IT IS THE SWEET GOLDEN HOUR for Fleet Foxes. By June, they will have released their debut album. They will have booked an appearance on David Letterman. Their wooly, dimly-lit faces will be boxed and captioned inside the pages of every last bastion of physical and digital rock-and-roll journalism. They will be, for better and perhaps for worse, semifamous. Or at least as semifamous as an indie-rock band can get.

But on this April night, packed inside the high-ceilinged, concrete club ambience of Portland’s Holocene, you can be forgiven for confusing lead singer Robin Pecknold for a roadie. Fleet Foxes are still just one more Seattle band hoping to harness a smoldering buzz. Their recorded output consists of two hard-to-find mini albums, their hype contained to a few frothing reviews accompanied by gauzy press photos. For the moment, the Foxes exist only as excited whispers, coronations flung from the mouths of music geeks and the fingers of tastemaking bloggers. As someone hauls a mandolin onto the Holocene’s tiny stage, the faithful press on to the front of the crowd, trying, with geometric pivots of their arms, not to spill their beer.

This is Sub Pop’s next big thing?

For eyes and ears of a certain age that were weaned on the visceral crotch-kick of the label’s early ’90s origins, the contrast in styles is impressive. And confusing. But if you needed more proof of Sub Pop’s evolution from the progenitor of that dinosaur called grunge to its current status as a bastion of pristine sugar rushes like the Shins, these five, hairy twentysomethings taking the stage are it.

Keyboardist Casey Wescott is just a pair of eyes peering out from between a mangy beard and an overgrown shrub of black hair. Skye Skjelset, the guitarist, looks a lot like a young Ozzy Osbourne and is the only one without clavicle-length facial hair. Pecknold himself looks like the Lord and Savior—if the Son of God had a propensity for wool caps. When he takes the stage he nestles himself into a chair, hunches his shoulders, and opens his mouth. What comes out sounds like the whole of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been stuffed down his throat: It is otherworldly. Soon the rest of the band joins him in a cappella four-part harmony.

Nobody in the crowd dares even swallow his beer for fear of shattering the fragile beauty 
of the moment.

A lot can change in two decades. Before Microsoft Office, before the dot-com bubble was blown, before Starbucks turned ordering coffee into a 15-syllable affair, there was Sub Pop, which marks its 20th birthday this year. It’s an occasion many people will celebrate at the label’s outdoor music festival at Marymoor Park on July 12 and 13. It’s also an occasion that, frankly, many people never thought would happen. Because “Going Out of Business Since 1988” wasn’t just one of the label’s patented smart-ass antimarketing slogans—it was also true. Sup Pop might have unexpectedly changed the planet (or at least a few million ears) in the ’90s, but, since the days when the whole world was wailing along with Kurt Cobain on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” they’ve spent a lot of the time just trying to stay afloat.

“If you’d have told me Mudhoney, much less Sub Pop, would still be around 20 years later,” says Mark Arm, “I would’ve laughed in your face.” Arm is lead singer of Mudhoney, the -label’s flagship band, a band whose sludgy punk sound spawned a revolutionary moment in rock history. At 46, he stands as one of the last links to the label’s early past. An enterprise that started out as a way for founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman to release records by friends like Mudhoney has remained vital (and profitable) by taking on artists like the Shins and the Postal Service, two hit-making bands who rely more on friendly hooks than the grating guitars of indie rock. Both eras of the storied label’s history will be on display at Sub Pop’s two-day birthday party. “If you were just talking about the old bands, it’d probably draw like 200 people,” Arm says, laughing. “But, because of all the new bands, they’ll probably fill the place.”

Yep, the label that once smirkingly boasted of “world domination” is still alive.

From the front porch of his eco-friendly Orcas Island home, Bruce Pavitt traces a ferry scooting across the still waters of the East Sound. Hummingbirds dart around the yard. As he talks a couple of bald eagles soar in the sky. These sorts of things happen to Pavitt daily. There are no billboards here. No I-5 traffic jams. No strip malls. Just a never-ending horizon of greens and blues.

From here it’s a one-hour ferry ride plus a two-hour drive back to the city he helped put on the map. But it seems a lot farther. “I needed to give myself some distance,” Pavitt says, speaking in a calm, almost stoned-sounding drone. “When you’re in the middle of something like what happened to Sub Pop it does a real number on your head. I feel like I’ve had to work through a bunch of ego stuff.”

Even now, sitting inside the house that Sub Pop paid for, you can hear remnants of amazement as Pavitt retells the story. It was 1979, and Pavitt was a student at Evergreen State College. The label that would eventually rise to national prominence got its start as a photocopied and stapled indie-rock fanzine called Subterranean Pop. By 1983, Pavitt had moved to Seattle, shortened the name to Sub Pop, and slapped it on both a column he was writing for the erstwhile local music biweekly, The Rocket, and a radio show on KCMU. Then came that iconic logo—the white-on-black “Sub” over the black-on-white “Pop”—and his first compilation of singles, Sub Pop 100.

