Hailing from Seattle, Washington, the fresh-faced punk trio, King Sheim, is one of the most enticing and sickeningly sweet DIY punk pop bands currently making waves in the Seattle indie scene, along with other Seattle-based bands like Mommy Long Legs, Childbirth, Tacocat, and Chastity Belt. While the band has a rotating ensemble of members, the original lineup consists of Eli Bolan on drums, Luke Sorenson on bass, and the exuberant, charismatic, and delightfully brash Celeste Felsheim on lead vocals. Felsheim’s high-energy playing and style of singing that is equally delicate and brutal—with their smooth alto croons, and grittily evocative snarls—is the sonic equivalent of Brody Dalle getting into a fist fight with Fiona Apple.
King Sheim started making noise in the Seattle indie scene with their eponymous debut EP in 2019, with delightfully sweet and sour pop rock anthems like “Prom Heels,” and “Grape Soda.” The band’s debut album, King Sheim Is… Taking Things Personally, is packed to the brim with high-energy thrashers, like the blistering album opener, “Center of the Universe,” as well as lethargic slow jams, like “Pacify.” The album strongly recalls nineties pop rock outfits and legendary grunge acts from the Seattle rock pantheon—the sludgy, off-kilter instrumentation coupled with Felsheim’s cathartic growls on “Magic 8 Ball,” sounds like somebody has taken Shirley Manson and Green River and put them in a blender. “Spiders!” evokes grotesque imagery of obsessive-compulsive paranoia. “At least I’ll have control,” Felsheim sneers on the chorus, their raw vocals sounding like they’ve been processed in a meat grinder as they defiantly chant, “Clean my whole house.” Mellower cuts like “Queen of the Losers” finds Felsheim grappling with the fact that they feel trapped in a never-ending rat race for validation—constantly faking, pushing, projecting, and trying hard to prove to their peers and to themselves that they are busy, relevant, and worthy of respect (“I’m afraid of never leaving here, the comfort of mediocrity/But I gotta calm down, it’s only Tuesday”).
Speaking to Felsheim, it’s clear that their sound was plucked from an eclectic mélange of influences—everything from Taylor Swift to the Beastie Boys to Bikini Kill. Below is our full conversation where we speak in depth about the modern age of DIY music-making, the fragmented scene in Seattle, Steely Dan, and Celeste’s love of teaching music to city youth.
If you wouldn’t mind, I would love for you to walk me back to the genesis of King Sheim. What was it about the collaborative effort of playing in a band––as opposed to playing as a solo act––that really drew you in?
I’ve always loved to play with other musicians, whether it be covers, or playing in my friend’s bands. Originally, I wrote the King Sheim songs by myself, but then recruited Eli Bolan to play drums. Eli and I have played together in bands before, and he completely got my vision for King Sheim on the spot! I wasn’t great at arranging back then, (this was the summer after I graduated from high school) so we played around with lots of drum parts and I basically got to choose the ones I liked the most from Eli’s large brain-library of wonderful creations. It was this collaborative energy that really started to entice me, as I got to create melodies and chords and rhythms and Eli helped fill out the structure.
After recruiting Luke Sorensen to play bass, we had a pretty awesome trio to play shows with, and it was super fun giving my songs the attention that they deserve! As the band rotated and changed, I learned more about myself as a bandleader, my confidence grew and I saw what I liked and didn’t like about playing with others. King Sheim also gave me a chance to work on my confidence in decision making, and helped me grow into more of a semi-adult. My last show before covid was with that original trio and it was kick-ass, and gives me a good pre-covid show memory to look back on.
What was the first record you heard that changed your relationship to music (or the way you thought about songwriting/playing), and how has your relationship to music evolved since?
Wow, there’s so many! The first song I heard that really made me fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll was probably “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I learned it on my acoustic guitar and showed it to my dad when he came home.
I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan for just about my entire existence, and she is one of my biggest songwriting influences. Her albums, Red and 1989, defined my early high school years and really changed my outlook.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a couple of semesters ago I took a Javanese gamelan ensemble at Cornish College of the Arts where I attend school, and it totally flipped my musical outlook on its head. Learning about this entirely percussive ensemble in which I couldn’t read the music or pronounce the song names–feeling like I truly knew nothing–was a great music-making experience. I got to sit on the ground for 80 minutes a couple times a week and just make music with people in the class. It was magic! I really recommend Gamelan music.
