Loading…

“Ok, the 30th Anniversary Hoop-La is over. Now Let’s Get down to the Brass Tacks of What’s Really Going on at Sub Pop.”

Sub Pop is an alternative/indie rock record label located in Seattle, Washington, originally spawned in the 1980s out of the “Subterranean Pop” fanzine/record compilations that label founder Bruce Pavitt orchestrated prior. Well documented in the excellent grunge documentary Hype!, the Sub Pop label is auspicious for having housed Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach, which of course would explode in sales following the band’s Geffen-housed 1991 commercial breakthrough Nevermind. Sub Pop’s original signing of Nirvana, as well as to an extent the punk-minded Mudhoney and an early, pre-success incarnation of Soundgarden, gave the label a reputation as the head honchos of grunge’s trenchant monetary spearheading.

To this day, Sub Pop is a spectacularly successful record label, with a comely headquarters comprising an entire building in downtown Seattle, as well as, to their credit, a pithy current CEO in Megan Jasper responsible for that brilliant 1992 prank of giving “grunge code words” for regular words, which a New York Times reported as earnest and spun into the infamous “Lexicon of Grunge.”

Things are good for Sub Pop. They’ve been home to household indie names in the last 15 years (now that grunge has perhaps waned a tad in popularity) like No Age, Beach House, the Fleet Foxes, Wolf Parade and Oxford Collapse, the latter of which stands slightly below the others in popularity but not for lack of effort on the part of Dolby Disaster over the years.

Recently, the label celebrated its 1988 genesis with an ostentatious 30th anniversary party, which included, over two days, a total of 18 bands and five comedy acts in the label’s hometown Emerald City. The label continues to employ notable musical acts from around the world, such as England’s Marika Hackman, and oversee high-profile indie releases like Beach House’s 2018 effort 7, which peaked at #20 on the Billboard 200 list (not the “indie only” list but the overall ranking of album sales in the U.S.) They even call their online store a “Mega-Mart.”

Well, now, here is where we should back up. I’m not accounting for the sense of humor of these guys, which I have to admit, can be pungent. Let’s just look at their anniversary celebration flier available on their site: they call their festivity “SPF 30” and feature a strange bird creature wearing a shirt that says “Never trust a record label under 30,” with the word “over” inscribed on there and crossed out.

Back in the day, they were known for numerous official label t shirts, such as one, in particularly lean times, depicting “Sub Plop / What part of ‘We have no money’ don’t you understand?” [1]

And he**, the guys love music. I don’t think anybody should deny that. Co-founder Jonathan Poneman penned this emphatic and effusive liner notes blurb for Soundgarden’s A-Sides greatest hits collection, the stuff of an insider “gigwise” concert goer with full dedication to his oeuvre.

While today their label roster has filtered to a slight extent down to a Northwest-dominated genus, perhaps, still they house Baltimore’s Beach House and Canada’s Wolf Parade, an achievement very much in jibing with their original plans of “world domination” (an objective also manifested with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as you might have guessed).

Something a bit sad happened sometime between 2011 and 2017. That thing is that Fleet Foxes, a widely heralded and critically acclaimed indie band, left Sub Pop. No firm reason is given for this move on Wikipedia. In interviews, Fleet Foxes lead singer Robin Pecknold has been invariably laudatory of Sub Pop, all its efforts and all the figures manning the artistic and administrative controls therein. What we’re left with is the bare instance that for the band’s 2017 return to album-making, Crack-up (named after an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay according to Wikipedia), they turned to Nonesuch, a subsidiary of Warner which also happens to be responsible for Wilco’s tour de force Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Something else a bit sad happened sometime between 2013 and 2018. That thing is that No Age, a noise rock spitfire that took over the world in ’08 when Pitchfork scribe and Americana historian Amanda Petrusich touted them as one of the greatest bands on the planet, left Sub Pop. Like the Fleet Foxes, following their final release with the Seattle label, they took a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, sorry for the plain language there, break from music. Like the Fleet Foxes, the first record they’d issue in the wake of Sub Pop days would mark at least to an extent a stylistic break from their erstwhile strategies as a band, longer and/or more explorative songs, in some way.

In an interview blurb, Spin reports that No Age’s “contract expired and was not renewed after 2013’s An Object,” which makes it sound like the label wanted to cut ties with the LA duo, thinking they weren’t pulling their own weight. Well, this seems like a highly odd proposition, given the immense success of the band, although indeed An Object scored only a 73 out of 100 on Metacritic, compared to the 80 of their album before and the 84 after. Anyway, with 2018’s Snares Like a Haircut, there’s no question whatsoever that the band resumed its penchant for making an album all but universally likable and championed, an ultimate effort to which the label of Sub Pop cannot lay claim.

