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Sub Pop

The President and Vice President of Sub Pop Records celebrate 25 years of World Domination with fond memories, favorite records and big plans for the future.

Interview by Dave DeVesa

What's your name, and what do you do at Sub Pop?

JP: Jonathan Poneman...and nothing much.

MJ: And I'm Megan Jasper...and I basically just do damage control for Jonathan.

[In reality...Jonathan Poneman is the President of Sub Pop Records, and Megan Jasper is the label's Vice President.]

How did you end up in Seattle?

JP: I ended up in Seattle in 1979 after my then-girlfriend kicked me out of the house.

MJ: And I ended up [here] when I was on tour with Dinosaur Jr. and I came to Seattle and thought it was super fun and cool and interesting and thought it would be a fun place to live for a bit.

Jonathan, tell us about your role in creating Sub Pop. Did you always want to start a record label?

JP: Well, I had worked at KCMU when I was sporadically attending – or intermittently attending – the University of Washington. Back in those days I had wanted to be a successful musician, but instead became one of many unsuccessful musicians. While working at KCMU I hosted a local music program called Audio Oasis and it was through that program that I learned about a lot of the artists who would later join Sub Pop's roster. That and also...a lot of my fellow DJs at KCMU were early Sub Pop artists. I did not start Sub Pop – it was actually started by Bruce Pavitt. But I joined Bruce in starting Sub Pop as a full time record label.

Megan, how did you come to work at Sub Pop?

MJ: Well, when I met Bruce and Jon at the Dinosaur Jr. show – I think that was in March, 1989? – they told me that if I did indeed move out to Seattle to come by and visit. So, my first full day in Seattle I stopped by Sub Pop and...they asked me if I wanted to intern. I spent the day stuffing Cat Butt singles into mailers for a college radio promo mailing. And I apparently did a super good they offered me a job being a receptionist. And I was psyched.

Ok, let's talk about the great “Grunge Speak” hoax, which saw The New York Times duped into printing a ridiculously fake list of grunge slang terms (including "wack slacks," "harsh realm" & "cob nobbler"!!) invented by Megan Jasper. Megan, care to tell us your side of the story?

MJ: Sure. Well, I was drinking a lot of coffee in those days. And my phone rang...and it was The New York Times. And the reporter told me they were doing a story on Grunge Fashion, Grunge Music, Grunge EVERYTHING and...what would be really helpful...was to have a 'Lexicon of Grunge.' So, after too many pots of coffee and desperately needing a break from my sales job...I just kind of asked the guy to give me a term...and I would give him the 'grunge translation.' And I think that's what happens when you have a little bit of mental illness mixed in with a whole bunch of coffee.

Jonathan, what was your reaction to all of this?

JP: I, frankly, never expected the piece to run, because I would think that The New York Times would have a full fact-checking apparatus. But they obviously didn't, or not in that particular case. And so, it was with great joy that I read that piece...and all hell broke loose.

Is there a secret to the label's success? You've gone from bouncing checks to platinum records. How do you do it?

JP: Animal sacrifice, payola and blackmail. Next!

What is it like to be a record label in 2013? Do bands still submit demos? Do you still get weirdos sending you manila envelopes in the mail? Are they just filled with Soundcloud links now?

MJ: We get everything. We get lots of links. But we get lots of manila envelopes...and inside them, once again, for the first time in a long time, we get vinyl...we get cassette tapes and we still get CDs as well.

Tough to choose, obviously, but do you have any favorite records from the Sub Pop discography?

MJ: I looking back, I would – this is a really hard question, actually. The one that I'm gonna pick, going back, would be The Afghan Whigs Up In It. It was not the first record that came out from a band that wasn't from Seattle ... but it seemed to be the first band that kind of seemed like an outsider to what was happening in Seattle and what was happening at Sub Pop. And I'm picking that record because, after we released that record it felt like things opened up a bit. There was greater acceptance, as far as working with bands outside of our scene or outside of Seattle. And it's a great record. And it was the start of a long and lasting relationship with that artist.

JP: I'm gonna pick Scientists Absolute, which is a record that is no longer available from the Sub Pop catalog. It was a brief license from a legendary and very influential Australian band. And it's something that...gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure being able to release. And if you can find it anywhere, I suggest you go pick it up, 'cause it's a pretty definitive collection.

