From its flannel-wearing origins as an influential supporter of Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene, releasing the spotty-faced debut from a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, to bringing the likes of The Postal Service, The Shins, and Fleet Foxes to the wider attention of the music world, Sub Pop has become a cornerstone of the American independent music scene.
This week, the independent record label is celebrating its quarter century with a host of 25th birthday celebrations. This Saturday 13th July will see the label’s native Georgetown hosting the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee, an anniversary mini-music festival where some of the Sub Pop roster’s best and brightest will perform.
The free public concert will feature sets from Dinosaur Jr frontman J Mascis, grunge survivors Mudhoney, guitar rock heroes Built To Spill, Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs, Sub Pop’s sole hip hop signees Shabazz Palaces, and Father John Misty – the solo project of ex-Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman.
Ahead of that impressive celebration and in a fitting tribute to the label’s origins as a radio station, the Silver Jubilee Concert is today being pre-empted by a show from J Mascis, Mudhoney and singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone atop Seattle’s iconic landmark, the G-D Space Needle, which will be broadcast by hometown community radio station KEXP. Sub Pop has become as an essential part of the Seattle landscape as the Space Needle is to the city’s skyline
Its a fittingly grand gesture given how Sub Pop, which itself has become as an essential part of the Seattle landscape as the Space Needle is to the city’s skyline, begins it story on the airwaves.
In 1979, Chicago-born Bruce Pavitt was hosting an indie focussed radio show called Subterranean Pop on KAOS-FM, eventually bolstering his broadcasting with a fanzine of the same name, as well as distributing cassette tapes of his favourite local bands. A few years later, Pavitt moved to Seattle, Washington, dropped the ‘-teraranean’ suffix, opened a record store and expanded the Sub Pop brand as a column in local paper The Rocket, a radio show on KCMU, and more locally focussed releases.
In 1986 he met Jonathan Poneman, an equally passionate lover of local music tastes, on his radio program to discuss the release of Sub Pop 100, a compilation that featured the likes of producer Steve Albini and Sonic Youth. At the suggestion of Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Poneman and Pavitt took their obvious mutual talents and founded Sub Pop.
On the 13th July 1988 they moved into their first office, marking the date from which Sub Pop takes it’s 25th Anniversary; the rest – as they say – is history. But like all well-woven tales of success, Sub Pop’s booming highs are contrasted by some distressing lows. But like all well-woven tales of success, Sub Pop’s booming highs are contrasted by some distressing lows.
Swiftly booming after spearheading the grunge era in what was seen as the global birthplace of the movement, unearthing Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Green River, and most famously, signing Nirvana, Sub Pop found further success with influential guitar rock bands like Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth. But come the late 90s, both the labels’ creative direction and cash flow were beginning to run dry as Pavitt stepped away from the company’s internal operations.
Poorly-conceived signings, business dealings, and costly new offices outside of their Seattle base all saw the company bleeding funds around the time it should have been popping the cork on its 10th anniversary in 1998, but morale and direction were not high qualities amongst staff. In fact, a year earlier several Sub Pop employees had drafted an unsuccessful overturn of Jonathan Poneman’s seat at the head of the table, disenfranchised by his running of the label as it was seemingly franchised – major label Warner Music Group taking a 49% stake in the staunchly indie label.
“Our corporate partners had the expectation we were going to be able to sign another Nirvana,” Poneman told The Guardian, of the label’s darker years. “We found ourselves going from being the little rascals playing in the music industry to suddenly competing for bands in our own social group who were being lured by Sony Music or BMG, even our own business partners at Warner. And then there were all these startup labels waving cheques with hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Sub Pop thankfully managed to reverse its slide into becoming another corporate subsidy, chiefly off the success of a fresh-faced band from New Mexico whose genteel guitars were completely out of step with the screaming distorted six strings that brought Sub Pop fame, but who almost singlehandedly resurrected the label both financially and in regaining its all-important cultural capital. That band is The Shins.
“I do remember wondering: ‘Is Sub Pop cool?,” recalls frontman James Mercer, who wasn’t dazzled at the prospect of signing with the ailing label, and a pertinent question that many were asking of the label that has seemingly stymied its reputation with flash-in-the-pan signings.
