Music When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, it looked like Sub Pop's days were numbered.
Sub Pop at 20: life after grunge
One typically dour night in Seattle this April, five skinny British men with angular fringes took to the stage of the Chop Suey to play a free gig. The Foals, an Oxfordshire quintet, twitched with pent up energy and the crowd lapped up the vibe, already hyped on local station KEXP's heavy rotation of their Mathletics single. As soon as they burst into The French Open the venue effervesced with enthusiastic dancing and cheering. It was easy to see just how far Sub Pop, which is celebrating its 20th birthday this month, had come as a label since the rise of grunge. You only had to feel the buzz in the room - and add to that the spectacular success of C.S.S. and The Shins - to realise that "the little label that could" had now finally regained its status as one of the most important indies in America and stepped out of the shadow of the genre that birthed it.
It was with a young band called Soundgarden that the story began in 1987. Jonathan Poneman, a music promoter and rock radio jock, and Bruce Pavitt, a fanzine writer and DJ, decided they had to let the wider world hear the band and set up the fledgling label to release their EP Screaming Life. Taking the name Sub Pop from Pavitt's 'zine, they moved into an office in Seattle's Terminal Sales Building which was so small that they had to store their records in the toilet. There must have been something in the water in Seattle during that time, an entrepreneurial virus of some kind, as Microsoft and Starbucks were also in the ascendancy and Amazon was only a few years further down the line. But at the time, it must have seemed almost foolhardy to start up a record label in what was relatively a little backwater. I mean, who wanted to go to Seattle? But build it Pavitt and Poneman did. And the people? Well, they came.
Probably the most significant signing came almost immediately. Green River, whose Dry As A Bone EP was released by Sub Pop in June 1987, were named after a then at-large serial killer. They pedalled a pretty neat mash of post-hardcore, punk and heavy metal that some people were starting to refer to as grunge because of its distorted heaviness and lack of clarity in the mix. This said, the most interesting thing about Green River is what its members went onto do after the group folded. The natural frontman Mark Arm and the guitarist Steve Turner wanted to stay on Sub Pop so formed the punkier, dirtier sounding Mudhoney, while the more fame hungry Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard left to create the more commercial sounding Mother Love Bone, who in turn became Pearl Jam. Mudhoney's first EP Superfuzz Bigmuff released by Sub Pop in October 1988, is arguably one of the greatest grunge artefacts of all time and the expanded 20th anniversary edition that came out last month certainly is. From the kinetic and explosive cover photography shot by Charles Peterson to the roaring sludge thunder of In And Out Of Grace to the iconic Well, just what is it that you want to do? sampled from the biker flick The Wild Angels (used way ahead of Primal Scream's Loaded): it was obvious grunge was now fully formed.
The scene was a breath of fresh air. Just as punk had dealt with prog rock's extravagances with brutal efficiency, grunge appeared to kick the bloated carcass of latex and hairspray rock to the kerb. Its defiantly anti-corporate stance, Generation X ennui and sonic harshness were enough to attract attention not only from across the US but across the globe as well. Glam rock accessories were ditched in favour of T-shirts that bore the logo "Loser" and thrift store plaid shirts. The legendary hack Everett True sent a breathless and far sighted report back to the Melody Maker in the UK entitled "Seattle: Rock City", telling everyone how great Mudhoney and TAD were and to expect great things from new signings, Nirvana. The three piece (initially featuring Chad Channing on drums) kicked off the label's enduringly popular singles club with a (now much sought after) 7" Love Buzz.
Nirvana proved to be something of a double-edged sword for Sub Pop, or, at the least, they exposed some of the financial weakness at the core of the label. The group's Bleach album was cautiously heralded by critics who were no doubt completely oblivious to the fact that it would go on to sell 1.6 million copies and be Sub Pop's biggest ever seller. The label knew how big Nirvana were going to be, however, and to let the three piece leave was the only way it could fight its way back out of the red and into the black. They received points from Nevermind, which was perhaps just as well seeing as the cost of A&Ring new acts and hyping up existing acts was barely less than the incomings.
It's received wisdom that Sub Pop "lost its way" completely in the mid Nineties, with the untimely death of Kurt Cobain signalling the end of its fortunes as if he alone had been the life blood of the label. Of course like most received wisdom it doesn't bear too much scrutiny. Artistically, the label had many peaks during this decade. Dylan Carson was ploughing a remarkably unique furrow with his Black Sabbath- and Melvins-influenced band Earth. They took the concept of doom metal to an entirely new plane, slowing down the BPMs to a snail's crawl and turning up the scuzziness to almost blissful levels. It was unfortunate for everyone concerned that at this time Carson (a deeply troubled man himself) was famous for one thing: buying a gun for Kurt Cobain. These days a fully rehabilitated Carson is finally getting the props he fully deserves from bigger audiences and the support of such groups as Sunn O))) and Boris.
In 1994 Sunny Day Real Estate released the epochal Diary album which would prove the missing link between post hardcore such as Fugazi and the nascent emo genre. Of course any self-respecting rock fan could be forgiven for retching slightly at the mention of the "emo" tag, but Sunny Day Real Estate are about as far removed from the mawkish and egocentric whinging of Dashboard Confessional as it's possible to get. Instead they produced an emotionally intelligent and powerful slice of mid-Nineties rock. And keeping the Nirvana connection alive, the rhythm section would go on to join the Foo Fighters the following year.
As ever, what the label lacked in fiscal acumen it more than made up for with solid ears. In 1999 they released an album by promising Detroit garage scuzz punks The Go. Watcha Doin' was a messy blast of The Stooges, MC5 and a whole lot of Nuggets. If anything they suffered for being too quick off the mark with the global revival in garage rock which would really kick in during 2001, but still as they commented at the time: that young guitarist with The Go, Jack White, well, he really had something special.
In 2001 they set out their stall exceedingly well for the coming decade by releasing the beguiling Oh, Inverted World by introspective and classicist college rock band The Shins. In James Mercer the world was being introduced slowly to a songwriter of great talent, who had a voice to match. The album, despite having a smash hit single New Slang, didn't have much foreign licensing and only really sold in vast quantities after Natalie Portman name checked them in the film Garden State announcing with well placed conviction: "This band will change your life." Perhaps unsurprisingly the follow-up album Chutes Too Narrow was Sub Pop's biggest hit to date peaking at number two in the American Billboard Chart. Their previous top spot had been held by The Afghan Whigs' Black Love which reached the much more modest 79.
It has been Sub Pop's diversification which has been its real key weapon. In The Postal Service they have a bitter sweet synth pop / indie unit who have more in common with The Pet Shop Boys or Belle and Sebastian than they do with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They also scored big with Iron and Wine, Sam Beam's porch-bound Americana project which achieved escape velocity both commercially and critically last year with the sublime The Shepherd's Dog. For those hankering after the sonic extremity of yore, look no further than No Age, the Los Angelino noise-niks. Their multitude of interesting studio techniques include recording the drums through in a state of the art studio in one channel and recording them through a cheap Dictaphone through a second, making them this year's ultimate primitivist futurists.
But this has always been Sub Pop's way. Behind those ironic, slacker T-shirts were bold hearts; behind those fuzzy long hair cuts were razor-sharp minds determined to fight artistic compromise on every level. Determined to be the Motown of alternative American rock. Happy birthday and here's to another 20.