A History of Grunge


Written by Mark Yarm
20 Tuesday 20th September 2011


Main image: Nirvana, Bleach photo shoot in Belltown, Seattle, Feb 25 1989 by Alice Wheeler. From left: Krist Novoselic, Jason Everman, Kurt Cobain and Chad Channing.

BRUCE PAVITT (Co-founder of Sub Pop) April 1, 1988, is when we quit our day jobs and moved into our tiny, original office, in the Terminal Sales Building downtown. It's the first day of Sub Pop, with a big asterisk next to it: “Except for the previous eight years”.

MARK ARM (Mudhoney singer/guitarist; Green River singer; Mr Epp and the Calculations guitarist/singer; the Thrown Ups drummer) I think they got a good deal on it because the elevator stopped at the 10th floor. They were on the 11th floor, so you had to take an extra set of steps to get up there. It was a pauper's penthouse.

CHARLES PETERSON (Photographer) I was office boy for quite a while in the early days. Prior to that I was working evenings developing film for Auto Trader, the little news magazine for used cars and trucks. I was filching film from Auto Trader to shoot Sub Pop bands. But that got tiresome, so Bruce and Jon offered me a job, essentially as an office manager.

The 'warehouse' was the toilet, so you literally had to slide sideways through these stacks of record boxes, like Green River's Dry as a Bone, to take a leak. Since Jonathan was more on the business side of things, he got his own office with a big glass window and a door so he could sit in there and make deals. Bruce didn't really need a desk, because Bruce was always in motion - probably residual effects of MDA.

Sub Pop cofounders Jonathan Poneman (left) and Bruce Pavitt at the label's Seattle office, 1988, by Jim Berry

MARK PICKEREL (Screaming Trees/Truly drummer) I moved to Seattle a few months after Lanegan did and started working for Sub Pop early on. My impressions of Bruce and Jonathan were pretty popular in the office. Bruce would come inwith some outrageous story about a band expecting this or their attorney expecting that. Every time he got excited, he would pace back and forth in the room, kinda like a caged elephant. He had his hands on his forehead and his eyes were bulging out and he would hold his breath so his cheeks would do this Dizzy Gillespie thing. And then Jonathan would go into this very focused, eloquent speech that would calm Bruce down and assure him that the problem at hand was an outrage, but with proper strategy they could turn the whole thing around. This exchange would happen two or three times a week.

GILLIAN G. GAAR (Journalist/author) Bruce had these dark, intense eyes and looked very striking because he shaved his head. For a while he had that huge beard - he had the Fidel Castro look. He had an intensity about him that I think made people feel he was more intimidating than he was, whereas Jon seemed more approachable and laid-back.

JONATHAN PONEMAN (Co-founder of Sub Pop) When I worked at Yesco, which was sold to Muzak, and Bruce worked at Muzak about a year and a half later, we both were sickened by what we thought was a Bonfire of the Vanities–type yuppie culture. At the time, you had the managerial class working upstairs and you had the workers in what was called the dupe room, the duplication room. So we parodied the corporate culture through grotesque overstatement. Instead of making Sub Pop 200 a cheap vinyl record, let’s make it an overstated, bloated box set!

Mudhoney on a European ferry (after a few drinks), August 1990, by Bob Whittaker. Clockwise from left: Steve Turner, Mark Arm, Matt Lukin and Dan Peters.

BRUCE PAVITT Part of our shtick was that we were this huge player on the West Coast, and a lot of people bought into that. In the Sub Pop 200 compilation there was a picture of the building, and it said Sub Pop World Headquarters. And so people looked at the picture and were like, “Wow, they’ve got this 11-floor office building!” When in actuality we had maybe 50 square feet.

In the Sub Pop 200 booklet, my title was listed as supervisory chairman of executive management, and Jon’s was executive chairman of supervisory management. We felt there was at that time a lack of humor and a forced modesty in the punk/indie scene, and we were really going against the grain. We were ironically undermining corporate culture.

CHARLES PETERSON When we got paid, we would literally run down to the bank that very minute. If you were last in line, your check might bounce.

CHRIS HANSZEK (C/Z Records label / Reciprocal Recording studio co-founder; producer) Jack did a lot of the early records for Sub Pop at Reciprocal, but ultimately when the recordings got done, I was in charge of making sure they got paid for. So I ended up being the guy on the phone with Jonathan Poneman every couple of months, going, “Where the hell’s my fucking money?”

Tad in New York, summer 1989, by Ian Tilton. Clockwise from lower left: Tad Doyle, Gary Thorstensen, Kurt Danielson, and Steve Wiederhold.

