SWINGIN’ ON THE FLIPPITY-FLOP Sub Pop 20

Blurt gives you
the blow-by-blow of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary celebration.

 

BY
GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

Editor’s
Note: When we got word that Sub Pop was throwing a party for itself, we just
had to invite ourselves. Or, more
accurately, our Seattle-based correspondent Gillian G. Gaar, who definitely
knows a thing or two about Sub Pop. She filed three reports on the bash, which
took place July 10-13, which we posted in our News section, along with a slew
of killer photos. We’ve compiled all her text into a single easy-to-read digest
here. Meanwhile, though, if you want to check out those photos, go to the
Thursday-Friday coverage, then the Saturday coverage, and finally the Sunday coverage.

 

 

Thursday, July
10 & Friday, July 11

 

 

Bruce
Pavitt/Jonathan Poneman Oral History – Experience Music Project (Thursday)

Opening Night
Party – The Space Needle (Thursday)

Green River, The Press Corps., The Fluid – Sunset Tavern
(Thursday)

Comedy Show
w/Flight of the Conchords, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Eugene Mirman, Todd
Barry – Moore Theatre (Friday)

 

 

As
the architectural icon most associated with Seattle, it’s not surprising that
the Space Needle is the focal point for celebrations; flying the Seattle
Seahawks’ “12th Man” flag when the football team made it to the
Super Bowl, or setting off fireworks from the structure’s top on New Year’s
Eve. Still, it was a bit of a jolt to see a giant flag with the Sub Pop logo
flying from the top of needle, unfurled on Thursday, July 10th, as
the inaugural event of the record label’s 20th anniversary
celebrations.

 

The
rest of the day brought a history lesson, a party, and a “secret” show that
left a packed house of attendees all hot and bothered. The evening began at the
Experience Music Project museum, where Sub Pop co-founders Bruce Pavitt and
Jonathan Poneman were interviewed for one of EMP’s Oral Histories by senior
curator Jacob McMurray. And there was a surprise guest in the house; Seattle
Mayor Greg Nickels, who read aloud the official proclamation naming July 11-14
as “Sub Pop’s Utterly Lost Weekend,” further urging the city’s residents “to
join me in celebrating Sub Pop’s questionable taste in music, generous nature
and improbable solvency.” As for the talk, Pavitt and Poneman shared various
nuggets of trivia (had it not been for Poneman’s skill in urging the phone
company to not shut off Sub Pop’s phone during the first year, the label may
have made good on its “going out of business” slogan rather too soon), and
assured those endeavoring to start up labels that though there is now much more
competition in the marketplace, the rise of the internet has also led to
greater media opportunities.

 

Then,
following Poneman’s final words, “Let’s party!” invited guests decamped to the
Space Needle, where a party was held on the “Observation Deck” (a mere 100 feet
up, as opposed to the restaurant, where Elvis dined in It Happened At The World’s Fair, which is 500 feet up). In the
elevator on the way up, Pavitt joked to BLURT he heard a rumor there was no free food or drink available (knowing our
penchant for such things), but not only was plenty of each on hand, there was
even a special brew for the occasion: “Loser” pale ale, crafted by the Elysian
Brewing Company, a sweet, hoppy brew that at 6.5% alcohol provides a nice kick.
The event had a feel of a high school reunion — a very cool high school reunion
— as past and present Sub Pop employees and bands reconnected; BLURT spotted Kim Warnick (Fastbacks),
Steve Fisk, Mark Pickerel, Carla Torgerson (Walkabouts), author Michael
Azerrad, and Carla DeSantis (of the late ROCKRGL magazine). Kelley Stoltz, Death Vessel, and Sera Cahoone provided musical
entertainment, though attendees seemed to spend most of their time waiting in
the long drinks lines.

