Student Nurse Releases the Wave in Georgetown

Launching themselves boldly back when nobody was paying any attention to Seattle, the Student Nurse band took its curious, captivating blend of pop, jazz, ska, and experimental weirdness to the stage from 1978 to 1984. They’re now back for their first live show in 38 years, at the Fantagraphics Book Fair in Georgetown, with at least one follow-up gig scheduled (see below). Their retrospective CD Think For Yourself is available now. Band lead guitarist and co-founder Helena Rogers, was kind enough to take some questions over email.


Seattle Star: Are you a Seattle native?  If not, where did you grow up and when did you arrive in Seattle?

Helena Rogers: I was born in the Netherlands not too long after the end of WWII. The city I am from was badly bombed, so our family packed what was left of our belongings and moved to the U.S. We were supposed to be “placed” with other family members in New Jersey, but for some reason, they thought it would be no problem to break up the extended family. We were shipped to Los Angeles where I lived until I was 17. I moved to Seattle in 1972.

Seattle Star: What are your most important memories of growing up?

Helena Rogers: The memory of crossing the Atlantic Ocean in January, and then hustled off for a four-day train ride, stands out. Also, it was difficult being accepted as a “foreigner.” It affected my entire life, even to this day, so I have a lot of empathy for immigrants and the abuses they have to endure. It is no small wonder that communities of immigrants of color want to stay among themselves. People can be so cruel.

We eventually moved to the South Bay area where I took up skateboarding and surfing. I got to be pretty good on my clay-wheeled skateboard, but surfing was another story. Between being battered by waves and guys that did not want females anywhere near their surfing territories, I was never able to get much momentum going.

I was never one to pick the easy path, one could say. Luckily, I never let that deter me.

Seattle Star: What music, growing up, made you want to make music–which bands, shows, singles, LPs, TV and radio, etc.?

Helena Rogers: My first recollection of consciously being enveloped in music was when I was 3 years old. My mother had taken me to the doctor’s office, and a muted trumpet was playing. It may have been Miles Davis (I’ll never know for sure). It thrilled me to my core.  

I loved anything Motown. The first time I heard Led Zeppelin II on stereo headphones, it completely blew my mind! The “Ed Sullivan Show” was on every Sunday night. In my younger days, I loved to go down to the local car dealership on the weekends, they always had a band playing. It’s where I learned to do the Twist!

With fake ID in hand, I frequented a nightclub in Hermosa Beach that had a band that played regularly. The guitarist was phenomenal and right then and there I knew what my calling would be.

Seattle Star: When did you get your first guitar and how?  What model was it?  How did you go about starting to play?

Helena Rogers: When I was 17, I moved back to the Netherlands to live with my grandmother. I took a crappy guitar with me and plincked away at that. When I returned from Europe, and came back to Los Angeles, I felt nothing had changed there. I was not ready to go back to my old life, so I came to Seattle (I rolled a shoebox full of pennies, all the money I had in the world), where my best friend had just moved from L.A.

I arrived on a Thursday and her grandfather took us camping that weekend on the Cedar River. The beauty of this area just bowled me over.

The next Monday I got on the bus, went downtown to find a job and was hired on the spot at a place called Robert Allen Restaurant. I worked the lunch shift that day and heading to the bus stop I found a small music store just around the corner. They had a Martin D-18 that I put on layaway with the tips I had made that day.

After every shift I worked, I would go to the shop, put a little money down, and the folks there would get it out and let me play it. I took lessons from Al Turay at his studio in Wallingford (come to find out he also taught Bonnie Guitar and Nancy Wilson of Heart).

I got a degree in Music from Seattle Central College and took lots of workshops, I even got on stage with George Benson, but I was so nervous I could not play a lick.

Seattle Star: When, where, and how, did you start playing with other folks?  What was your first band?

Helena Rogers: It really all started for real when I met John Rogers, he was already an active musician. He was so supportive and encouraging and soon after we met, I was jamming with other folks like Jerry Christie and Bob Guinn, both renowned Seattle musicians. I was always on the hunt for open jam sessions, and joined in at the Gorilla Room where Al Hood hosted a jam night (come my turn, they played “Giant Steps” at breakneck speed, again no notes from me, but I kept at it). I would drive near and far, just to play on one or two songs!

I’m not sure which band came first, there were a few. Big Frank and Euphoria, the Clonetones (with Paul Hood of Toiling Midgets), Rosie’s Redhorn Express, Girl Talk, Orient Express, and after Student Nurse, Brides of Frankenstein, Bitch City…to name a few…

Seattle Star: What specific punk and/or New Wave influences did you have around starting Student Nurse?

Helena Rogers: We owned a record store, any and all of it was available to us. I loved Television, the Wipers, Talking Heads, the Specials, the list goes on and on and on and on!