What's next for Sub Pop? Any upcoming releases that you're especially excited about?

JP: My solo album! I'm just trying to figure out if we filed it under Music or Comedy.

MJ: It could be both, just like Flight of the Conchords. It should be huge!
[LOLZ all around]

MJ: I'm gonna say...I'm excited for Rose Windows. They're from Seattle. And they fucking rock.

JP: Fuck yeah.

Tell us about the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee. Any details taking shape that you can share?

MJ: Yes, there are. We're not able to share the lineup yet – although we will be able to soon. However, we are taking over the neighborhood of Georgetown, [a] neighborhood where a lot of really interesting people doing really interesting things tend to work and live, and it's a really cool community. We are shutting down the main street that runs through Georgetown – called Airport Way – and along Airport Way we will have 3 stages. And the stages will go all day and consist of Sub Pop artists past and present and future. And it will cover 25 years of the label's story. And it's gonna be so much fucking fun. We're gonna have a pop-up store where we will sell a lot of collectible items. We will have special merchandise just for that day. We'll have a gallery that will show what 25 years of Sub Pop looks like. And the local businesses are integrating the Jubilee into their business, so there should be all sorts of weird, fucked up and super fun things happening that day. And that is July 13th, 2013. Come one, come all—it is FREE.

JP: I just want to add ... Georgetown is the home of Fantagraphics Comics and the nexus between music and underground comics in our culture is under-championed, very important and will be on full display at the Silver Jubilee.

Finally, in honor of your 25th anniversary, share your 25 Craziest/Fondest Memories of working at Sub Pop. Just kidding, that's a LOT. How about 5? Or 3? Or 1, even. Whatever you'd like...

MJ: The first one I will share is the day [poet and Sub Pop artist] Steven Jesse Bernstein came into the office. He went into our publicist's office... and she had a gecko in a bowl on her desk. And he picked up the gecko and put it in his mouth...and then he would walk up to people in the office and go “BLAHHHH!” But by the time he came up to me, the gecko had died...and...that was just the beginning of the fun that day. It was funny and crazy and kinda brutal...and the poor fucking gecko! It was a sad end to that thing's life.

The second memory I have that I love so much – and I love telling this story – was...we had an employee, Zach Cowie, work here for a while. And we loved Zach. We loved Zach almost as much as his mom, who would send him all sorts of [snacks] from Costco and other fine businesses. And Zach was kind enough to share them with all of us. But one day our coworker Jed took these weird brownies that had crushed walnuts in them...and he mushed them together and turned them into what looked like a turd...and then he went into the women's bathroom and he draped the turd over the toilet seat. And then this woman Jen who worked here...the poor thing had to go to the bathroom desperately, and so she ran into the bathroom – she came out completely pale and told me that she barfed in the bathroom and needed to go home, because someone shat allover the toilet seat. But little did she know that it was a delicious brownie. And not a shit.

JP: How do I follow that? The only fond memory that I have is not so fond. For me, an instructive memory was, back in the early days of Sub Pop we would have the 'Sub Pop Bank Run,' which was basically...we would have our then-financial manager distribute our checks...and Bruce and I would sit back and watch employees literally run down the steps and run to the bank to cash their fear of them going 'boing boing boing.' And that happened every two weeks for a couple of years until we managed to get some financial footing.

MJ: I was really lucky because, being the receptionist, I had to be one of the first people in the office. So I usually got the bank pretty early. But you know what? Another thing that was really fun during those days was...JP and and I used to go to the roof to the building – to the roof garden – and we would smoke a cigarette at the end of the day. We were never heavy smokers, but we both used to smoke at that time...

JP: It was the best way to end the day for sure...

MJ: It really was. It was kind of the awesome part of the day. Just kind of share stupid stories and...kind of just relax...

JP: That reminds me of one other awesome memory, which was basically partying with Cheap Trick and The Murder City Devils on the very roof garden.

MJ: That's pretty cool...

Special thanks to Sub Pop's Richard Laing for setting up the interview and creating our exclusive Spotify playlist!