In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Seattle and its music scene became the center of the pop culture universe. Sub Pop, the small label founded by sometime journalist Bruce Pavitt and nurtured with his partner Jonathan Poneman was its primary documenter.
Soon that signature Seattle sound — crafted by bands like Green River, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and, most famously, Nirvana — could be heard on mainstream radio and on MTV. Seattle was mobbed by music journalists and record company reps looking to cash in on what was proclaimed the biggest one-city music phenomena since Detroit spawned Motown.
However, the success of the scene they so lovingly supported, particularly the success of Nirvana, was a mixed blessing for Sub Pop. The financial benefits, in part derived from selling half of the company to Warner Bros., were huge. The costs were also huge: A decadent hubris that was, as Poneman remembers, “like the dot-com frenzy before there was a dot-com.”
By the mid-’90s, Pavitt had retired from the day-to-day running of the company and Sub Pop was putting out everything from the martini pop of Combustible Edison to the grunge retread of the Murder City Devils. The label had clearly lost its rudder. After a turbulent few years in which the demise of the label was routinely reported in the music press, Sub Pop has stripped down and refocused on a very different sort of sound.
The current crop of Sub Pop bands couldn’t be further from their predecessors, save for what Poneman describes as “an emotional immediacy.” Certainly Poneman, now Sub Pop’s sole head honcho, speaks of the newer Sub Pop groups with an affection that borders on the evangelical.
Not that he has to spread the word much. File sharing, which Poneman as foremost a music fan seems to understand, if not condone, has greatly expanded the label’s base of potential listeners. And the music speaks mightily for itself. The Postal Service, a graceful, subtle duo that features Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, has topped Billboard’s electronica chart. The poppy Shins and the folksy Iron and Wine were staples of many critics’ fave records last year.
Sub Pop is back.
Your current success has been called the Sub Pop renaissance.
We went off a cliff for awhile so it’s particularly gratifying to be back on track. I think we put out good records throughout our history, but coming off of something where there was such hyperbolic overstatement like the whole grunge/Nirvana brouhaha, anything after that was going to be anticlimactic.
What was the alchemy behind that first Seattle scene?
First [there was the influence of] the whole Southern California punk-rock scene. And in Seattle there was always an infatuation with metal. You had the collision of the two sounds and then you throw in the radio station that we all worked at so you had big record collections and proclivity toward punk and heavy metal.
A lot of people familiar with the early Sub Pop releases thought Mudhoney, not Nirvana, would be the next big thing.
I was the one person early on that wasn’t surprised that it was Nirvana. I love and continue to love Mudhoney. I’m not diminishing Nirvana’s reputation, but I always thought Mudhoney was a little too smart for the average listener.
Mudhoney channeled the Scientists and the Stooges and, to a lesser degree, bands like the MC5 and Beast of Bourbon. If you listen to Nirvana’s early stuff you can hear, God forbid, Tom Petty. There is a song called “If you Must,” which is the very first Nirvana song I ever heard. [Kurt] starts off with these kind of dissonant chord changes then this sort of Tom Petty-ish type vocal thing then a roaring crescendo like “Adam Raised a Cain” by Bruce Springsteen. So you have Tex Perkins [of Beast of Bourbon] and Iggy Pop on one hand and you have Steven Tyler [of Aerosmith] and Bruce on the other hand. Which band do you think is going to make it?
When I met Kurt, he was a hesher — somebody who gets into mainstream metal with a mullet hairdo. He was cool, but it was a different kind of cool. He hadn’t become the poster boy for indie-rock rebellion that he would later be marketed to be. If you listen to that box set or watch that DVD, he’s getting into playing those covers. When I said he sounded like Steven Tyler or Bruce Springsteen, I wouldn’t be surprised if he listened to that.
Are labels like alternative or independent useful ways of talking about music anymore?
Everything is becoming alternative because of the means by which people now get music. Before there was an oligarchic hold on the music industry. But as soon as you have free file trading and CD burning basically anyone can start a record label; anyone can distribute their music. The whole system has become irrelevant. Everything is alternative.
Sub Pop has been very successful, even its most disorganized years, in having a distinct identity, for lack of a better word, a brand.
It wasn’t calculated; it was very instinctive. People are intrigued by the idea of community, the idea of place. If it wasn’t Seattle, it was Athens, Georgia. If it wasn’t Athens, it was Minneapolis. What we were trying to do was to organize and focus all of the talent that was Seattle and broadcast it around the world. It is [even more] important now because the choices in music are so overwhelming. People want [something] to latch onto . . . to see a beacon in this huge arena of so much music and so much choice.
I think the emotional connection is established through one’s intuition and we [at Sub Pop] approach music with a trust in our own intuition and emotional responses. The times we have failed are when we have overanalyzed it and thought “this band should be popular.”
What snapped things back into place?
The Shins. Without a doubt. Absolutely.
That relationship singularly turned everything around for us. Not only did we have our stuff together to manage that relationship, but we all felt confident in what we were doing and it all unfolded in a very intuitive way. From that point, Iron and Wine, The Postal Service, The Fruitbats, David Cross, all kind of happened the same way. “Let’s do this because it is great,” not because of any type of overanalysis.
Do you see any similarities in these bands? Is there a new Sub Pop sound?
Great singers, great songwriters, great lyrics. [They are] earnest, though James [Mercer of The Shins] is a little more whimsical. I think there is a sentimental quality. It is not music that is without irony, but the irony does not define the music or image.
The artists that I’m working for now are the most important artistically that I’ve ever worked with. There is a certain band that I worked with in my past that I think was overrated. And I think they were overrated because of a terrible tragedy that has placed them in amber.
Yeah, you couldn’t predict what they were going to do, or what would have happened. But I will say that Sam Beam [of Iron and Wine] is really a songwriter, the likes of which I have never worked with before. I can say the same thing about Ben Gibbard [of The Postal Service], particularly when he is working with [partner] Jimmy Tamborello. And James Mercer.
Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter and had a great voice and, with the timing, it was like a perfect storm. But I don’t think there are going to be perfect storms anymore. The way that we access music now doesn’t lend itself to the generation spokesperson in the way of Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols or The Beatles. Maybe in history it will be written that way, but I think Nirvana’s paradigm-changing hoopla was maybe the last.
There are so many good bands coming up in the U.S., whether on Sub Pop or not. It is such a great time to be involved and listening to this kind of music and people have got to know that.