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Two Decades Of Sub Pop. Steve Jelbert Celebrates In Seattle
Steve Jelbert , July 30th, 2008 15:17

From Mudhoney to CSS, Sub Pop has remained one of America's most important indie labels for twenty years now. We cast our eye back over their history.


Sub Pop isn’t the only West Coast trademark celebrating a twentieth anniversary this year, as I’m reminded on flying to Seattle for their delightfully genteel celebrations on NWA. (If only Dre and Cube had registered the website address in time before Northwest Airlines got there - Eazy would never have let such an obvious financial opportunity slip.) Both institutions have one thing in common, a delight in letting the myth outweigh the truth. It may be SP20, but Soundgarden and Green River had already debuted on the label in 1987. Perhaps celebrating reaching drinking age is frowned upon in this traditionally puritanical region.

Not that anyone cares at Thursday night’s bash on top of the Space Needle. This glorious five hundred foot high contraption, the Blackpool Tower of the space age (as opposed to the steam age), featured in the classic seventies conspiracist thriller The Parallax View, the one where snapper Warren Beatty found himself targeted by every side of the circle of evil, or something (It’s years since I’ve seen it). Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, as a band from nearby Olympia once sang, after spotting the line on a T-shirt.

Tonight the revolving restaurant doesn’t. Instead endless lines for the very respectable free booze spiral around the circular room. God knows how the stunningly drunk fellows on the lift down managed it. Either they brought their own, or they’re the usual US lightweights (they did not quibble at this suggestion, if they even understood it). The canapés are frankly outstanding though (apart from the foul mustard sauce), and I speak as a veteran of many publishing bashes.

Atop the tower flies a proud ‘Sub Pop’ flag, more proof that their corporate logo really is timeless. In a typically self-effacing move the roof has been transformed into a record label. Invisible to anyone not flying past in a helicopter, it’s the equivalent of those acts at Glastonbury who dive into the front row for the benefit of the tv cameras while punters actually present see nowt. The local news follows the story, and the anchor, a woman old enough to remember the pre-digital age, struggles to remember the word ‘record’. Twenty bloody years, man…

Friday is SP comedy night at the Moore Theatre, the impossibly vertiginous local landmark that hosted some seminal Seattle shows. I am so far up in the Gods I can touch the ceiling. Comedy has proved good business for the revived SP - it’s cheap to record and has given them hits like David Cross’s Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! and Flight of the Conchords’ unlikely, er, flight into the US Top 5 (tonight’s show is MC-ed by Kristin Schaal, best known here as their stalky superfan Mel). Todd Barry, who also appeared in FOTC, didn’t hit a single branch when he fell out of the funny tree, but next to long time local fixture Eugene Mirman he’s a fucking genius. Stand-up comics are always famously unamusing, largely because nothing interesting ever happens to them - success equals travel and nothing more - and the only people they hang around with are other stand-ups desperate not to share any unusual experience that could be turned into material for profit. They must pray for a motorway pile-up or train wreck. In the much larger USA the twats bang on about flying instead. Christ, at least our own stiffs get to interact with the till jockeys at Trowell services, or some Watford Gap sausage spiller. This evening we were regaled with horror stories about trolley dollies doing a manual demonstration (they still do on tiny airlines like, er, BA) and like why do they still remind flyers not to smoke when no one’s smoked on a plane since like the Napoleonic War (well David Cross, you shiny-pated liar, you’re older than me and I’ve smoked on planes, which to this day remain full of ashtrays, such as the nineties model Airbus that flew me five thousand miles to see you revive Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘what’s the deal with airline peanuts?” bollocks. Though maybe you were mocking the form, in which case well done sir). Nonetheless Cross, and the less mobile Patton Oswalt, are genuinely entertaining even if the sight of a well-rewarded supporting player familiar from several thousand naff films slating the useless Sex and the City had me wondering what time pot and kettle were on. The next day Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathan Poneman will compare comedy to rock’n’roll. He must fly a lot, I guess. Later I find myself carrying boxes into the Sub Pop office lobby while pondering whether to continue drinking or get some badly needed kip. I do learn the security code that gets you through the door though (XYZ123, if you’re curious). I feel part of the Sub Pop family, for a couple of minutes. I love these guys. They really are great, and so is the drinks machine in the office, which sells 75 cent beers.

The SP20 bash takes place at Marymoor Park in Redmond, ten or twenty miles east of the city and best known as the home of some other local corporation called Microsoft. The label might have raised Seattle’s profile worldwide but no, they didn’t get the necessary permits to actually hold it in within the city limits (though the mayor turned up to the opening festivities anyway, just in case there were votes in it). It’s a small-scale bash, holding no more than five thousand, all proceeds to charity and weekend tickets a mere fifty dollars. The two stages are next to each other in a minor natural amphitheatre more usually used to host MOR concerts for the rare non-tattooed soccer moms of the region. Call me a traditionalist, but I really don’t mind if there are a few minutes of silence as one stage unpacks and the next starts up (weirdly, the PA systems are not synchronised at each set’s launch, meaning that the initial sound blares from speakers on the other stage). The Obits sound good as I arrive. Constantines are determined as ever, but whoever thought a cover of ‘Street Fighting Man’ was a good idea needs beating with truncheons. The reconvened Eric’s Trip are less tempting than the backstage BBQ and the bizarre sight of several Foals attempting to play the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’ on Rock Band in the gadget room. The Helio Sequence offer the same drab baggy/shoegaze nonsense as their album. Press duties mean that Jonathan Poneman can tell the hacks that SP still signs hot young talent like the mighty Pissed Jeans and the already massive Fleet Foxes, which we would all be enjoying if Poneman and Pavitt (who are, to be fair, very amusing) hadn’t scheduled press duties to clash. I see enough of the Foxes to understand why four men who all aspire to the look of Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane of the Faces (guitarist Skye Skjelset cannot harvest facial hair yet- I know the feeling, son) should prove so popular. In short they don’t do pointless eclecticism. They play what they are good at, and they are very very good at it indeed. The next day Portland’s Blitzen Trapper will show their facility in several styles without nailing a single one. Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner will politely disagree over the Fleets worth using words like ‘Crosby’, ‘Stills’ and ‘Nash’ (but not ‘Young’, which is odd, as their best tunes owe a lot to Mr Neil, the definitive passive-aggressive hippie). But as FF will sell a million albums this year, all other opinions are moot. Low are unassumingly heavy, and surprisingly effective on a big stage while The Fluid are a lot of fun, at least if you’re one of The Fluid. But Mudhoney, to this day SP’s standard bearers (and apparently the act with the most releases on the label, despite a three album sabbatical with a major) show the kids how to do it properly, even taking to the smaller stage. The mixture of newer tunes, such as the title track of the recent ‘The Lucky Ones’ and 2006’s timeless warped folk of ‘Hard On For War’ sit comfortably alongside all-time garage classics like ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ (the first true Sub Pop release, as the scheduling of this bash effectively admits) and ‘You Got It’. At one point I’m overwhelmed with sadness for almost a second, as I realise that with Bo Diddley gone, Mudhoney may only have another thirty or forty years in them. (Bassist Guy Maddison is a cardiac nurse, so they’ll surely last this long). The Vaselines are out of tune enough to drive me to the bar again, while Iron and Wine left no impression at all. (To be honest I was caning the Kalimotxos by now, that peculiarly teenage Spanish blend of red wine and coke for people too stewed to make a true sangria. And the beer- the local Elysian brewery offered ‘LOSER’, a dark ale best described as, er, contemplative.). Flight of the Conchords headlined, something I did not expect when I first saw them in a church hall on the Edinburgh fringe five years ago. Their act is pretty much the same too, laconic to the point of obtuseness, musically sophisticated without drawing attention to the fact. Teenagers waved placards at them. I headed for the Showbox, one of earth’s most attractive venues, to see Tad Doyle’s current racket Brothers of the Sonic Cloth. Loud, sluggish, heavy, pompous- I think the idea was to get the audience touching cloth, but the most entertaining moment was before the third song, which Doyle introduced as ‘our last number’ to booing. ‘Our songs are thirteen minutes long. What do you fucking want us to do?’ he protested testily. The Gutter Twins followed, but Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli’s goth-rock combo are efficient rather than memorable. So it’s off the Funhouse, where the ancient Fred Cole and his equally venerable wife Toody are trying to resuscitate the flame of the phenomenally reductive Dead Moon (there was a great comp on SP a couple of years back) under the name Pierced Arrows. Sadly a leaden drummer keeps them strictly earthbound. Sub Pop is certainly a broad church. All (white) music is here.

