Last Thursday Mark Arm was on the top of the Space Needle; two days later, he was riding around in a golf car full of trash. Truth in criticism: I never actually saw the Mudhoney singer in the vehicle to which his name was affixed (the sign read: "MR. ARM") scooting around the streets of Georgetown, the Seattle industrial neighborhood where Sub Pop Records held its Silver Jubilee mini-festival on Saturday. But I did see it hauling recyclables and getting stopped by numerous concertgoers snapping phone photos. And like every rock-loving Seattleite I know, I watched the live stream of the band's vertiginous set atop the town's most visible landmark via KEXP's live stream. (I also heard from station honcho Kevin Cole that it was really scary to climb up the ladder leading to the roof.)
As I write about the spirit of Sub Pop and the regionally loyal but globally aspirational bohemian community with which it's vitally engaged, my thoughts keep landing between those contrasting images of exaltation and good-humored humility. The ability to bounce between those two poles is what's kept Sub Pop relevant for a quarter century. It's also, I think, what increasingly defines the "alternative" lifestyle today, not only in the Pacific Northwest but within many thriving regional scenes.
In Seattle, as in Nashville, New Orleans or Northeast Los Angeles, the people shaping what marketers once called "alternative" culture blend a pragmatic focus on what materials and influences make sense locally with an awareness that, in our wired world, any modest effort has the potential to blow up. Here, there's a sometimes fetishistic fondness for raw and rustic things connected to the natural beauty of the region and channeled through various interpretations of both working-class style and a hippie heritage. When Sub Pop was founded, that sensibility sounded like punk. Now it's just as likely to be psychedelic hip-hop or folksy-rootsy. It's not just musical, either. At the Jubilee, art shows and literary talks augmented the rock and rap, as did the presence of many small businesses (including other record labels) who tap into similar attitudes.
Soundwise, the artists Sub Pop embraces tend to live close to the ground of whatever style they pursue. They're specialists who find larger audiences, if they do, because they've perfected a certain practice. (The label's more commercial "crossover" acts, including The Shins and The Postal Service, were notably absent from this event.) This spirit was embodied Saturday by the pure punk of Pissed Jeans and Metz; in Father John Misty's highly amusing self-critique of the singer-songwriter persona; and through the inward-gazing cosmic dystopian hip hop of Shabazz Palaces.
The overused term "artisanal" applies pretty well to such musical efforts. The first two acts I saw Saturday showed how it can manifest within very different soundscapes. One was The Tom Price Desert Classic, fronted by the former U Men and Gas Huffer garage rocker who's been living inside guitar fuzz for three-plus decades ("25 years? It seems a lot longer," Price said, offering a toast to Sub Pop from the stage); the other was clipping., an electronic noise rap trio whose confrontational cacophony is intensely of-the-moment. Both were uncompromising but not showy about it. Digging in, they created their own intersecting universes.
In the 1990s, when Sub Pop first came to national attention, there was a lot of talk about opposition to corporate culture, strict morality and boring ideas of beautiful music. Now we're deep into confusing times, when it's harder to see the boundaries between what's "counter" and what's on top. Seattle culture thrives partly because once-underground, grassroots or marginal entities — not only Sub Pop, but radio stations like KEXP, all ages venues like the Vera Project and arts organizations like the Seattle Theater Group — have matured and learned to operate within the system. The very idea of selling out seems totally passé. Unlike that other, ubiquitous Seattle success story, Starbucks, which quickly became generic as it expanded internationally, these smaller organizations managed to walk a fine line between the corporate and the grassroots.
Is the outsiderness that that bands like Mudhoney once embodied no longer worth cultivating, now that the Space Needle is accessible to flannel-wearing losers and Seattle's mayor himself puts on his Sub Pop t-shirt and bicycles down to check out the noise? You could make that argument. But then there's that golf cart inscribed with the rock star's name, toodling around doing the dirty work. Bohemia today is in dynamic flux as its denizens try to sort out, for the millionth time, what success means both within the ruling system and as a complement to it, if not a genuine alternative. Sub Pop long ago found its place within both the city and the culture industry that embraces it — not without struggle, and not without some luck, but a lot of laughs and elbow grease factored in too. Those are useful qualities to celebrate in any scene.