Seattle Star: You co-founded the band with your then-husband, John.  Where did you meet him?  Did music-making go along with dating?

Helena Rogers: John and I were never really the dating type, we just were. And yes, music was everything to both of us. I met him through a mutual friend who kept trying to get me to come to the tavern when their group would hang out, she felt certain we would hit it off.

I would say yes, but then not go. Finally, she said that this would be the last time she would invite me, so I went. It was at club in Pioneer Square, the name escapes me. But we were instantly together. I moved in with him a month later.

Seattle Star: What lead you to found Student Nurse?  Was John equally enthusiastic about the band?

Helena Rogers: John and I were equal in all of it, although I do give the band name credit to him.

Seattle Star: How did you pick the band name?

Helena Rogers: You’ll have to ask John that.

Seattle Star: Who were your original band mates and how did you find them?

Helena Rogers: The original bass player was Bill Adams. I have no idea how or where we met him, it was a long time ago. Bill left to join a lounge act full-time, after which we started up with Joe Harris and Allan Evans, don’t know when or where we met them either. Emotional complications arose and those two left the band.

Then we found Eric Muhs and his friend Tom Boettcher, that’s when the band really began to sparkle. We loved the unexpected and there was plenty of that. We have stayed in touch with them over the years. We are friends!

Seattle Star: Where was the group’s first rehearsal space, and how did you secure it?

Helena Rogers: After we drove the neighbors nuts rehearsing in our garage, we rehearse in a storage unit in Northgate. We did record in that garage however, and some of that material is on the new release.

Seattle Star: Where and when was the band’s first gig?  How did you nail that down?

Helena Rogers: Our first gig was opening for the Enemy, I think it was the Ballard Firehouse. I’m not sure how we got the gig, but I do remember I was totally nervous and played rather badly (we see a pattern of stage fright emerge here). This was very unfortunate because influential people were at that gig and they blew us off, we had to spend a lot of time digging out of that hole. Eventually, we did gather more respect and went on to become a very tight, energetic band.

The legendary Student Nurse play “Saigon” on Seattle’s legendary Channel 29/77.

Seattle Star: Which venues did the band play most often?  What were your best, worst, and oddest memories of playing live?

Helena Rogers: Because we were a band playing original music, the venues were mostly not on a circuit per se. If you go to our website you can find extensive listings of where we played, including many of the poster that were created, many I hand silkscreened.

There are many memories I can’t remember, but we did play a private party for the Oh Boy! Oberto people on Lake Washington. They wanted us to stop playing. It wasn’t particularly good music to get shitfaced to.

There were gigs where there may have been less than a dozen people in attendance. Then there were the amazing gigs at the Showbox Theatre, the Hub Ballroom, and we always had smashingly fun shows at Roscoe Louie Art Gallery where we incorporated dancers (Sharon Gannon, Kathleen Hunt, Lisa Ravenholdt) and a live painter (William Wikstrom).

Seattle Star: Did the band ever tour?  If so, where, and when?

Helena Rogers: In those days putting together a tour was not an easy thing. John and I had the business to run, so living in a van for weeks on end was a non-starter. We did play a few gigs up in Vancouver, B.C., they loved us there. And we played in Olympia at the 4th Ave Tavern a few times, those gigs were also met with much enthusiasm.

Seattle Star: Your personal style drew quite a bit of attention.  Was it weird being lumped in with “lesbian chic” when you were married to a man?  How thought-out was your style?

Helena Rogers: I was not aware of this, tell me more!

Seattle Star: How did the band go about writing songs?  What are your most crucial memories of writing and recording?

Helena Rogers: We were very collaborative in our songwriting, everyone contributed lyrics and we were all given free rein to create our own musical parts. Recording was always so much fun and so satisfying too.

We recorded both in our garage with John producing, and recorded at Triangle Studios in Fremont [later Reciprocal Recording, where many grunge classics got laid down –ed.] I always did like homing in on the razor’s edge, to get all the parts to sound sharp and relaxed at the same time.

Seattle Star: How did you go about promoting your own releases?  Did the band ever have a manager?

Helena Rogers: We did get some pretty good press in the “Rocket,” the local music magazine of the day, but no, we did not have a manager. In hindsight, that probably would have been a good thing.

Seattle Star: How did the band write “Discover Your Feet,” and how did the song end up on the “Seattle Syndrome Volume One” compilation?

Helena Rogers: John wrote the lyrics to that song, John was always writing, he had a self-published book of poetry. The music, like all our songs was born of just jamming and saying “hey, I like that ska kind of feel…” off we went! The message in that song [get out of your car and start walking –ed.] was relevant then and even more relevant now!

Seattle Star: Why and how did the band end?

