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
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
"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
"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,"
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."
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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