Veteran Seattle rock historian and former Stranger freelancer Gillian G. Gaar (She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana, former editor of The Rocket, etc.) has written what will likely be the definitive history of Sub Pop Records. A deeply researched, interview-intensive biography of this city's most globally significant label, World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story is the inaugural entry in publisher BMG's RPM Series of books focusing on notable independent record companies. (Read my review of it here.) To delve deeper into the process behind World Domination, I interviewed Gaar ahead of her appearance at Elliott Bay Book Company this evening.
The Stranger: Did your publisher or editor place any restrictions or give you any guidelines regarding the structure or content of the book?
Gaar: Not really. The biggest one was the word count: 50,000. They did want me to talk to people at the label and get their views. But beyond that, no. BMG didn’t have a template in place. A lot of times you’ll work with a publisher and they’ll say, “Here’s a book we did like that.” You can sort of get that idea.
One thing they said was that it’s similar to the 33 1/3 books, which focus on different albums. Of course, those cover just one album, so you can go into it with more detail. With [labels] and that word count, it’s going to be more of an overview. You can certainly get a lot in 50,000 words, but it’s different from an in-depth book of 100,000 to 150,000 words.
Did you find that you had a lot of extra material that you couldn’t fit in?
Not really. I was very conscious of the word length. The main text is about 49,500. I didn’t gather a lot of stuff I couldn’t use. But as I started getting to the end, I stopped gathering. The earlier chapters started getting bigger, so I had to make later chapters shorter. But in many ways, I think the beginning years are the more interesting part of the story.
I do, too. Were there any subjects who rejected your interview offers? People you tried to get into the book that just refused to participate?
I don't think so. There were a few people that didn't get back to me right away, but then when I did get through to them or when they did respond, they agreed.
In fact even as it went on, I was wondering if I'd be able to sit down with [co-founder Jonathan Poneman], because I know he has his health issues, so this obviously wasn't going to be a priority for him. But I think because I talked to other people there in the office and maybe he heard I'd talked with [co-founder Bruce Pavitt], he said he really wanted to make it happen. I thought it would be easier via e-mail for him, but he said that'd actually be harder. So yeah, he made time and that was good, because I had had previous interviews with both Bruce and Jon, but it was great to get more recent stuff, too.
It seems like the one aspect that might be missing is input from the artists who were on the label, or would that just have made it too unwieldy?
Yeah, that might have. I was trying to focus more on the label than the artists. There are some quotes from artists kind of dropped in here and there in saying why they wanted to be with Sub Pop. But yeah, I was thinking more of a behind-the-scenes-look kind of thing. I guess I also figured people know those stories, at least if it's a bigger artist.
In some Nirvana online groups I'm in, I would post about this book coming out, you know spreading the word. But I'd always have to add, "There's not anything about Nirvana you guys don't already know because it's about Sub Pop." Or like, someone asked me if I was going to write about Chris Cornell's death and I said, "Well, no, because he's not on Sub Pop," and he hadn't been for many years. So he wasn't really a part of their story by then.
What was the most surprising and/or interesting thing you learned about Sub Pop while you were writing the book?
It wasn't that surprising, but it was interesting. It was really interesting talking to Megan Jasper; she's a good interview. And it was interesting to find out why she came back to Sub Pop, because she had been working there and she got laid off. We talked a bit about the early years and there were some years when she wasn't there. And then she came back and at that time, the company was really in turmoil and so I was curious, "Why did you come back?" It would seem like it wasn't a great job offer to come back to this company that was floundering. So that was interesting to hear her reasons for doing so.
And in fact I don't think I knew that she was such a good friend of Jon's, so she didn't just know what was going on, she knew more details about all the turmoil. But yet she still wanted to go back because she thought she could be a part of its resurrection.
Actually, just hearing about the whole time, because I remember reading about the coup and people leaving and things like that, but I never really read much beyond that, that both sides were kind of angry with each other. But now, of course, that's 20 years ago, so it's water under the bridge and people were quite willing to talk about it in a way that they may not have been if this had been done, say, five years after it happened.
