No one is more surprised by the longevity of Suicide Squeeze Records than David Dickenson, founder and (practically) sole proprietor of the label over the past two decades. His grit and determination (he didn’t pay himself for the first nine years) has allowed what began as something of a hobby to become a treasure trove of indie music gems from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
The early days of the discography included one-of-a-kind seven inches and EPs from the likes of Modest Mouse, Pedro the Lion and Elliot Smith, as well as King Tuff, The Melvins, The Unicorns, San Francisco dream poppers The Aislers Set, and local melodic prog-rock/pop wizards Minus the Bear. Since then they’ve significantly expanded their catalog to encompass bands like Atlanta punk trio The Coathangers, post-hardcore group These Arms Are Snakes, garage-punkers Audacity, and wry Seattle rockers CHILDBIRTH, among many, many others.
Over the years, Suicide Squeeze has been housed in at least six “offices,” starting with a humble closet on First Hill. The label is now stashed discreetly inside a small mother-in-law cottage in a suburban Phinney Ridge backyard, where David Dickerson delved deep into the history of the label. We also asked friends, former employees, and bands to weigh in on how and why Suicide Squeeze has endured—an effort that yielded a proper oral history of the label on its twentieth anniversary.
The occasion will also be commemorated with two blowout shows. The first is Thursday, August 25 at Neumos, and features the Coathangers, Guantanamo Baywatch, Childbirth, and Audacity. The second is on Friday, August 26 at the Neptune, and features Minus The Bear, This Will Destroy You, David Bazan’s Headphones, Six Parts Seven, Michael Nau, and guests.
1996-2006: HOW COULD I SAY NO TO THAT GUY?
David Dickenson (Label Founder): When I started the label I was just a young kid figuring out what he was going to do with his life. I had done some community college, and was working in the warehouse for Fantagraphics. My wife Polly at the time had started playing in a band called 764-HERO with another good friend of mine, John Atkins, and so I was kind of in the music scene as just a person who was going to a ton of shows.
Polly Johnson (746-HERO): He started that label cause I told him to! He was at a point in his life where he was just kind of like what am I going to do with my life? I was like, you need a hobby! You need to do something besides just work and I said: you like music, why don’t you start a record label? And he was like… okay.
David Dickenson: It was a very exciting time. I just saw tons and tons of great music, a lot of it Northwest specific: Red Stars Theory, Pedro the Lion. Built to Spill was just starting… I actually saw Built to Spill’s first show at Crazy Horse in Boise. I would see anything. I spent a lot of time at Lake Union Pub, which is no longer around, and the Velvet Elvis Arts Lounge, which was an all-ages club in a fringe theater in Pioneer Square. I wasn’t 21 at the time but I had a fake ID so I was able to sneak into some places.
Polly Johnson: Places like the Storeroom and Lake Union Pub, just grimy, stinky, burnt-out places. And it would be five dollar shows, two dollar beers. But it was super fun and totally kind of wild and chaotic. You show up, hock your stuff up there and just play.
David Dickenson: We had a walk-in closet at our place on First Hill and my wife would be like, “Oh, that’s your office,” as kind of like a joke, but it was true. I just had that. And I didn’t have distribution at the beginning so I had a little record bag that I’d take to the stores. I went into it not knowing a lot about the business. It was such a slow build at the beginning—more about just getting through another year and making it to the next.
Polly Johnson: It was a weird closet. It was like a coat closet I assume, but it wasn't really in a place where you would have that. And so he kind of had it organized with seven-inch boxes. It got full really quick. Because it’s not like you can order one box of seven-inches.
David Dickenson: A highlight of those early days for me was our first 746-HERO release under my belt. Getting to work with David Bazan. And Modest Mouse was a big one. Isaac [Brock, singer/guitarist of Modest Mouse] used to come into Hot Lips, a pizza place that I worked at on the Ave, and he’d be selling these dial-a-song cassettes. He basically was just going to the dumpsters behind the Muzak office, pulling the discarded tapes, making his own artwork, and selling them.
Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse): I would end up just wandering around Seattle and crashing in parks or whatever, so I did a lot of knocking on doors, looking for a place to crash. David and Polly were always a safe bet cause they are super nice so they’d let me crash on their couch. Modest Mouse had done some touring with 764-HERO so John [Atkins], Polly, and David were always out on tour with us, and we were on the same label, Up Records, so there was a kinship there. David asked me to do a single and I said yes. How could I say no to that guy? Back then you could just keep putting out stuff whenever you wanted to, in those early days. Basically, I kind of thought Suicide Squeeze was a hobby label, to be honest. I guess any good label is when it starts. He just wanted to do it because he really loved the music.
David Dickenson: And of course, getting Elliott Smith on the label was a priority of mine. I wasn’t a massive fan of [Smith’s band] Heatmiser but hearing Roman Candle for the first time was a big deal for me. I had a cassette tape and one side was Roman Candle and then the other side was Outkast [laughs].
Polly Johnson: We listened to it, like, a gazillion times a day.
David Dickenson: I was just so in love with what he was doing, that I was honestly just stressed out of my mind to ask him to do a seven-inch. I kind of wimped out a couple of times when we were in the same place and couldn’t do it.
Polly Johnson: David’s actually really shy. I remember we were just at a bar and Elliot was there and I was just like, “I’m just going to ask him, ‘cause what’s the big deal? He could just say no.” I just went up and asked him, and he was like, “Sure!”
