ponesound.jpg
Sarah Jurado
Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, left, with Soundgarden's Kim Thayil at the label's 20th birthday party at Hattie's Hat.
Partnering with KEXP's Best

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Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman On Next Ambiance, The Shins, and Why the Label Doesn't Put Out Hip Hop

ponesound.jpg
Sarah Jurado
Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman, left, with Soundgarden's Kim Thayil at the label's 20th birthday party at Hattie's Hat.
Partnering with KEXP's Best Ambiance DJ Jon Kertzer, Sub Pop records is launching Next Ambiance, a world music label, with the digital release of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba's I Speak Fula, on December 1. You can read my conversation with Kertzer here.

Here's an excerpt from my conversation with Jonathan Poneman, the guy who co-founded Sub Pop (and later the subsidiary Harly Art) more than 20 years ago.

Why did you start this label, Next Ambiance? Is there money to be made in world music?

I've been a longtime listener to Jon's radio show, The Best Ambiance. We have actually talked about doing a label for many, many years. It's just really been a question of his schedule more than anything.

Do you think that your Sub Pop audience will be open to this album, too? Are you going to try to make the sell to them?

We put out a lot of different kinds of music. I mean, it's all roughly categorized as rock, I guess, and to that end I think what Bassekou plays is rock as well.

We're not in the business of second guessing what people like. We just basically make things available, hopefully market them appropriately, and hope that the customers who find the music that we're putting out agreeable will buy the music.

Any reason you chose world music as the next direction you decided to go rather than, say, hip hop, which has done well in the Seattle scene over the last six or seven years?

You know, it really comes down to relationships and being fans of a particular thing, (and) hopefully being somewhat knowledgeable about it. I love hip hop, but you know, my social and cultural understanding of it is much more limited than is the kind of music we put out on Sub Pop.

It's an intricate balance between doing something that feels comfortable and striking out on something that is challenging. I like a challenge like everyone else does, but I would prefer to have a connection that runs deeper. If the right person came along to want to do a different kind of label, be it hip hop or whatever, then we would probably consider the relationship.

Fundamentally it comes down to liking something, and finding somebody who we feel ... you can be fan of a label's vision, in the same way that you are a fan of an artist. I like Jon Kertzer's vision, I like his taste in music. That's why we chose to get going with this particular project.

Do you consider Hardly Art to be a feeder label? Or do you see it as something that you want to exist separate from Sub Pop?

Hardly Art is like your younger brother. It's like a baby sibling of Sub Pop. It has its own identity. Your younger brother is not inherently subordinate to what your desires are.

The reason Hardly Art came to be is basically ... the good thing about Sub Pop is that it's been around for 20 years and it's got a big staff of people and a lot of preconceived notions. The bad thing about Sub Pop is that it's been around for 20 years and it's got a big staff of people and a lot of preconceived notions.

So the idea behind Hardly Art was basically to do things in a much more fresh manner. And for it to create its own identity. Bruce and I, when we were starting Sub Pop as a full-time thing, had a pretty rough vision as to what we wanted the label to be that was totally dictated by the times we were living in. But Sub Pop evolved, and we anticipate the same thing is going to happen to Hardly Art.

Did Sub Pop sign a Seattle band in 2009?

That is a good question. Off the top of my head, I don't think so.

Is that any reflection on the local scene or what the label's focus is?

I don't think so. We favor working with local artists. I think that there are a lot of interesting things going on in town musically. I'm not so much on the front lines of our signings these days. There are a few things I feel particularly passionate about. A lot of what's going on musically, I'm kind of like an old mule at this point. I can still do a little bit of work, but I'm not good for much else.

Will Sub Pop be working with The Shins on their next album in any way?

That remains to be seen. We're obviously a fan of the band and old friends at this point with James (Mercer), but our last deal was for three records. That deal is complete. And he's a free agent. I would love to, but I suffer no illusions.

Anything else you want to mention?

Ho, ho, ho.

 
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