Helena Rogers: It was time to stop. Things had gotten quite emotionally tangled up as I ventured off on my newfound identity shift. John and I did quite well all things considered, and we have remained friends throughout all of it, but feelings were also hurt, and it seemed better to make the break.

Seattle Star: You ran a record shop, Rubato, for many years.  How long did the store last?  How about your best, worst, and oddest stories of manning the counter there?

Helena Rogers: John had worked at a few different record shops in the University District (Cellophane Square, Puss n’ Books) when the owner of Puss n’ Books, Miss Cutts, passed away. John temporarily worked in the store that replaced it, but the owners were in it for the wrong reasons. John had a very large record collection to cull from, so it was decided that we would start our own store.

John grew up on Mercer Island, and so Bellevue became the spot we chose to start the business. We had four record racks to begin with, but every record in them was excellent.

It did not take long for regulars to start showing up. We ran the store together, even through a divorce, but times were changing. The internet started making things much harder and now with two separate households to support, it was decided that I would buy the business and become the sole proprietor. I moved the store to West Seattle probably around 2002.

I plugged away at it for another six years, but I realized it was time to get a “real” job, so I sold the business to Miles Abrams. The building Rubato was in at the time was slated to be torn down, which it was. Miles decided to absorb Rubato into his already existing record shop at the Pike Place Market, Holy Cow Records.

John was a touchstone for many of the young musicians on the Eastside. The young inquiring Mark Arm was a regular as was Carrie Brownstein.

Randy Johnson of the Mariners also came in once in a while to sell his crappy heavy metal records and even though the guy made millions, he would always try to squeeze more money out of us. Tsk tsk!

There are so many great stories about Rubato Records that it really deserves a separate article; this may already be in the works!

Seattle Star: What did you do after Rubato went out of business?

Helena Rogers: Rubato did not go out of business on my watch, I was there for 31 ½ years of it. In 2002, I decided to go back to school to get a degree in something useful. I was pretty good with computers, so I got a degree in Web Development. I was able to get a part-time job working at Choice Organic Teas as their webmaster, this gave me confidence to go for a full-time job. [Then] I was webmaster at Seattle Repertory Theatre and all seemed well, so I sold the store.

Then the economic crash hit, and I was let go. After a year or so, a friend called and asked a few quick questions about my computer skills and got me in the door at Boeing. I worked in Flight Training which was interesting and lucrative at the same time. Boeing, doing what they do, decided to move our division to San Antonio, Texas so I did a Hail Mary and worked in the factory in Renton for a year and a half.

Now I work part-time at a start-up called Wavely DX. I took up painting about eight years ago, and that has become the creative love of my life. I have had several exhibitions and show now at the Fogue Gallery and Studios in Georgetown.

Seattle Star: What are your thoughts on how Seattle has grown and changed over the decades, music- and otherwise?

Helena Rogers: I really don’t go out to hear music anymore, I’ve had some health issues that keep me close to home. As far as Seattle itself, it is so transformed from what it used to be that it is unrecognizable. I now live in Burien, and it has avoided becoming “hip,” which is okay by me.

Seattle Star: What lead you to put Student Nurse back together?

Helena Rogers: The idea crossed our plate a few times over the years, but it always seemed like a lot of work for one or two gigs so we opted out, but with the release of this CD we got into the idea of it more, and we were right, it is a lot of work, but it is also proving to be a lot of fun. We ain’t dead yet!

Seattle Star: Who’s in the lineup these days, and what are they playing?

Helena Rogers: The line-up now is John Rogers on drums, Eric Muhs on bass, a new guy, David Ehrich, on second guitar and me doing the lead work and singing.

Seattle Star: Who had the idea to put a Student Nurse CD out?  What’s the CD called, and how many tracks?  Does it contain everything the band ever recorded?

Helena Rogers: The idea of putting out this CD was the brainchild of Dennis White. Dennis was there then, and has remained interested in documenting as much as he can of the Seattle music scene. He writes great articles for the Jive Time [Records] web site. He has a company called Dadastic Sounds.

The CD, Think For Yourself, has 28 tracks. I’m pretty sure it covers everything we ever recorded, at least officially. It is amazing to listen to, it has a ton of great energy and is still on point in its messaging about humans getting their shit together.

Seattle Star: What’s in the future for Student Nurse?  More gigs?

Helena Rogers: After the gig in Georgetown on July 9th at the Fantagraphics Book Fair, we have one more show lined up. It will be at the Tractor Tavern, on August 20th opening for Red Dress. We are very excited about playing these shows!

After that it will be one gig at a time. I basically did not take my guitar out of its case for 3 years but now one thing I can say, is that my love of guitar has been reignited and I hope to keep it going. My creative life is full to the max. I am so grateful!

Student Nurse play at the Fantagraphics Book Fair in Georgetown this Saturday, July 9th.

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