In 1988, underground radio DJ Jonathan Poneman and fanzine editor Bruce Pavitt quit their day jobs to dedicate themselves full-time to running their independent record label. 30 years later, I’m stood in a departure terminal at LAX looking across the tarmac at the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800 which will take me to Seattle. It’s covered in what looks like huge road case stickers that all read: ‘SUB POP’.
I have questions. How do you go from making a few scribbled notes in Seattle’s Uptown Espresso coffee shop to becoming one of the world’s most famous record labels, with your name painted down a plane’s fuselage? What was it about the remote Pacific North West that allowed it to incubate grunge, the sound that would change the world? And most pressingly: Does this mean they’ll let me play ‘God’s Balls’ by Tad over the tannoy?
The answer to one of those questions is: ‘No’. The rest will take some explaining.Let’s get right to the heart of this thing. Let’s ask somebody who was there. About 24 hours ago I was sitting in the baking LA heat listening to Mark Lanegan tell me – in that voice that sounds like gravel in a gale – about the first time he ever heard Sub Pop’s most famous signing. It was the tail end of the 80s and he was still living in Ellensburg, a small town smack in the middle of Washington state, and singing with Screaming Trees, when he got a phone call from his friend Dylan Carlson.
“He said: ‘Hey, my friend is playing a show at the Ellensburg Library and he’s a big fan of your music.’” remembers Lanegan. “‘Would you go down and watch him? Because there’s probably not going to be anybody there and it would be a thrill for him if you went.’ I went down there. When they started playing, I realised that I was hearing one of the best bands I had ever heard… and in the fuckin’ Ellensburg Library no less. It was Nirvana that were playing, and it was Kurt that he wanted me to meet.”
From that day on, Lanegan and Cobain became close friends. They shared a love of old blues records, not to mention heavy duty narcotics. Soon they were cooking up a half-baked plan to record an EP of Leadbelly covers together. Naturally, Sub Pop – the newborn label who had snapped up Nirvana for an initial outlay of just 600 bucks – were keen to put it out, but when it failed to materialise it was co-founder Poneman who rang Lanegan and asked if he wanted to make a solo record instead.
“I distinctly remember that the offer was for $13,000 for the first record,” says Lanegan. “Up until that point, my contribution to Screaming Trees songwriting basically amounted to changing some of the more egregious lyrics written by the guitar player to make them less embarrassing. I had never picked up a guitar or anything, but I knew that the records we’d made were for a strict $1,000 budget. I thought I could make a record for a thousand dollars and pocket the other twelve.”
So Lanegan taught himself to write, and then wrote ‘The Winding Sheet’. He included the sole song salvaged from the ill-fated Leadbelly sessions: a version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, featuring both Cobain and Krist Novoselic. The album was a departure for both Lanegan and Sub Pop, but it turned into a success that would heavily influence the sound of Nirvana’s own famous MTV Unplugged performance. This story illustrates two important facts about Sub Pop: They were willing to gamble, but they knew their shit.
“I thought it was kind of weird because everything else on the label was hard rock, but they were into the idea and it obviously panned out for me. I owe him one!” says Lanegan, acknowledging the confidence Poneman showed in him. While he says his own relationship with them was “tempestuous” (they dropped him midway through the recording of follow-up, ‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’, only to later resign him and give him the money to finish it), Lanegan reserves high praise for the label.
“What really changed shit was Nirvana and Sub Pop,” he says. “Sub Pop had a genius for marketing and the way they promoted the label, with Nirvana of course being the shining star in their universe. In terms of Seattle at that time, I don’t think it had ever really happened before where a small city had so many bands going to the top of the Billboard charts. Soundgarden. Alice In Chains. Pearl Jam still play stadiums like they’re the Grateful Dead. It was an unprecedented phenomenon.”
I tell him I’m about to head north to visit the city for myself. ”Shit, man. I haven’t looked at the weather report but you might want to take an umbrella,” he drawls. I tell him I’ll be used to it, coming from Britain. “It’s uber-British,” he says. “People say Manchester is like Seattle. Bullshit. Seattle is like Manchester x100 weather-wise. It’s got the shittiest weather of any city in the world, hands down.”
“A lot is said about the weather,” says Jonathan Poneman, sat in his office at Sub Pop HQ in downtown Seattle. Outside in the corridors are various bits of memorabilia, like a framed copy of a restraining order that K Records’ Calvin Johnson took out against Courtney Love, and a bit of wall ripped from that previous office that Kurt Cobain scrawled his address on. Poneman doesn’t know if it was the climate that made Seattle creative, although he does posit an alternative explanation: “I’ve heard it said that there are more books read per capita in Seattle than in any other major American metropolitan city,” he says. (This is true, at least according to Amazon, who happen to now be one of the city’s main employers.) “Although…” Poneman continues. “That may not be saying all that much at this point.”
While it’s easy to look back with hindsight and see the Seattle scene as fully formed from the get go – Sub Pop would put out debut releases by Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Nirvana all within a couple of years – Poneman says the reality was very different. “The thing that was most remarkable about Seattle was how spontaneous everything was,” he says. “There was no premeditation or calculation. We were just thinking about life-changing shows and mind-blowing bands.”
Suddenly, though, the outside world was starting to take notice. By 1992, the New York Times had decided they needed to find out what this grunge thing that was happening was all about. This lead to one of Sub Pop’s most infamous gags – Poneman passed a phone call from a reporter on to Megan Jasper, a mohawked receptionist who’d recently left the label and was by then working at Caroline Records. She promptly supplied the Times with a list of entirely made-up ‘grunge’ lingo which the newspaper of record faithfully printed. A loser was henceforth to be known as a “cob nobbler”. Hanging out was apparently referred to as “swingin’ on the flippity-flop”. Whatever happened to Jasper? She’s now Sub Pop’s CEO, obviously.
