The label's Tony Kiewel talks about the history and future of Seattle’s iconic record label.
It’s an overcast afternoon at Sub Pop’s Seattle HQ, where the chaos that is about to unfold is just dawning on an ever-so-slightly anxious Tony Kiewel.
“I think I’m still hungover from our 20th anniversary celebrations,” he laughs. “I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for the silver jubilee.”
Kiewel, the label's head of A&R, was “just a kid” 25 years ago in June 1986, when West Coast indie aficionados Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman began work establishing the imprint that would give the world Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, sparking a grunge boom in the late ’80s and launching a siege on mainstream music.
“I was from a town where we didn’t have a cool radio station so when I discovered Sub Pop at college, it became an obsession," says Kiewel. "I pretty much started stalking those guys till they gave me a job. It was borderline sketchy.”
Though he’s only been at the label for 13 of its 25-year history, Kiewel is not without his own important part in the Sub Pop story. Having been synonymous with the rise of grunge, there were fears around the genre’s mid-’90s fall from popularity that the imprint, too, had its days numbered. Instead, Sub Pop continues to thrive.
After grunge, the height of expectation was so great that people were like, how are they going to change the face of music next?
A lot of that is thanks to Kiewel, who has been responsible for finding the acts that have evolved the label into one of the most eclectic on the American alternative scene. Since the early aughts, its roster has diversified into everything from heartfelt rock (Fleet Foxes, Iron And Wine) to gauzy pop (Beach House, The Shins) to hip-hop and screwball comedy (Shabazz Palaces and the Flight Of The Conchords).
“In a lot of ways it was a victim of its own success,” says Kiewel. “After grunge, the height of expectation was so great that people were like, how are they going to change the face of music next?”
Artists moved to Seattle after the success of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff and Soundgarden’s Screaming Life. Then there was the little matter of one Kurt Donald Cobain. “Nirvana exploded," says Kiewel. "It changed everything. For Sub Pop and for Seattle.”
For many, Sub Pop is as iconic a part of Seattle as its famous Space Needle, towering over the city from Broad Street. So it made sense to have Mudhoney play atop the tourist attraction earlier this month as part of the current celebrations. Has the label helped shape or change Seattle’s identity since its inception 25 years ago?
“Yeah, I’d say, for better or worse! It’s quite a unique ecosystem we have here, though," says Kiewel. "There’s a lot of great radio stations and venues that support us and in turn we support them. It’s a special place.”
Nowadays, Kiewel and the Sub Pop team have their eyes firmly trained on the future, even if they surround themselves at HQ with reminders of their past: a framed chunk of plaster from the label’s first office where Kurt Cobain wrote his name and address on the wall so they always knew where to direct his cut of record sales, for instance.
“The goal is just to keep raising the bar,” he says. “It’s crazy how quickly things change in the music industry and you just have to adapt. There’s a lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunities too. It’ll be exciting.”
If the next 25 years of Sub Pop are anything like the first, he can say that again.