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COVER STORY: New Dawning Time - Will Rock 'n' Roll Resurrect Sub Pop?

by Joe Ehrbar

(First appeared in The Rocket magazine, 4/7/99)

When Sub Pop scheduled its 11th anniversary party at Seattle's O.K. Hotel on April 4, Easter Sunday, the timing seemed divinely inspired. In the past, Sub Pop's party has resembled a wake rather than a celebration-partly because of the proximity of Kurt Cobain's death (April 8) and partly due to the fact that the label's been declared dead more times than rock itself. So it's symbolic that the Seattle record label chose to celebrate its birthday on Easter, for it too is showing signs of a resurrection.

When asked if Sub Pop was dead, label chief Jonathan Poneman replies with a dry enthusiasm: "I think there's always going to be a Sub Pop. Whether it's going to be as big as it is now, I don't really know."

For a beleaguered head of a corporation, Poneman, seated comfortably in an English gentlemen's chair in his top-floor, Puget Sound view office, looks alive, healthy, relaxed, confident and is surprisingly upbeat. It's surprising because as the media would have it, he's supposed to be distraught and panicky, helplessly standing by watching his rickety record company sink beneath the Puget Sound. Rolling Stone, as recently as December, ran a story that stopped just short of saying the record company had gone under. "At least they're talking about us," says Poneman, who smiles.

But they're talking about the same thing: Sub Pop's grim financial health. Almost as famous as its history and early bands (Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Tad) is Sub Pop's ongoing flirtation with bankruptcy. Its business woes are so notorious that in 1991 founders Poneman and Bruce Pavitt printed T-shirts which bore the slogan: "What part of 'we don't have any money' don't you understand?" Those words continue to haunt Sub Pop's offices, as the label, despite scaling back its operations and trimming staff in the last two years, has lost money for a fourth straight year. And Poneman has projected the label will be in the red yet again this year. "Losing money is not a good thing," says Poneman. "It's not what I had set out to be in business for. But that's the way it goes once in awhile."

Though it may be hard to believe-especially with Poneman infusing his own capitol into the label and taking more money from Sub Pop's half-owner, Time Warner-Sub Pop is financially sound, sound enough to continue operating for another couple years. Sure it lost money last year, but revenues increased. "There's been a dramatic improvement," says Poneman. "There's going to be a dramatic improvement this year." That's important information because according to Poneman, Sub Pop, which has weathered a turbulent decade of post-grunge fallout (sluggish sales, internal turmoil, poor business decisions, downsizing and restructuring, an identity crisis, a lack of defined vision, a recessed market and the resignation of Pavitt from day-to-day operations in 1995), is poised for a brighter future. "Like farming, you got to plant your crop before you reap the harvest," says Poneman.

That's precisely what the label's been doing. Despite losing Sunny Day Real Estate, the biggest-selling band on its active roster, Poneman, together with Sub Pop's A&R team, has been quietly laying the groundwork for what might be its strongest campaign since grunge, one the label hopes will have it boldly stepping into the new millennia and make it a considerable force again in the industry. And one that just might have it breaking its four-year losing streak and turning a profit by the year 2000.

To do this, Sub Pop is revisiting its past and getting back to the basics. Poneman and company are steering the label back to the revitalized shores of rock 'n' roll-the single genre that made the label wealthy and world-famous several years ago and the single genre it virtually turned its back on a couple years later.

For the last several months, Sub Pop, the label that once set the precedent for underground rock, has been on a rock 'n' roll signing spree, adding more than a half-dozen new bands to its roster, including San Francisco's Zen Guerrilla and the Audience, Detroit's The Go, Vancouver, B.C.'s Black Halos (on Sub Pop imprint Die Young Stay Pretty), West Coast band Gardener (featuring the Screaming Trees' Van Conner and Seaweed's Aaron Stauffer) and Seattle's Love as Laughter. Perhaps its biggest coup so far is the inking of Stockholm, Sweden's Hellacopters, among the most touted and exciting rock bands in the world. In addition, Sub Pop is pursuing several more rockers, such as Stockholm's Backyard Babies (who feature ex-Hellacopter guitarist Dregen), San Francisco transplants the Rapture and Seattle/Spokane band the Makers.

