When Seattleites Josh Rosenfeld and Christopher Possanza founded Barsuk Records in 1998, their first two CD releases seemed like obvious choices: an album by their indie rock quartet, This Busy Monster, and the debut of their friends’ little band…Death Cab for Cutie. Not a bad way to start.
Early on Barsuk helped define the mainstream perception of indie rock, with releases such as Nada Surf’s Let Go, the Long Winters’ When I Pretend to Fall, and Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth and seminal album Transatlanticism. It also provided a home for Seattle singer-songwriters Rocky Votolato, Jesse Sykes, and David Bazan.
This November, Barsuk celebrates its 15th anniversary with four nights of concerts featuring current and former labelmates. It’s a fitting tribute to the Seattle institution that never gets the same attention as that other local record label. “We have this hilarious mutual joke going on with Sub Pop, because they’re 10 years ahead of us and our big anniversaries keep lining up,” said Rosenfeld. Barsuk may operate in Sub Pop’s shadow, but “not in a hypercompetitive way, and certainly not in a resentful way.”
In recent years, Barsuk has continued to stay relevant by releasing albums by the likes of Phantogram and Ra Ra Riot. “Barsuk is on the short list of labels that are thought of as cool,” said Votolato, “and kind of legitimate underground indie rock labels that all the bands and artists want to be associated with.” The label’s discography isn’t just cool or catchy; it’s smart.
Barsuk challenges its artists creatively, too. John Roderick, front man of the Long Winters, said, “Josh Rosenfeld used to say to me, ‘Why repeat the same words every chorus when you could say something different?’ That’s a unique perspective from a label owner.” Artists also rave about the label’s family feel. Mutual respect has allowed Barsuk to amass a track record of deals that benefit both the musicians and the label.
“We’re still very idealistic, but we’ve become a lot more pragmatic over the years,” said Rosenfeld. “When it started off it was literally this hobby. Our first deals with bands were, like, hilariously lopsided. We were offering bands 80 percent of profits. To their credit, people like Death Cab at one point were, like, ‘Hey, Josh, you can’t keep doing this. You need to keep more of the money.’ ”
Even as it grows, Barsuk remains a distinctly Seattle entity. “The Northwest is a songwriter’s scene with a strong independent—bordering on defiant—streak,” said Roderick. “The Barsuk sound isn’t aggressive or angry, but the underlying attitude has always been to do things differently, smarter, and better. The vibe at the label is the quintessence of Northwest character.”
*This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.*
Barsuk Records 15th Anniversary
Nov 7 - Nada Surf (playing Let Go), Mates of State, The Prom, Showbox at the Market, sold out
Nov 8 - The Long Winters (playing When I Pretend To Fall), David Bazan, Chris Walla, Minor Alps, Sunset Valley, Neptune Theature, sold out
Nov 9 - Phantogram, Menomena, Maps and Atlases, Yellow Ostrich, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Say Hi, Neumos, sold out
Nov 10 - Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter (original lineup playing Reckless Burning), Rocky Votolato, Laura Gibson, Tractor Tavern, sold out
Nov 10 - Ra Ra Riot and Aqueduct, Sunset Tavern, sold out