“They were doing a huge piece on Seattle. It was the front page of the Style section,” Jasper recalls. “I had had a shitload of coffee, and was just rattling a bunch of bullshit off. I honestly thought at some point we’d just laugh and say: ‘This is ridiculous’. That never happened.”
It’s a funny story, but it also illustrates just how strange, exotic and remote Seattle seemed to outsiders at that time. “You have to imagine that the writers for the New York Times are pretty intelligent people, we would hope,” says Jasper. “But there was this weird, dark corner of the country that so many people knew so little about.”
The years that followed the grunge boom weren’t always plain sailing for Sub Pop. Bruce Pavitt left the company acrimoniously in 1996, saying that he saw too much waste, and money being squandered. At least they managed to keep a sense of humour about it. Ten years ago, at their 20th anniversary, they announced they were celebrating ‘15 years of great music.’ “Every record label has its dark times, and we’re no exception,” says Poneman now. “I’ll leave it up to the discerning listener to decide which five years we were talking about. They weren’t always sequential.”
But Sub Pop weren’t finished yet. In 2001, The Shins’ debut record ‘Oh, Inverted World’ helped usher in a new era of indie. The Postal Service’s one-off 2003 album ‘Give Up’ gave the label an unexpectedly massive hit, their first platinum record since Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’. Fleet Foxes followed before the end of the decade, who in turn begat Father John Misty – now one of the label’s biggest success stories, and part of a genuinely eclectic roster that also includes Beach House, Pissed Jeans, Shabazz Palaces and – at least as far as their musical endeavors go – Rick and Morty.
Leaving Sub Pop’s offices on my way to see Afghan Whigs play the label’s showcase beneath Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, I decide to stop off at the nearby Museum of Popular Culture. Inside, there’s a whole exhibition dedicated to Nirvana. Among the collection they have the first demo tape that Nirvana sent to Sub Pop, and the first contract they signed with the label, along with later curios like the original print off of the photo of the baby in the pool from the ‘Nevermind’ cover. It’s inscribed with the memorable line, from Geffen’s art director Robert Fisher: “If anyone has a problem with his dick we can remove it.”
It’s a great exhibition, although for anyone who grew up on Nirvana’s music there’s something odd about seeing that youthful energy literally trapped under perspex. It shouldn’t be strange to see them as an historical band – the 30 years that have gone by since their debut single ‘Love Buzz’ is exactly the same amount of time that separates ‘Love Buzz’ from The Everly Brothers crooning ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ – yet somehow it is. Go and put on ‘Bleach’ and tell me it doesn’t still sound vital.
The next morning it’s raining, just as Lanegan prophesied. I catch a ferry from downtown Seattle over to Alki Beach, where Sub Pop’s free birthday festival is taking place, and overhear a couple of young fans onboard.
“I wish Nirvana were still around to play today,” one of them muses.
There’s a widespread general murmur of approval at this thought. Everyone wishes they could have seen Nirvana.
“Then again,” the same fan eventually concludes. “If they were… you know they’d be charging for it.”
Even with the label’s newest signings, the influence of Kurt Cobain still hangs in the ether. LA three-piece Moaning are one of the festival’s early highlights. Frontman Sean Solomon tells the crowd that at the first show he ever played, a Battle of the Bands, his band played ‘Molly’s Lips’ by The Vaselines in the style of Nirvana’s cover. “Our mics didn’t turn on so it was just the same two chords over and over again,” he recalls. “It was really embarrassing.”
Earlier, he’d told me how Sub Pop had always been the label he’d dreamed of signing with. “Everyone in the band has been friends since we were teenagers, and we’d always joke about getting signed to Sub Pop. It was the label we fantasised about. They were always, in my mind, the label I was supposed to be on.”
While the label have long outgrown the ‘grunge’ tag that they always bristled against anyway, Solomon says there’s still a certain vibe that unites the bands that Sub Pop sign. “I think we all have a sense of independence, and you can tell that the music is untouched,” he says. “A lot of labels get more involved than Sub Pop do. They really allow artists to do their thing, and they don’t interfere. In a lot of different productions it’s difficult to be an auteur, but I feel like the artists on Sub Pop have very clear visions, and I think that’s why so many of their records are my favourites. There’s a sense of authenticity, and I think that makes sense that the ‘grunge’ label continues to put out really authentic-sounding records.”
Despite the grey, Manchester x100 drizzle, the rest of the birthday party goes off without a hitch. It’s estimated that 50,000 people show up. Father John Misty, Shabazz Palaces and Beach House all play on the beach. Loma frontwoman Emily Cross not only jumps into the crowd but manages to run out into the sea while the band plays on. Yet somehow the best band of the day end up being Mudhoney, playing some songs that are as old as the label itself. The past isn’t over, as Faulkner said. It isn’t even past.
The next day I take the inevitable pilgrimage to the house where Kurt died. There’s a steady stream of visitors to his memorial bench, seemingly unaware that his old record label had just celebrated an anniversary. Outside the gates of the house, I meet a young guy with long hair and a Nirvana T-shirt on. His name is Justin Huynh, and he’s come from Fort Worth, Texas. He’s 25 – five years younger than Sub Pop. “This was the must-do thing of my life,” he tells me.
There’s a solid wooden gate in front of the house, but he’s determined to get picture so he crouches down and pushes his phone underneath.
“Hi Kurt,” I hear him say. “I love you.”