Twenty-five years ago, Sub Pop Records released Nirvana’s debut Bleach, igniting the grunge explosion and linking the two forever.
Sub Pop has issued hundreds of albums, singles and compilations since, but there’s still a common misperception among casual fans that it’s a Seattle-only label — or that it died with Kurt Cobain in 1994.
One look at the new-release wall at the new Sub Pop gift shop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport sets the record straight.
“This is a lot for one year, and not just local bands,” says assistant manager Rachel Rhymes, gesturing at 2014 LPs from Australia’s Luluc, Germany’s Notwist, Finland’s Mirel Wagner and Canada’s Chad VanGaalen.
Overhearing this, shift supervisor Jacob Powers emerges from behind the cash register, joins us in the spacious all-vinyl back area, and pulls an album off the shelf.
“This is Commune by Goat, a psychedelic rock band from Sweden,” he explains. “We just put this out last week. They’re drawing on a ton of different types of music, and the response has been great whenever we play them in the store.”
For a label so closely associated with its home city, Sub Pop isn’t shy about looking far and wide for new talent. Of the 50 bands currently on their roster, at least 14 hail from outside the U.S.
“We try to emphasize the current talent,” Rhymes says, “to let people know Sub Pop never went away… that it didn’t begin and end with Nirvana.”
This is true. Even before Bleach, co-founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt had visions of the Northwest as a globally renowned music hub — and themselves as stewards. The label’s longtime motto, “World Domination,” always seemed 49% tongue-in-cheek, 51% sincere.
The airport store, which opened in May, isn’t their first retail foray. Seattle old-timers might remember the Belltown Mega Mart — in reality, a shoebox-sized kiosk — which was revived for last summer’s 25th-anniversary Silver Jubilee in Georgetown.
The pop-up shop only stayed open two months, but that was enough to convince the Port of Seattle of the viability of a Sub Pop presence at Sea-Tac — a no-brainer, really, as the airport speakers have been serenading travelers with homegrown sounds, from Modest Mouse to Macklemore, since 2012.
Rhymes, a Portlander, and Powers, from Aberdeen — Cobain’s hometown — are no strangers to music retail. She founded Record Room, a vinyl shop and venue in Northeast Portland; he managed Silver Platters’ Queen Anne and SoDo branches for seven years.
To the typical shopper at those stores, the black-and-white Sub Pop square is as iconic an emblem as the Nike swoosh. But not everyone’s a connoisseur — and the Sea-Tac staff is learning to find common ground with a clientele that might not know Pissed Jeans from Pearl Jam.
Earlier in the afternoon, while waiting in the TSA line — the store sits on the other side, in the central terminal concourse — Rhymes recalls, with a laugh, how some airport employees and passers-by seemed disappointed that the finished façade in fact read “Sub Pop,” not “Sub Shop.”
Evidently, “it’s a different kind of customer. They’re not necessarily looking to browse records, but they’ll walk by and you can see from far away that they want to know more.”
So far, it’s yielded some interesting insights into the music-buying habits of the masses.
The store doesn’t offer digital downloads directly — physical media only — but has listening stations set up with the entire catalog streaming on demand.
Including download codes with all new LPs and 7”s strikes a happy medium between old and new technology, Rhymes says.
“This dude from Holland did buy like five CDs today, but we sell out of vinyl way more often than we sell out of CDs.”
Powers “spoke to one guy from Japan who bought like ten records, and in his broken English he explained that he’s a Sub Pop DJ… like, over there, he gets hired to do these parties where he only plays ‘90s Seattle stuff.”
Besides music, they also hawk locally-made souvenirs — baseball caps, coffee mugs, greeting cards — plus books like Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad’s ‘80s punk chronicle “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” with chapters on key Sub Pop acts Mudhoney and Beat Happening.
For Rhymes and Powers, these bands are their life — and they’re educators as much as employees.
“We spend a lot of time explaining what Sub Pop is,” Powers says, “but in a minute, people remember where they’d heard of it before. They already knew, but just don’t usually shop by thinking about record labels. We hope we can turn them on to that way of finding out about music, like, ‘if you like this, then maybe you’ll like this.’”
“From my office in the back,” adds Rhymes, “I’m hearing a lot of ‘I have never been this happy in an airport shop in my life.’ I love that. That’s why we’re here.”
Asked if she’s considered installing a map with pushpins for visitors to denote where they came from and what records they left with, the shopkeeper says she hasn’t — but likes the idea.
“Or maybe we’ll start selling sub sandwiches,” she jokes. “Sub Pop Sub Shop.”