 

But
the label had created a dilemma for attendees; those at the Space Needle party
missed a “secret” show at the Sunset Tavern that occurred at the same time,
featuring spots by Green River and The Fluid (warm-up sets for their SP 20
appearances this weekend), and an ad hoc group with members of both bands,
billing themselves the Press Corps. Mark Arm didn’t pull quite the stunts he
used to during Green River’s heyday (at one memorable show he leapt from the
stage to swing on a light fixture, which began breaking apart; “Not one of my
brightest moments,” he says today, adding, “I was pretty high on MDA”), but he
did manage to dive into the audience, later surfacing on the bar. Fluid singer
John Robinson also made forays into the crowd, which moshed like it was 1989,
even attempting a little stage diving, though most present seemed to have
outgrown such tomfoolery.

 

Friday night’s entertainment
included a comedy show — yes, Sub Pop has released comedy records — with a
lineup boasting a few Flight of the
Conchords
alums (yet another act playing SP 20), beginning with host
Kristen Schaal,
who kept the program moving with such chipper commentary as “Happy birthday,
Mr. Sub Pop! And the weather is perfect today…even if this is the suicide capital
of the world.” Todd Barry also wryly lauded Sub Pop with the observation “Years
ago when other labels wouldn’t sign me — [Sub Pop] also wouldn’t sign me,”
dropping hints that the evening’s set would make a great live release on the
label. Eugene Mirman even devised a special “Memories of Grunge” video in honor
of the occasion, donning a blonde wig and flannel shirt while claiming credit
for suggesting Sub Pop bands try using two names (“Green River…Pearl
Jam…Soundgarden”) and that before the term “grunge” was conceived he’d wanted
to call the new Seattle music “jazz not.”

 

Political
commentary was a prevailing theme, with Barry hitting on the hypocrisy of
“narrow minded fake liberal fuckers,” and Mirman disparaging an anti-abortion
slogan he’d seen at a rally (“America
is better than abortion”) as a “grammatically incorrect protest sign.” Patton
Oswalt conceded that George Bush material was no longer edgy, given the
president’s general lack of popularity, comparing people who’d liked the prez
back in 2000 to Creed fans (“Okay! I was wrong!”), before going on to somehow
compare Republican candidate John McCain to both Syd Barrett and G.G. Allin in
less than five minutes.

 

Both Oswalt and David Cross, each a
proud atheist, took shots at religion, Oswalt providing a particularly good
destruction of how religion was invented and manages to continue provoking
havoc in the world. Cross also went off on an amazing absurdist rant about the
latest useless product he’d seen advertised in the Sky Mall catalogue — the Time Mug, with a clock built right into
the mug, thus eliminating the need to look at your watch. But when a baby in
the audience began squawking, he missed the opportunity to plug the title of
his first Sub Pop release — Shut Up, You
Fucking Baby!

 

In a nice coincidence, the venue,
the Moore Theatre, was where the first Sub Pop “Lame Fest” had been held June
9, 1989 — a show that had Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana sharing the bill.

 

**************************

 

Saturday, July
12

 

 

SP 20 —
Marymoor Park, Redmond WA 

 

 

Time
was, you’d never have expected the phrases “Sub Pop” and “family friendly” to
go together. Yet there they were: a punk rocker wearing bondage pants and a hat
sporting a pentangle, next to a little girl romping around in a red dress with
white polka dots. The first day of the SP 20 festival drew a sell-out,
inter-generational crowd; evidently, the kids who grew up listening to Sub Pop
bands have now seen fit to bring their own progeny to experience the finest in
“grunge,” past and present.

 

A
section of the park (which is quite large) was cordoned off for the event, with
two stages side-by-side, which allowed for rapid-fire changeovers; no downtime
between sets. There were the usual overpriced food and beverage offerings (one
unfortunate attendee found a staple in his collard greens), and if the beer
price of $6 a cup made one grumble, there were at least an impressive nine
selections of brew available (causing one woman to learn Black “Butte” Porter
isn’t pronounced “Butt”). Among the booths promoting
all-ages Seattle
venue The Vera Project, skateboarding for girls (and women), and Obama ’08
(“We’ve given out a few thousand stickers,” a staffer proudly informed BLURT),
there was actual swag to be had: the “Official Free Thing” compilation CD.

