Q Magazine August 1992
Go Forth And Grunge
by Martin Aston
Once a spawning ground for raucous, freely perspiring rock 'n' roll bands, Seattle's Sub Pop record label is now a term that defines a musical genre. Martin Aston meets the men who brought you Mudhoney, L7, and Nirvana (not to mention Afghan Whigs).
SEATTLE, IN the top left hand corner of America, is famous for its once-thriving post-war aerospace industry, for its breweries and coffee, pine forests and clean air, for Jimi Hendrix - and rain. And rock 'n' roll, as Bono recently announced from a Seattle stage, like rainy cities. Since 1989, the city has become increasingly known for scuzzy, long hair-tossing grunge 'n' thrash 'n' roll, with attitude on the side. Air guitars at the ready, if you please, for Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, L7, Tad, and resplendent at the pinnacle of the piney tree, the multi-platinum phenonomenon that is Nirvana.
And whenever Seattle is mentioned, so is Sub Pop, the label most responsible for putting the whole place on the map. "It's essentially wilderness country up here," Sub Pop's co-chief Jonathan Poneman paints the scene. "It's attracted a lot of crazy people, serial killer Ted Bundy for one, but there's a lot of the rugged, "do-it-yourself, survivalist, drifter type. Apply that to rock 'n' roll and that makes punk rock. People who live in the middle of nowhere party because there's nothing else to do.That's why the music is unusually rowdy."
Add a vibrant arts culture to a vibrant beer culture to frequent outbursts of rain - Seattle is a premier test market for books and films because people spend more time indoors - and you have, in the words of Poneman's partner, Bruce Pavitt, "a real heightened consciousness out there."
BUT THIS isn't Seattle, this is New York, where the smell of pine is more likely to be disinfectant. The occasion is the thirteenth New Music Seminar, an annual trade convention with an "alternative" tack that promotes the aesthetics of music alongside the making of money with a backdrop of panel discussions and concerts, although you could never tell who was in charge - the unknown bands itching to ink a deal or the label executives itching to abuse their expensive accounts.
Not that Pavitt see any contradiction between art and business - in fact, they revel in it. "At the end of the day, Bruce and I go back to our hotel, where we share a room," Poneman is at pains to point out, "but this is showbiz. The New Music Seminar is an event, and we're big fans of networking capabilities. We want to be able to make sure that we're sending out a large beacon so that people can see us."
By virtue of its regional isolation, Seattle needed the ballyhoo treatment, and Pavitt and Poneman, both driven by a combination of die-hard enthusiasm and sharp business acumen, have been the right men for the job. Their initial spur, according to Pavitt, the more reserved, bearded half of the pair, was the fact that Seattle was a big city with a fertile music/arts scene that was ignored by an American media fixated on Los Angeles and New York. Pavitt actually graduated from college with a BA in Punk Rock, and went on to write a fanzine, Subterranean Pop, "which focused on the American indie scene because, at the time, everybody was reading British papers and buying Rough Trade singles, and there was little enlightened information about all these American bands."
Believing he's "at least network with some hip people and get turned on to some cool music", Pavitt progressed to cassette releases- "audio road maps to America's most remote locations" - to a weekly column in the Seattle Rocket and a slot on the local station KCMU. In 1986 he released Sub Pop 100, a vinyl compilation crossing state and musical boundaries, from New York to Austin to post-hardcore to techno-noise. But it wasn't until Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil introduced Pavitt to Poneman, who'd relocated from Ohio, "to live like a hippy," but had would up working in retail, radio, and concert promotion, that the label starting mining the Northwestern backyard that has since come up trumps for them.
While both say a "scene" can evolve anywhere, Seattle took off, the garrulous Poneman claims, "because it all fell together here. A lot of cities have great bands and dynamic, interactive people who don't want to, or know how to, play the game, because their vision is different to the corporate rock American dream, which is, basically, selling a million records, touring forever and resting in a condo they bought with their advance. But something special happened in Seattle because of different talents and personalities, while the egos that usually crop up in the business seemed submerged for a much larger common cause - not Sub Pop, but our scene, a unified crowd who'd go to shows, play in bands and sometimes party together. It allowed an organic quasi-industry to develop."
Ok, we've never got around to finishing this yet. Bother me at email@example.com and tell me to get this damn thing typed up.)
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