When David Dickenson began Suicide Squeeze Records in 1996, he ran operations out of his First Hill apartment. "I just had a closet with some records in it," he admits. Ten years later, the prominent NW indie label boasts a back catalog full of notables: Melvins, Elliott Smith, Iron and Wine, the Unicorns. And its office? Well... it's a tiny, two-person room with fluorescent fixtures, hidden in an anonymous Georgetown business park.

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But you don't judge the success of a creative venture by the square footage of its real estate. (Remember all those empty lofts after the dot-com crash?) The Suicide Squeeze roster speaks—or rather, sings—for itself. Their first few titles, all originally vinyl only, included releases by Smith, 764-Hero, Modest Mouse, and Pedro the Lion. From Suicide Squeeze's inception, the mission statement was to promote good music, not finance a mortgage or build a global empire.

In the beginning, all Dickenson's signings were buddies, friends of friends... even family members. "My wife was in 764-Hero," he relates; their "Now You're Swimming" single was S-001. "I was around a lot of people who were playing music, and since I'm not a musician, this was a great way to be involved." Through 764-Hero, he befriended Modest Mouse, whose "A Life of Arctic Sounds" 7 inch (S-003) was the first SS single to make a big splash.

The company's story in its entirety (albeit abbreviated) is captured on Suicide Squeeze: Slaying Since 1996, a new 34-track double disc featuring nearly every artist who's released music via the label. Disc One concentrates on early classics: Smith's "Division Day," "Dirty Business" by Constantines, Les Savy Fav's "We'll Make a Lover of You," and 17 more (many out of print). Disc Two looks forward, or in dark corners, with previously unreleased material from Earlimart, Chin Up Chin Up, Hella, and others.

But since the SS story begins with friends, that's how Dickenson and his cronies are celebrating, with a three-day run of shows, featuring 10 bands (plus comic Eugene Mirman), at Neumo's, Thursday, June 29, through Saturday, July 1. In addition, the anniversary is being commemorated with a run of limited-edition singles (2,000 copies each) from Pedro the Lion, Minus the Bear, Mudhoney, Black Mountain, Of Montreal, Earlimart, Russian Circles, and These Arms Are Snakes.

Will Dickenson be sinking the earnings from the celebration into new business digs? Nope. Proceeds from the shows will go to the Vera Project, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Bailey-Boushay House. Not as flashy, perhaps, as a gold-plated foosball table, but Dickenson's business acumen and willingness to make tough decisions have served him well over the last decade.

For example, one of the label's proudest achievements has been nurturing local act Minus the Bear. But doing so meant sacrificing the opportunity to work another hot Seattle band. "We had the chance to put out These Arms Are Snakes, which I would've loved to have done," admits Dickenson. But SS already had allotted all its muscle—and funds—to promoting Minus the Bear's 2002 debut full-length, Highly Refined Pirates. "So instead of taking money out of their budget, to do both records, we decided it would be best to focus exclusively on Minus the Bear."

That combination of smarts and scruples pays off, too. Suicide Squeeze worked out an exclusive deal to issue a limited-edition 7-inch single by Elliott Smith, "Pretty (Ugly Before)," in advance of what was to be Smith's next album. In accordance with Smith's primary label, the run would be limited to 5,000 copies. When the singer-songwriter died unexpectedly, in 2003, the 45 had already nearly sold out. But Smith's family gave special permission for SS to repress the in-demand item—a deal that continues to this day.

Suicide Squeeze no longer operates out of a closet, and paper contracts have replaced handshake deals, but its work ethic—a bold one that reflects the creativity and commitment of its bands—and judicious budgeting has helped it thrive for 10 years... and, it is hoped, more to come. So far, so good. Minus the Bear sold 1,700 copies of their first EP; their 2005 sophomore album, Menos el Oso, currently sits at 30,000 and rising. "That's pretty exciting," concludes Dickenson. "Obviously, there is some luck involved, but we wouldn't have stuck around this long on just luck alone."

See full lineups for all three shows on Neumo's website.
kurt@thestranger.com