Sub Pop, as I mention before, continues to boast an impressive roster and to produce high-profile indie albums. They have, though, an annoying habit of announcing an album’s release date something like a gaudy three months in advance, creating an unwieldy amount of wait time required for listening to the music. Granted, this is in concordance with the imprint’s own history, as is articulated by one scenester in Hype! and the observation, meant originally in support, that “They didn’t hype their bands… They hyped their label.” In Nirvana: the Biography, one member of Mudhoney is quoted as pointing out their habit of limiting the supply of certain records, to give it what he called an “artificial appeal.” Sub Pop wants to occupy a part of your mind. They want to, if not dominate, at least usurp control over at least a significant slab of your psyche as it relates to consuming music.

At first, their ploy for doing this involved the need to make money. They were a scrappy, upstart label preceding the success of Nirvana and Mudhoney.

Today, though, they still continue to “hype” their albums, such as October 6, 2017’s Cry Cry Cry by Wolf Parade, the release of which Spin announced on July 20, a solid two and a half months before. This is less time even than legends Yo La Tengo took to hit stores, whose Matador-borne There’s a Riot Going on was announced by Pitchfork on January 18, 2018 and materialized for purchase on March 16, taking a span of less than two months. The worst case of Sub Pop’s hyping probably regards Kyle Craft, a total nobody who announced his Full Circle Nightmare album on November 13, 2017 only to reach the illustrious release date of February 2, nearly three months later. Appropriately enough, as this is indeed a tired old formula, the album did show up in stores on Groundhog’s Day. It also scored a 67 out of 100 on Metacritic, a full 17 points below the first No Age album away from Sub Pop.

Although they might come from different sources, if you look at the literature coming from or regarding No Age and Fleet Foxes, you start to imbibe a clear sense that Sub Pop sets too rigorous of a touring schedule for their bands. Actually, amusingly enough, this jibes with their history too, as they even sent the small-fry Nirvana on a European Bleach tour (remember this is before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and before the band had probably even sold a thousand record, let alone a million), and according to Hype! were in full adamant support of their bands being “rock stars” in the sense of not working day jobs and hitting the touring circuit.

In Spin’s last interview with No Age, they pose their first question with the “Send Me” video in mind, which depicts a woman confined to a white-collar office setting, unfree and unable to exercise her free spirit, more or less. The song “Send Me,” which appears on Thrill Jockey’s Snares Like a Haircut, then proceeds to chug along soundtracking the woman breaking out of the office and dressing up the copy machine with limbs and clothing like a person, doing a dance along with it as well. It seems indubitable that the imagery is clear: No Age’s shackles have been removed, in the form of their former label. Specifically, drummer/singer Dean Allen Spunt remarks that “‘The key for us, I’ve noticed, is just to have time… Time to explore different avenues, different parts of the world, parts of the city, parts of anything.’” As you juxtapose this with the touring schedule nightmare and drummer departure (Father John Misty) suffered by Fleet Foxes, and especially in terms of the ensuing hiatus, or break, that they’d take as a band, it certainly begins to come together as to how Sub Pop was a burden on these musicians’ lives and how getting away from the label was a freeing, liberating experience.

Beach House’s 7 was probably the most high-profile Sub Pop release of 2018. As I state earlier, it reached #20 on the Billboard charts, an undeniably impressive feat for an indie band. It also hit #2 on the U.S. indie charts.

Beach House boasts a gorgeous lead singer in Victoria Legrand who also possesses an orchestral, canary-like singing voice. She is classically trained in the choral arts.

The new Sub Pop Beach House album features “Drunk in LA” as its most prominent cut and single. When I listen to it, though, I simply cannot help but bemoan the lack of explorative aspects at play on it, and how inimitably it mocks the quarter-note walking keyboard line technique of their 2000’s and early 2010’s material. The artistic adaptation isn’t there. To me, it does not transmit a successful vision of being “drunk in LA,” which in reality would obviously warrant excitement, and for a girl as attractive as Legrand, clear and present danger. Granted, caution and suspicion aren’t her trademarks. She’s known, in Beach House’s most successful musical moments, for extreme romantic amour (“Gila”) and acute human sympathy (“Walk in the Park”). Today, at their most prominent moments, it just seems like she wants to “drown her sorrows,” which, far from inexcusable, seems to take on the thorny habit of not producing an artistic result that corresponds with its governing emotion. The music has become “product” and the oppressive powers at Sub Pop, with their overly ambitious capitalistic practices, have created an environment diminutive of these individuals’ core and precious visions.

.

[1] This information was made admirably available to me by way of Everett True’s signature Nirvana: the Biography, which certainly stands as an authoritative Sub Pop document in its own right, at least for 2006 and before.

 

Leave a Reply