Counterpoint: A Response to Andrew Matson (and Sub Pop)Posted by Justin Spicer
Seattle Times music writer Andrew Matson appeared on KING5 not so long ago to tout an article in which he proclaims Fleet Foxes and the “neo-folk” masses as the new Seattle sound. Rather than attack the skills of Fleet Foxes (who are undeniably talented and center stage in a morass of critical acclaim bloggers who are quick to heap on the ‘next wave’), attention should be placed upon Andrew Matson. His narrow view of Seattle’s music scene constricts with each passing article, neglecting the diverse nature of Seattle’s numberless music scenes in favor of the bearded masses that have fallen into the corporate view of Seattle.
At the top of this heap exists Sub Pop, subject of praise during Matson’s television appearance. Matson parrots the phased Dennis Bound’s “cutting edge” quote concerning the output of Sub Pop—a label just as stagnant and out-of-touch with its local scene as Matson. Matson sets the label “as the center of musical cool.” Few would deny Sub Pop’s nucleonic placement at the dawn of Seattle’s biggest explosion—grunge—but placing them in the epicenter of what defines Seattle’s sound is a form of regurgitating what’s been fed to the masses via a clever guise of major label voodoo enveloped in indie cool.
This is not an argument against the work of Sub Pop or the ability of Andrew Matson, but rather how shortsighted Andrew Matson is to believe Seattle the center of the so-called neo-folk movement and Sub Pop’s standing as part of the cutting edge of the genre; a genre (by many different names) that carved its niche well before the successes of Fleet Foxes (or recently successful predecessors such as My Morning Jacket, Iron & Wine and Band of Horses). Proclaiming Seattle the center of any musical movement at the moment (especially that of the generically labeled neo-folk) is wholly unfair to what is truly bubbling beneath the surface of the Emerald City. Furthermore, it’s unfair to those who but a decade ago were revisiting the Baby Boomer record bins, dusting off forgotten albums and reimagining those albums for newer technology and an audience easily educated by the World Wide Web (no matter its flaws and fractured facts).
Neo-folk is just the buttoned down version of New Weird America, alt-folk, freak-folk, and a host of various bumper sticker phrases bequeathed upon the re-born subculture of ’60s folk. To place Seattle at its center only inflates the ego of a town that is far too eager to ride the coattails of success rather than blaze its own trail. Truth be told, folk never went away. And the working class that lent Seattle its fame is still as prevalent as ever—they have just been pushed to the background so a corporate face can plant a corporate flag and deliver the status quo.
Seattle’s musical explosion was at the hands of bands bucking the trend of big hair, bigger stadiums, and the biggest parties. The seclusion of the Pacific Northwest combined with the state of the music industry after the ’60s lent itself to creation, to uniqueness. That has been stripped from Seattle, and thanks to the success of Nirvana (and a lesser degree, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden), investment from Warner Bros. and the departure of Bruce Pavitt in the mid-1990s, it was stripped from Sub Pop.
Much of the musical press in Seattle is far too enamored by Robin Pecknold, Ben Gibbard, and various indie music celebrities to be inventive. Look no further than Sub Pop’s recent successes: Iron & Wine, The Shins, Wolf Parade, No Age, and Fleet Foxes. Well before Fleet Foxes, Sam Beam had been plugging along on the neo-folk trail, turning the strange into the normal. As a citizen of Florida, Beam’s only association with Seattle was his association with Sub Pop. The Shins, Wolf Parade and No Age were passengers of much different musical movements; Sub Pop catching the poppier acts of those styles and dispensing them with scant contact with the Seattle scene. Fleet Foxes are the first Seattle-based success story for Sub Pop in quite some time, and that success isn’t the product of a distinct “Seattle sound” but that of a glossed over scene; the rough edges of Six Organs of Admittance, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, and Mark Tucker replaced by the docile tones of adult-oriented rock. Much like The Eagles were to the likes of the Incredible String Band, Poco, and New Riders of the Purple Sage, Fleet Foxes (and Iron & Wine, and Devendra Banhart, and The Decemberists) are to those who began toying with the delicacies of folk during the Age of the Blogger.