Though it's not quite grunge, of course, the new crop of bands (diverse in its own right) offers the kind of no-nonsense, gritty rock 'n' roll that one might have expected from Sub Pop years ago. And for the first time in many years, a lot of this music is coming from the Northwest. "I am reinaugurating the ages of Northwest rock 'n' roll," says Poneman. "That's by and large what we've always been and what we will continue to be as long as there is Sub Pop.

"I like a lot of different kinds of music," he continues, "but no matter what I do, people equate Sub Pop with rock. They equate it with Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. It's a fucking great heritage."


READY FOR MORE

Sub Pop's resurrection commenced last year with the signing of the Murder City Devils and 10 Minute Warning-the first Seattle-based rock bands to be signed by the label in some time. Though the alliance with 10 Minute Warning hasn't amounted to anything more than an EP and a quick exit, the addition of the Murder City Devils has proved particularly pivotal. Not only has the sextet single-handedly rejuvenated the label's interest in rock, it's also lent it the street cred and youthful enthusiasm it was sorely lacking.

"Whether we've [rejuvenated the label's rock interests], I don't know," says Murder City Devils vocalist Spencer Moody. "The most successful bands on Sub Pop of the last few years aren't us. But I think that we have generated interest in that kind of stuff, but we don't sell a huge amount of records. I think they've been doing a really good job with the bands they've been signing. It's been really exciting for us."

The band came to the label via Die Young Stay Pretty, a Sub Pop imprint operated by A&R reps Meg Watjen and Dan Trager. Die Young Stay Pretty was launched in 1997 for the specific purpose of developing rock bands and releasing their albums at a fraction of the overhead of a typical Sub Pop release. The Murder City Devils, who, after their inception in late '96, quickly became the toast of the town, were the label's flagship band, releasing their punk-fueled self-titled debut in 1997. The album sold 4,000 copies, with the bulk of the sales in Seattle. It was a success in the eyes of Sub Pop, and an impressive enough number for Poneman to offer the band a multi-album contract with Sub Pop proper.

"I think the Murder City Devils are a quintessential Northwest rock band who are young and are one of the more exciting bands around right now," Poneman says.

A year later and six months following the release of the Murder City Devil's sophomore effort, Empty Bottles Broken Hearts, Poneman is pleased with the results and the band's efforts. They've met expectations. Sub Pop has shipped nearly 8,500 copies of the album-a relatively low number when compared to the 69,000 the label shipped of Sunny Day Real Estate's 1998 album, How It Feels to Be Something On. But so far it's been a profitable venture, both artistically and financially. "For me, I'm psyched," Poneman says. "But those guys probably want to sell more, because most bands do. But they're making progress. They're touring. We're in the black."


PLAGUE YEARS

Sub Pop's return to rock 'n' roll is a significant development because it marks the first time in ages that rock is well-represented on its roster. Nine years ago, such a thing wouldn't have been unusual. Though it had its share of decidedly non-grunge artists like the Walkabouts, Steven Jesse Bernstein and Beat Happening in its stable, Sub Pop in 1990 was about rock and its roster reflected this: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, Thee Hypnotics, Reverend Horton Heat, the Fluid, the Dwarves, Love Battery, Les Thugs, the Derelicts, L7, Billy Childish/Thee Headcoats and the Cosmic Psychos.

When Pavitt and Poneman opened shop in 1988, they loosely modeled their fledgling operation after Stax or Motown to champion a previously untapped rock derivative. Their bands generally came from the same place, not just geographically, but musically: riff-conscious '70s rock crossed with '60s and '70s punk. Most Sub Pop acts were paired with the label's unofficial house producer Jack Endino, the man responsible for whipping the bands' molasses-thick, unbridled, rough-hewn essence into a uniform sound. Sub Pop capitalized on this by selling it as a package, hyping not the individual bands, but the label and movement. This insured record sales for bands both known and unknown.

