In 'n' out of grace 

It's an early Saturday morning in Seattle, a few weeks before the official coming of spring, and the day is already shaping up in an all-too-familiar fashion to Emerald City denizens: low-hanging heavy gray clouds and tiny spits of drizzle threatening to turn into soaking rain at any moment.

Fourth Avenue downtown is practically deserted, save for two longhaired guys in old biker jackets standing in the middle of the street, staring at one of the storefronts and talking in what sounds like an Eastern European language. While one watches out for traffic, the other points his camera at the giant Sub Pop Records logo adorning the awning above 2514 Fourth Ave. and snaps a few shots. They press their hands against the glass and peer in. Not a soul is inside, but the duo appears fascinated by the CD-and-paper-strewn cubicles, the dozens of cardboard boxes stuffed with press kits and promo discs, and all the band posters lining the walls of an empty conference room. A few recognizable words pepper their excited conversation: "Kurt Cobain," "Chris Cornell," and what sounds like the chorus to Tad's "Jack Pepsi." They linger for a few minutes, glancing ruefully at the locked door, then amble away with big grins on their faces.

"Yeah, that happens a lot," Sub Pop A&R guy Stuart Meyer laughs the following Monday. "We still get people from all over coming in here asking, 'Where's Kurt buried? Where's his house?' Stuff like that. But now more people come in asking about the Shins."

For a lot of fans, Sub Pop will always be synonymous with grunge, will always be associated with introducing Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney to the world, and understandably so. The sounds and images to which it originally slapped its iconic two-bar logo are an indelible part of music history -- the loud, sludgy, menacing riffs and tortured howls; the flying hair, flannel, sweat and guitar strings of those black-and-white Charles Peterson photos.

But these days, Sub Pop is thriving with a crop of artists who hardly resemble the superfuzz bigmuff motif of times gone by -- the quirky and bright indie-pop of the Shins and the Postal Service; the sparse acoustic murmurs of Iron and Wine, Rosie Thomas and Baptist Generals; the Bruce Springsteen-meets-Fugazi rumble of the Constantines; even the biting, provocative stand-up comedy of David Cross.

In fact, the word on the street is that 2003 was the most profitable of the label's 16-year existence. "Well, that's been the party line," laughs Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman. "I think that whole story generated from a comment I made at a meeting that I thought it was our most successful year. In terms of pure profit, the year Kurt killed himself probably was because there was such a run on Bleach records. But somehow that doesn't count because it was so friggin' awful on so many levels. And not only that, that was the year that the company was starting to slide into a really dysfunctional state."

Given the turbulence Sub Pop endured in the wake of grunge's fall from commercial grace, it's remarkable that the label survived to successfully transform itself. Though he's willing to talk about the dark days -- 1993 until 1998 -- Poneman isn't fond of revisiting them.

"It's emotionally harrowing," he admits. "It involves people who I love and respect to this day, and some friendships have been tarnished from it."

Chain that door

In 1995, Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, who had co-founded Sub Pop in April 1988, sold a 49 percent stake in the company to Time Warner. The deal brought a lot of cash to Sub Pop, but also a lot of new employees who didn't necessarily share the same vision, or eye for talent, as the original crew. The label began losing its focus, the quality of the releases became spotty, money was spent recklessly, interoffice politics took center stage, and all the while their new corporate partner was desperate for Sub Pop to produce "the next Nirvana." In 1996, Pavitt finally grew disenchanted with the whole business and resigned, leaving the equally fried Poneman alone at the helm.

"I didn't really expect things to get as bad as they did because I was kind of out to lunch, really," Poneman recalls. "I was so burned out. When Bruce and I started the company we had ideas, but we didn't set out for it to become what it did. It just kept getting bigger, and it got steered along by friends, enthusiasts, bands, lawyers, managers.

"And it's not like we were so naïve that we didn't know what we were doing," he continues. "There were choices made, and there's plenty of music-biz history out there, and Bruce and I in our own way had studied it. But when you're in a situation like we were in during the late '80s and early '90s, there's always a certain amount of hubris that takes over. You know, 'We're going to be different.' But it's a slippery slope. One misstep and everything can fall apart."

"Back in the day people would see the Sub Pop logo and it was a brand name, so people bought the album knowing they would probably like it," general manager Megan Jasper says. "So when Sub Pop tried to branch out with stuff like Combustible Edison and the Blue Rags, people bought that stuff and they'd be bummed. So it was each band for its own at that point -- which is kinda the way it should be anyways. But that's what happens when you market a label and tell people that this is what you can expect from us. The label suffered from losing some of that trust, and it became a matter of trying to reclaim that."

