Seattle art-punks Raft of Dead Monkeys represented the last vestiges of a time when the Internet didn’t yet contain every microscopic detail of a rock band’s existence. The band was active 17 years ago, but it might as well have been 70.
Formed in 1999, RoDM lifted their name from an Adam Sandler-era Saturday Night Live skit. The band careened through sets like a speared bull on fire, and their oft-profane lyrics were delivered by lead singer/bass player Jeff Suffering (née Jeff Bettger) with throat-scraping, neck-muscle popping fervor.
By the end of their two-year run, RoDM had gained significant notoriety thanks to two key factors: One, most of the band’s members were avowed Christians who’d started out playing in bands hosted by Christian indie-punk record label Tooth and Nail Records; and two, they augmented their sets with anarchic performance-art excess.
Both of those elements factor strongly into The Complete History of Seattle, a truly singular chronicle of Raft of Dead Monkeys’ place in a strange, under-documented time in Northwest rock history. Ostensibly, it’s a documentary. But it’s also a piece of performance art in its own right—and an examination of the sometimes nonexistent distinctions between religious faith and rock ’n’ roll catharsis.
The story begins with Tooth and Nail, a label that (by accident or design, depending on who you talk to) yanked so-called Christian music forcibly out of its self-built bland pop ghetto. While RoDM wasn’t a Tooth and Nail band, several members began in two of the label’s best-known acts, Ninety Pound Wuss and Roadside Monument. That affiliation killed RoDM’s chance to appeal in secular circles. But it ensured a readymade audience of Christians, who were either offended or liberated by the band members’ radical variation of the religion. Raft of Dead Monkeys smoked, drank (in moderation), swore and embraced Jesus.
Along the way, RoDM played insane gigs peopled by male strippers, go-go dancers and a performance artist who devoured then vomited heaps of bananas. The band formed a demented side project (the Dave Bahnsen Militia, aka DBM) that skewered the fascist tendencies of the conservative evangelical Christian fringe. Fate also induced an intersection with the Paradox, a fabled U-district music venue that once played host to local and national bands and eventually spawned the Mars Hill megachurch.
Today a fair amount of crude video footage of RoDM exists online and Bettger has uploaded the band’s official releases onto a Bandcamp page. But great deal of RoDM’s history exists only as eyewitness testimony—fragmented informational breadcrumbs laid out in an attempt to fill in the blanks.
Writer/director Nick Toti amplifies those gaps, giving The Complete History of Seattle a tinge of the far-off and archival in its interviews. Band members and journalists are shot in iris-lensed black-and-white like living still photos from the early 20th century—and none are identified until after they’ve initially weighed in.
Toti fills other gaps with surreal visual bridges. A dark-haired madonna gives violent birth to a dwarf in a chimp mask. Odd reenactments of the DBM’s dimestore Riefenstahl parody unspool in slow-mo. True to its title, the movie even includes a quick but thorough account of Seattle history through the prism of sacred and profane that formed the city’s contradictory roots.
The Complete History of Seattle frames its disparate threads in the broader context of humankind’s quest for meaning, and that lends the film a strange but palpable universality. Toti cobbles together his own path through the Raft of Dead Monkeys story with a combination of trace evidence and his own perceptions. The end product is weird, pretentious, inspiring, fragmented and impossible to shake off. And if that isn’t a perfect summation of a spiritual quest, I don’t know what is. — Tony Kay, City Arts Magazine
“…a documentary that could very well blow your mind.” — Jake Utti, The Monarch ReviewThe Monarch Review
“Nick Toti takes this story beyond a talking heads doc, and deploys Errol Morris-esque vignettes, which are then funneled through a nightmarish Dusan Makavejev strainer. The Complete History of Seattle is a wholly unique endeavor.” — Chris Knudsen, Spectacle Theater
“Aesthetically, much like the band it focuses on, The Complete History of Seattle is definite art-house fare, an audio-visual collage of creepy re-enactments of Raft’s stage show, choppy VHS footage and found photos, and interviews with the participants.” — Charlie Zaillian, The Big Takeover
“The Complete History of Seattle doesn’t just eschew the band documentary formula. Nick Toti’s film, which is mainly about 90s Christian experimental punk group, Raft of Dead Monkeys, binges on the genre and then simultaneously craps and barfs it back up. Believe it or not, this is not a criticism. It’s quite refreshing and exciting to watch something from a typically formulaic genre and not have any clue where you’ll end up.” — Jessica Baxter, Hammer to Nail
The Complete History of Seattle
“The Mass of St. Gregory”
by Adriaen Isenbrant
“Madonna and Child with St. Anne”
“Saint Gregorius Magnus”
by Giuseppe Vermiglio or Daniele Crespi
“The Last Supper”
by Leonardo da Vinci
“St. John of the Cross”
by Hans Memling
by Matthias Grünewald
“The Death of Chatterton”
by Henry Wallis
Hotpants College II
by Il Sodoma
by Craig Doty
“St. Teresa of Avila”
From “Animal Locomotion”
by Eadweard Muybridge
“The Final Judgment”
by Hans Memling
Interview with Nick Toti, Director of The Complete History of Seattle
by Delores Falswich
This interview originally appeared in the November 2015 edition of The Carthage Lantern and is reprinted with their permission.