But not more than a year after Nirvana took grunge into the mainstream in 1991 and made the long-struggling Sub Pop financially solvent did the label do something completely unexpected and risky: In its continued quest for "world domination," the most celebrated indie label in the world attempted to rid itself of the grunge stereotype by widening its aesthetic scope to encompass a broader musical variety. Sub Pop believed rock was showing signs of exhaustion, so it was time for the label to look not only beyond the Northwest for its talent but the genre itself.

"I really, really got burned out on [rock]," Poneman said last year. "Because before signing all the bands we signed in the late '80s, for many years, I was booking a lot of those bands around here. And then we got flooded with these demo tapes, which were all fifth-rate Mudhoney clones. After a while, I didn't want to be this grunge entrepreneur for the rest of my life."

Sub Pop didn't quite abandon rock-bands like the Fastbacks, Pond, Les Thugs, Six Finger Satellite and the Supersuckers still had a home in the mid-'90s-but the rock had to make room for bands scattered across the indie spectrum, as Sub Pop attempted to have its hands in nearly every burgeoning indie movement or sub-movement. By 1996 the face of the Seattle label had changed drastically, as the non-rock bands on the roster greatly outnumbered the rockers. The new generation included: Combustible Edison (lounge), Friends of Dean Martinez (Morricone-esque instrumental music), the Grifters (indie rock), Velocity Girl, Jale and the Hardship Post (indie pop), Pigeonhed (electronic), Thornetta Davis (R&B), Red Red Meat (blues), Damien Jurado (folk), Chixdiggit (pop punk), Zumpano (pop), Eric Matthews (symphonic pop), Scud Mountain Boys (twang), Sunny Day Real Estate (emocore), 5 Style (funk) and godheadSilo (noise).

Indeed, the lineup was artistically ambitious, but almost to a fault. Sub Pop tried to be too much to everyone, thus alienating its built-in, rock-buying fanbase. The brand-name association-instrumental in the indie's early success-no longer meant anything as no one knew what to expect from the label.

That wasn't the only problem facing Sub Pop. In the immediate years following the grunge craze, the label experienced a tremendous growth spurt. The label, which had but a handful of employees in its early days, now had 45 employees and offices in Boston, Toronto and London. It was growth the label later couldn't support. Pavitt, often credited as the label's true visionary and half the reason Sub Pop got to where it did, resigned from day-to-day operations in 1995. But not before Sub Pop inked a deal with Time Warner, turning over 49 percent of the indie to the corporate giant, further padding the wallets of Sub Pop. In typical Sub Pop fashion, the label, historically careless with money, began spending large amounts of it, not on developing artists like it did in the past, but on trying to break them-just like a major label. The returns were, in many cases, less than desirable. "I think the whole manner in which we went forward with it was everything that I had once fought," admits Poneman.

Things only got worse.

By 1997, Sub Pop was not only battling an identity crisis, it was also feeling the crunch of slumping sales. The market, saturated with product, was in recession. Sebadoh were the only active band on the roster posting strong sales. Ironically, it was the back catalog-the rock records-carrying the label. Meanwhile, turmoil was riddling Sub Pop's offices. Numerous long-time employees, such as A&R director Nils Bernstein, were either fired or laid off between 1996 and 1998. The satellite offices were shut down. A halt a total financial collapse, Poneman renegotiated the label's contract with Time Warner to sever ties with Elektra (the label with which Sub Pop had been coupled after signing the deal) and asked for more money.

"A lot of people equate our signings with the losing of money," Poneman says. "The losing of money has more to do with the generosity on my part and overvaluing. I really respect the artists that I work with. A band like the Grifters, for example, who frankly didn't sell that many records, I thought they were fucking godhead. I lost my objectivity as far as that goes.

