A Fiendish Conversation with Suicide Squeeze's David Dickenson
Seattle indie record label Suicide Squeeze has always been content operating under the radar as the unassuming cool kid that kind of kept to itself, dating back to its early seven-inches by acts like Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, and Pedro the Lion. Label founder David Dickenson has never tried to compete with Sub Pop or Barsuk's standards. Suicide Squeeze knows its place and continually puts out quality releases ranging from Minus the Bear's early breakthrough math rock albums to last year's excellently snotty Childbirth LP, Women's Rights.
August marks Suicide Squeeze Record's 20th anniversary, and it's time to celebrate. In addition to reissuing some of its most beloved releases, Suicide Squeeze throws a two-night concert party this week at Neumos (Aug 25) and the Neptune Theatre (Aug 26). The Thursday show at Neumos features a riotous lineup of the Coathangers, Childbirth, Guantanamo Baywatch, and Audacity. Friday's concert at the Neptune Theatre includes Minus the Bear (the label's most successful act), This Will Destroy You, David Bazan's electronic rock project Headphones, Michael Nau, and other guests.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Dickenson about developing artists on Suicide Squeeze, how pizza and Dinosaur Jr. brought him to Seattle, and the intersection of Elliott Smith and Outkast.
What initially made you want to start Suicide Squeeze?
At the time, when I first moved to Seattle, I was just kind of trying to find my way and decide what I was going to do with my life. I moved here when I was 20 years old, and I just wasn’t sure what my life was going to look like. I ended up working at a pizza place called Hot Lips. Most of the folks that I worked with were in bands, and I found myself going out to way more shows than I ever had in my life up until that point. I was just listening to more and more music. I was really into what was going on and what my friends were doing.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t gifted to play music, so I wanted to figure out a way that I could get involved. At this point, I had gotten married and my wife was playing in a band called, 764-HERO with John Atkins, who was one of my co-workers and friends at Hot Lips. I was really into his band, Hush Harbor and everything that he was doing. They started playing music together, and so I’d go on tours with them.
Then one day, I just felt like, oh, I know what I’ll do, I’ll start a record label. They were kind enough to allow me to put out a 7-inch for them, and it just kind of went from there; just building off of the relationships that I made from meeting people on the road and just the bands that were coming out of the Northwest at that time.
Where were you before you moved to Seattle?
I actually moved from Boise, Idaho. I randomly made it to Seattle. I was living in an apartment with my friend Jenn and she was like, “Oh, I’m going to Seattle and see Dinosaur Jr. at the Paramount.” She asked if I wanted to go and said, “Yeah, I’ll go.” I only had about 25 bucks or something, but we came here.
I ended up talking to Jenn’s friend Melody, who lived here, and telling her like, “Oh, yeah. I’m not really happy being in Boise. I need to figure out what I want to do.” She just happened to be the assistant manager at the pizzeria that I was talking about, and she said, “Oh well, I’ll get you a job and you can stay here.” So, I did. I just stayed in Seattle and started working and lived at her place.
So that turned out to be a very well-timed concert.
Yeah, exactly! Yeah, no kidding. [Laughs]
What do you think makes Suicide Squeeze a distinctly Seattle record label?
I don’t know if people will look at Suicide Squeeze from an outsider’s perspective and feel the way that I do about it being a Seattle label. It’s a Sub Pop’s town, and I totally understand that. It’s a label I’ve always respected.
Even though we’ve gotten away from our focus being on mainly Northwest artists to a certain degree, I still just look at Seattle as our roots. This is where the label grew up, and where I grew up into an adult. I appreciate what we have here in Seattle and all the people that make up the music community. Just being a part of that is special to me.
When you’re looking back over 20 years, do any particular releases stick out as personal favorites?
There are a several, honestly. For starters, our third release being a Modest Mouse 7-inch, that was a big deal to me early on. And then our fifth release being from Elliot Smith, who to me was—and still is—one of the greatest. After my wife and I had gotten married, we lived in Hawaii for a bit, and I had a cassette that I would listen to when I walked to work. One side was [Elliott Smith’s] Roman Candle and the other was Outkast’s Southernplayalisticaadillacmuzik. At that point starting a label was whatever, I was just buying records and whatnot, but in my mind Elliott was someone that would’ve be at the top of my [artist] wish list. So the fact that it ended up happening, and then we got to work with him again, was an extremely big deal to me.
Also, there's Minus the Bear’s Highly Refined Pirates. That was the first album that was actually a big success story for us, in terms of everything: sales, radio, press, it just checked all those boxes. That album allowed us to invest more in the label. It gave us the chance to release more records at a faster clip than we were doing at that time.
What do you feel like is the legacy of Suicide Squeeze 20 years in it? How do you want the label to be remembered?
I would like to be seen as a label that puts out solid music, that’s dependable and can be counted on as a label, and is willing to take chances on new artists and help develop them. That’s a big thing for me. Looking at a band the Coathangars, who we’ve worked with now for 8+ years, they’ve gone from a band that could barely play their instruments to a band that’s coming to headline Neumos, their biggest headlining show to date. Seeing all that they’ve accomplished, especially with the new album, that’s exciting to me. It gives me that proud dad feeling, I guess.
Has the big anniversary led you to reflect back on any specific standout memories?
It’s been several months of reflection. It’s given me time to think about things like the first time one of our records made the Billboards Top 200 or the first time we had on artist on late night TV; those little milestones that’s happened along. the way and moving on to some of the current artists and what they’ve been able to accomplish, it’s just a lot of reflection.
I’ve also been thinking about Minus the Bear, and the fact that we’ve had a relationship for as long as we have. Their This Is What I Know About Being a Gigantic record release show was the first show they ever played. So while they went on and put out a couple of records with Dangerbird, the fact that we’ve had all these releases together meant a lot to the label. A lot of my firsts had to do with them as a band. When you think that Menos el Oso has scanned 94,000 copies or Planet of Ice has scanned 90,000+ copies, those are massive for a label the size of Suicide Squeeze. I felt like a lot of our growth happened around the same time, and obviously they just continue to get bigger and bigger. That’s what it’s all about.
How did you decide on putting together concerts to celebrate Suicide Squeeze’s 20th anniversary?
I honestly kind of waffled on whether to do shows or not, just because it’s such a big undertaking; trying to get artists lined up and everything else that goes into putting together these shows. But ultimately, I just felt like it would be a shame to not try and celebrate making it to 20 years with the city of Seattle. I thought it would be nice to gather some of our bands that aren’t from the area and put together a couple shows. It’s a big deal that a label like Suicide Squeeze has made it 20 years.
Suicide Squeeze 20th Anniversary
Aug 25 & 26, Neumos and Neptune Theatre, $13–$28