2006-2008: BEST HUGS IN THE BUSINESS
David Dickenson: By 2006, we had really ramped up our release schedule. We brought in a bunch of new artists. We had just released Minus the Bear’s Menos el Oso the year before, which quickly became our biggest selling record. And still is to date. We’ve scanned more than 95,000 copies of that, which is a massive amount of records for a label the size of Suicide Squeeze. I actually had a full-time employee and was down to part-time at my day job before I quit.
Bekah Zietz (Sub Pop Publicist, Former Suicide Squeeze Label Manager): I was 22 when I was hired as label manager for Suicide Squeeze. It was awesome. All I wanted was a phone and a desk and bands to talk about. David taught me how to have a relationship with an artist in a very genuine and real way—you see it with Minus the Bear. They’re artists that David has worked with for years.
Cory Murchy (Minus The Bear): Working with David is pretty straightforward. He doesn’t speak bullshit, which is refreshing, since it seems like most everyone else in the industry grew up speaking bullshit as a first language. He’s thoughtful, hilarious, compassionate, and he gives the best hugs in the business. Actually, he might just give the best hugs, period. Seriously. Dude could become a hug therapist if this label thing doesn’t pan out.
David Dickenson: The Coathangers stick out as a massive deal to me, too. I felt like they kind of became the flagship artist for Suicide Squeeze over the course of the last eight years.
Julia Kugel (The Coathangers): We have 15 releases out on Suicide Squeeze. Eleven seven-inches and four full-lengths. In eight years! David pretty much taught us everything about this industry. We wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Suicide Squeeze.
David Dickenson: I mean, I hit them up to do a single on MySpace—that was still a thing at the time.
Julia Kugel: We thought it was a joke because Suicide Squeeze was too legit to be interested in us. After a few weeks he sent a follow-up message. It was all very surreal.
David Dickenson: It’s just like a proud dad kind of feeling, I guess. To see a band that started playing music because they loved it, but didn't necessarily know how to play their instruments proficiently.
Julia Kugel: We were nobodies from nowhere. We had one seven-inch and one full-length we’d recorded in 12 hours. We were just out to have a good time and all of a sudden this accomplished, professional label wanted to work with us and make our dreams come true. It made no sense. It was perfect.
David Dickenson: You can see from album to album the amount of work that they have put into the band. Their latest album, Nosebleed Weekend, is the first time they’ve made the Billboard Top 200 charts. You get those firsts, and I realize as time goes on, you actually need to sit back and let it sink in that it’s pretty cool this happened.
2009: ARE WE GOING TO PULL THROUGH THIS?
David Dickenson: 2009 was definitely the toughest year. Touch and Go was our distributor and they decided that they were no longer going to distribute labels. We ended up semi-weathering the storm, for nearly a year before I had to lay off my two employees at the time. It kind of came out of nowhere and was pretty devastating financially.
Bekah Zietz: It was devastating for David. It was devastating for me. It was devastating for the label.
David Dickenson: Not signing new artists, losing some artists, and struggling to make it. Lots of sleepless nights, asking myself: Are we going to pull through this?
Bekah Zietz: Unfortunately this is the history of many independent record labels: getting thrown a curveball and having to maneuver within a tough financial climate.
David Dickenson: It was at least two years before things started to get back to normal. It was rough. I was lucky most of the bands stuck with us. I was very appreciative of that.
2010-2016: ALWAYS A PROFESSIONAL, ALWAYS A FRIEND
David Dickenson: These last few years I feel like we’ve come into our own quite a bit more—gaining that wisdom of growing older and having been in the business for as long as we have. I look at our time now as a chance to build the label with some of the newer artists we’ve signed without pigeonholing ourselves, but definitely looking for bands that are younger and willing to put in the work.
Chris Costalupes (VHS): To be a label for this many years it seems like you need to adapt and keep up with changing sounds and times. It's cool to see how the catalogue and bands have changed over time. David's played an important part in archiving periods of time with specific music. The current roster for Suicide Squeeze rips: The Coathangers, Guantanamo Baywatch, Audacity, and Childbirth are some of the best punk bands around right now.
Chris Scott (Guantanamo Baywatch): Since we signed with Suicide Squeeze in 2013, they’ve encouraged us to be open to many different opportunities—shows, radio spots, tours, or commercial licensing. It’s a great feeling to have someone who cares about your band and has your back. It makes you want to work harder, if only to prove that they have your back for a reason!
Michael Nau (Cotton Jones, solo artist): From early on, with both David and Bekah, it’s felt more like a friendship, and there’s a comfort that comes with that.
Chris King (This Will Destroy You): Being around the music industry for too long makes you genuinely trust no one, but David has been such an exception. Always a professional and always a friend.
Julia Shapiro (CHILDBIRTH, Chastity Belt): You can tell he really cares about the bands he signs. When we're on tour he'll text us every day to ask how the show went the night before. Who does that?!
David Dickenson: Some of my best friends have been made from doing this. And I feel like if it was just some strictly business label that wouldn’t be the case. It always blows my mind when I hear, we rarely talk to our label, or there’s no real relationship outside of the business end. I don’t get that. I don’t understand how anyone would want to operate like that. I definitely am not rich off of this label. For me it’s wanting to be able to do something that I love for as long as I love doing it, and getting to work with all these amazing people. And building a catalog now of over 150+ releases. That feels like success to me. I know other labels move more quickly, but coming from a place of not having a bunch of investment capital, it feels good.
Bekah Zietz: David has always said that the second he stops loving what he’s doing he would just stop doing this. And clearly he hasn’t stopped doing this, you know? He is in it for life.