Is director Cameron Crowe a secret Sub Pop A&R man? During “the Grunge Years,” the former Rolling Stone scribe gave us “Singles,” a valentine to the Seattle scene with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard joining Matt Dillon in Citizen Dick (“Touch Me I’m Dick!”). These days, a good chunk of the Sub Pop roster looks like Stillwater, the band from “Almost Famous”: Comets On Fire. Blitzen Trapper. Iron & Wine. Fleet Foxes. Green River’s Steve Turner and Gossard himself. Hair in the face is now hair on the face.
Even chrome-domed comic David Cross was not immune, sporting shrubbery that made him look like either a real-life Wooly Willy or the Jewish Isaac Hayes. “I borrowed this beard from Jim of My Morning Jacket,” Cross said on Saturday, while hanging in the VIP section at SP20, the label’s two-day anniversary bash. “I have to give it back to Sam from Iron & Wine after I’m done with it.”
Truth is Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt set a hirsute tone right from the start. And Pavitt also set the tone for having fun at SP20. When we arrived at Marymoor Park in time to see the Constantines on Saturday, the first person I noticed was a lithe guy in an army cap and river shorts, his beard now just a bit of chin-dust, waving his hands and rocking out in the third row. I would see him in the crowd again another dozen times over the weekend. “I like getting right up front,” Pavitt says. “There’s a number of photos of the early grunge scene where you see a band, and there’s one face next to the stage, and that’s me.”
SP20’s lineup served to illustrate how far the label has traveled from its monolithic origin (both aesthetically and geographically) while still tending its roots. There were new bands from Oxford (Foals), Montreal (Wolf Parade) and Auckland (Ruby Suns) and mid-period signings from L.A. (Beachwood Sparks), Moncton (Eric’s Trip) and Chicago (Red Red Meat), but also a fresh crop of Northwest artists (Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, Helio Sequence, Grand Archives).
And while the presence of Green River, Les Thugs, the Fluid and the Vaselines gave history its proper due, that’s not what really moved the tickets. Saturday’s show, headlined by Flight of the Conchords and Iron & Wine, was sold out, but Sunday’s was just two-thirds full. Gossard and Ament’s presence in Green River didn’t seem to bring out any extra members of the “Jamily,” and with Montrealers Wolf Parade atop the bill, one couldn’t help but think there must have been a grain of truth to early rumors of a Shins appearance (in May their name was listed on Marymoor’s Web site).
Fan and blogger dreams of unannounced additions, all-star jams or more surprise reunions were just that. With no MC and very few breaks between sets (there were two adjacent stages), this was truly not a festival for navel-gazing.
“That was intentional,” says Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop’s other patriarch. “We believe that the event’s a party first and foremost. There’s really nothing to plug. We’re not trying to market and or promote anything. We just want to have a good time and let the music basically-as music does-speak for itself.”
Poneman allows there’s one band he might have liked to see. “The way I got into Sub Pop was working with Bruce on Soundgarden’s single, and the ‘Screaming Life’ EP,” he says. “So for sentimental reasons, it might have been fun to have them play. But the flip side of it is, the event has turned out so perfectly that I really can’t imagine it being any other way.”
Other news and notes from SP20:
* One band that wasn’t invited to participate but still turned up to play a gig was Tacoma garage-rockers Girl Trouble, who set up under a shady tree outside the entrance Saturday. The band’s “Hit It or Quit It” album was released by Sub Pop (and K Records) in 1988, the label’s first year of existence.
“It was the first full-length album they put out,” says frontman K.P. Kendall. “So we did feel kind of slighted. We’ve been a band the entire time. We’ve never broken up or anything.” Indeed, Girl Trouble, Mudhoney and the Walkabouts are probably the longest-running post-punk bands in the Northwest. “We’re not stopping until one of us dies,” says Kendall.
Thus, they took matters into their own hands — though the performance lost some of its rebel oomph when Sub Pop plugged it on its Web site. Marymoor Park also gave the band tacit approval. “They took the high road,” Kendall says. Oh, and the “Hit It Or Quit It” catalog number? SP 020.
* After three U.S. reunion gigs with his seminal late ’80s group the Vaselines, Eugene Kelly’s also getting back together with his other band, Eugenius, which released two records on Atlantic in the early ’90s (and were called Captain America until Marvel Comics took exception).
“A guy who used to come and see us years ago, he started a record company recently called Weekender,” Kelly says. “He offered us some money to record just a couple of songs, to see what it sounds like. So we went to the studio, and he loves them, so he’s going to give us more money to record. It’s hard. Everybody has families and jobs, but we’ve got tons of unreleased material too. So maybe at some point next year we might have an album out.”
* Less than an hour after playing with Green River, Gossard turned up at Quinn’s, a Capitol Hill “gastropub” that was just featured in Food and Wine. The guitarist and his dining companions shared an apricot bread pudding for dessert, then drove off in a Prius. We recommend the wild boar sloppy joe.
“I wonder how many people have had sex to that?” — Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam on the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Earlier, he’d talked about a fan who’d told him that about one of his own songs, much to Beam’s chagrin.
“When I was a kid the first few tapes that I bought were Hazel, Bleach and Mudhoney. I wanted to be Kurt Cobain and always dreamed of being on Sub Pop.” — Helio Sequence frontman Brandon Summers
“We were envious of his beard. And his guitarmanship.” — Flight of the Conchords on Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam.