Mike Johnson

Discover: Up Records

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 08.27.12 in Lists

Most of the great indie-rock labels of the ’80s and ’90s were built around the taste of one or two sharp, open-eared people, and Up Records was no exception. Founded in 1994, it was the brainchild of Chris Takino, a music fanatic with encyclopedic knowledge of the Pacific Northwest scene; for the rest of the ’90s, it was a two-man operation, a partnership of Takino and co-founder Rich Jensen, whose day job was being Sub Pop’s general manager. (Up has always had close ties to Sub Pop — Takino used to work in Sub Pop’s warehouse, and when he played a tape of Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love to Sub Pop’s co-founder Jonathan Poneman to convince him to release it, Poneman suggested that Takino should do it himself, and fronted him money to make it happen.)

At first, Up was one of the many labels that focused on 7-inch singles by local artists. But There’s Nothing Wrong With Love ended up taking off, and that album’s success — along with subsequent records by Modest Mouse and Quasi, among others — enabled Up to keep up an impressive release schedule for the next six years. Takino died of leukemia in October 2000; his companion Pete Ritchey agreed to keep the label going as an outlet for the artists with whom Up was already working.

Up’s release schedule eventually slowed; its most recent release was Feral Phantasms, a 2006 album by the instrumental group Polar Goldie Cats (whose guitarist Bobb Bruno now plays with Best Coast). “The status of Up is in catalogue,” Ritchey says. “I’m trying to get to the point where I have everything organized so much that I can kind of shut down our office.” Still, he suggests that there are a couple of albums that Up might yet release if they ever get completed: “We’d been planning on putting out another Duster record. All three of them had been separately working on music — they’re all crazy-talented musicians and really prolific, but it’s just never worked out for them to all get together and record an album.” There’s also a Sick Bees album that’s “pretty much done, but not completely — the stuff I heard finished I thought was really great, but at some point they decided they didn’t want to be a band anymore.”

Ritchey is the kind of super-knowledgeable music fan who hates to see his favorite records go ignored, so he told us the stories behind five Up releases he’d like to see get a little more attention, and we picked another five Up classics.

Five Lost Up Classics

"I'd worked at this motel right next to C/Z Records when I first moved to [Seattle], and one of the people who worked there dropped off the first Caustic Resin album when it came out – that was what I wanted to hear out of hard rock. After There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Chris went around with Doug Martsch, looking at the best label deals he could possibly get. Doug agreed to do at least one more EP for Up, and having his backing band be Caustic Resin sounded pretty intriguing. I came home from work and Chris had brought home a rough mix tape, and he said, 'You're gonna love this.' It totally blew my mind – at the time when it came out, it was really magical."

"Jana was a really good friend of Chris's. She'd been in [early grunge band] Dickless, but Chris had known her from before then, I think. Years later, she told Chris that she was interested in making a record, and she sent him a demo: stripped-down versions of what turned out to be her first album. I love that record, but I think Slumber is a little more confident. When she first went in to record it, she was incredibly nervous. She took a break for quite a while, and just focused on practicing her singing and working on the songs a little bit more. She was more relaxed in the studio, and it really showed. Her vocals were drastically improved. And she had the Ruby Doe as her backing band. They're a pretty hard-rockin' band, and usually more geared toward a hardcore sound, but Slumber is a beautiful record, pretty haunting – more true to the promise of those demo tapes for the first record."

"The first release on Up was a Violent Green 7-inch, 'You Make Me Wish I Had a Gun' – I don't know if many people realize this, but that song is about Monsanto. [Violent Green frontwoman] Jenny Olay hates them. But that first 45 might have given people an impression of what she was going to be, or what they were going to be as a band, more punk-sounding, and that isn't how the albums turned out at all. They turned out to be more a strange mix of indie-rock and hip-hop and tape collage. I think one of the interesting things about Violent Green is that they don't have a lot of fans, but people who take the time to sit through and listen to those records love them. They end up being their favorite band."

"Jenny Olay had seen Sick Bees play a show and dropped a tape off with Chris and me, and said, 'You guys need to listen to this, you're going to love them...' For a couple of months, every once in a while, Jenny would check in and say, 'Have you listened to that tape?' And we finally decided one day that we should stop being dicks, because Jenny doesn't supply us with crap...and we were blown away. It was awesome. My Pleasure is a great, beautiful record – if you listen to it, it's easy to believe that they have a wide-ranging knowledge of music, which at the time wasn't true! There were a lot of bands that Chris and I assumed Sick Bees were fans of, from Liliput to the Slits; the interesting thing was that they were pretty unfamiliar with them. Before she'd moved here, Starla had lived in Texas and been in a metal band – that was, I think, more what she was into. They were focused on making music, rather than listening to it obsessively like music nerds like Chris and me."

"Mike and Chris had been best friends for years – they shared a really deep love of different types of music. Mike had been living in L.A. for a while, and after Chris died, he ended up moving back up to Seattle, and we ended up being roommates for quite a few years, before he moved to France with his wife. What Would You Do was a result of the friendships Mike had with Chris and with Robert Christie, who was one of the founding members of Oswald Five-O. About six months after Chris died, Robert Christie and his entire family were killed in a car crash. It's a eulogy to people who were incredibly important to the foundation of what Up Records is and was. And musically, it's one of Mike's most realized albums. At the time, he was very into roots reggae, so there's even that Yabby You cover on the album. Of any record on Up, I'd love to see that one become a million-seller. Maybe it'll be one of those things decades from now."

Five Great Up Releases

The duo of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss nailed their sound on this record — Coomes hammering at an electric harpsichord (as well as other instruments), Weiss driving the songs with pyrotechnical drumming, the two of them harmonizing with a sweetness that's very slightly sour. It's also one of the greatest, darkest, most self-and-other-lacerating breakup records ever made, from its brilliant opener "Our Happiness Is Guaranteed" — a hilariously horrifying sci-fi scenario about the only way romance can last for sure — through its later songs of undiluted despair. Coomes offers a few side-trips, too: "The Poisoned Well" seems to be obliquely addressed to a self-destructive friend, "California" is an ice-pick aimed at that state ("Life is dull, life is gray/ At its best it's just okay/ But I'm happy to report/ Life is also short"), and "It's Hard to Turn Me On" is, for all its ground-down cynicism, an honest-to-goodness love song.

The Lonesome Crowded West

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse were already experienced road warriors by the time they released their second full album, and it's very much a record about spending enormous amounts of time on highways: its longest jam is unsurprisingly called "Truckers Atlas." (See also "Convenient Parking," a thrilling chant-and-scream piece that's built on cyclical repetitions large and small.) Isaac Brock's voice isn't just dry, it's parched; his favorite trick as a guitarist is to hit a single note and let it wobble and arc; his lyrics call up gas stations, drinking binges and obsessive existential meditation. And this lineup of Modest Mouse was, more than anything else, a wildly unusual groove band — almost every song is built on tightly arranged rhythms more than riffs.

Up's roster was mostly artists from the Pacific Northwest, but not entirely: Alan Sutherland's one-man sample-and-loop project first recorded in Seattle, but by the time Up released its records, Land of the Loops was (and still is) based on the East Coast, and this album's only direct connection to the I-5 corridor is vocals on a few tracks by Beat Happening's Heather Lewis. There were a lot of cut-and-paste acts operating in the mid '90s, but most of the ones who were willing to create recordings with a not-perfectly-squared-off, DIY vibe were more interested in laughs than in beats. Sutherland can be funny when he feels like it ("Multi-Family Garage Sale," which appeared in a beer commercial, has some nutty vintage movie samples), but his prime gift is figuring out how to get to the intersection of "awkward" and "funky."

A remarkable document of an odd moment in Seattle's music, Juned's second and final album finds them stretching out far beyond the punky/poppy vibe of their first. (Its first song is named after stoner-metal icons Kyuss; its last is an airy waltz that's a showcase for Seattle experimental violinist Eyvind Kang.) One of Juned's escape routes from alt-rock purgatory was the delay-heavy guitar sound Dale Balenseifen and Claudia Groom had picked up from British new wave; another was their feathery two- and three-part harmonies. The result is a little bit like an Americanized version of Lush, except with a rhythm section that kicks extra-hard — the bridge of its single "Possum" is basically Juned demonstrating that they can do metal too.

The second album by Doug Martsch's long-running band is a declaration of his awesome powers as a songwriter and guitarist. Martsch makes it clear how ambitious he is — his declaration in "Car" that "I wanna see movies of my dreams" is hardly an exaggeration — but there's also a bracing emotional vulnerability and specificity to his lyrics, especially coming from his high, weedy voice. ("Big Dipper" includes the devastating line "He thought an Albertson's stir-fry dinner would make his apartment a home.") The brief hidden track at the end, a string of deliberately awful variations on Built to Spill's sound, is pretty hilarious, but it also illustrates how carefully Martsch has shaped the rest of the album. There's Nothing Wrong With Love is the work of an artist who gets to treat Boise, Idaho, as a rock capital because he can outplay anyone: The sheer variety of instrumental textures Martsch crams into these songs' riffs and fills and raw solos is amazing on its own.