After a certain airplane manufacturer and purveyor of java, Sub Pop Records just may be Seattle's most famous brand. And while they may not have given us the 747 or the Frappuccino, Sub Pop has delivered — and continues to deliver — great music. (Take a tour of the label's offices here.)
In fact, maybe the coolest aspect of the 20-year milestone that the label is marking with a two-day celebration in Redmond, Washington, this weekend is that its 2008 roster is one of its strongest ever. And no Sub Pop newbie has been talked about more in the past couple of months than Fleet Foxes. They are locals with a love of vocals — pastoral melodies and four-part harmonies — backwoods Beach Boys from the Pacific Northwest.
"I grew up in Seattle," explained Fleet Foxes' frontman Robin Pecknold, who was all of 2 years old when the label was born, "and for me growing up and listening to Sub Pop, it was Ugly Casanova and Beachwood Sparks, and the first Shins record. That was when I was, like, 14 or 15. But the earlier stuff, my knowledge of it I inherited through my older siblings, you know. And, I mean, Sub Pop's a total legend."
Now Pecknold and his buddies are part of the legend — and Fleet Foxes are so pleased to be part of the little label that put their hometown on the musical map that they are spending a lot of time in the air this weekend just to be part of the festivities. On Friday, they fly from New York to Seattle, play the Sub Pop party on Saturday (sharing a bill with vets like Mudhoney and the Vaselines), then hightail it back across the country on Sunday to resume their tour in Boston.
For FF keyboardist Casey Wescott, it's about giving back to a label that has always impressed him as being artist-friendly. "I lived right down the street from [Nirvana bassist] Kris Novoselic," he said, "and he was always really nice to the neighborhood kids. And Damien Jurado and other people I knew growing up — I loved their records. I really appreciate what the label has done in the past, and with us, they've been really supportive the whole time."
So supportive that Sub Pop agreed to release Fleet Foxes' EP Sun Giant and self-titled debut album as delivered. "There were a few initial conversations," said Pecknold, "then we just said we're gonna go finish the record and when it's done you can tell us what you think. The day after we sent them the record, we went out for our first proper business meeting."
Some point to Fleet Foxes as being part of the "new" Sub Pop — a post-Shins Oh Inverted World sound for the 21st century that's mellower, even rootsier and with a lot less growl than the rawk for which the label was first known. Think Iron & Wine, Vetiver, Band of Horses.
While the guys acknowledge the label has shifted and gone through phases, they say if anything characterizes Sub Pop nowadays, it's variety. "I think if anything, they have come to a point of more eclecticism," says Wescott, "No Age, Wolf Parade, Tiny Vipers, Handsome Furs — they seem to be fanning out and not so much having one 'sound' but just many sounds that they like." And if the label's direction changes over time, drummer Josh Tillman contends, it does so naturally. "I mean if you look at the Shins and Iron & Wine, they weren't records where initially you heard them and thought, 'Oh this is gonna be the new turning of the tide,' because they were super-low budget and unassuming. But people just happened to latch onto them." As they seem to be doing to Fleet Foxes.