OLYMPIA – Once the committee hearing rooms have gone silent and activity in the Capitol has ceased for the night, a small group of Olympia insiders assembles in a nearby office building and gets down to business.
One plays the bagpipes. A few others, the fiddle. Throw in a guitar or two, and you’ve got the as yet unnamed band comprising a handful of lawmakers and staffers who meet each Monday night to play what one member jokingly describes as “punk Celt” music – an assortment of Scottish and Irish tunes, with a bit of Appalachian folk mixed in.
“I’m the limiting factor,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Democrat from Snohomish who has been playing the Scottish smallpipes for about nine months. “The fiddlers can play anything.”
On a recent evening, those fiddlers were Republican Rep. Vincent Buys, of Lyndon, and Marilyn Pedersen, legislative assistant to the Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Ross Hunter. Joel Espedal, a House security guard, accompanies on guitar, as does his 12-year-old son, Erik, who was visiting the Capitol that day.
After they tune their instruments, the cacophony soon transitions into a melody at once mournful, rich and up-tempo. A few employees still at the office wander over to listen as the group finishes “Skye Boat Song,” a Scottish folk tune.
“That was good,” yells Guy Bergstrom, a House Democratic spokesman who often sits in on the practices.
“Very good,” Dunshee agrees. “The slower the better, I guess. We’re better when slower.”
They’ve only played together a few times, in the common area outside of Dunshee’s third-floor office and only after the long hours of committee hearings and floor votes have come to a close. But for this bipartisan, eclectic bunch of musicians, their meetings transcend politics.
“It not anything that you could call an organized thing,” Dunshee said. “But it’s very therapeutic.”
Dunshee, chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, surprised many earlier this year when he wore a kilt and played his bagpipes on the Senate floor at a joint House and Senate memorial for lawmakers who have died in recent years.
Dunshee, 61, grew up playing the Great Highland Bagpipes, continuing through college before stopping. About nine months ago, he said, he felt the urge to get back into music and decided to give the smaller Scottish smallpipes a try.
“It gave me something else to think about other than the numbers and words of my job,” he said. “It just gives me peace.”
Every Monday night is the standing date for the informal jam sessions, which kicked off with the start of the legislative session last month.
So far, the regulars include Dunshee, Pedersen, Espedal and Rep. Kathy Haigh, a Democrat from Shelton who plays guitar. Buys, who has played with Pedersen and Espedal before, made his first appearance with the larger group this particular evening.
The group’s odds of thriving may hinge on the primary rule that governs it: “no politics involved,” as Espedal explains.
“We put everything aside and just concentrate on the music,” he continues. “It’s just about getting together and jamming.”
The group isn’t the only musically inclined presence on campus. Buys, 33, has played the violin for 28 years and said he has played classical music with violin-playing lobbyists. Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen plays guitar, saxophone and drums, and has performed for school anti-drug assemblies and end-of-session parties at the Capitol. Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, has played guitar with Owen as well.
There are no plans to play public venues – allowing a reporter to attend their practice bordered on “exhibitionism,” Dunshee quipped – but a few band names have been tossed around, including Capitol Kilts, House Brand Band and Lege Zeppelin.
At the mention of band names, Buys turns to the others.
“Are we an official band?” he asks.
The question is met with laughter, and then they move on to the next song.