 

Music
got underway shortly after noon, with a fine garage rock-tinged set from New York’s own Obits. At
the same time, outside the SP 20 gates, another garage rock flavored Sub Pop
act, Girl Trouble (whose lead singer, Kurt Kendall, sounds like the brother of
the Cramps’ Lux Interior), miffed at not being able to play the event proper,
pounded out an acoustic set while tossing bags of chips to onlookers, an act
later deemed “punk fucking resistance!” by John Robinson, the Fluid’s lead
singer. Back at SP 20, a pair of Canadian bands followed; the Constantines, who
turned in a sizzling set, and Eric’s Trip, the first Canadian band to be signed
by Sub Pop.

 

Loud
continued to be the order of the day for a while; how do The Helio Sequence
manage to kick up such a (pleasing) racket with only two people? Then it was
time for a little old school rocking on the second stage, starting with
Seaweed, still as tight as they were back in the day, even drawing Sub Pop
co-founder Bruce Pavitt down to the front. Not to be outdone, the younger
Pissed Jeans, whose first Sub Pop album came out last year, were just louder
than loud.

 

The
press area, off to the left, was actually a decent enough viewing place, with
picnic benches, shade, and, most importantly, free beer (the Elysian-brewed Sub
Pop “Loser” pale ale). But the real action, as always, was in the VIP area,
where folks chowed down on ribs and soft tacos, made frequent visits to the ice
cream truck, and drank more beer. David Cross was seen being interviewed by Billboard (he was most looking forward
to the Vaselines); Linda Derschang, of trendy Seattle nightspot Linda’s Tavern
was on hand; Eugene Mirman, dismayed at the length of the food lines, instead
exchanged pleasantries with BLURT; former K Records co-owner Candice Pedersen
was spotted; author Michael Azerrad was still hanging out; and BLURT found the time to talk shop with LA Times scribe Ann Powers, who was once
a Seattle resident herself, before she moved on to the bright lights big city.
Indeed, as much as the bands represented the musical side of the Seattle scene of the last
20 years, the backstage attendees featured many of the movers and shakers that
helped get the scene up on its feet.

 

It
was somewhat ironic to see a man wearing a t-shirt reading “I don’t give a fuck
how they do it in California” as the Fleet Foxes began their set, for the
Foxes’ croonings on “Sun Giant” were straight out of the Beach Boys’ playbook.
There was actually a hush over the crowd during their set, though that mood was
broken soon enough when the Fluid took over the second stage. John Robinson
wore a nifty purple shirt and black vest, and was soon leaping about, holding
the mic stand above his head, and finally jumping into the crowd for a spate of
body surfing. And then came Mudhoney. Who doesn’t love Mudhoney? Only fools, my
friends. And they didn’t disappoint, not only bringing back classics like
“Touch Me I’m Sick” and “Sweet Young Thing (Ain’t Sweet No More),” but also
more current, timely tunes like “Hard-On For War.”

 

The
(bitter) sweeter-than-thou Vaselines couldn’t have provided more of a contrast.
The reunited group’s first ever Seattle show
(indeed, their first ever US show was
July 9 at Maxwell’s in Hoboken)
had all the songs most people know because Nirvana covered them (“Son of a
Gun,” “Molly’s Lips,” “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam”), interspersed with plenty
of ribald commentary. Despite Frances McKee’s pleas to make it a “smut-free
zone,” she then cheerfully informed the crowd the band’s extended absence was
due to her being kidnapped and sold into white slavery, with Eugene Kelly
unable to pay the bill. “Just give Frances $20,” Kelly deadpanned
back, “and you can dry hump her.” McKee later queried whether the crowd’s low
energy level was due to all their “dry humping in that field over there.” Alas,
no such activity was observed by BLURT.

 

Iron
and Wine then provided the calm before the storm, with Sam Beam simply standing
center stage, quietly playing acoustic guitar, not something many people can do
while still holding one’s attention; his cover of the Postal Service’s “Such
Great Heights” was a highlight. Then the energy ratcheted back up again for
Flight of the Conchords, who unfurled a jolly cache of tunes to end the evening
on a high note, “Robots (The Humans Are Dead),” “Boom (She’s So Hot),” “Jenny,”
and “Ex-Girlfriend” among them. Comedian Todd Barry was brought onstage for
“Business Time,” and all and sundry were then sent home at a reasonable hour.

