Polecat’s new single, “Come Along,” instantly feels like a Bellingham summer.
When people find out that I’m a writer, they often make suggestions about who or what I should write about. That’s how I discovered the talented Bellingham band Polecat. They were suggested to me not only because they are one of Bellingham’s most well-known and loved bands, but also because of their professional approach and the great things their members are doing to support and enrich Bellingham’s music community. Their sound is hard to fit into a single genre. They call themselves a fun, fast-paced 5-piece rock band playing with acoustic instruments blending elements of Americana, bluegrass, reggae and world music.
How Polecat Began
I find the stories behind how bands are formed and evolve just as interesting as the music they create. Polecat’s story is no exception.
In late 2009, Polecat vocalist and 12-string guitar Aaron Guest’s string band had just split up. He’d written several new fast-paced Americana songs and he was ready to put a professional band together. He began looking among his favorite players in Bellingham’s bustling music scene. He first found electric guitar Jeremy Elliott playing primarily funk with Bellingham’s Vaughn Kreestoe, whose members went on to lead Baby Cakes and Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. Although funk is not Americana, Elliott plays for the love of music, so he was in. Elliott grew up in the same town in Georgia where the Allman Brothers lived so his influences include southern rock and bluegrass.
Guest had been college roommates and good friends with upright bass Richard Reeves. They had played together as The Growers in 2004 and other open mic’s together at Green Frog at its former location. His work, informed by African music, adds yet another element to the multi-genre mix that makes up Polecat.
Next, Guest found Polecat’s fiddle, Cayley Schmid, while busking at the Bellingham Farmer’s Market.
Schmid’s roots lay in Irish music. As a child, she traveled and performed competitively throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and even Australia in Scottish highland dancing with Bellingham’s Clan Heather Dancers. That experience, and her parents, introduced her to Celtic music. While growing up, Schmid took lessons with accomplished Bellingham performer Anna Schaad. After having attended WWU for a year, Schmid landed a job as a professional musician at the American Music Theater in Pennsylvania. But when she returned to Bellingham, Schmid left college and took the leap to professional musician. Schaad introduced Schmid to Bellingham cello player, Clea Taylor. The two eventually formed the 5-piece Irish and folk band Giants’ Causeway. The band performed regularly at McKay’s Taphouse and also busked at the Farmer’s Market. That’s where Guest discovered Schmid, among his busking competitors.
“When Aaron first asked me to join the group, it was sort of bluegrass. I was intimidated because I mostly knew Irish music, but I said yes anyway,” remembers Schmid.
The band played a couple shows together without yet having chosen a name. Guest invited drums and percussionist Karl Olson to come check out the group. Olson had attended WWU music department around the same time that Guest was pursuing his degree from WWU’s Fairhaven College. Olson’s music is influenced by reggae and Indian music. Guest had seen Olson in action and liked his performance with other bands in Bellingham.
By early 2010, Guest booked the group’s first gig at Boundary Bay Brewery, still without a name. Guest had been playing piano there on Wednesday nights, a gig he still plays each Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. to this day. Their first show was such a hit that they played every Monday night there for the next six months.
While refining their sound, building an audience and coming together as a group, Reeves suggested the name Polecat. “The name was simple and it fit us. It’s the wild ancestor of the ferret, a voracious playful creature. We thought it was a fun name for the high energy music we were creating,” remembers Guest.
The members of Polecat have remained the same ever since. “We were adamant about having only original members. No subs. Because we all wanted to be really tight in our performance,” recalls Guest. “Its always been its us five or its nothing.”
“Aaron knew what he wanted and he got the formula on the first try,” adds Schmid. “That’s very strange for a band.”
But Polecat went through one very big change after they first formed. In August of 2010, Schmid and Guest started dating — with the band’s permission. “We had a meeting about it. It can really mess things up, but they said okay,” remembers Schmid. “We got engaged in September of 2014 and married in October of 2015. In the band, we’re like the mom and dad. It’s almost more like a domestic partnership than a business partnership.”
The group toured for about 100 days a year for their first five years. Now they have more than 650 performances, four albums and seven years under their belt.
Bellingham Folk Festival, Bellingham Folk School, & Ceili Club
In addition to Polecat and Giant’s Causeway, Schmid stays active in Bellingham’s music community. When Schmid’s fiddle instructor Schaad chose to leave Bellingham, she handed off all of her students to Schmid. In 2013, Schmid also started the Ceili Club, Irish Gaelic for kitchen party, and includes singing and dancing.
To create a local opportunity for her students and others in the community, Schmid created the Bellingham Folk Festival. The festival is held in January each year and includes three days of inspiring workshops by local and visiting teachers plus performances, dances, and jams for all ages and abilities. “I hear from the elder community how happy they are that we’re introducing this history to a younger audience. It’s also a great opportunity for young people to see their peers into to the same thing and bringing people together,” notes Schmid.
After she got the festival rolling, Schmid realized she wanted it to happen more often than a single weekend each year. “The Bellingham Folk School came about because I wanted to start teaching group lessons on a drop-in basis without a lot of cost. We want kids to come try it and see how much fun it is,” explains Schmid. Three different levels of children’s classes are available as well as one for adults. The school is located next to Allegro Strings on Cornwall Avenue, just down from The Leopold.
Now that they’ve been playing together for several years, Polecat is enjoying the freedom to be selective about their gigs and are able to balance performance with other parts of life. Each of the members values having their own life away from the band. “When we first started we were busy every weekend all year long. We missed family events, weddings. We missed hanging with friends and going to see bands that we like,” explains Guest. “Now that Polecat is modestly known, we’re very happy with the juggling of gigs and personal lives.”
“We’re not road warriors. I’ve been able to have students, manage the festival, the Ceili Club, have Giants’ Causeway, and family all at the same time. That balance is so important to us,” adds Schmid.
Olson is married and living in West Seattle. Reeves lives full-time on San Juan Island. When Polecat is playing together, its like they’ve never been apart. Audiences can see how close they are together and feel it in the quality of the performance.
Polecat plays all over the Pacific Northwest including Whatcom County’s Summer Meltdown Festival, Subdued Stringband Jamboree, Downtown Sounds, Maritime Heritage and Boulevard Park Concert Series and every couple of months in Bellingham at the Wild Buffalo and Boundary Bay.
“River,” recorded live at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham.