Here's a scenario: You come home for Christmas, call up your old punk rock buddies, and find out they're really into hip-hop and dance music now. Catching up, you pretend to understand words like "chillwave" and "dubstep," taking their word for it that those are, in fact, real things.
That's what's going on right now with Seattle's Sub Pop Records, known for bringing fringe rock music to the masses for over 20 years.
The label kicked off grunge in the '90s, signing Seattle bands Nirvana and Soundgarden before anyone outside the city knew about them — and followed that by popularizing indie rock in the aughts, developing the genre from snarky and gnarly in the '90s to soft and smart today, where it sits as one of the dominant sounds on pop radio.
Opposed to genre-reliable labels like Daptone Records or Hyperdub, where you know you're going to get revival-style soul music or electronic underground sounds, Sub Pop has a history of flipping the script. For example, it followed a string of indie rock hits with a flurry of records by comedy acts, including Flight of the Conchords and David Cross.
But Sub Pop's musical releases have always leaned toward rock — which made it surprising that they spent 2011 putting out rap and dance music by Shabazz Palaces, Niki & the Dove and Washed Out. The trend will continue in 2012. In March, the label will release outre hip-hop albums from new signees THEESatisfaction (Awe Naturale) and Spoek Mathambo (Father Creeper).
The old Sub Pop was about guitars and amps. The new one is about samplers and software.
What's the deal?
The short answer is the new music is good. Shabazz Palaces lit up critics' best of 2011 lists with its far-out album Black Up. To get the long answer, I spoke with Tony Kiewel, head of the label's A&R department (artists and repertoire, which signs new bands) and vice president Megan Jasper.
Kiewel sits in on the third floor of the downtown Seattle building where Sub Pop is located, his cubicle walls thumb-tacked with a personal photo of Elliott Smith and a sign that says "must be interesting / must not be a dick."
Asked about other A&R prejudices besides those two, he says homophobia is a staff-wide turn-off, as are bands who feel like trend-followers or "are doing it to get paid or get free drinks."
"And we tend to skew toward things with strong lyrics. The Postal Service, the Shins, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine — all great lyricists, in my opinion."
Around the corner in a glass-walled office, Jasper says Kiewel has a gift for knowing what's "next" in music. He joined Sub Pop in 2000 and his first big success story was the duo Postal Service — indie rock singer Ben Gibbard and electronic producer Dntel — whose crossover sound is still being copied by major label acts like Owl City.
One imagines A&Rs lurking in nightclubs like baseball scouts at ball fields, but they mainly surf the Internet, discovering music by the 21st century version of word of mouth. Kiewel has a list of music blogs bookmarked in his web browser. One of his favorites is ravensingstheblues.blogspot.com, focusing on psychedelic and garage rock — styles which Sub Pop employees generally love, if the staff top ten lists on subpop.com are any indication.
Kiewel learned about his most recent signee — South African rapper/DJ/graphic artist Spoek Mathambo — last year through a semi-private email list which includes the general manager of Domino Records and several music writers, based out of New York City.
Kiewel leads an eight-person A&R team at Sub Pop, but new acts are chosen by committee. Per the politics of the office, ownership is out. Nobody is allowed to refer to an act as "my artist."
If Kiewel's personal tastes are leaning a little "poppier" these days, so are Sue Busch and Stuart Meyer's — A&R team members responsible for bringing in Fleet Foxes (whose neo-folk album "Helplessness Blues" was Sub Pop's biggest record this year, and one of the year's highest-selling vinyl releases in any genre), Niki & the Dove and Washed Out. Kiewel thinks the A&R team might lean a little more pop than it used to because it is operating without Andy Kotowicz, a "deep reservoir of cultural knowledge" and Sub Pop pillar who died last year in a freak car accident. Kotowicz championed Seattle's Shabazz Palaces, whose "Black Up" can be described as "a difficult listen," as well as noisy bands like Wolf Eyes.
Kiewel has a loose definition of "pop," describing Swedish electro-goth act Niki & the Dove like a sommelier: "super poppy, which I love, and I also get a huge Kate Bush hit."
Another thing informing Kiewel's A&R decisions: he wants to see more intelligent political discourse in the world. That's why he brought in the comedy albums by Cross, who raged against the Bush II era, and partly what piques his interest in Shabazz Palaces and fellow Seattle act THEESatisfaction, who address race and identity politics in their music. Kiewel was listening a lot to '60s/'70s protest singer Phil Ochs when he found out about Mathambo, and heard something of Ochs' spirit in Mathambo's raps criticizing Boer culture and the African National Congress in South Africa.
As far as predicting the "now" in pop music, Sub Pop was on the money with Fleet Foxes, whose folk-pop sound is popular in the underground and mainstream. Shabazz Palaces was a win, too — and characteristically and weirdly enough, both acts are from Sub Pop's backyard in Seattle.