I read that your mom was a punk rocker in the 90s and your dad is heavily into classic rock, so I imagine that your family must have had a killer record collection. Who were some of the artists that you had in heavy rotation in your house growing up?
Yes! I love them so much. They have the greatest music taste! While my parents aren’t musicians, they are the greatest music-appreciators that have ever lived. I remember being woken up on Saturdays by Good Vibrations on KEXP, and now when I hear reggae on a Saturday in my car I smile and think of all the cleaning and cooking we did to that music. I heard Aretha Franklin, Prince, The Beastie Boys, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Rait, John Prine and of course Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan from my dad. Being surrounded by music my entire life is one of the reasons I’m still creating today, my love of music is so deeply ingrained in my soul that it’s just a part of me now! My parents instilled in me a love of music so strong, diverse, and overflowing.
What I love about your music is that you’re clearly inspired by riot grrrl and punk, but you also have a serious knack for crafting these fantastic earworm-y pop songs. Are there any specific influences that have recently crept their way into your songwriting process that listeners might not expect?
Oh gosh, yes. I’m a pop lover at my core! While punk and rock ‘n’ roll defined my later teen years, they say you never shake what you love at 14, and I believe my music is most influenced by Avril Lavigne, early Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift. I truly believe that writing a good pop song is an art form, and these women did so in a way that really will stick with me forever.
You’ve been studying music for a while now and you also teach voice and piano. What is one specific tool that you’ve learned from being classically trained as a musician and teaching that has been particularly useful to remember as your profile continues to grow?
Honestly, as I’ve gotten into teaching lessons, I’ve learned how essential it is to use teaching as a tool for your own learning. As I relay concepts to my students they are cemented into my brain several times over in a way that could never be told to me. I’ve also realized the importance of effective practicing, and how you can spend 3 hours “practicing” but not getting better, but 30 minutes of practicing in a way that makes sense to you, whether it be in the form of a game, or a YouTube video, or metronome practice, or anything else that is specific to you is so much more effective. I also try to experience music and art everyday in some way!
I would love for you to tell me a little bit about your local scene over in Seattle. The state of Washington has such a rich culture and history with scenes like riot grrrl, grunge, and stations like KEXP. What is the local music scene/community like now, and what is your favorite thing about it?
Ahhh the scene. Honestly, it feels disconnected, especially because of covid. But Seattle has always had a great place in the scene for young people, so I have been and still am able to get gigs and play shows. I’ve recently gotten more involved and connected through my work with Dan’s Tunes Seattle, interacting with other artists through my essay writing and social media work, which has been really fun, and has helped me feel more connected. I LOVE all of the youth programs, Rain City Rock Camp and Soundoff! are my faves.
We seem to be living in a very exciting time for DIY artists, especially since the internet has offered more accessibility to music and less creative limitations with the cross-pollination of genres. Do you feel lucky to see your music gaining traction in the current climate?
Oh, I feel so lucky. I love creating music and all sorts of art, and quarantine especially has given me the time to appreciate how much I really enjoyed my life of playing gigs. I’ve made some wonderful friends playing shows, and learned so many things from people online, so it’s incredible to see the scene open up and flower. It’s wonderful to see the growing accessibility of creating your own music as it becomes something everyone can enjoy at some level, which is closer to our base instincts as humans that tell us to dance and sing and play even if it’s not our job or main hobby!
What has been one of the most valuable discoveries you’ve made as you continue to develop a musical identity of your own?
Oh wow. These questions are so good. I’ve always thought that I have or had a solid musical identity, through every phase and genre that I experience. I thought I was really good at being in the orchestra in high school and that it was my thing, and it totally was for a while, but now I have an appreciation for all of the classical and experimental that I never will shake. I guess the lesson here is that no growth will ever be linear, and all of the phases you go through just become tools in your [arsenal]. I’m a punk rocker at heart, yet my bones were hand crafted by Taylor Swift and Dvorak and Brahms and Bikini Kill! It’s totally cool to be an amalgamation.