In fact, not until 1987 did Pavitt meet Poneman, a promoter and fellow DJ at KCMU. Poneman ponied up $20,000 to fund Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, the first EP of what would become one of the Seattle music phenomenon’s biggest bands. The next year, on April 1, 1988, the two officially opened Sub Pop’s first office in the Terminal Sales Building, a historic 11-story office building at First and Virginia. The space was so tiny they had to stack albums around the toilet.

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Something was definitely happening in Seattle, though. Scene-galvanizing compilations and primordial grunge releases from bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana. T-shirts with slogans like “Loser” on the front that helped define an attitude. Rock journalist Everett True sounded the dinner bell with a 1989 article in Melody Maker: This thing called grunge was ready to be served to the masses. The major labels took notice.

This was also the first time Sub Pop almost went belly-up. Living up to the hype was expensive, and the now-undersize distribution end of things was bleeding money. In the spring and summer of 1991, Poneman and Pavitt laid off 20 of their 25 employees. “When you were in the office, you felt the stress, the financial pressure,” says Megan Jasper, who started at the label as a receptionist and now serves as its vice president. “But in the outside world everybody thought that Sub Pop had more money than the company could handle. And that was because of the way everything was being marketed at the time.”

Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, which claimed the number-one perch on the Billboard chart by January 1992, briefly buoyed the label. Sub Pop received a buyout from Geffen Records on the band’s contract, plus royalties on future albums, and that income helped pull them out of the red. But in the wake of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Seattle inspired a full-on, major-label feeding frenzy. “A lot of the bands we would work with on miniscule budgets,” Poneman says, recalling the chaos, “were suddenly, within months of our initial relationship, being handed offers for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

To keep up, Sub Pop entered a joint venture with Warner Bros. Records in 1995. In return for its investment, Warners received 49 percent of Sub Pop. Pavitt and Poneman were instantly rich. “One year you’re scraping by and eating Top Ramen,” Poneman says. “A year or two later you’re millionaires. Frankly, just dealing with having a lot of money all of a sudden made for a lot of crazy head trips.”

So too did their uneasy union with Warners. With the mega media conglomerate holding nearly a split ownership in the company, Sub Pop soon became what Poneman calls a “faux major label.” They started spending more on band advances, listening for hits, and even opened satellite offices in Boston and Toronto.

Within a year, Pavitt left day-to-day operations of the label he founded. “I was way into punk rock in the late ’70s,” Pavitt says now. “What really resonated with me was the sense of freedom and creativity in the punk scene. The great irony was that [Sub Pop] became more left-brain dominant. There was more emphasis on organization, and less and less on creativity. There was a certain point where sitting in a cube for eight hours didn’t feel very punk rock. The business can be fun, but it can also suck your life force.”

For most of the late ’90s, Poneman had to hand over his own money just to keep the doors open. Morale hit an all-time low.

Oddly enough, during this second Dark Age the reincarnation of the Sub Pop Singles Club, in which subscribers received new tunes by indie acts via mail, released music from bands like Modest Mouse, Zumpano, and the Go. Modest Mouse’s warped guitar rock would eventually go platinum; Zumpano morphed into indie-pop supergroup the New Pornographers; and the Go guitarist, the young Detroit fireballer Jack White, soon became one of music’s biggest names as half of the White Stripes. None ended up sticking with the label. “At the time,” Poneman admits, “we just didn’t always have the right chemistry for embracing and producing success.”

Maybe if it hadn’t been for a meeting in Chico, California, between Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock and a singer-songwriter from Albuquerque named James Mercer, Sub Pop would’ve continued circling the bowl. But it was there that Mercer handed Brock a tape of a new project he’d been working on, a band called the Shins. Their songs were lo-fi and poppy, with humongous hooks that lodged in your head like sweet tumors. The first time he heard the music, Poneman passed. But friends of the band within Sub Pop were persistent. Finally he brought the Shins in, signed them, and made sure his entire staff was on hand when the band played its first Seattle show in front of 40 people.

“That’s the thing I learned from the early failure of the Warners deal,” Poneman says. “You never know where your next hit is going to come from. You can’t predict it. Things just have to come together, and in this case it was a combination of wonderful people and wonderful music. The Shins became emblematic of the great music that’s started appearing again this decade.”

Steve Manning, a publicist at the label and a member of the crowd for that first Shins show, is more to the point about the turnaround: “We stopped looking for the next hit song and just got back to signing bands that we really liked. If people didn’t like it…fuck it.”

