The first time Bruce Pavitt and Jonathon Poneman heard Nirvana, they knew it was something special. But the band was just one of dozens of amazing groups exploding on the Seattle scene in the mid to late 80’s. Poneman says he and Pavitt had little doubt the world needed to hear them.
“We got into it because we both had a prevailing faith in decentralized music culture. Well, it just so happened we were living in Seattle ,Washington that had at the time, we felt, the most dynamic scene of them all. We simply just set out to document it,” Poneman says of his partnership with Pavitt that became Seattle’s iconic Sub Pop Records.
The label is commemorating its 25th anniversary with a series of events that kicked off Thursday with Sub Pop stalwarts Mudhoney and other acts playing live atop the Space Needle.
Pavitt had actually started Sub Pop as a fanzine and then an early label, but it was their partnership that made Sub Pop possible. Pavitt had run out of money, and his friend Kim Thayil from a relatively new band called Soundgarden brought him together with Poneman, who shelled out $20,000 to put out the band’s single “Hunted Down.” That was 1988. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“I think this was the best of all possible outcomes,” Thayil says. “Their separate skills really made for a great partnership and established a really great label. If that hadn’t happened we probably would have waited a few more years for a Soundgarden record.”
While there had been other local labels before them, Seattle music writer Charles Cross says the duo had exceptional taste in music, and an uncanny ability to market their music.
“They flew a bunch of UK journalists to cover their acts. Rather than sell singles, they sold subscriptions to singles club,” says Cross.
And just as important, Cross says they built a brand. “Most of the bands fit into a certain aesthetic so if you bought that album with the Sub Pop logo on it you knew what you were getting.”
You were getting bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana, whose Sub Pop debut Bleach remains the label’s biggest seller.
But even though Sub Pup came to be synonymous with grunge, it ultimately grew far beyond. Legendary Seattle DJ Marco Collins praises the label for taking chances and scoring hits with a number of sounds, from the electronic pop of the Postal Service to the comic recordings of New Zealand’s Flight of The Concords.
“This label has consistently been able to reinvent itself. When you think about the top-selling records that Sub Pop has ever released – Nirvana and The Postal Service – completely two ends of the spectrum.”
Poneman prides himself on the label’s diversity. He credits the collective passions and tastes of everyone who’s worked there over the years.
“We always wanted to be more than just grunge and continually evolving. We never wanted to be pigeonholed,” he says. “We work at the record label as a group. We like collaboration here and whatever turns us on as a group works its way into the label’s sound.”
While Pavitt and Poneman have long since parted ways, the label is still going strong over a quarter century later. Industry experts expect Sub Pop to have a massive hit with the upcoming new release from breakout Seattle band The Head and the Heart.
“They’ve really made the label be about a bunch of different things,” Cross says. “Consequently, I still remain very excited when a Sub Pop release comes out.”
And Poneman says the label has no plans of slowing down anytime soon as it heads into its next 25 years.
“Our greatest achievement is just sustaining ourselves,” he says. “Being able to put out records and have fun and being able to sustain a scene and its artists as long as we have.”
Sub Pop Records celebrates its Silver Jubilee with a free all-day festival Saturday from noon until late into the evening in Georgetown. Featured bands scheduled to perform include Mudhoney, Built To Spill, Father John Misty and many others.
Listen to our extended interviews with Jonathon Poneman, Kim Thayil, Marco Collins and Charles Cross Sunday at 5 p.m. on Seattle Sounds on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, or on demand.