Sub Pop has long signed local bands, though its focus is worldwide, and over the last decade, the city has changed a lot. Generally, the move has been for the sleeker and more glossy. It's still a woodsy place, but with more skyscrapers and sonic diversity in its underground scene. Grunge rock was spiritually connected to the area's formerly thriving logging industry. Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction sound like technology, like Microsoft. The label's new sound is also influenced by the world in general, in thrall to the mega-raves of popular DJs like Skrillex — with everyone appreciating electronic-music values more than they used to (production, engineering, sonic sculpture), a product of the proliferation of earbuds and Apple's model doing a decent job with low-end frequencies. Home recording software is easy to get. Kids want to be DJs more than before. The shape of "singer-songwriter" has changed.
"I know a lot of people who feel like what is happening in the electronic world is far more exciting than what's happening in the rock world," Jasper says. "But for me, I can't say it matters one way or another or that it even means anything. To us it's a roster, and it's music. It's not grunge music, it's not folk music, it's not electronic music."
But Sub Pop's interest in the genre puts it in good company with labels around the world who are looking for the sound of tomorrow in electronic music.
London's 4AD is known for putting out legendary, arty, angry rock — like Sub Pop. Their Nirvana would be the Pixies, for example. But this year, 4AD got involved with acts associated with the British dance music dubstep, signing Zomby and Joker, from London and Bristol. By the same token, Domino Recordings, which started out in the '90s, like Sub Pop, with a heavy rock bias, is now known for releasing records by Animal Collective and Four Tet, acts who appeal to an indie audience but construct songs out of repetitive rhythms and overlayed samples.
Sometimes, the branching out can be clumsy. In electronic music, artists develop at light speed, and the producer you love today might make horrible music tomorrow. Many of the trends in electronic music are based on finding new sounds or taking something to "the next level," but those trends can turn to parody quickly. And while rock is an album thing, electronic music has traditionally been about 12" singles. All this was at play in the case of Joker, who stood out in front of the pack with his early recordings, but whose album for 4AD ended up blending in.
There seemed to be a bit of this cultural confusion when Sub Pop signed Washed Out, from Georgia, who helped invent the chillwave genre in the last few years — a hip-hop-y take on ambient synth grooves that scans as indie pop to many fans. It's a genre that might have some DNA in the Postal Service record, with its wistful moods and bedroom-produced indie/electronic music. Ten years later, those energies swirl in Toro Y Moi and Washed Out's tunes, which come in digital file format but often seem to be wafting out of a cassette. Washed Out's album for Sub Pop wasn't bad, but the hazy, slacker feel of chillwave doesn't do well with the pressure of a full album — Within and Without is a good record caught between trying to be stoned and relaxed but also proper synth pop.
Kiewel says every act is on Sub Pop because employees are feeling that music, not because the label is trying to align itself with any momentum or movement.
On the surface, an artistically-adventurous/black-pride aesthetic ties together Shabazz Palaces, Mathambo and THEESatisfaction. And Jasper says yes, that is what's next for Sub Pop. But whether that's what's next for the world outside Sub Pop, she doesn't know. It's not a movement, to her, but individual acts with unique perspectives.
Kiewel says indie rock is too white, and so is Sub Pop, frankly, but what can you do about it? He insists that Sub Pop is not trying to color correct its roster, and even with Mathambo, a South African musician who makes rap influenced both by traditional sounds as well as dubstep and electronic music, genres get crossed.
"His record was very dubstep and electro, but we had a conversation that blew my mind when he said he was recently getting turned on to Red House Painters, stuff that seemed outside his sphere — and in my sphere, and the general Sub Pop sphere. And he was becoming really excited about stuff like the Stooges. He was like, 'It was only a couple years ago I started getting into all this white-people music.'"
"And I was like, 'Cool .... I don't know what that means, exactly, to you. I don't know what that means in South Africa."
Kiewel says, "I think the public has perceived these radical shifts in sound [at Sub Pop] — which there have been. But we've always tried to maintain a certain balance. Even in the grunge days there was [acoustic band] the Walkabouts."
Jasper cites the same example, and offers that pioneering indie rock band Sebadoh was not seen as logically following Nirvana in the '90s, when Sub Pop released its music. People get locked into their conception of Sub Pop — notice nearly every writer who touched Shabazz Palaces calls it "Sub Pop's first hip-hop album," when in fact there was a rap group in the '90s, The Evil Tambourines, and a distribution deal with Conception Records, a hip-hop label, around the same time. But luckily for music in general, its employees aren't overly attached to a certain perspective. Jasper admits she doesn't have the gift of knowing what's next in music, and is happy to cede control to Kiewel, with his fusion-oriented palette and shrewdness in sourcing information. She started out as an intern and has historically been anti- any and all genre tags, especially "grunge."
She says the face of Sub Pop is always changing, and pet projects of its employees seem to line up with "the economy, or politics or whatever force is currently having an impact."
"I like to think about [Sub Pop] like a history book, where we can document what is beginning to happen in music. And then that is probably also a reflection of what is happening culturally."