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Subpop @ 20

Sub Pop celebrates 20 years of not going out of business with a big weekend festival


On the 20th anniversary of Seattle's Sub Pop Records, label co-founder Jonathan Poneman is feeling blessed.

The feisty label that launched Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and other famous Northwest bands a generation ago is celebrating what Poneman describes as "20 years of not going out of business."

Among the label's current successes are The Gutter Twins, Fleet Foxes, Wolf Parade, Iron & Wine and the Grammy-winning musical comedy duo, Flight of the Conchords.

Nearly two dozen bands from Sub Pop's past and present rosters will perform at SP20, a concert festival Saturday and Sunday at Marymoor Park.

Among the most anticipated groups is Green River, a seminal grunge band that reunites Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (now of Pearl Jam) with Mark Arm and Steve Turner (of Mudhoney) and Bruce Fairweather and Alex Shumway.

Nearly all of the proceeds from the event will go to charities of the bands' choosing, among them Farm Sanctuary (Beachwood Sparks), The Bridge School (Grand Archives) and Red Cross International Response Fund (Flight of the Conchords). Sub Pop is covering all of the festival's production costs.

In addition to the festival, there's a Sub Pop comedy show Friday at 8 p.m. at the Moore Theatre, featuring Patton Oswalt, Eugene Mirman, David Cross, Todd Barry and other guests. Kristen Schaal is host. Tickets are sold out.

And at Showbox at the Market, The Gutter Twins and Brothers of the Sonic Cloth (featuring Tad Doyle of Tad) perform Saturday at 10 p.m. (doors open at 9). Tickets are $20 at Ticketmaster.

"I feel like we've had a good run," Poneman said in a recent interview, "and hopefully it will continue. A lot of people put up with us during some rough times. And while we're having the blessing of a decent run, the very least we can do is contribute to our community in a way that's meaningful to all of us."

Poneman and co-founder Bruce Pavitt -- who left the label years ago but who since has returned as an adviser and member of the board of directors -- originally conceived the label's sporadic anniversary parties as a spring ritual. The first was in the early '90s at the Crocodile Cafe.

"It was the first time that we had a little bit of money in our bank account, and we had a lot of creditors, artists and employees who had put up with a lot of hardship and difficulty and, frankly, bullshit from us," Poneman said of the Crocodile event. "So we wanted to have a party where we basically bought our friends a drink."

General manager Megan Jasper, a former receptionist who once duped a New York Times reporter into believing that "swingin' on the flippity-flop" and other made-up words and phrases were part of the grunge lexicon, saw the 20th anniversary celebration as a cultural milestone, one marking the survival of the indie-label phenomenon.

"A lot of our peer labels are celebrating similar birthdays," Poneman said.

"For a segment of the music industry that for many years had been considered a ghetto, we are showing that the rock-oriented, independent sector of the recording industry has remarkable resilience and ambition at a time when the music industry in general is seen as a wet paper bag."

Though Sub Pop Records was officially founded on April 1, 1988, the label traces its beginnings to Pavitt's 1980s Olympia-based fanzine, Subterranean Pop, and later a column in The Rocket and series of cassette tapes.

Sub Pop was founded before laptops, cell phones and other technological innovations came into widespread use. Today, a label can function entirely on the Internet.

"You don't need to go through the manufacturing process, you don't need to go through the distribution process, you can do everything -- your accounting, your marketing, your distribution and even the creation of your music -- all just using the computer," Poneman said.

But Sub Pop still does things the old-fashioned way, by and large.

"We are definitely a record label," Poneman said. "But we try to marry innovation with tradition."

Over the years, the label's top sellers have included Nirvana's "Bleach," The Postal Service's "Give Up," The Shins' "Oh, Inverted World" and Iron & Wine's "Our Endless Numbered Days."

The label's current hot-selling acts are Fleet Foxes and Flight of the Conchords.

Saturday's festival lineup includes Eric's Trip, Seaweed, The Helio Sequence, Pissed Jeans, Fleet Foxes, The Fluid, Low, Mudhoney, The Vaselines, Iron & Wine and Flight of the Conchords.

Sunday's lineup features The Ruby Suns, Grand Archives, Kinski, Foals, Les Thugs, No Age, Red Red Meat, Comets on Fire, Beachwood Sparks, Green River and Wolf Parade.

Music begins at noon. Each band will play about 40 minutes.

Of the lesser-known bands from Sub Pop's past, Poneman is most excited about The Fluid, Eric's Trip (from New Brunswick, Canada), Les Thugs (France) and the reunited Green River, which disbanded in 1988.

"This show could end up being a very, very formidable representation of what they were," Poneman said of Green River.

Singer-guitarist Arm, who will play with current band Mudhoney on Saturday and Green River on Sunday, heard about plans for the anniversary festival a year ago.

"Jonathan asked if I thought Green River would be up for playing, and I said, 'I don't know. I'll ask.' As it turned out, everyone was into it, surprisingly."

The last time Arm, Turner, Gossard and Ament played Green River songs was in 1993, when Mudhoney opened for Pearl Jam in Las Vegas. Green River is often regarded as the first grunge band, but Arm said other bands deserve credit.

"That seems kind of weird to me because the Melvins predate Green River," he said. "I think they were around for a year before we were. And Malfunkshun was around even before then. They were already melding punk rock and aspects metal as early as 1982, or even 1981."

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