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Sub Pop had to change its sound to survive. It’s not that the label stopped putting out great music in the late ’90s, but what had first defined them had become a taint. Not just to listeners, but to many bands as well. Mercer admits that while his first memory of Sub Pop was Nirvana’s breakthrough, the fact that Sub Pop had recently signed the moody goth rock of the Jesus and Mary Chain helped the now Portland-based Shins imagine a future with the label. “There was definitely a moment at first where it was like, ‘Why does this grunge label want to work with a band like the Shins?’ ” Mercer says. “But our situation being what it was, that would’ve been like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Besides, it was obvious that by that time they were signing really different things and becoming this really eclectic label.”

Good fortune steamrolled as quickly as it had in the early ’90s. In 2001, the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World immediately became an indie favorite. The following year another Sub Pop artist, a bearded acoustic singer-songwriter from Florida named Sam Beam—performing under the moniker Iron and Wine—released The Creek Drank the Cradle to fawning reviews and solid sales. The “indie folk” genre exploded. In 2003, the Shins’ follow-up CD Chutes Too Narrow hit big, and for the first time in its history Sub Pop turned and maintained a profit. When TV’s Scrubs star Zach Braff featured two Shins songs in his directorial debut, Garden State, in 2004, the band went supernova. It would become the first Sub Pop band ever to play Saturday Night Live.

Latching onto something as Beatlesque as the Shins made it easier for Sub Pop to sign the Postal Service, a side project of breezy electronica wunderkind Jimmy Tamborello. In 2005, the Postal Service track “Such Great Heights” (featuring vocals by Ben Gibbard of Seattle’s chart-topping band Death Cab for Cutie) became synonymous with the hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy. It has since been downloaded nearly 12 million times on Sub Pop’s Web site alone. The accompanying album, Give Up, sold nearly 1 million copies and is now the label’s second-best-selling CD. (The biggest selling—1.6 million and counting—remains Nirvana’s Bleach.)

Sub Pop’s evolution continued in 2007 with the release of The Distant Future, an EP from the New Zealand comedic folk duo Flight of the Conchords, who, oddly enough, were signed before their cult HBO series ever got picked up and made them must-sees. Their next record, this year’s self—titled full-length debut, sold 55,000 copies in its first week.

Jeff Gordinier, the author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, says Sub Pop deserves a spot in generational lore alongside other slacker-created milestones like Google, Yahoo!, and YouTube. “If you bring up Sub Pop nobody cringes—it’s still a T-shirt you could wear,” says Gordinier. “They’ve done what every Gen Xer dreams of doing—making something small batch and indie, making it sustainable, and making an impact without losing your values. Especially in light of the music business collapsing on its own weight, Sup Pop is the cockroach that survived the apocalypse.”

Unlike in the early ’90s, when Sub Pop seemed almost embarrassed by its unintentional mainstream success, the label is embracing this second wave of good fortune. This summer Poneman will be presenting the Shins with gold certificates in recognition of sales of a half million records for both Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. The awards will join one for Nirvana’s Bleach as the only official recognition of massive sales in the office. The Bleach certificate hangs in the men’s room. “The Bleach award got made right ahead of what happened to Kurt,” Poneman says, referring to Cobain’s suicide in 1993. “So it felt dirty. Besides, we rode a lot of the sales for it after they left Sub Pop, so we figured Kurt would’ve appreciated us hanging it in the bathroom.”

“With the Shins, though, it was different,” he continues. “Those gold records are a by-product of the band’s hard work making amazing records, and we were right there with them, so there’s more of a sense of pride.” Poneman pauses, perhaps catching himself sounding a bit too sincere. “That said…they’ll probably end up on the bathroom wall as well.”

Sub Pop’s vending machine still kicks out cans of Rainier for 75 cents. And there’s the platinum certificate for Nirvana’s Bleach in the men’s bathroom.

Informed of the plans for his band’s milestone, Mercer almost blushes: “I would be honored to have our records be hung where Sub Pop shits.”

As for the principals in the Sub Pop story, they have chosen different paths. Pavitt maintained an ownership stake in the label until a few years ago when Poneman bought him out. The only involvement he has with the label now is as a member of an advisory board. These days Pavitt DJs on Orcas Island and attends new agey festivals like Burning Man or Earthdance. He also takes trips—both the literal and figurative kinds—to places like Peru, where he explores his interest in shamanism and psychedelics.

Poneman is the lifer. With no wife or kids, his world still revolves around the label. And his dog, Bessie. “We’ve managed to make amends to the creditors we pissed off years ago,” Poneman says with a laugh. “Right now we’re in pretty good shape.”

The ultimate sign of Sub Pop’s resurrection might be this: At the height of the dot-com boom, when the label was still in the Terminal Sales Building, they were basically kicked out of their space. Their corporate culture, they were told, was “no longer appropriate for the building.” Twelve years later that 11th-floor suite remains empty, but the building manager is marketing it to anyone who will listen as a bona fide Seattle historical marker: the first home of Sub Pop.