 

 

And,
oddly, BLURT saw no one wearing a backwards baseball cap — once the trademark
of “grunge” fashion — the entire day.

 

 

**************************

 

 

Sunday, July 13

 

 

SP 20 —
Marymoor Park, Redmond WA 

 

 

The
second day of SP 20 was a more laid-back affair for much of the day than
Saturday had been. Attendance was a bit lighter, though the sun just as hot,
and security just as vigilant at chasing away folks hanging around outside the
gates, lest they experience too much of the show for free (I saw cops telling
some folks sitting at a picnic table waiting for the friends who had their
tickets, “It’s time for you to do your waiting in the parking lot now”).

 

But
in general, the day started off in a mellow fashion. First up were the Ruby
Suns, down to a duo for this performance, with Ryan McPhun holding down most of
the fort on vocals, drums, and turntables, the band veering between bright pop
and soothing trance sounds that were rather at odds with the bright sunlight.
Grand Archives produced swaths of swirling sound in their set, a motif
continued by Blitzen Trapper, with a folky undercurrent bursting through their
layered harmonies.

 

Things
began taking a harder edge with Kinski, whose hard-driving instrumentals
created a powerful droning that was stealthily hypnotic, especially after you’d
been sitting in the sun drinking beers for a few hours. Foals, who suffered a
few equipment problems at the start of their set (“Every time we come to
Seattle shit breaks”), played a sharp, brittle dance rock that harkened back to
the cool, clinical beats of ‘80s new wave. France’s Les Thugs turned in the
first truly blistering set of the day, pounding out a ferocious punk assault,
once some minor sound problems had been worked out; this was the kind of sound
that fought its way out of Seattle’s clubs on the route to “World Domination,”
as Sub Pop co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman would say.

 

One
fun thing about SP 20 were all the vintage t-shirts people unearthed for the
event; Green River’s “Ride The Fucking Six
Pack,” Soundgarden’s “Total Fucking Godhead,” and the classic “Loser” tee (with
a Sub Pop logo on the back). Ben Scheelhaase, of Medford, Oregon’s Vile
Donations (myspace.com/vdoregon), who’d picked up just such a shirt at the
event, was lucky enough to acquire the signatures of Mark Arm (Mudhoney), Chad
Channing (Nirvana), Jack Endino (ace producer), and Charles Peterson (photog
supreme) on the shirt during the day. Asked what he liked about Sub Pop bands,
Scheelhaase replied “Everything!”

 

I
myself wore a “Lamestain” shirt, drawing on the fake “grunge slang” Sub Pop
employee (and now vice president) Megan Jasper had infamously made up for a New York Times reporter back in 1992. “I
never thought it would make it into print,” she told me, and indeed, who could
ever have believed that we “grungesters” actually used expressions like
“Swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (for “hanging out”)? But a “Lexicon of Grunge”
duly appeared in the Times’ November
16, 1992 issue, with rival label C/Z Records quickly printing up some t-shirts
with various slang terms.

 

Just
as much revelry was going on backstage, with Kobe beef burgers available, kegs
soon drained dry of “Loser” pale ale, and such folks as Jack Endino, Kevin
Whitworth (Love Battery), Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, who
couldn’t be persuaded to reunite for SP 20), Chad Channing and Channing’s
neighbors, Carrie and Vince Stamper, hosts of Tractorfest, the biggest unknown
music fest in Washington state (which this year will feature burlesque acts;
no, the fest has no tractor pulls). All of which thrilled Chris Pugh, guitarist
with the reformed Swallow (who didn’t perform at SP 20, but are recording for
Seattle-based Flotation Records). Pugh was busy interviewing attendees for a
documentary on Seattle’s
pre-grunge scene which he hopes to have done in two years. “It’ll have many
many hours of footage,” he promises, and so it should after that length of
time.

