Sub Pop

Sub Pop’s Co-founder Reflects on the Label’s Roots as a Zine

Gillian G. Gaar

By Gillian G. Gaar

on 11.26.14 in Features

In 1979, when Bruce Pavitt signed on to be a DJ at KAOS, the radio station at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where Pavitt was a student, he was amazed by the wealth of independent records in the station’s music library. “There were records by the Blackouts from Seattle, the Neo Boys and the Wipers, both from Portland, and so many others,” he recalls. “And none of this music was being appreciated by anybody outside of those local regions. I was so inspired, I really felt like I had to go beyond my radio show and share informational about these records that a lot of people had never heard of.”

Sub Pop

The following May, Pavitt released the first issue of a zine called Subterranean Pop (named after his radio show), which critiqued independent releases by bands from Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Georgia and Canada. “My basic concept was to focus on different regional scenes and provide addresses, so that you could actually mail-order these records,” he says. “Which was key. Nobody was doing that besides Op magazine. I figured the exchange of information would inspire people.” Over the course of its nine-issue run (including two issues on cassette), the zine covered a wide variety of releases. Some musicians went on to gain familiarity in alt-rock circles (Pere Ubu, the Bongos, Dead Kennedys), others destined to fade into oblivion (Insect Surfers, Oil Tasters, Phil ‘N the Blanks). Their fate wasn’t important; Pavitt’s main interest was in raising awareness about interesting music being made across the country.

After Pavitt graduated from Evergreen, he headed up to Seattle, where he used the shortened name “Sub Pop” for his radio show at University of Washington station KCMU, and the record label he founded in 1988 with his friend Jonathan Poneman. Sub Pop released records by Green River (who would eventually split and form the bands Mudhoney and Pearl Jam) Soundgarden, and a trio from the backwoods of Aberdeen named Nirvana.

Sub Pop was also the title of a column Pavitt wrote for Seattle’s music monthly The Rocket, from 1983-88. “That was a lot of columns!” he says. “And I have to say I feel really good about the diversity of stuff that was reviewed; it was mostly music but in some cases it was art or film.”

Pavitt’s zines and columns have been collected in the book Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology 1980-1988 (Bazillion Points), which features essays by K Records founder Calvin Johnson, authors Charles R. Cross and Ann Powers, and Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy. It’s a fascinating firsthand account of an alternative cultural scene rising from its low-rent roots and gradually coming into its own. As Pavitt succinctly puts it, “This book represents the match that lit the fuse.”

Here, Pavitt discusses seven excerpts from his new book.

[Click on images to view full size.]

Subterranean Pop #1, May 1980

Sub Pop

The first issue of Subterranean Pop stated in its “New Pop! Manifesto,” “Only by supporting new ideas by local artists, bands, and record labels can the U.S. expect any kind of dynamic social/cultural change in the 1980s.” And as this two-page spread reveals, the Pacific Northwest had no shortage of bands creating unique, original music. “I learned about most of these bands through their recordings,” Pavitt says. “The Beakers and the Mac’s Band both put out singles on Mr. Brown Records, which was an Olympia label. The Larry & the Mondellos record, that was also on Mr. Brown. The Blackouts’ EP was pretty amazing and that was kind of a big deal.” Pavitt also distinguishes between alternative acts and the “more success-oriented” bands listed at the end of this write-up. “That was definitely sort of a backhanded compliment,” he says. “And with some of these groups — the Frazz, the Nu Vitations, the Heats — I never saw any of them. It was more like word of mouth, like, ‘Well, this is what these guys are about’ or ‘This is what their ad looks like.’ You’re just sharing what information you have. It’s not like all these bands had their own website you know.” Fun fact: Three members of the Blackouts went on to play with Ministry.

Subterranean Pop #2, November 1980

Sub Pop

The cover of Subterranean Pop #2 was the first to feature an original illustration — in this case by Lynda Barry, who was just starting her career as a cartoonist. It would be her only contribution to the zine. “She had a strip that appeared in some alternative paper,” Pavitt says. “I’d heard that she was a student at Evergreen, so I wrote her a letter when I was back home in Chicago, asking her to do a cover. She was very gracious in providing one. I think this cover is historically significant. It really is. This is Lynda Barry 1980, when she was at her punk rock peak; we’re two Evergreen students collaborating on a little DIY zine. I’m really proud of the fact that Lynda was able to contribute something, and I think the cover came out really well.”

Sub Pop #5, July 1981

Sub Pop

Sub Pop #5 was a cassette zine, and marked Pavitt’s first foray into releasing music. “There was an Australian cassette magazine called Fast Forward, and it was mostly music, but there’d also be some interviews. My friend Calvin Johnson and I thought, ‘Wow, what a radical idea.’ And so we wrote to bands asking for demos. We pieced it together, and there was a gentleman in Olympia that did cassette duplication, and the tapes probably cost us $1.50 or $2 to make in total, and we sold them for $5. We wound up selling 2000 copies of the first one. I think it helped pay my rent for two years.”

Pavitt himself contributes the spoken-word recording “Debbie.” “It’s very strange. It was inspired by the artist Jad Fair. What Jad would do was create these freeform backdrops that were a little noisy. I used bass, drums, guitar; it was very improvisational and more ambient, and then the trick was to improvise a spoken word story on top. So that’s what the track ‘Debbie’ is; just a personal anecdote from my teenage years.