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Walking through the halls of Sub Pop’s new headquarters is like sneaking into the private museum of one of rock’s most influential—and infamous—eras. Located on a tree-lined street downtown, just above a swanky restaurant, Sub Pop has been in this third-floor space for nearly three years. Until recently, the orange walls had remained relatively bare. Marking a milestone as noteworthy as a 20th anniversary, though, has forced the typically wise—cracking company to recognize a new emotion—nostalgia.

On the walls hang black-and-white photos, chaotic live shots from some of the label’s first shows. There’s Kurt Cobain flinging himself into a drum kit. There’s Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell—shirtless, of course—his long black hair trailing his skull like a head-banging comet. There’s a roiling sea of arms and legs and naked torsos. The crowds look possessed. Hurling their bodies against each other, some of them so entranced by the music they’re throwing their bodies onto the stage, then back into the audience. You can almost see the sweat pooling inside the framed glass. Twenty or more photos just like it, still wrapped in brown paper, sit on a shelf by the window. Charles Peterson, the man responsible for the most memorable of the images, might not get the same recognition as, say, an Alfred Eisenstaedt, but nobody captured the spastic glory of Seattle rock in the early ’90s better.

In the office kitchen, band stickers are plastered like spit wads on one wall while tiny snapshots, the products of the photo booth in the corner, line another. The vending machine still kicks out cans of Rainier for 75 cents. And there’s the platinum certificate for Bleach in the men’s bathroom.

But not all relics of Sub Pop’s formative years are inanimate. From the stock room, vintage Jefferson Airplane is blasting from a boom box, and there, filling CD and T-shirt orders for the mom-and-pop record stores of the world, stands the man who—much to his chagrin—is not only credited with coining the term “grunge,” but is responsible for creating the genre’s sludgy, drop-D tuning template and lyrical snarl. Whether playing with the short-lived but influential Green River or the impossible-to-kill Mudhoney, Mark Arm is for all intents the Omega Man of Sub Pop. Save for the six years when it (like every other band in Seattle) was signed to a major label, Mudhoney has been the official mascot of Sub Pop. When he’s not on the road, Arm punches the clock at the label, filling orders and acting as a sort of living, breathing talisman for any new band that tours the facility.

“I’m the guy in the warehouse,” he says, slipping into the guise of a smarmy Wal-Mart greeter. “I say, ‘Nice to meet you.’ Nobody’s fainted or anything. Then again, I’m not good at subtle cues.”

It’s hard to tell if Arm has changed at all in the 20 years since Mudhoney—the band that never quite made it big, but had awesome ringside seats—released the nasty Seattle punk template Superfuzz Bigmuff. His blonde, not-quite-shoulder-length hair is still intact. He’s still impossibly skinny. And, judging by Mudhoney’s new album, The Lucky Ones, he still knows how to kick ass.

He admits that it’s weird seeing some of his more explosive, if not awkward, moments captured in framed photos on the office walls. “I was gonna go off to college and be a writer,” he says. “I accidentally dedicated my life to music. But I never gave a shit about being cool—I do what I do just to please myself. Although, I’ll admit, the fact that I like to watch Top Chef probably isn’t the coolest thing.”

Four of the five Fleet Foxes pull up in front of Sub Pop headquarters. Just in time, Poneman and VP Megan Jasper turn the corner. The meeting isn’t coincidence, of course. It’s business. The Foxes are here today to talk strategy for their album. Marketing. Advertising. Press. After making sure everybody’s properly caffeinated, Poneman, his staff, and the band will retire to the corner boardroom overlooking downtown.

Back in the old days Poneman and Pavitt didn’t really court bands. Everybody knew each other. Contracts were drawn up on napkins soaked through with the sweat of beers. But that was a long time ago. “We’ve gone through an extended hot phase the last few years,” Poneman says. “Obviously we hope that continues, but if it were to stop I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Foxes singer Pecknold is just 22, but being born and raised in this city, he holds Sub Pop in high regard. “They made it cool to grow up in Seattle,” he says. “But having said that, I think it would’ve been a bad decision to sign to a label based on its history. We signed with Sub Pop because of what they are now—varied and cool.”

Two nights later, Mudhoney and Fleet Foxes share the stage at a semisecret showcase at Ballard’s Sunset Tavern. Arm, sans guitar, prowls the stage and mounts speakers like vintage Iggy Pop. Pecknold sits on a stool and unleashes that typhoon whirling in his throat.

Watching the two acts pass the torch onstage, it’s clear that while grunge resonates as a cultural milestone, in the insulated history of Sub Pop it’s just a footnote. Something that happened a long time ago.

After the show, Foxes guitarist Skjelset corners Arm to deliver a compliment: “My mom’s a big fan of yours,” he says.

This article appeared in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.