Ninety Pound Wuss was dead. The Furnace Fest music festival brought them back. But on the road to the band’s resurrection, the first stop is in Bremerton.
Ninety Pound Wuss formed in Port Angeles in 1994 and signed to Seattle indie record label Tooth & Nail in 1995, releasing three studio albums with the label over the next five years. The band broke up in 2000.
Next Saturday, the band will play its first show in 23 years at the Redwood Theater at Tracyton Movie House. And although the Bremerton venue gets the privilege of being the first to showcase the band after that long hiatus, an Alabama music festival got the ball rolling.
The band’s singer, Jeff Suffering (real name: Jeff Bettger), said a friend floated the idea of Ninety Pound Wuss playing Furnace Fest, a three-day festival in Birmingham, Ala., and offered to see if the organizers would be interested in booking them. Suffering agreed but didn’t think it would come to anything. Shortly thereafter he saw his former bandmates Marty Martinez and John Himmelberger at a funeral for a friend in Port Angeles, and they said they’d be interested in the gig if it was offered. A couple weeks later, Suffering got the call: They were playing Furnace Fest.
But the band was rusty. They’d need to book some shows beforehand to get back into the swing of things, which led to the show in Bremerton, as well as one slated for August in Port Angeles.
A lot has changed since the band called it quits. When Ninety Pound Wuss first formed, the music bore a faith-based message that reflected the life experience of the band members at that stage of their life.
“We’d have a Bible study and write music,” Suffering said. “That’s why the lyrics on the first record are way more obviously Christian … There’s stuff that’s talking about atonement and a lot of Jesus stuff going on in that first record.”
The record deal with Tooth & Nail happened quickly and didn’t give the band much time to write new music, or even to refine the music they’d already written, Suffering said. “We recorded them; we were fine with the songs at the time,” he said. “Now, I probably would have changed them a lot. But that’s hindsight.”
These answers that Christianity provides are shallow and they’re … based on moral behavior and legalism instead of compassion and love, which are the things that seem to me that the Jesus of the Bible advocated for.
As he’s gotten older, Suffering’s relationship to Christianity has changed drastically. He was a member of Mars Hill Church in Seattle for about 16 years. The church closed in 2015 following a series of scandals involving founding pastor Mark Driscoll. Looking back, Suffering said he believes the church became cult-like over time.
The experience ultimately caused him to critically reexamine his faith, and Suffering found himself doing a deep dive, combing through historical sources offering different theological perspectives, which at one point led to him identifying as agnostic, he said. But the core message of Christianity still appealed to him.
“I started having weird things happen in my life and things that led me back to the path of, you know what, I actually like the story of God incarnate in Christ and I like all the positive things of it — which there’s many,” he said. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to believe in a hell or a condemnation or even a salvation for anything less than all of humanity.”
He’s disillusioned with how modern politics has crept into evangelical Christianity in the U.S.
“I think theologically now I hold to [ideas] that are more ancient than the newer ideas that have infected and been used for politicking and for making people ‘other,’ and pushing away people,” he said. “I think as people grow they just realize life is complex, difficult, and these answers that Christianity provides are shallow and they’re not right and they’re based on moral behavior and legalism instead of compassion and love, which are the things that seem to me that Jesus of the Bible advocated for.”
When Ninety Pound Wuss broke up, Suffering went on to play in other bands, including Raft of Dead Monkeys and Suffering and the Hideous Thieves. But for the last few decades, he has largely taken a hiatus from creative endeavors — although that is starting to change.
As he was processing his experience with Mars Hill Church, Suffering connected with his friend Joe Mendonca in Portland, Ore., to collaborate on a new project under the name Drybnz.
“That was me processing that religious trauma that I was going through, and it did spark something,” he said.
But between work and focusing on his family, there wasn’t a lot of time to be creative, he said. “I’d just come from work and be at home and I didn’t feel any drive to do anything and I think experiencing the stuff I did around religion, it was very hard for me to motivate to do anything in the first place,” he said.
He was looking for an opportunity to creatively express all the emotions that had been swirling around since Mars Hill imploded. “I just knew that if I started talking about it I’d probably do it if somebody offered the right thing … and Furnace Fest offered to have us come out to play,” he said. Having something concrete on the books was the impetus he needed to take action.
“Suddenly setting a hard date on something that was going to happen and agreeing to it brought back a flood of life,” he said. It gave him the creative energy to finish the Drybnz record with Mendonca and master it; singles are already streaming and the full album comes out soon, Suffering said.
“Drybnz is definitely going to do more music, so we’ll make records,” he said. “Now there is a drive in me to do that, whereas there wouldn’t have been if I didn’t commit to doing something 100 percent. That sort of … spurred on all these other things, and there’s all these synapses connected in my brain that are like, this is who I am and this is how I’m wired and this is how it should be.”
Another thing that’s changed since Suffering’s days in Ninety Pound Wuss is the overall music industry. The internet has made it easier than ever for musical artists to be independent. Having fulfilled its obligations to Tooth & Nail, if the band chooses to make new music, it can do so completely independently. “We’re tied to nothing,” Suffering said. “We can do whatever we want and I do find that very invigorating with the possibilities for the future. They’re exciting.”
The band’s upcoming shows leave Suffering hopeful for the future.
“It’s a special time and … I do feel like there’s possibility. There’s going to be more music that Jeff Suffering collaborates on with other people, and hopefully one of those things will be some new songs by Ninety Pound Wuss. But we’ll have to see how we like each other after doing all these shows and hit what we want to do. You’re with these people a lot and we are all very different from one another and have some different ideas, but we agree on a lot, too. And I think that we can express ourselves in ways that we would agree upon and I’m excited about that.”
Upcoming Ninety Pound Wuss shows
Little Devil’s Lunchbox, Aug. 26 (time TBD), 315 E 1st St., Port Angeles. All ages. Tickets are $10 at the door.