Delores Falswich: How did you discover Raft of Dead Monkeys?
Nick Toti: The first concert I attended as a teenager was a Christian punk band that played at my family’s church. For a brief-but-formative period after that I listened almost exclusively to Tooth & Nail bands. I read an article about Raft a year or two later–around the time I stole a friend’s copy of “The Communist Manifesto” and first heard the word dada.
DF: So you’ve been listening to them from the beginning.
NT: No. I read about them and was fascinated by them from as early on as anyone in the Midwest could have been, but I had no way of listening to them. I didn’t actually hear their music until a few years later when I had my roommate illegally download the DBM e.p.
DF: What made you decide to make this documentary?
NT: I have a friend who decided to pursue theatre because he found it to be the artform that most infuriated him. I feel the same way about documentaries. Music docs especially make for incredibly bad movies. I saw the Raft story as a chance to break from this trend.
DF: How so?
NT: It has all the elements that are needed to make a generic music doc–a cool band you’ve never heard of, an interesting hook (Christians gone bad!), even a sob story about the early death of one band member–but a work of cinema should do more than tell a good story. I saw it as an opportunity to make something epic and absurd and surreal that also explored ideas about the relationship between art and faith. The movie’s aesthetics needed to complement and enhance the paradoxes and complications inherent to the story. There was also something interesting in the fact that no one from the band was excited about making the movie. They all seemed to view Raft as this minor footnote that the world was right to forget about. So countering this relatively inconsequential story with this epic historical scope and gory apocalyptic imagery was something I found exciting.
DF: The reenactments–if that’s even the right word–are one of the most striking elements of the movie. Where did that idea come from?
NT: I knew from the beginning that there wasn’t enough live footage of the band to satisfy the needs of the movie. I took it as an excuse to experiment with a cinematic problem I’ve thought about a lot, which is the question of what a Surrealist documentary would look like. To some extent this movie is my attempt to answer that question.
DF: How did the band feel about you taking so much…creative license in depicting them?
NT: I don’t actually know. The band’s involvement didn’t extend further than the interviews and none of them have seen the finished movie yet. They knew from the beginning that I intended to make something more avant garde than most music docs. I was very upfront about that.
DF: You didn’t interview many people for the movie. Were these the only people you could find?
NT: No. In fact, there were three people I interviewed that were cut from the movie.
DF: Why did you cut them?
NT: The same reason you cut anything: it isn’t necessary for the movie you want to make. Two of the earliest editing decisions were to only use one camera angle (though we shot all the interviews from two angles) and to only feature men talking on-camera.
DF: So you interviewed women but then cut them from the movie?
DF: Do you not think that the women involved merited having their voices heard in the movie?
NT: I think that the movie I made is stronger because I chose not to include their voices.
DF: Isn’t that sexist?
NT: [Pause] I hope not…but think that, yes, maybe it might be? It was an important decision, though, and I stand by it. The presence of women needed to be felt in other ways in the movie.
DF: You mean in the letters?
NT: In part.
DF: What are the other ways?
DF: Do you have any regrets about the movie?
NT: I regret that John Spalding–the Raft of Dead Monkeys guitarist who died of cancer in 2008–isn’t a more felt presence in the movie. I regret that the Paradox chapter doesn’t fully capture the pain and betrayal still felt by former members of Mars Hill Church. I only somewhat regret that I didn’t make it more clear that the voice reading the letters is the same Rachel to whom they are addressed–but I also find the unintended effect created by this confusion an interesting surprise.
DF: Is it fair to call Raft of Dead Monkeys a Christian band?
NT: If you’ve watched the movie you should realize that this is a very stupid question.
DF: Is it fair to call The Complete History of Seattle a Christian movie?
NT: [Pause] Yes.
Fandependent Films interview
Nick Toti on Losing our Religion podcast
Raft of Dead Monkeys on Bandcamp
The Complete History of Seattle on Facebook
Nick Toti on Vimeo
19 Notes on the Completion of History
Raft of Dead Monkeys & Mars Hill Church
The Complete History of Works Cited
An (Incomplete) Artist’s Statement
by Nick Toti
I hated music documentaries when I started making The Complete History of Seattle. Generally speaking, I still hate them.
The goal with this movie was to do the opposite of all the things I hated about music documentaries. No hero worship, no tearful goodbyes, no Henry fucking Rollins.
The structure of the average music documentary is painfully linear, as if cause precedes effect in any worthwhile creative act. The Complete History of Seattle is roughly structured as a series of interconnecting circles. Chaos begets control begets chaos. Everyone ends where they begin just to start something that feels new but isn’t. It happens to the band as it happens to Seattle as it happens to our sadsack epistolary narrator. Forever and ever amen.