 

I
also briefly caught up with Frances McKee (Vaselines), when Brandon Summers of
Helio Sequence graciously let her cut ahead of him in the beer line, taking
time to praise the Vaselines’ set as he did so. I did the same, then expressed
my doubt that she wasn’t getting any “action” on tour, as she’d bemoaned the
previous day onstage. She laughed and said if she had, “My husband would
probably have something to say about that,” wise words in this era of YouTube
(and internet blog postings). On learning I was an Actual Media Person, she
insisted on giving me a copy of her wonderful 2006 release Sunny Moon, which I agreed to take on condition that she sign it
for me, which she did: “Lots of love Gillian, From Frances.” Ah, how
sweet.  These are the perks, folks.

 

As
the evening began, the crowds in front of both stages began to thicken in
anticipation. A reunited Beachwood Sparks kicked off at 6:40, and though
singer/guitarist Chris Gunst admitted they hadn’t played in some time, their
set betrayed no sign of nerves. Their alt-country stylings (including
“Confusion Is Nothing New” and “Silver Morning After”)
offered a clear demonstration to anyone paying attention that Sub Pop may have
been rooted in “grunge,” but they’ve had little problem in embracing other
genres as well.

 

But
of course, if it hadn’t been for the g-word, there might not have been an SP 20
at all, which is why the Green River reunion was the day’s — heck, the entire
festival’s — main event. Mark Arm, wearing the same “Green River Summer Camps”
t-shirt he wore at the band’s warm up show July 10 at Seattle’s Sunset Tavern,
proved once again he’s Seattle’s answer to Iggy Pop (and aren’t we glad to have
him!), as he writhed around the stage, contorting his body like a pretzel,
surpassing even Mudhoney’s performance the previous day. Classics like “Swallow
My Pride” and “Come On Down” were present and accounted for; Arm playfully
accused the Melvins of stealing “Leeech” from a Green River demo and taking it
for their own, Led Zeppelin style (“Making us the Willie Dixon of grunge…but
we’ve melded the legal power of Pearl Jam and Sub Pop and we’re going to crush
those bastards!”); and the audience got a mini-grunge history lesson with Arm
introducing the band members by referring to their previous bands undoubtedly
unknown to most of those in attendance (Jeff Ament and Bruce Fairweather,
Deranged Diction; Steve Turner and Stone Gossard, The Ducky Boys; Alex Shumway,
Spluii Numa).

 

“And
I’m the evil genius behind Mr. Epp,” Arm cracked with a grin. At the end of the
band’s set, Shumway dove into the crowd, and the rest of the band tossed out
brand spanking new “Ride the Fucking Six Pack” t-shirts (Shumway later hurling
a handful of drumsticks in the same direction), causing an even greater frenzy
than the mini moshpits that had broken out.

 

Wolf
Parade didn’t throw out any t-shirts or drumsticks, but managed to work the
crowd up in their own way, such as choosing “Kissing the Beehive” (from their
latest album, At Mount Zoomer) to
perform, which burns along for a heady 10 minutes. Was it odd to end the
festival celebrating a Seattle label with a band
from Montreal?
The crowd didn’t seem to mind, swept up in the delirium of such numbers as “An
Animal In Your Care,” “I Am A Runner,” and “Soldier’s Grin.” As the last band
on stage, they were actually allowed to do an encore, choosing “I’ll Believe in
Anything,” from their debut album, Apologies
to the Queen Mary
. Those quick on the uptake can catch both Wolf Parade and
Foals at Neumo’s in Seattle
this evening (June 14).

 

For
a label known for its penchant of hyperbole, it was somewhat odd to not have
Pavitt and Poneman take the stage at some point to engage in some self-congratulatory
badinage. Instead, the two could be seen in the crowd throughout the day,
checking out the bands, clearly still as interested in experiencing music the
old-fashioned way as they were when they started their label.

 

And
so it was perhaps fitting that at SP 20, they chose to let the music speak for
itself.

Leave a Reply