Last Night: Sub Pop Founders @ EMP

Who: Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman

Where: EMP, JBL Theatre

When: Thursday, July 10

Plenty of folks, I'm sure, probably thought they'd never see the day when Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt could sit next to one another and talk about the past. That they did just that last night is the result of a lot of healing. Sub Pop, the label, wreaked a lot of havoc on its founders (as well as some employees and artists) and Bruce and JP both handled it in different ways. The end result was Bruce divesting completely and he and JP not speaking to each other for quite some time. But both men, being the grown-ups they are, were able to set their differences aside. Now, they are in a position to reflect upon their tremendous success, as well as express mutual admiration for each other.

Last night's Oral History event was such a big deal that even Mayor Greg Nickels himself showed up, citing the positive impact Sub Pop has had on Seattle. The interview session with Pavitt and Poneman (conducted by EMP curator Jacob McMurray) that followed Nickels' speech was fascinating and inspiring, to say the least. Both men are intense thinkers with great capacity for rhetoric. Poneman is possessed with a hypnotizing voice. Coupled with his exquisite vocabulary and careful structuring of sentences, he has a calm intensity like a Zen monk. Pavitt has an intensity all his own: When he speaks, his eyes widen with a razor-sharp glint as if he's seen some parallel universe and is unsure if the rest of us can handle it. Needless to say the two, side-by-side, had the room at full attention.

For anyone familiar with Sub Pop’s backstory, much of last night’s event was familiar territory (Sub Pop started as a fanzine in Olympia, Pavitt met Poneman in Seattle, the two partnered on Soundgarden, grunge became a phenomenon, they lost money, they became disillusioned, Pavitt left, Poneman brought the label back to life, and it’s now massively successful). But of course, Sub Pop was more than that, and Pavitt and Poneman both offered up their theories on the past and their philosophies behind the label. As Pavitt explained, Sub Pop grew out of a need to connect the dots in American indie rock. In the early 80s, indie bands were lucky if they pressed a 45 and it got reviewed in Trouser Press or New York Rocker. They were even luckier if those magazines printed an address so you could order a copy of the damn thing. The earliest Subterranean Pop zines of Pavitt’s made sure to print these addresses. As a result, Pavitt became a well-connected guy throughout the scattered national scene. When he moved to Seattle and began DJing at KCMU, his show was a radio offshoot of his fanzine. It was called Sub Pop and it featured indie rock from all over the country. However, he noted that Poneman was also DJing there, doing an all-local show called Audioasis. Pavitt said he wasn’t as interested in championing local music until he met his future business partner. The roots of Sub Pop’s philosophy can be seen here: champion the creative hanky-panky happening various cultural pockets of the U.S., but keep a strong tie to the local scene.

Amidst all this history were plenty of good anecdotes. For instance, Pavitt remembers chopping carrots in a restaurant with a guy who claimed he was going to “move to L.A. and become a rock star.” That guy was Duff McKagan. Poneman and Pavitt both remembered that their first employee lasted only two weeks because she “wanted to get paid”…however, they couldn’t remember her name (Ha!) Poneman recalled the day the New York Times phoned him asking for slang words the grungers were using. Rather than answer himself, he transferred the call to Megan Jasper knowing she’d handle it with expert sarcasm. Also of interest was that while Nirvana’s Bleach is widely noted as the record that kept the label afloat, Poneman claimed it was actually Mudhoney’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. They had just laid off the entire staff, had to ship copies of the record themselves, and it ultimately sold 100,000 copies (a huge number for an indie record at the time).

As lucky and successful as they’ve been, however, it was clear that both men carry a lot of emotional baggage because of the label. Poneman said it took him years to realize how much damage he had caused himself by trying to keep the label afloat. He said their days consisted of being yelled at by employees, by bands, by stores, etc. Pavitt, disillusioned with everything just sort of drifted out of the picture. Poneman, however, didn’t realize anything was wrong until years later. They no doubt still have some venting to do, but last night was all about celebrating 20 years of going out of business. A private party was being held at the Space Needle immediately afterward, where free booze would flow and so would the big Sub Pop flag at the top. When asked for a final word before closing the interview, Poneman said it best: “Let’s party.”

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