Mercer’s concerns that he wasn’t signing on to a “really kooky indie label,” like the bands he aspired to (“that new wave of classic pop-sounding stuff, like the Apples In Stereo,” as he puts it), were matched by Poneman, who initially only signed the band to one single. Both parties eventually overcame their mutual gunshy attitude and in 2001 came the release of The Shins’ debut album Oh, Introverted World.
Critical adoration seemingly translated into sizeable album sales and provided the footing for Sub Pop to reclaim its balance. “[The Shins] brought something that really changed the label,” Vice President Megan Jasper tells The Guardian. “We listened to their music and everyone – everyone – loved it. There was a confidence and a pride that came from working with a band that no one knew about but you knew was fucking great. All of a sudden people started caring in a way they didn’t before.” “I do remember wondering: ‘Is Sub Pop cool?” – James Mercer, The Shins
The appearance of The Shins’ ‘New Slang’ in Zach Braff’s equally indie-savvy 2004 flick Garden State, both as soundtrack and plot device, was key to the band’s ballooning exposure and likewise for the label that had worked so closely with them.
When Natalie Portman’s kooky girl-next-door love interest Sam passes Braff’s Andrew ‘Large’ Largeman a pair of headphones and coos, “You gotta hear this one song – it’ll change your life; I swear;” she could have been talking about Sub Pop’s own discovery of the band.
Another life-changing success was waiting in the wings in the form of the side-project from Dntel’s Jimmy Tamberllo and Death Cab For Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard: The Postal Service. Their one-and-only album, 2003’s Give Up, eventually became Sub Pop’s second-biggest selling album, behind Nirvana’s Bleach, selling over 1 million copies and earning it Platinum status just as the album celebrated its 10th Anniversary this year, prompting the band to reform for a string of (no doubt lucrative) festival dates.
If there was any clearer proof of the label’s changed attitudes, it’s in its humorous attitude to its own leaner years in an anecdote from Mudhoney guitarist Mark Arm. “I work at Sub Pop and there’s a poster for the 15th anniversary in 2003,” he recalls. “This is at a time when they had The Shins and Iron and Wine and the Postal Service, so they were back on the upswing. The poster reads: ‘Sub Pop’s 15th anniversary – celebrating 10 years of great music!’ ‘Cos there were some … not-so-great years.”
More signings in the mid-oughties only brought Sub Pop more acclaim, with Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Band Of Horses cementing the indie label’s reputation as tastemakers of a new wave of sophisticated Americana, which in turn established a new audience even as the label retained its history as the forefathers of grunge. “We were putting out music that everybody hopes for – music that’s connecting with people.” Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop
Its appeal spanned across generations, something that Jasper says is evidenced in the live shows of Sub Pop artists, in whose crowds “you saw 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds,” she says. “Sub Pop had become a place that was able to attract artists that could speak to many different types of people.”
Poneman agrees, “we were putting out music that everybody hopes for – music that’s connecting with people.” The 53-year-old label head continues to run the label, not even being recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s could slow his work rate, with Poneman saying he was “grateful” to the disease for renewing his “love of life and its precious elements.”
The new lease of life allows not only Poneman to reflect on what’s important, but Sub Pop itself as well, with the indie label that could, persevering through 25 years of an ever-shifting music industry, taking the time to celebrate its own storied history.
Along with this weekend’s Silver Jubilee concert, Sub Pop is commemorating their two-and-a-half decades with everything from limited edition branded Toms shoes to a new virtual shop launched on iTunes boasting ‘20 Classic Albums Mastered For iTunes‘, a small treasure trove of unreleased material, and Sub Pop 101 – a nod to the labels’ first ever 1986 LP that contains a who’s who of the label’s enviable catalogue.
Glancing over the compilation’s 100 plus tracklist, from dream pop leaders Beach House to folk-comedy favourites Flight of The Conchords and Melbourne’s own Husky, the labels’ first-ever Australian signing, to heritage bands like Sebadoh, The Vaselines, and of course, Nirvana, it signals a message as loud and clear as the label’s two syllable moniker; Sub Pop has provided a rich musical legacy whose significant impact on music history cannot be underestimated, and is one well worth celebrating.