"With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I could probably say, 'Gosh, I should have kept things small and kept grinding out the rock records,'" he says later. "And, that's a legitimate thing to say."


SMASH YOUR HEAD ON THE PUNK ROCK

Now that Poneman's had enough time and distance from grunge, he's excited about Sub Pop being a rock 'n' roll depot again. And the label's shift in this direction makes sense. To this day, people identify the label with the genre. "That's what people want from Sub Pop and there's no sense in them fighting it," says Spencer Moody. "I think they're signing good bands and hopefully they can build up a reputation for having good rock 'n' roll bands again."

The timing for a rock 'n' roll revolution seems right. After grunge deteriorated into vapid alternative rock and punk pop, rock gave way to ska and swing revivals and electronica. With those trends now losing steam and mainstream music becoming increasingly bankrupt (thanks in part to the recent consolidation of the industry), the conditions are exactly what they were in 1988. A smaller label has a better chance to make a difference.

"Rock 'n' roll has always been around in transitional times," Poneman explains. "I think we're moving through some seemingly transitional times. A lot of times the transition is marked by a kind of economic downturn or some sort of social upheaval. I think the social upheaval is going on. I think the economic downturn-whatever's happening with the stock market or the economy in general-I think that that's not playing into the current climate. What is playing into it is you have the downsizing of the music industry in general, where you have the richest and most powerful determining [culture].

"If you look out there, good rock 'n' roll-there isn't very much of it," he continues. "There is a lot of it, but it isn't being represented in the world-class way that Sub Pop has represented it. Or has attempted to represent it. I love rock 'n' roll."

Some people question Poneman's "love" for rock 'n' roll, or at least are cynical about the label's sudden renewed devotion to the music. "They can't cut it elsewhere, so now they've gone back to the old ways," says an industry official who works with Sub Pop, speaking under the condition of anonymity. "We'll see if this pans out. It'll be a feeding frenzy while it's hot and when it's gone, Sub Pop will just leave rock 'n' roll again. I mean, come on, how long have people known about the Hellacopters? Where was Sub Pop four years ago?

"They started out as a great rock 'n' roll label," he continues. "They had their finger on something that was right in the backyard. They were bringing rock back. They were the first ones to make a lot of those bands popular. Like the Fluid-I remember the first time I heard them; they were '70s rock and they were amazing. Nowadays, Sub Pop's following the trends."

Steve Turner, guitarist of seminal Sub Pop band Mudhoney, doesn't see this as necessarily bad. "They're really not setting any pace or trends at this point, but I think they've wisely given up trying to," says Turner. "They gotta go after what they think is going to sell at this point. They're in dire straits, aren't they? I don't think the label's doomed. Maybe this will be a good thing-to get some bands that people actually might like."


COATTAIL RIDER

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Sub Pop's new breed of bands, in many cases, are of the same pedigree as the bands from the glory days. For instance, Zen Guerrilla could be the label's Soundgarden, with a sound informed by the MC5, Sabbath and Zeppelin and a vocalist, Marcus Durant, whose tenor can soar high into the stratosphere. (However, the band also has a strong affinity for the blues.) The Hellacopters, who have signed a two-album deal with Sub Pop, kick out the struttin', Motor City-bound crunch-rock the Fluid were once renowned for.

The resemblance isn't lost on Poneman.

"The Hellacopters remind me at various points and times of the Fluid and Mudhoney," says Poneman, who flew all the way to Sweden to, among other things, offer the Hellacopters a hangar in the U.S. "Not to besmirch any of the [old Sub Pop] bands, but there is a depth in the Hellacopters. Nicke Hellacopter [guitarist] is a student of rock 'n' roll. I really respect the knowledge and respect they have for the music. Plus, they rock like hell." As for Zen Guerrilla, "They have the righteous heaviness that is so needed in these times," he says.

