With its origins in a late ’70s fanzine and subsequent cassette tape series, no label is more synonymous with its hometown than Seattle’s Sub Pop
An hour with Jonathan Poneman leaves me black and blue. I’ve been reprimanded on my questioning (“What are you getting at here, you’re talking about grunge right?”); I’ve been encouraged to seize the day (“I’m super healthy apart from my Parkinson’s disease, I figure I could get hit by a car before I get hit by anything else”). Yet despite Poneman’s intensity, when we say our goodbyes I realise a grin has been present all along. A Chevy Chase-like dryness falls from every sentence Poneman constructs, including the first time the chief of Sub Pop Records opens his mouth to speak to me. “Well, to be held on a par with our peers is flattering enough, but to be seen as the quintessential American indie label is almost too much to bear. That’s OK though,” he explains slowly, “I will deal with it.”
Poneman has been dealing with Sub Pop for around a quarter of a century. Along with his friend and co-founder Bruce Pavitt he transformed this little label from Seattle into a self-proclaimed “medium sized label, still from Seattle.” It’s a joy to listen to the 55-year old discuss his business so wholeheartedly.
“Well, the genesis is that Sub Pop actually began in the late ’70s as a fanzine published by Bruce and there were two records released under the Sub Pop label before I even got involved. We celebrate our anniversary based on April 1st 1988 and the reason for this was because that was the point that Bruce and I went into this on a full time basis, rather than y’know whenever.” Poneman stops again; most of his sentences have long pauses. “April Fools day seemed to be a date that was suitable for celebrating Sub Pop records.” Most of his pauses work to good effect.
The two friends responsible for such seminal acts as Nirvana and Soundgarden set out to focus on a scene that existed outside of the national grid; inside Seattle was their inspiration. “Bruce and I really had an intention to focus and make an effort in that. Bruce is now a friend of the label but he is not involved in any capacity anymore, his philosophies, though, still apply to how we function and we are very proud of our region.”
Just hearing Poneman talk about his hometown is humbling; the roots of Sub Pop and the label’s location resonate in every release. “There is a great legacy of artists coming from this region and there is a, what’s the word, sorry I am not having a particularly articulate day, there is a catalogue, I guess – there is another word I am sure and it’ll come to me – but yes, a catalogue of records from this region that make up a body of work and continues to have a meaningful impact on the culture at large.”
No band had a bigger impact than Nirvana and, credited with creating a genre in grunge, whether they like it or not, no label had more sway at the time of ‘Nevermind’ than Sub Pop, even if the band had moved to Geffen for their monster hit record. We pussyfoot around this with Poneman for much longer than necessary before a prickly reply stops us short. “The thing is, that word had been used to describe raucous rock and roll long before myself and Bruce got into the record business. We didn’t do anything other than market and promote Nirvana and the other bands who were playing this kind of music in this region, at a very critical time. You know Sam Phillips didn’t create Elvis Presley, he didn’t create rock’n’roll; he was simply an impresario and an entrepreneur. That’s what Bruce and I did – we didn’t really create anything, except the company, which served as the platform for you know, advancing these careers. We also helped shape the context – I mean, I’m continuing to do that through all my conversations, like talking to you now for instance.”