Sorry, Ruby Suns, but I’m not getting out of bed for your half-assed Wilsonisms, and Grand Archives, spun off from Band of Horses (where were they?) are equally resistible. Blitzen Trapper are fine but self-sabotaged for the reasons mentioned above. The determinedly heavy Kinski are excellent, their vocal-free hard rock proving surprisingly friendly under sunny skies- the temperature has been over eighty Fahrenheit all weekend, which makes Seattle and environs look like the loveliest place on earth, if you like sea and trees and mountains, and who doesn’t? One pal saw an eagle catching a fish while wandering off the site for a stroll. All I spotted was a dragonfly, but yes, it was a fuckin’ big dragonfly. Foals sound like something from a different planet (England) next to the day’s relatively generic American alternative sounds. Yiannis does his best to annoy an audience that can’t actually make out what he’s saying, but their rhythmic skips persuade even their label bosses to watch them. Whether they are as entertaining as the Green River press call is debatable. The band that spawned Pearl Jam and Mudhoney and Sub Pop and grunge itself are playing on the main stage this evening, to an audience curious to know what the hell proto-grunge sounds like at twenty years remove. Everyone is very chummy, liking each other’s bands very much. At one point Mark Arm mentions the best three drummers in Seattle and his connection to them, omitting and rather embarrassing his old mate Alex Vincent. Stone Gossard doesn’t make it in time to join the panel, but later I spot him wandering across the car park. Like Larry David, he drives a Prius. No Age have just flown in. The duo are excellent, thrashing out their endearingly blunt, almost twee pop songs. Dean Allen Spunt is a singing drumbox and makes the best onstage gags of the weekend. Later on they will fly back to the East Coast to continue a tour. The music business is weird sometimes. Comets On Fire are perhaps the days highlight. On hiatus yet again, as Ethan Miller concentrates on the more retro Howlin’ Rain and the fabulously named Utrillo Kushner starts full-time babysitting (I may have misheard this, being drunk), their last show in a while/ever is a blast. They even play that curious piping instrumental from the last album (I forget the title). Comets only really make sense if you’re in the mood for them, but this was a great way to say goodbye. Though they will surely return, maybe for SP 25. Beachwood Sparks are back too, their perfectly timeless country rock at odds with their general air of, well, grunginess. Even Green River are back, a mere twenty one years since their last shows (except for a warm-up a couple of days before). Earlier Jeff Ament had posited the belief that Arm in Mudhoney is an entirely different character to Arm in Green River, and he’s right. Punk Arm is rejected in favour of Metal Arm, as the frontman gradually becomes inhabited by the spirit of Rob Halford circa 1982, but without the leatherwear. Though it would be nice to claim that this lost band could have been as big as the Beatles, this gloriously heavy handed wall of sound (three guitars!) merely proves that Seattle acts were always rather knowing and self-aware. Green River were good though, but who the hell was going to buy a punk-metal crossover in 1985 or so? Even the Cockney Rejects couldn’t pull that one off with Moz on their side (and Garry Bushell). I learnt several things over the weekend though. Record companies can have second (or third) chances, and as long as Sub Pop has several successful acts, rather than one monstrously popular turn (like Oasis at Creation), then it can last and last. Americans call waistcoats, as sported by Fleet Foxes, ‘vests’. (I think they call vests ‘wifebeaters’, which is nice. Or maybe ‘singlets’.) There is a restaurant in Seattle that names its dishes after musical celebrities. Mariah Carey gets Caesar Salad. Justin Timberlake is a Sloppy Joe. And Kurt Cobain is clams. Which is appropriate, as he was hardly mentioned at all.!