JONATHAN PONEMAN We had ever-changing mottos, like “Going out of Business Since 1988.” And the mottos keep coming. Later, we did the loser shirts, which was an idea that was cribbed from Bob Whittaker, who quipped, “Why don’t you just make a bunch of shirts that say loser on them?” They became very popular. I remember getting lectured by a band member’s parent or something who got angry at me, saying, “That’s not very good for the self-esteem of the wearers of the shirt.” It’s like, “I don’t give a shit.” (Laughs.)

KURT DANIELSON (Bassist for TAD/Bundle of Hiss) At the same time, I had this idea for a song called “Loser.” As I once said, it seemed to me like the existential heroes of the ’90s were the losers. TAD needed an extra song in the studio working on Salt Lick with Steve Albini, so I wrote it really quickly and I thought, This’ll be excellent because there’s already gonna be T-shirts that say loser on them, they’ll be promoting the song, it’ll be just magical.

THURSTON MOORE (Singer/guitarist for Sonic Youth; Kim Gordon’s husband) Sub Pop turned the tables a little bit: We’re geeks, we’re record collectors, we’re losers, we’re pathetic. People like Mark Arm and Kurt Cobain and Tad, these guys embodied this in such a great way. They were not your typical good-looking punk-rock stars. They were kinda skinny, nose-picking nerds. Except for Tad, who was a fat, burger-burping geek. They were also lovable, and you sort of wanted to be part of that gang.

The Mevlins on the road, circa 1986, by Matt Lukin. From Left: Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover and Matt Lukin.

BLAG DAHLIA (Singer for Dwarves) I would never wear a shirt that said ‘Loser’. I felt like, Hey, I’m reasonably good-looking and cool, why would I label myself a loser? I never really identified with that side of rock and roll - “Oh, I’m such a loser” or “I’m so put upon by the jocks.” That’s sort of the essence of grunge, and part of why I never really identified with that very much. I was like a little Charles Manson in high school; I had girls following me around, I dealt drugs, and I didn’t feel like a big loser.

Ultimately, all the symbols of grunge came to be these cute, young, skinny guys. They didn’t really seem like losers to me, although I guess if they did enough dope it made them losers.

BUZZ OSBORNE (Melvins singer/guitarist)Cobain had the wounded-junkie look that for some reason women watching MTV think is really cool. I’ve said this before: If Kurt Cobain looked like Fat Albert - same songs, everything - it wouldn’t have worked. Same with Soundgarden. If Chris Cornell looked like Fat Albert, a 500-pound black guy, nobody would have given a shit.

TRACY SIMMONS (Blood circus bassist)Being on Sub Pop would help sometimes. They were getting notoriety, and they definitely had collectors in some towns. And in some places it didn’t help us much at all. Here comes a bunch of long-haired guys from Seattle wearing lime-green Doc Martens and motorcycle jackets, and you get up onstage in front of a bunch of farmers from Omaha, Nebraska, and they’re like, “What in the hell is this?” And they start chanting, “Play ‘Freebird’!”

Skin Yard play Gorilla Gardens, Seattle, July 1985, by Cam Garrett. From left: Jack Endino, Matt Cameron, Ben McMillan and Daniel House.

BLAG DAHLIA I’ve said that being on Sub Pop was like starving to death in a really cool suit. It was fun to be able to say that you were on Sub Pop, and it was nice to show up in Boise, Idaho, and have a little Sub Pop logo in the newspaper next to your name - that was your nice suit - but you just weren’t making any money from the label.

GRANT ALDEN (The Rocket newspaper managing editor)Sub Pop was in your face: “We’re ripping you off big time!” - that’s what their ad said. This is a record label that managed to finance itself on that Singles Club.

MARK ARM One of the label’s biggest tricks was selling itself so that people would want to get anything on Sub Pop, whether it was good or not, because of the packaging and the label identity. They came up with the Singles Club, getting people to pay [$35 a year] up front without knowing what they were getting. That helped them stay afloat.

THURSTON MOORE The Singles Club was completely brilliant. These guys had a real sense of design, which appealed to the record geek. The singles became almost like trading cards.

ART CHANTRY (The Rocket art director; Sub Pop freelancer; album/poster designer)I have no idea who actually physically designed the black bar with the band’s name and the Sub Pop logo at the top of the singles - probably Lisa Orth or Linda Owens. Bruce liked to change things up periodically, but I talked him into continuing to use the black bar when he wanted to dump it: “This is your identity here. Make sure people know it has that Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.”


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