And even Jon said, this did kind of surprise me, that when the four [Sub Pop employees] came forward with their petition, the letter. He said he actually agreed with a lot of the suggestions, but he just hadn't liked the way the whole thing was handled and thought he was being undermined. It was also at this tricky part where they were doing this negotiation with Warner Bros. and he didn't want them to take over and perhaps become a majority holder. So yeah, everyone seemed quite willing to talk about that in a way that they wouldn't have earlier.
I guess also just asking how they've been able to thrive. Tony Kiewel gets into that in the later part of the book because when you think about, it's interesting that they're a record company that has not only survived, they're actually flourishing, and this is at a time when other record companies, especially the bigger ones, are in trouble and seeking for other ways to make money. But they've been operating in a more responsible fashion and perhaps unlike a record company, especially when it's part of a larger organization now anyway. They don't have to keep generating those massive amounts of profit, they just have to turn a profit, and they do. They're still putting out vinyl, [because] of course vinyl's coming back.
And then I was surprised before I talked to Megan, looking on their website, the Hardly Art website, to see that they still sold cassettes. She said she was surprised about that, too, but that they sell them so they make them.
That is surprising.
I'm waiting for the CD revival, like Tony predicts in the book.
It's probably going to happen. Did you interview Bruce and Jonathan together or separately?
They were separately. I did draw on an interview that I did with them together. This was 10 years ago and I spoke to them over the phone and they were both on the line at the same time, though I actually don't know if they were in the same room. But this time, yeah, it was definitely separate. I talked to Jonathan at the Sub Pop office, in fact.
Do you get the sense they're on good terms right now?
Yeah, they seem fine. I love how Bruce put it. In the book he said when he finally sold his shares, it was like the settling of a divorce, but that he's still involved.
What's your favorite release in Sub Pop's catalog, and your favorite era?
That would be the grunge years, the name of chapter two I think, "The Grunge Years." That was fun, I mean recently I was really glad that they put out all those U-Men songs, gathered all the U-Men's catalog up.
Yeah, that was great.
Yeah, because they weren't on Sub Pop originally, although I guess there's a tangential connection because of the the first stuff being on Bomb Shelter, which Bruce ran.
That was a great period, when everything was cheap. The reading I just did, I read from that chapter and it talks about them taking over their first office for $200 a month. I said, "That tells you how long ago that was." We all laughed. But by the time they had moved into their office at First and Virginia, The Rocket [where Gaar worked then] was at Fifth and Lenora, so that was really close. They were in the neighborhood. But I know sometimes when I was picking up review copies, they wouldn't mail them to me, I'd just walk over and get them.
I reviewed Nirvana's Bleach, so I went over to get a copy and they didn't have the final copies in yet, but they had test pressings. So they gave me that one, but it's just in this white sleeve. I remember saying, "What are the song titles?" So Jon looked them up and he read them to me and wrote them down on the sleeve. I thought about trying to say later, "Oh look, this is Kurt Cobain's first copy that he wrote the song titles down." But no, that wouldn't pass.
What was it about the grunge years that make it your favorite era? Was it just because it all seemed so fresh and new at the time or had you just soured on the direction they went in later or you just thought that was their best niche, so to speak?
Gosh, it wasn't that I soured on stuff later, but I was just more involved then. Yeah, the fresh and new—it just seemed like everything was just beginning. What I really liked was their humor and their hype, which was always there to begin with. And in the book Bruce says, "Oh yeah, I really thought [Nirvana] would break through and be big." But at the time he didn't think that at all because it just seemed so laughable. How could there be any huge success coming from Seattle? I mean Seattle ...
One time at SIFF, it was the year Natalie Wood died and they used to show free movies at SIFF, which also shows how long ago it was. So they showed Natalie Wood movies and they showed, she was in a film version of Gypsy. So there's this part at the end of Gypsy where she's arguing with her mother and she's trying to make the case how she made it to be a star against all odds. She was, "Me, from this broke family. Me, from Seattle." And we all just cracked up because her point was, "Look, I made it and I was from this crummy little town called Seattle." So people forget or don't know because they weren't here, just how much of a backwater it really was and [touring] bands maybe not even coming to Seattle.
