• UO Music: Seattle Scene

    Words by Jennifer Maerz, photos by Charles Peterson

    Sub Pop made it cool to be a loser in the ‘90s. The Seattle label emerged from a damp corner of the country with a snarky attitude that connected its founders, bands, and the iconic black and white “Loser” t-shirts it sold. The shirts were badges of honor for a generation of outsiders who eagerly snatched up limited-edition Sub Pop Singles Club vinyl. To be a proud capital-L Loser meant you’d found your people by moshing to the speedy, sludgy, snarling rock that groundbreaking Sub Pop acts Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Tad were spewing with glee. From the outside, it may be tough to connect such irreverent beginnings with a brand that now supports mellow indie powerhouses Beach House, Band of Horses, and Fleet Foxes. But Sub Pop’s success is deeply rooted in the fact that not only does it champion the underdogs, it also never stopped considering itself one. This is a label that uses the slogan “going out of business since 1988,” sarcastically names Seattle its “world headquarters,” and that called its most recent SXSW showcase “Back by Zero Demand.” Not to mention its staff plays the best pranks in the business (more on that in a bit). Sure, the decision makers at Sub Pop have great taste — its best-selling album, Nirvana’s Bleach, has sold 1.9 million copies, followed by The Postal Service’s Give Up at over 1 million. But they inject that taste with a self-effacing, full-transparency attitude that infuses the label with lots of personality.

    Jon Ponemon and Bruce Pavitt, co-founders of Sub Pop 
    Mudhoney at the Northgate Mall, Seattle 1989
    Sonic Youth, Seattle 1991

    The name Sub Pop was the brainchild of Bruce Pavitt, who used different versions of the moniker to title a fanzine, music column, and radio show, all of which were dedicated to “subterranean” punk. Pavitt met co-founder Jonathan Poneman, a kindred fan of underground rock, in 1987. A year later they launched Sub Pop records. (Little known fact: according to Sub Pop General Manager Chris Jacobs, the two men previously worked for a company that produced muzak — you know, those innocuous ditties written to slow your anxiety while you’re getting the dentist’s drill). Pavitt and Poneman released records by all the preeminent “grunge” artists — from Nirvana and Soundgarden on down to the smaller Pacific Northwest acts like Sprinkler — packaged with iconic photos shot by photographer Charles Peterson. 

    Endfest, 1991
    Lamefest UK, London 1990

    Sub Pop cannily fueled fandom for an emerging NW sound in the press. In 1989, the label flew infamous British rock critic Everett True to Seattle in order to exploit the local scene. At the time, the Brits were quick to explode in hyperbolic prose. So True’s resulting glowing assessment of Sub Pop for Melody Maker made both European and American audiences eager to glean everything there was to know about this new Seattle label. The best story about Sub Pop and the press, though, is the time Megan Jasper punked the New York Times. The label’s current CEO was a receptionist back in 1992 when a Times reporter looking to expand on the whole flannel fashion trend piece of the time ended up with a smartass as a source. Jasper coined a bunch of fake “grunge slang” on the spot — some real nuggets, too, like “wack slacks” (“old ripped jeans”), “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (“hanging out”), and “lamestain” (“uncool person”) — that the Times printed verbatim as Seattle gospel. It was a brilliant moment in Sub Pop history — and, let’s be real, in the history of overblown music trend pieces — and it set the tone for decades of punking the public to come. 

    Kurt Cobain at Reading Festival, 1992

    As Nirvana shot from obscurity to ubiquity, it took Sub Pop with it. But not without some serious bumps along the way. In 1994, the band’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, famously committed suicide. One year later, Sub Pop signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records that gave the major label 49 percent of the company. Months after the ink dried, Pavitt left (although Jacobs says he’s still a friend of Sub Pop) and a half dozen employees who were unhappy with the current leadership attempted a coup. Put simply, things were a shitshow (although, as a high note, Sub Pop released a superbly raw rock’n’roll record from the Murder City Devils in the late ‘90s)

    Band of Horses at Neumo's, Seattle 2009
    Ben and Sam (of Band of Horses), Seattle 2015

    Sub Pop refused to get crushed. Fast forward to the 2000s and the label signed another NW band (via Albuquerque) destined for greatness, The Shins. The indie rockers released Oh, Inverted World in 2001, and Natalie Portman catapulted them to hipster stardom by shoving them down co-star Zach Braff’s throat during a pivotal scene in the 2004 movie Garden State. The Shins became the first Sub Pop band to play on Saturday Night Live on the heels of 2007’s Wincing the Night Away (Fleet Foxes were the second). Along with the Shins, Sub Pop steadily diversified its arsenal of breaking bands in the 2000s beyond its punk beginnings. But while the label added gentle giants Iron and Wine and The Postal Service to its roster during this era, it also worked with such sonically provocative acts as Italian psych-rockers Jennifer Gentle and Detroit noise-hounds Wolf Eyes. It’s natural too that this prankster label got into comedy. Sub Pop signed comedian David Cross and satirical New Zealanders Flight of the Conchords in the 2000s as well.

    Nirvana, Seattle 1990

    These days Sub Pop is so flush with notable acts its roster could easily double as a Coachella announcement. It’s home to records by Sleater-Kinney, Shabazz Palaces, Washed Out, and Head and the Heart, as well as the fierce (and very early Nirvana-sounding) Strange Wilds. Sub Pop has grown to house a small indie imprint, Hardly Art, and has an official store in the Seattle airport. For its 20th anniversary, the label got to fly a flag from the top of the freakin’ Space Needle for the weekend. All that stuff is cool and all, but, you’re asking, what about the jokes? Did the humor disappear with the success of the first Father John Misty record? The answer is the humor has only increased since then.

    Nirvana at the Seattle Coliseum, 1992

    The 2013 release of Father John Misty’s Fear Fun prompted an angry letter from a fan who was upset that Sub Pop didn’t label the actual CD. This, in turn, prompted a smartass response from receptionist Derek Erdman, who suggested said fan should scribble the name on the disc his/herself. This further irked the letter writer, and so Sub Pop pretended to fire Erdman, complete with a fake exit interview and a photo of the guy holding a box of his belongings in shame

    The subjects of Sub Pop pranks aren’t limited to journalists and fans. When employees discovered a cheesy recruiting video Amazon made about “Life in Seattle,” they ripped that clip apart in a parody that included footage of pigeons eating vomit and lines like “Seattle’s so incredibly diverse. On any given day you can run into people … with brown hair! [And with] dark brown hair!”

    Sub Pop’s “Life in Seattle” video sums up the label’s place in both the NW and in the music industry as a whole. It’s a record label that knows the difference between what’s hip and what’s lamestain while making the entire category of coolness seem ridiculous. And either despite or because of that, every generation from the ‘90s on has been clamoring to hear what Sub Pop’s biggest losers have to say.