The Sub Pop of old—the Sub Pop that helped to build Seattle’s music scene and were at the “cutting edge” of Seattle’s sound nearly 25 years ago—no longer exists. Championing local bands and the Pacific Northwest’s more unusual scenes is not top priority. They too have chosen to focus on a particular sound rather than the art of cultivation. The rise of Fleet Foxes has only instilled in the label—and more so its sister, Hardly Art—the ability to christen the latest ‘neo-folk’ sensation. The push to turn The Head and the Heart into a cash cow by riding the coattails of Seattle’s current sound could not be more evident, but aside from this investment (and the recent signing of Shabazz Palaces), what has Sub Pop done to imprint a new “Seattle Sound”? The sound of Seattle is wrapped up other Pacific Northwest successes, not its own.
In return, the Seattle scene—at least as it is largely covered by local and national outlets—presents Fleet Foxes as the new face of Seattle. In doing so, Matson, Sub Pop, and local media ignore dynamic and challenging acts that are far removed from a genre that was not invented, nor minted, by Sub Pop or Seattle. While the city’s biggest and brightest piggyback off a sound that has been molded across the globe during the past 15 years, Seattle’s breakthrough artists go untouched. Labels such as Gift Tapes and Debacle, which are entrenched in the largely neglected global DIY resurgence, receive little love from a city that claims to embrace anything and everything that’s different. The hip-hop awakening that has gripped some of Seattle’s citizens seems to be a bigger attraction to those outside of the state rather than those who have the ability to see the many line-crossing artists who are blazing new trails in a genre long thought stale. Festivals such as Portable Shrine’s Escalator Fest and Decibel Fest rarely receive the full attention of a city that doesn’t realize it is starving for variety. It’s no surprise; despite complaints of Starbucks on every corner, the stores are often full of people eager to get their caffeinated treats. Convenience breeds contempt.
Ultimately, it’s this Matson quote that showcases just how out-of-touch he (and many others) is with the reality of Seattle: “Seattle has had famous bands before, but this one is the first to break into the mainstream sounding exactly like what this place looks like — a sleek city in the middle of beautiful woods.” Seattle’s sleek long view is a sham. Seattle is no different now than it was when Tad, Mudhoney,—and yes, Nirvana—donned baggy flannels, Salvation Army treasures, and busted instruments. The economy continues to suffer and the city’s infrastructure is rotting at a quickening pace. The likes of Matson and Sub Pop revel in the Starbucks/Microsoft/T-Mobile façade but behind it all are streets packed with the unemployed in a city with one of the nation’s highest costs of living; a region so disconnected with many of its homegrown citizens that it has sprouted separate cities (Bellevue, Redmond) and suburbs (Issaquah, Sammamish) to escape the realities of Seattle. Despite the Emerald City nickname, it’s far more gray and black in Seattle than it is green. The Cascades and Olympic ranges may be pretty on a sunny day but they do little more than provide scenery to a city in disarray.
Which explains why Sub Pop has long been looking for talent from everywhere BUT Seattle. Fleet Foxes are just furthering the divide and it’s no fault of their own. Robin Pecknold seems as genuine and sincere as an up and coming star can be (remind you of anyone?) and his and the band’s success is just as much a product of talent as it is of right place, right time. Fleet Foxes fit Matson—and Sub Pop’s—corporate view. From the outside, the mega-corporations that have settled in and around Seattle and the citizens they have sprouted are completely in tune with the message and music of Fleet Foxes; they are completely in step with Matson’s vision of Seattle; they are the consumer of Sub Pop’s manufactured take on Seattle’s image—past and present.
But this rosy view shits all over what Seattle has always been: a blue collar, working class city that just so happens to exists in a beautiful bubble of nature. No one should fault the successes of corporations, record labels, and writers—everyone deserves their slice of happiness should it come to them fairly. What is to fault in Matson’s fawning and Sub Pop’s current trend is the lack of investment in the real Seattle. Fleet Foxes represent but one small part of a wide demographic. Matson is just doing what he needs to do to be relevant: pick a local band and grab on tight as the bandwagon takes off. It worked for Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis and no one faults them for doing so. Sub Pop is doing the same in an era where irrelevance equates extinction. Turning a blind eye to the rich history of talent that preceded Fleet Foxes devalues the band’s accomplishment. Turning a blind eye to Seattle’s talent pool devalues its place in musical history.
Ignoring what isn’t germane is not in the spirit of Seattle. It’s time for Andrew Matson—and more so, Sub Pop—to do what’s right for Seattle. Sweeping away the many sounds that currently shape the real Seattle sound in favor of focusing on one act, one genre (a genre that wasn’t forged or defined in Seattle) because it’s the rage at the moment does no favors to Seattle or the Pacific Northwest’s innumerable creativity. Being caught up in a fad is a rite of passage; succumbing to the hysteria leads to blindness.