For a quarter century, Sub Pop Records has been an indelible part of the city’s culture—as Seattle as late-night binges at Dick’s and scoffing at terrible rain jokes—and label cofounder Jonathan Poneman has been along for every moment of the wild ride. From the Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and TAD records that launched the label and a moment in rock history, to the irresistible melodies of the 2000s—the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and the Postal Service—Sub Pop has been shaping the musical landscape well beyond the Northwest. Heck, the label even has progressive comedy tastes, having worked with New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords, Patton Oswalt, and David Cross.
Sub Pop celebrates its 25th anniversary this week with the free blowout bash in Georgetown on Saturday—the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee—featuring Built to Spill, Father John Misty, Mudhoney, Shabazz Palaces, and many more, and a comedy fundraiser at the Moore with Marc Maron, Eugene Mirman, Jon Benjamin, and Kristen Schaal.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Poneman about Sub Pop's "flirtation with maturity," his recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, and becoming emperor.
How did the Silver Jubilee end up in Georgetown?
We had done SP20, obviously, five years ago. We had a good experience, but our one regret was that we had done it in Marymoor Park. Marymoor Park was wonderful, the people who work there were great, the event was fabulous, but Sub Pop has a particular attachment to Seattle proper—not to the Eastside. So we wanted to choose a neighborhood that we felt maintained the spirit of the Seattle from which Sub Pop sprang. Georgetown was the logical place to go.
What aspect of the Jubilee are you most excited about?
The music. [Laughs.] It’s going to be a carnival of sorts. It will be great to see people. We are going to have a Hindu fire ceremony to start off the event. It’s going to be a lower-key thing; I’m looking forward to that. But first and foremost, the bands and the music. Being able to watch the bands play, that’s always what thrills me. Seeing old friends is good. Being able to acknowledge and work in collaboration with the Georgetown neighborhood is an honor as well.
How do you feel the personality of Sub Pop has changed over the last 25 years?
Like a human being, the label has had stages of development. We had a rocky adolescence and now we’re kind of going through a flirtation with maturity. We kind of know what we’re doing, but we’re in our mid-20s, so we can still fuck off with the best of ‘em. The label’s musical identity has shifted over the years, but in order to be an active and proactive musical entity, you need to kind of keep your ears open and follow your heart and your instincts as far as what is pleasing, and not follow a formula or a trend too vigorously.
Obviously, there’s a lot of disparaging feelings that go with the whole notion of trendiness. From my perspective, trends can be fun. But when you adhere too closely to them for professional advantage or gain, it starts to ring false with the listener. I know that when I hear bands that seem like carbon copies, or too blatantly inspired by other artists who are having commercial success. It’s easy to discern and it’s less inspiring to listen. We’re always trying to stay inspired in a genuine way, and that will inevitably mean a shifting of perspective for the label. We’re proud of our history and the legacy that we share with the city of Seattle, but we’re always looking forward. That, to me, is always the exciting thing.
Are there any universal characteristics you look for in a Sub Pop artist?
Artistic integrity, which means a feeling that somebody’s not necessarily bandwagon jumping. Or if they are gonna be bandwagon jumpers, I hope that they have enough intelligence and perspective to be able to appreciate what they’re doing. The Supersuckers wrote a song a few years back called “Coattail Rider,” which is sort of about moving to Seattle and kind of glomming onto the prevailing scene. But they did it with such humor and panache, both the song and the endeavor, that you couldn’t help but love them.
Sub Pop is first and foremost about collaboration: internal collaboration within the company itself, but most importantly, collaboration with our artists and with the people representing the artists. We look for artists and individuals we can collaborate with, not people we can impose our will upon or the other way around.
What are some of your favorite shows you’ve seen in the past year?
I saw Clipping. They played at the Black Lodge. I saw them about two months ago and they blew me away. They’re a hip-hop noise ensemble from L.A....that show was pretty intense. I saw Metz at Primavera [Sound Festival in Barcelona]. Their show was stunning. I think anytime I have the opportunity to see Metz, it’s pretty great. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Coachella. And similarly, the Postal Service at Coachella. Those were all great shows I’ve seen lately. Oh, and one more—most critically—it’s probably the best show: Father John Misty at Coachella, which was transcendent.
What’s your reaction to being named King Neptune for this year’s Seafair festivities? Did that come out of left field?
It came out of somewhere. My feelings about it are pretty cut and dry: I’ve lived in Seattle for three-and-a-half decades, most of my adult life. And though Seafair is not something I paid attention to—other than Blue Angels flying above and getting into traffic jams around the parade and stuff like that—it is a Seattle institution, and I am nothing if not a proud Seattle resident. If this is a duty that comes with being that, I embrace it proudly. It’ll be fun.
How is your health?
Thank you for asking. I was not too long ago diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I live a normal life: I rock, I drive, I party, I do all the things that other people do. It’s just that I do it a little bit slower and with not as good balance. Do I wish that I didn’t have Parkinson’s? Absolutely. But is it slowing me down? Not at all. Well, it’s slowing me down, but not in any way that I can’t deal with.
If you weren’t part of Sub Pop, is there any other line of work that might appeal to you?
I’d be interested in being an emperor, but I’d probably be more suited to being a fry cook.
Sub Pop's Silver Jubilee
July 13, Georgetown, free
Sub Pop Records Silver Jubil-Eve Comedy Thing (For Charity!)
July 12, Moore Theatre, $25