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Sub Pop Records

Sub Pop Records, the label that made "grunge" a household word, is turning 20. Since its inception the small Seattle outfit has exploded internationally, giving music fans a dose of the Northwest punk sound with bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Now Sub Pop is home to indie phenoms The Shins and The Postal Service, as well as comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Jim and Greg speak with Jonathan Poneman, who started the label in 1988 with former fanziner Bruce Pavitt. Poneman explains that there was so much great rock in that area at the time that they were compelled to document it. But their ambitions didn‘t stop there. Poneman discusses Pavitt’s assertion that the most vital culture happens outside the big media centers. This kind of big thinking paved the way for the breakout of regional music scenes and the idea that indie bands can be as big as major label ones.

To celebrate Sub Pop's anniversary Jim and Greg both pick their favorite tracks from the label. Greg starts with a song by The Afghan Whigs. He explains that the tradition of signing non-Northwest bands began with the Whigs. They started out as a faux-grunge band but became more distinctive when they brought in elements of soul. You can hear that in the track "Miles Iz Dead" off the album Congregation.

Jim also wanted to pick a song that showcased the diversity of Sub Pop. It's more than just a grunge label. Jim looks to Cardinal, a band that represents much of what's happening in the indie world today. The duo gave birth to orchestral pop, and one of its members, Eric Matthews, put out a terrific debut on Sub Pop in 1995 called It's Heavy In Here. Jim chooses to play that album's opener, "Fanfare."

Go to episode 137
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Greg's SXSW 2019 Recap

Instagram/Cimafunk

The 32nd South By Southwest festival wrapped up last weekend in Austin, Texas. The music industry spring break has long been one of the best places to discover ambitious new bands for record labels, managers, promoters and critics. Jim was sad to miss the event for the first time in 27 years, but was eager to hear what Greg learned while down south.

Greg was happy to report that after years of expansion (the film and tech conferences are in some ways bigger newsmakers now) and over-the-top corporate presence (Doritos vending machine stage, anyone?), the music festival was scaled-back this year. There was less focus on major stars and more emphasis on acts from around the world.

The decline in corporate influence at SXSW could be heard in the keynote address from T. Bone Burnett, the producer of many Coen brothers film soundtracks. He didn't hold back, claiming that tech companies like Facebook and Google were a threat to our humanity.

"To stay human, to survive as a species, we have to wrest our communications out of the control of the lust for power, the avarice, larceny, hubris, deceit, and self-delusion of the heads of Google and Facebook. I am confident that we can do this," Burnett said.

Greg juxtaposed Burnett's comments against a panel with Nile Rodgers on songwriting as an investment. In that discussion Rodgers' business partner made a plea to keep streaming platforms like Spotify alive until they can become worldwide platforms despite the low dividends they provide artists now.

As for new music discoveries, Greg shared three:

  • Cimafunk, a project of Erik Alejandro Rodriguez that blends Afro-Cuban polyrhythms with Fela Kuti trance vibes.
  • Trupa Trupa, a Polish band he saw last year at SXSW and signed to Sub Pop Records as a result of that visit.
  • Tasha, a Chicago-based solo artist with radiant stage presence who reminded Greg of the folk soul movement of the 1960s and 70s.
Go to episode 695