“And there was a cult hit on this cassette. It was a spoken-word piece (‘Reagan Speaks for Himself’) where the artist Doug Kahn spliced together some speeches by Ronald Reagan and turned it into a surreal rap. That cut actually got quite a bit of play on college radio. It was definitely the hit of the cassette, even though it wasn’t music per se.”

The tape’s J-card featured an illustration by another up-and coming-cartoonist, Charles Burns. “I saw his work in a magazine called Another Room, and I was really impressed,” Pavitt says. “The art director from Op magazine, Dana Squires, tipped me off to the fact that Charles was an Evergreen student, and that gave me the nerve to write him and ask him to do something.”

Pavitt issued three Sub Pop cassette zines, and the music on them may eventually become available. “We don’t have contracts for any of the music,” he says. “I think the idea is we’re going to post these tunes on a website and stream them. And I assume nobody will sue us. That’s in the works.”

“The Suits Take Notice,” 1981

Sub Pop

Pavitt was used to getting requests for his zine from indie rock fans. What he wasn’t expecting was to open an envelope and read a letter from an executive at Columbia Records. “Can you believe that? I’ve been carrying that letter around for 35 years. I was really flattered by this letter. And it was a smart move on their part; they got access to all those demos for five bucks. Hmm, ‘Leonard Thompson, Director of Talent Acquisition, East Coast.’ Probably got promoted as soon as he played the tape for people.” Fun fact: The first major label to sign a “grunge” band was Columbia, who signed Alice in Chains in 1989.

The letter was also a taste of things to come; 14 years later, in 1995, Sub Pop would enter a business partnership with the Warner Music Group. “Sub Pop found kind of a sweet spot where the label only sold 49 percent of the company, so technically they’re still an independent,” Pavitt says. “I’ll tell you, trying to keep a record label alive is very challenging. It’s an industry based on whim and fashion, and you never know when the next hit record’s going to come or the next major act is going to tank. I would say that Sub Pop has found a happy medium. They’ve gone on to sign a lot of global acts, but they still have their foot in the door in Seattle and have put out some really cool stuff like Shabazz Palaces and Rose Windows.” Pavitt resigned from Sub Pop in 1996, but has since returned to the label, now serving on its board of advisors.

“K is Cool! Long Live K,” Sub Pop column, December 1986

Sub Pop

This column from a 1986 issue focused on K Records, the Olympia label founded by Calvin Johnson. “I was always really impressed with what Calvin was doing,” Pavitt says. “I think he’s a creative genius of sorts, and I’ve had an ongoing respect for his vision. And as far as the punk ethos of DIY, I think he pushed the limits of inspired amateurism, especially with Beat Happening, who I think are absolutely brilliant. I remember R.E.M. used to come out and play [Beat Happening's] ‘Red Head Walking’ as an encore; that’s a pretty big endorsement for a band that never rehearsed or owned any of their own instruments. And K really pushed the cassettes; cassettes were the ultimate DIY format. You didn’t have to press 500 or 1000 records; you could just do a cassette run of 30, 50, 100, what have you. Calvin wrote two different essays for the book. He was the only other person who wrote reviews for the Subterranean Pop zine.”

“27 Reasons Washington is a Cool Place to Live,” Sub Pop column, January 1988

Sub Pop

“By ’87 and ’88, I was convinced that the Seattle music scene was incredibly happening,” Pavitt says. “And when you go through this list, it doesn’t even have Nirvana on it, you know? No Nirvana, but Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, TAD, the Fastbacks, Girl Trouble, the U-Men, Young Fresh Fellows — this is amazing stuff. The Melvins. This is before Mudhoney or Nirvana, the two bands that really helped blow up the scene.

“In several of these columns, I rave about how the Seattle scene was going to take on national prominence, which at the time seemed pretty crazy. This is pre-Amazon, pre-Starbucks — Seattle wasn’t on the map at that time. A lot of this culture wasn’t really extending past the Washington state borders. But I knew it would, though it was absolutely, literally unfathomable. It would be like if you came up to somebody and said, ‘Anchorage, Alaska’s going to have the hottest music scene in the world in a couple of years. Place your money on Anchorage.’ It would be like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ That’s kind of like what it was like in Seattle.”

“What’s Hot and What Sucks?,” Sub Pop column, July 1988

Sub Pop

Though there’s no indication in the text, this would be Pavitt’s last Sub Pop column. “After eight years of writing reviews, it was time to move on,” he says. “I was spending so much time with the label, I had less time to do the column. And also it started to become a conflict of interest; I was writing about my favorite bands, then I started putting out records by my favorite bands, then I started reviewing the records that I was putting out by my favorite bands — it was just getting to be too much.

“It’s interesting that the column ends in July ’88; that’s right around the time the Seattle scene officially started [getting attention]. And I share this anecdote at the end of the book; in early July ’88 there was a music fan that called up the label and was asking about records. And I remember Jon Poneman was talking to this guy and he said, ‘Well, you know, there’s a show coming up next week, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and the Fluid.’ And this guy got on a Greyhound bus and traveled 3000 miles for this show. And I tell people that was the moment when I realized, ‘This scene is about to blow up. If people are willing to get on a bus and travel 3000 miles for a show, they’re getting it. They’re realizing that there is something happening here that isn’t happening in other parts of the country.’ He was coming from Brooklyn. Now, everybody’s going to Brooklyn for shows, but back then people in Brooklyn would come to Seattle.

“Anybody reading this book is going to get a feel for what ’80s indie culture was like. I think it serves as the best index available of ’80s indie recordings; the book’s index has over 1000 band names, half of which are bands that will never be heard from again.”