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.