• UO Interviews: Sub Pop Records

    Photos by Kelly O

    Megan Jasper, CEO of Sub Pop Records, may always be known for the prank she pulled on a New York Times reporter. She was in between jobs at the label when she got a call from a journalist working on a story about the Seattle grunge scene. As a fun distraction from what she was doing at the time—working as a sales representative for another label—she decided to fabricate an entire lexicon of slacker slang. This, she told the paper, was how the kids were riffing with each other. 

    "Honest to God, I kept expecting that writer to call me out," she said about telling him that 'swingin' on the flippity flop' meant 'hanging out, that 'cob nobbler' was code word for loser, that if you were staying in on a Friday night, you were 'bound-and-hagged.' "I kept trying to give him more outrageous responses, I was feeding him!" 

    But the writer never caught on, and when the story was published, her dictionary of terms was in it, in full. Once word got out that the lexicon of grunge was complete bullshit, it became another successful joke in a series played by the same record label that launched Nirvana. By this point, Sub Pop was known for its jokes, and for launching Nirvana. 

    You can't talk about Sub Pop without talking about Bleach—the 1989 Nirvana record that would inevitably sell almost two million copies and be the launchpad for the band's Nevermind stardom. To this day, there's a sliver of old wall hanging on the new walls of the office. It's covered in graffiti, but if you look close enough you'll see Kurt's scrawl in the top left corner. He defaced the record label's walls after claiming that they kept losing his mail. In reality, he was moving regularly and hard to keep track of. When the offices were repainted, they peeled off the little memento. Today, most Nirvana fans know Kurt's last known address, but this one was from better times. 

    Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm remembers what the early days of Sub Pop were like. "People were just in bands learning how to be bands, and Sub Pop was just learning to be a label—no one had anything figured out and everything was wide open," he says. In 1988, his band Green River signed on. Aside from a mid-'90s break to the majors, Mark has been with the label ever since. 10 years ago, he picked up a day job as the warehouse manager. If someone's not getting their mail, it's his problem now. 

    Green River (above), Mudhoney (below), by Charles Peterson

    Mark believes there was a trickle-down effect from acts like Nirvana and Soundgarden that helped Mudhoney along. "You know how they say 'a rising tide floats all boats?' That happened a bit with bands like us, and Tad, and the Fluid—we were able to actually go out on tour and people would come see us," he says. Since 1988, Mudhoney has put out nine studio records.

    In the late '80s, Pissed Jeans frontman Matt Korvette was an 11-year-old kid living in New Jersey, watching MTV. Years later, when his band got its first real break, it was through Sub Pop. "We were first contacted via email Andy Kotowicz, this amazing music fiend who was so disarmingly friendly and genuine," he says of the A&R director who flew out to Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend one of the band's shows at a warehouse called Jeff the Pigeon. "We broke into a practice space room and brought a deli tray in his honor. Naturally it went over big and we started a beautiful relationship," Matt says about the interaction that eventually lead to a pair of 7" records and four full albums. "It's fairly clear that Sub Pop is a label that prefers to grow their artists, rather than nab the already hot-and-in-demand bands from big signing wars or whatever. I appreciate that about them," he says. "And the people there are all quite friendly and easy to work with. If they have ponytails, sunglasses and do coke backstage, they've done an excellent job of concealing all of that from me!"

    He's right. We see no ponytails in the employee lineup. And when we talk a mix of them, no pretention, either. 

    "When someone's having a baby, or if someone's getting married here, you can feel it in the air. When someone has a death in the family or when we lost our incredible coworker, Andy Kotowicz, you can feel that, too," Megan says about the atmosphere. (Andy—the same guy who discovered Pissed Jeans and shared their deli plate—was a cornerstone of the Sub Pop family. It would be a sin to not mention him when telling the story of the label, but only those close to him could do his legacy justice—which Sub Pop did in a heartfelt eulogy on their own blog here.)

    As tight-knit as the employees at Sub Pop are, they've grown the label to something so much bigger than what it was in those early days.

    "That Sub Pop started out being identified with that grunge movement as heavily as it was absolutely had a direct impact on how our roster would evolve," Megan says. "When you love any kind of art, it's not just one thing that you love—your tastes change."

    That's why marketing director Carly Starr spends so much of her time in meetings. "We've been a part of so many different waves," she explains, rattling off indie rock bands of the early '00s like The Shins, Band of Horses and Iron and Wine, and moving into today's big label acts Beach House and Father John Misty. The key to maintaining an always evolving roster? "We have to constantly see where we're at and reevaluate and not be afraid to shift things around," she says. Carly started working at the label as an intern 13 years ago.

    And that's another thing to note. "There are folks who have been here for 20 plus years. We're one giant family and support each other and our artists," she explains. "It's a pretty awesome, pretty unusual work environment." 

    Which brings us back to Megan, and how she had the nerve to punk the New York Times in the first place. About that, she says: 

    "The thing about Seattle and the thing about Sub Pop and a lot of the music culture here—or anywhere, really—is that there's always an equal sense of reverence and irreverence. The reverence comes out because the music or the art is so awesome, and the people are awesome, so you want to do right by them. At the same time, it's rock 'n' roll! So it's based in irreverence and in some rebellion."

    And, sometimes, total gibberish.

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