated well known artists. Our theme song became the David Byrne piece "Psychokiller." Chris would open the show singing and playing this with a friend. He also played a PJ Harvey song that had the lyrics "You're not rid of me/Lick my leg cause I'm on fire." I winced a bit at this but in the end became a big PJ Harvey fan myself. Chris has a fine, original mind. He was always exploring ideas and questioning his own decisions, taking risks and hoping to reinvent himself along the way.
The tradition of Open Mike spread into the Bothell community. Working with the city of Bothell, we opened the forum to all Northshore students and community college students and held Open Mike at night right where McMenamins Anderson School is.
What an incredible way to foster creativity and confidence among teens. The program continued for more than two decades, long after Chris graduated in 1993 - and when Mrs. Drumheller accepted a new position at a nearby school, she brought Open Mike with her. The program ended in 2014, but she was hopeful that another teacher might one day pick up the reins.
Attention, Chris Walla: You are welcome at the Anderson School anytime. And if you want, we'll set you up with an impromptu Open Mike. You bring the juggler cap.
*Painting by Patty Forte Linna.