If that's not enough, the label's latest signees have been hiring Jack Endino to produce their albums. Since last year, Endino's recorded four Sub Pop bands: 10 Minute Warning, the Murder City Devils, the Black Halos and Zen Guerrilla.

Aside from it being the year that Sub Pop unleashes a whole new rock pedigree on the world, 1999 also marks the year Sub Pop is revisiting its classic rock. The indie is preparing a series of anthology albums for release, starting this month with the Reverend Horton Heat's Holy Roller, which comes out April 20. These records will be stocked with material from the bands' respective catalogs as well as with various odds and ends. Other anthologies in the works thus far are ones from the Supersuckers and Mudhoney.

Further, Sub Pop has plans for the biggest-selling and most significant album in its catalog, Nirvana's Bleach, which turns 10 this year. What exactly the label is doing with the album is not yet known. "There's going to be something," says Poneman. "It's still very much in the developmental stage. We're going to celebrate it in some manner. We want to do something that's respectful and tasteful and not something that's simply a shakedown of the Nirvana fans. We want to re-release the album, but I don't want to just slap on a new cover and go, 'Hey, Bleach all over again.'"

So if Sub Pop is turning the vessel back to the shores of rock, what does this mean for the host of non-guitar-slinging or cross-over acts onboard? According to Poneman, the label will continue to rally behind Mark Lanegan, Elevator Through, Damien Jurado, Joe Pernice, the Blue Rags, Mike Ireland, the Spinanes, St. Etienne and Jeremy Enigk. Presently, it's the non-hard-rocking combos that are generating the most hoopla: Belle and Sebastian-offshoot Looper are drawing rave reviews with their debut album, Up a Tree. And Sebadoh are conquering the college radio charts and clinching commercial airplay with their new release, The Sebadoh.


LET IT SLIDE

It's doubtful this latest rock crusade will produce the kind of historical, social and cultural impact of the label's first one. While the timing seems right, the dynamics for something like that to happen aren't there: Sub Pop isn't a tiny label with nothing to lose by bringing up a bunch of fiery unknowns. It's a large operation with more than two-dozen employees. For it to resurrect itself and stay in business it will have to operate under the principles of a model indie, a model it helped to create. A successful Sub Pop 2000 needs to be like Sub Pop in 1988: lean, gutsy, creative, raw and grass-roots-driven.

Sub Pop's rock campaign is under way: The Murder City Devils are still touring in support of Empty Bottles Broken Hearts, Gardener's New Dawning Time is just out, and new albums from the Black Halos (Black Halos) and the Hellacopters (Grande Rock) are expected in May and June, respectively. Whether or not the move will be profitable will take time to discern. Certainly the label's roster is strong enough and most of its new recruits are seasoned and have demonstrated on smaller labels that they can sell records. Zen Guerrilla's last album, Positronic Raygun, on Alternative Tentacles sold nearly 5,000 copies. The Hellacopters' debut, Supershitty to the Max, has sold some 15,000 units (both as an import and domestic release); in Europe it's cleared more than 60,000. And as Poneman stated earlier, the label is already in the black with the Murder City Devils.

Poneman projects Sub Pop to turn a profit next year. He even thinks there's a slight chance the company will make money this year. This means the label has considerable expectations on not just its signees but itself. But the question remains: Can Sub Pop sell the movement to the masses? If this campaign doesn't pan out, it's questionable if the indie can continue as an active label.

Poneman is optimistic. To him, Sub Pop is healthy and stable and its continued perseverance makes it the kind of fighter that won't be bowing out anytime soon. "For all of the painful experiences that I have had, I have some great ones and some learning experiences that brought me to where I am now," says Poneman. "I think Sub Pop is in the best shape that it's ever been in. The mythical good ol' days weren't that great at all. This is our golden age, to be honest. But it's taken a lot of work and a lot of lessons getting there."

1999 Joe Ehrbar