So it does seem like this ironic joke that they would talk about things like world domination. But then as they started getting the British press, it was just exciting to see that develop. They started getting written up in the British weeklies and that was like having something covered by the New York Times. And then as it built up and they were obviously popular and had this draw, I did start thinking, "Oh yeah, they could be successful," but you saw it as success in terms of Sonic Youth who signed with DGC and they didn't have to play clubs, they could play, like, the Paramount. And they could release albums and it seemed like a great level of success because you could quit your day job. But it was still pretty amazing to see all that happen.
I remember there was this other friend of mine, he was a designer and we used to talk about things that had developed elsewhere and swinging London or the Merseybeat or San Francisco and look back at culture like that and that happened to us and we were part of something exactly like that. Which even now I look back at it and it seems bizarre, because you didn't expect that and then suddenly it's worldwide. So it was really amazing to have a front row seat for that experience.
Do you have a favorite release on Sub Pop that you could pinpoint? I know it's hard since there are probably over 1,000 at this point.
Yeah, I think back to the early ones. Well, Bleach, but later Sleater-Kinney's The Woods. I thought that was so phenomenal and they went on hiatus after that tour. And I couldn't believe it because I thought, "Oh, you built to this peak." It was a seventh album and I thought, like Revolver. Revolver was the Beatles' seventh album and I was so excited.
That's probably the most recent favorite. I'm glad they got back together and they were just as good, just as potent. And I really like Mudhoney's Digital Garbage.
Where do you rank Sub Pop in Seattle record label history? Do you think there's any label that can really compete with it or do you think it stands above everything?
You know, it might have to be one that stands above everything, because certainly while there were others, [like] C/Z Records or ... Chris Takino's Up label. Or even further back, something like Etiquette. But Sub Pop's just a worldwide brand now. People would know perhaps bands that were on C/Z or Up or Etiquette, but they wouldn't necessarily know it was that label. Sub Pop became as much of an entity as their bands did. Kind of like Sun Records.
That was another thing, a former editor of The Rocket was saying to me, he was talking about Sun Records' success and how unlikely that was. And he said it would be like if some of the bands here got really big and were national successes, like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. And he was describing exactly what happened at Sub Pop, so...
But yeah, it was always foremost in Bruce's mind I think as he was trying to get it off the ground that he wanted the label to have as much of an image as the bands did, [like] Motown and Blue Note.
I think they succeeded at creating that identity. The logo is so iconic, it's been parodied. There have actually been some clever parodies of it.
There was an image I submitted for the art section, but they didn't use it. This was even before they were big. This is from 1989 and they were having a Sub Pop showcase at CoCA, which was downtown next to the Lusty Lady which I think it wasn't the Lusty Lady yet. But anyway, it was there and they made a poster and it parodied the logo. It was Soda Pop and then underneath it said, "A super fuzz big muff." It had super sugar, big buzz. And then the dates when the shows were. Yeah, I have some of those flyers.
It seems like that in the book that you don't really offer a lot of opinions of what's going on. You let the interview subjects tell the story. Was that your strategy all along?
I think that's just my style. I've heard that from other people.
It's a good solid journalistic style, but I was wondering if there were points where you wanted to interject an opinion about a decision that they made or anything regarding the story. It seems you strive for a neutral tone and let the subjects sort of carry the narrative.
Yeah, I've been writing that way for so long I don't think about it. I do think there are opinions in there, but I think they're more low-key or subtle. When I wrote about the cover art, I guess this isn't an opinion but ... the cover art for Sub Pop 200, and I'm describing it and then I said, "In an unfortunate note of prescience the guitarist has a monkey strapped to his back." So I thought, that's a little sharp thing dropped in there to maybe make people think twice.
You're going to be at Elliott Bay Book Company. Are you just going to be reading from World Domination and then doing like a Q and A afterward?
Yeah, the usual thing. And then people can get their books signed. I don't know if you want to mention this, but if people want to bring any of my other books they have that they want to get signed, they are perfectly free to do that, too.