As graphic designer Art Chantry says below in his reminiscence about Sub Pop Records, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Friday and Saturday, Sub Pop has always been a community affair. At certain points, it even seemed like the bands were running the label as much as the two founders, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman.
Appropriately, we have asked a variety of people — from Poneman to recently signed Sub Pop artist Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces — to share their recollections and impressions of the label. We welcome your own memories in the comments section of seattletimes.com. If they’re as interesting as we think they’ll be, we’ll scoop up a few and publish them. Meantime here’s what we’ve got so far:
Gene Stout, longtime Seattle rock critic
About a month after Nirvana released its major label debut album, “Nevermind” (DGC Records), the Seattle band returned from a European tour to play an unofficial Halloween homecoming show in the fall of 1991 at the Paramount Theatre, with Mudhoney and Bikini Kill. The band had made its debut on Sub Pop Records before leaping to DGC Records and was riding the tide of alternative rock that would lift all boats.
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In a review for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I described Nirvana’s concert as “a raw, intense show that left fans dazed and drained,” adding that the crowd became “a boiling stewpot of hair-swinging humanity, bouncing to the band’s shotgun wedding of punk, metal and alternative styles.”
Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt told me before Nirvana took the stage that “Nevermind” would soon reach 1 million in sales. I was awed by the prospect of such a huge sales number just months after the album’s release. But just a little more than two months later, the album hit No. 1 on The Billboard 200 album chart, knocking Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” out of the top spot.
Nirvana fans were ecstatic.
“It’s like the Mariners going to the World Series,’’ Pavitt told me in January 1992.
The success of “Nevermind” also boosted sales of Nirvana’s “Bleach” album, released on Sub Pop in May 1989. The album eventually went platinum.
“Nevermind” created a huge market for indie rock.
“(Nirvana) has totally opened the doors for adventurous regional bands,” Pavitt said.
The album subsequently sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
Ishmael Butler, of Shabazz Palaces
We asked [Executive Vice President] Megan [Jasper] what she expected from an album. She said, “I haven’t heard any of the music but whatever Ish hands in we’ll be proud to put it out.” I looked at that a couple of ways. A lot of people could say, “She wasn’t involved.” But her expertise is in picking artists and people who love their craft and love music — you let them do their thing. It seems like it’s hands off, it’s more nurturing.
Everybody at the label is really astute. Megan and [A&R man] Tony [Kiewel] and [label co-founder] Jonathan [Poneman] are the best that I’ve seen, the best that I’ve had to work with. They came down to a show we had in San Francisco. We were really pumped. That was an instance in which I realized they are really down with their artists. The setting didn’t deter them.
Understanding where the artist is coming from and taking a lot of time. And using insight and observation to help the artist fulfill their issues and hopes and flourish in a way you never would have thought was possible.
It’s really good to be in that situation. It’s ideal, man, and rare.
Art Chantry, graphic designer
The way the Sub Pop logo emerged says it all. It was a record review column in The Rocket. Originally, it was going to be called Subterranean Pop, but it was too long. Wes Anderson [graphic designer for the Rocket] designed the original masthead, then Helene Silverman [also a graphic designer] got assigned to lay the thing out. Helene was obsessed with stretch type. All the headlines of the Rocket were flex type stuff. And Sup Pop was this flexed type. Wes flip flopped the black and white type. When Helene split, I went back in and got rid of the flex type and put it in Eurostyle, also called Microgama. I was also the one who took the press type and added the little chevrons in it.
That was the way the masthead ran for a long time — side by side, not stacked. Then Dale Yarger, that beloved man, he was trying to put together this record cover on the cheap for Bruce [Pavitt]. “I don’t know what to do with their logo,” he said. “When you shrink it down, you can’t read it.” I said, ‘Stack It.’ That is what they did.
So the logo emerged out of a community. It was not designed by a person. It was designed by many people. The reality of this is that it’s so much more practical. It’s punk. It’s DIY. When life gives you lemons, make great lemonade. The entire Seattle community had been doing this for 20-30 years. This wasn’t Sub Pop’s success, it was underground Seattle’s success.
Charles R. Cross, former editor and owner of The Rocket magazine
Sub Pop has been around for so long, and is such an important pillar of the Seattle music community, it almost seems harder to imagine a time they didn’t exist. But 26 years ago, there was no Sub Pop, and the local music scene was less cohesive.
I first met both Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt through The Rocket, which I’d begun to edit a couple of years before Sub Pop was launched. Bruce wrote the popular “Sub Pop” column in The Rocket, where he chronicled his favorite indie bands from around the globe. It was one of our magazine’s most widely read features, and eventually the name morphed into the label Bruce started with Poneman.
I met Jonathan when he was booking shows in local clubs. He was also a musician, as well, and I ended up designing the album cover for his debut record by his band the Treeclimbers. They were actually quite good, in an R.E.M.-ish way, but they were probably too populist and mainstream to have ever fit into the early Sub Pop playlist.
Sub Pop’s full history is long and complex, with many pitfalls and near-deaths, and couldn’t be told even in a long book, much less a newspaper story. But 25 years after the first release, the label’s successes are so closely intertwined with Seattle’s cultural rise they seem as inevitable as the rise of Microsoft and Starbucks.
They remain one of my favorite labels for discovering new music, and 25 years after they began, that is a high compliment. Long may they run.
James Keblas, director of the Seattle Office of Film and Music
The thing about Sub Pop is how generous they are in giving back to the community … They have invested in other people’s record labels, which most people would think is competition but they don’t do it that way. They have invested in other people’s art projects, they have invested in other people’s restaurants and live music venues. They have invested in things that continue to make Seattle a great music city beyond their own interests. And that kind of reinvestment is what continues to make Seattle a great music city beyond just the grunge explosion of the ’90s.”
“[Sub Pop has] made Seattle, given it a musical identity, not just for the record label but for the whole community.
Paul de Barros, Seattle Times music critic
I vividly remember the first time I met Jonathan Poneman. It was January 1986 and I was writing for The Seattle Weekly. Poneman was a deejay at KCMU (the University of Washington precursor of KEXP) and booking New Music Night at the Rainbow, in the U District. A tousle-haired zealot on a mission, he brought a briefcase full of samples to the Rainbow the night we hooked up.
After a dry spell, the Seattle rock scene was stirring again, with new venues like the Ditto Tavern and fresh young bands. The U-Men had already found fame, but groups like Skinyard and Soundgarden were making what felt like something new. And there were promoters around, like Poneman and Soundgarden’s Susan Silver, who wanted to make something out of it.
“There’s genuine excitement,” Jonathan said, fishing out a pile of 45 rpm records, cassettes, posters and press clippings, all of which I still have, to this day. “There’s something new happening. And it’s a Seattle sound.”
Of course, everyone always wants to believe this about their hometown. But Poneman turned out to be right. Two years later, he joined forces with Olympia’s Bruce Pavitt, who’d been bringing out a cassette ’zine called Subterannean Pop, an endeavor mightily influenced by John Foster, the editor of another seminal magazine called Op, which first proposed the idea of “decentralizing pop culture” by promoting only local bands, major labels be damned. Pavitt’s high concept and Poneman’s enthusiasm and hype were the perfect blend. In 1988, Sub Pop Records was officially born, and the vehicle for the grunge revolution was set in motion. The rest, as they say, is history.