The Complete History of Seattle may be more appropriately labelled as a home movie than a music documentary. Music documentaries screen at festivals and get distributed on Netflix. The Complete History of Seattle languishes in obscurity like the band that inspired it.
Generally speaking, I do not hate home movies.
p.s. Hey. You have quite an awesome local weekend ahead of you should you accept guest host, filmmaker, and d.l. Nick Toti’s gift of this exclusive and richly detailed celebration of the birth of his long gestating and extremely cool documentary film The Complete History of Seattle. You can watch the film and explore all kinds of tangents just north of here, and please do, and, of course, please direct comments to Nick this weekend so he’ll know you were here and attentive. Thanks, folks, and big old thanks for the generous share, Nick! ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I’m not sure where Bertolucci stands with ‘Luna’ now, and he did finally allow a DVD release, but a mutual friend of mine and his back in the 80s says he felt the film ventured too far into territory he feels uncomfortable with, although I would argue that his strongest films are strong precisely because he obviously lets them do that. ** Chris Cochrane, Hi, Chris. I’ve heard of Church of Betty. I think I’ve even heard them. Huh. Sounds fun. Thank you for being so understanding about the PS122 deal, and I’m very happy that it seems we can sort out a doable Plan B. I’m insane too. Bestest weekend to you too, pal. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. I thought ‘The Florida Project’ was okay, conventional and kind of hokey, but with real strengths. It’s not the film’s fault. I’m just tired of people acting/talking like semi-solid, slightly left of center indie films are more than what they are. The worst example of overrating, which I think I didn’t list yesterday, is the very tiredly thought out and rotely made and lunk-headedly stylish ‘Good Time’. Its fans seem like the film buff equivalent of diehard Trump supporters. Maybe I’ll check out the Nick Cave doc, but my passion for his work ends way, way back around the time of ‘Your Funeral … My Trial’. Everyone, Steve has interviewed Sophie Fiennes about her much anticipated documentary about Grace Jones, and you can read their tete-a-tete here. Oh, yeah, Ka5sh. The new EP sounds odd. Curiosity about it has killed this cat, so I’ll go hear where he’s meandering. New Ghost single? Whoa. Okay, I’m there too obviously. ** Sypha, Me too. I urged him to go back to the novel while also supporting his interest in making films instead too, since he and I are in the same boat. I’ll set the post up this weekend. Great, great, and the linking up at the Ligotti forums, etc. would be wonderful! ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Cool, so glad you dug it. That’s not such a bad work schedule, yeah, and there seems to be an actual chance that you’ll even enjoy the job, and even find comrade customers with excellent literary tastes on maybe rare occasions. I’m not totally clear on what the club event is. Basically Zac and I hosting an event centered around our film work or something. PGL can’t really be shown right now, and I don’t think showing excerpts would work, but we could show LCTG and maybe even our never released music video for Xiu Xiu, and other stuff. We’ll see. My day was mostly working on the film script. It went pretty well. I’m hoping that our producer won’t want drastic changes on the TV series script — which I can’t imagine we would accept anyway since we’re pretty high on what we’ve written — so that I’ll have some time to keep going. But I’ll know the deal in a couple of hours. And I visited with Michael Salerno, OB DeAlessi, and their little kiddo Milo in their new home way, way out on Paris’s very edge. I hope your weekend flies by very richly. How was it? ** KeaTON, Hey. It is. Ha ha. Sounds like you chose some dashing costumes there. I hope every other costume falls by the wayside. Have the funnest. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Yeah, I think I mentioned around the time of your ‘Threads’ post the odd coincidence of my having made yesterday’s post concurrently. Good poster. Irresistible, I say. Excellence! ** H, Thank you, h! I’m okay. My back is pretty much better, and my jet lag is fading. I’m reasonably fit as a fiddle. I only watch those kinds of films on planes at this point. That’s the only time I can stand them or feel curiosity about them for some reason. ** Nik, Hi, Nik! Thanks, bud. The house I grew up in had a huge basement, like a large underground house with cement walls, ceilings and floors, and I was always daydreaming about it and making haunted houses down there and stuff. And when I was a kid, and it was the Cold War, many of the parents of the other kids in my neighborhood built bomb shelters in their backyards, but my parents refused to build us one, and I was in a fairly constant state of anxiety about that. The theater version of ‘Jerk’ is better than the story, actually. The story almost seems like a script for the theater piece to me now. Gisele does all kind of things with puppets. Too many varieties to go into here. But … there’s a piece of hers and mine which is more like an installation that was in the Whitney Biennial one year that’s a boy robot and his hand puppet delivering a creepy monologue. (Here’s a little video preview thing that shows it and has Gisele talking about it.) And our second to most recent piece, called ‘The Ventriloquists Convention’, was a set at, yes, a ventriloquists convention and starred 10 of the most respected German ventriloquists plus dummies custom made for them. (Here’s a trailer for it). So there are two examples. I will be getting feedback from the producer in almost exactly 90 minutes from this very moment. Thanks, man. ** Okay. Make yourselves scarce from the p.s. and delve into Nick’s film and its surroundings now, thanks. See you on Monday.