The Story of Sub Pop
(or How I Lost the Weight and How I Plan to Keep It Off)
by Matt Olsen (Sub Pop alumnus ‘96-2000)
This much we know for certain:
Olympia, WA, 1979: a young Bruce Pavitt produced a fanzine named Subterranean Pop. As was the fashion of the time, this fanzine produced three cassette compilations of independent bands from around the country. In 1986, Pavitt moved himself to Seattle and released Sub Pop’s first LP, a compilation entitled Sub Pop 100. This was followed in 1987 by the release of the hindsight supergroup Green River’s Dry as a Bone EP. Later that same year, Pavitt met Midwest transplant Jonathan Poneman at a mattress store and the two agreed to jointly release the debut EP from Soundgarden, Screaming Life. This union ushered in what historians the world over have declined to call The Early Years.
(It should also be noted that it was around this time that Pavitt began growing a beard and Poneman finally dropped his fake British accent.)
The next few years were a whirlwind of artfully blurred photographs, beer stains on colored vinyl, and the seduction of the British music press. There were unexpected successes and calculated failures. A world was being readied for domination. Of course it was all a gag, but every pie-in-the-face is thrown with some degree of sincere retribution. Some concessions then:
Yes, there was long hair.
Yes, there was flannel.
Yes, there were fuzzboxes.
Much in the same way that Abe Lincoln will forever be wearing a stovepipe hat, this is what everyone will first and foremost think of when they think of Sub Pop Records.
They called it Grunge.
You know what happened after that. You were there in the mosh pit that summer getting your Converse All-Stars all muddy. You probably still have an old Nirvana t-shirt in your closet and maybe you’ll wear it this summer, when you’re painting the garage.
But the fact that is most often overlooked about that strange time is that while the rest of the world was grungin’ it up, Sub Pop was quietly not. Very disparate things were bearing the Sub Pop label: the neo-lounge music of Combustible Edison, the studied rock of Sunny Day Real Estate, the schizophrenic love songs of Sebadoh. Even Sub Pop’s flagship band, Mudhoney, got haircuts and started wearing glasses publicly. The most successful of Sub Pop’s first wave of bands were signed to major label deals, the company formed a joint venture with Warner Music, more employees were hired and Bruce Pavitt left the company he co-founded to do something else entirely. Sub Pop Rock City was undergoing a massive reconstruction.
It’s tempting to call this second wave The Difficult Years, so, let’s. Difficult because during this time Sub Pop had a great share of success critically and a decent amount financially but somewhere along the line the focus was lost amidst a blizzard of second-guessing, reassessment and overspending. Sub Pop, for the first time in its existence was being asked to justify itself and, brother, that’s a tough thing.
Many things have happened between then and the recent now. Employees and bands have come and gone, occasionally in the same day. Songs from Sub Pop artists have shown up in all manner of heretofore bizarre places such as broadcast television shows, big-budget film soundtracks and TV commercials for some of the world’s largest companies (and sometimes, even on commercial radio). With The Postal Service’s 2003 album, Give Up, the label earned its first gold record since Nirvana’s Bleach. And all the while Sub Pop has carefully and steadily been building a catalog of some of the very best records to be released in our time. Except for that Tad Family Xmas record, that was a mistake. Luckily, I just made it up.
Now it is 2006, and Sub Pop is anywhere between 27 and 18 years old depending on where you want to start counting. Sub Pop says, officially, 18. I’m inclined to agree with them as they’ve got the paperwork to back it up. In any case, they have plans to celebrate the label’s 20th anniversary in 2008, no doubt as conspicuously as they can manage. There’s a cliché you read all the time in band interviews that goes, “This new record is our best one yet”, and it seldom bears out to be true. So, I won’t begrudge you that doubtful smirk when I say that you could paraphrastically say the very same thing about Sub Pop’s current wave, an era that I’m calling The Realistic Years.
And guess what. It’s working. By putting the emphasis on the music, where it belongs, the rest is falling into place. The last few years have been some of Sub Pop’s most musically and fiscally rewarding since, well, that other time…you know the one. Here’s the proof, cool breeze: The Shins, Iron & Wine, Band of Horses, Wolf Parade, and The Postal Service. All of these artists have released debut full-lengths and have released or soon will release follow-ups (or in some cases, follow-ups to follow-ups) on Sub Pop. These records not only sold a heap, but also strangely enough, deserved to. In addition, Sub Pop continues its tradition of representing the very best bands in the Northwest with recent or upcoming records from Sleater-Kinney, Mudhoney, Kinski, A Frames, The Helio Sequence, The Thermals, Dead Moon, and Tiny Vipers. At the same time, the label continues to work with exciting bands and artists, wherever they might reside, including: Comets on Fire, Wolf Eyes, Jennifer Gentle, the Constantines, the Fruit Bats, Pissed Jeans, Oxford Collapse, Dntel, Kelley Stoltz, The Baptist Generals, Chad VanGaalen, Handsome Furs, The Album Leaf, The Brunettes, Low, Death Vessel, CSS, and Loney, Dear. And, with releases by David Cross and Eugene Mirman, and one by The Flight of the Conchords in the not terribly distant future, Sub Pop finally has albums in its catalog actually meant to inspire laughter. Things are happening the way they are supposed to: find the band, get the record out, get them touring, get some radio stations to play it, get some stores to sell it, and you can clean up the rest with your designer towels. The lesson has been learned: You may not be able to have your cake and eat it too, but isn’t the eating part good enough? I mean, that cake is fucking delicious!