Poneman credits Jasper's return to Sub Pop in 1998 -- she started there in 1989 as an intern, soon moved up to sales, was the infamous prankster who fed such phony grunge terms as "lamestain" to a clueless New York Times reporter, and was laid off during a particularly bleak financial period -- as the event most pivotal to the label's turnaround. When she came back, she found unhappy employees, bands that were spent at the tail end of long album deals, cash being wasted, album sales diminished. So she assumed the unenviable task of trimming down the roster, the staff, and operating expenses -- necessary moves that put a strain on some longstanding friendships.

"Bands were used to some money getting thrown away in the name of risk-taking," Jasper explains. "You have to explain the smaller marketing budgets to a band, and it's not easy, and it's understandable that they would second-guess that. There are some bands that had really incredible experiences with us, and I've seen other bands walk away feeling like they wasted their time. We all still beat ourselves up over that kind of thing. But once we were able to get to a point where we could move forward, it suddenly became fun and exciting again."

Behind the garage

Over the next couple of years, Sub Pop began writing its new chapter in earnest, putting out electronic-tinged albums from Looper and Heather Duby, low-key urban folk from Damien Jurado and Rosie Thomas, the countrified pop of Beachwood Sparks, and the delicate Brit-pop of Trembling Blue Stars. All were quality releases, critically hailed, and people began to take notice of the label's dramatic shift toward diversity. But sales remained light.

"'Bleach' was still our biggest seller on a weekly basis, like 800 to 900 a week," Meyer says. "We had glimmers maybe once a year, like the Sunny Day `Real Estate` comeback album or the Springsteen 'Nebraska' tribute. If we hit 10,000 with a new band, that was good."

That all changed in 2002, with Hot Hot Heat's "Knock Knock Knock" EP, and even more so last year with the Postal Service's debut, "Give Up," and then the Shins' second LP, "Chutes Too Narrow." By far the label's biggest hits in years, all three have sold around 200,000 copies. And while everyone at Sub Pop believed in the groups, no one expected fans -- much less critics, radio and TV -- to latch on to them this strongly. Even the bands were unsure of what they were getting into at first.

"When we signed on to Sub Pop I remember having doubts," says Shins frontman James Mercer. "I remembered them as being famous for Nirvana and all that, but then when we looked at the roster they were signing all these pop bands and quiet folk artists, so it was obvious they were making an effort to change and be a modern eclectic label. The thing that's great about them now is that they are definitely an indie label but they still have sort of a major-label approach, in that they know how to market a record and they work hard at generating a bit of hype, and they have an ability to get people to listen to them."

Sub Pop's recent successes have both energized the label and opened doors for other roster acts with new albums due in 2004 -- Iron and Wine, the Catheters, Helio Sequence, Wolf Eyes and The Elected among them. But even as Poneman and company look toward a bright future, there are always ghosts from the past to contend with. During recent weeks, it's been impossible to walk past a newsstand in Seattle, or anywhere else, without seeing Kurt Cobain's face staring out from dozens of papers and magazine covers -- all tributes to the 10th anniversary of his passing in April 1994.

"An event like his death is understandable to mark," Poneman says. "But between that and the anniversary of 'Nevermind' and Courtney `Love` releasing the diaries and `former editor of the magazine "The Rocket"` Charles Cross -- who never gave a shit about the band when they were up and coming in Seattle -- writing his book, it never fucking stops.

"It's a really incredibly painful part of my life, and in saying what I'm about to `I mean` absolutely no disrespect to Kurt Cobain, but I think the whole thing was colossally overblown," he continues. "Not his killing himself, there's no words to summon how awful that is on so many levels. He was my friend. But the mythology that's built up around him -- it's repulsive. And I think no one would be more repulsed than him. The idea of him as 'the man who reshaped rock music for the '90s,' it's like, he didn't do that. It was this collaboration between radio, management, MTV, you know ... . Admittedly the records are great, and because of the nature in which he departed from this world it lends itself to a mythic interpretation, but that was so much of what he wasn't about."

"There's so much scar tissue with that stuff," Jasper says quietly. "It's 10 years later and I still have no perspective on it, it still just feels strange and weird and sad, and I don't know that that will ever change. There was so much intensity, it was so intense. It was as good as it can get and as hard and terrible as it can get. And I definitely think about it a lot, it's such a big part of what makes this label this label.

"The icon of Kurt became so intense that when he did die it was hard to understand what you were mourning," she continues. "The challenge has been to remember the individual beneath all the layers of the mythology. And certainly, from a business standpoint we don't want to milk the Nirvana stuff at all. To put out rereleases ... when Sub Pop has already made a lot of money off of Nirvana just seems not right on a whole moral level."

"In all due respect to everyone involved in that era, time moves forward and there's always new bands and new music to get excited about," Poneman concludes. "I would much rather it be that way than just keep toiling year in and year out with the same sorrowful cast of characters."

More by Michael Alan Goldberg


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