Grunge City: The Seattle Scene

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On a lesser scale, last summer Sub Pop was a disaster that was happening. On the floor of its reception area is a sign that reads, YOU OWE DWARVES $. Last summer, the ribald psychopunkers weren't the only ones Sub Pop owed $ – back in August, the label was bouncing $100 checks.

For all of Pavitt and Poneman's smarts, they were no bean counters. They spent a small fortune pursuing an abortive deal with a major distributor (they won't say, but it was Sony), as well as coping with two costly copyright suits. Their fledgling distribution company had been hopelessly mismanaged, and they vainly tried to match the huge advances majors were now waving at local bands. Sub Pop began selling a T-shirt with its logo and the legend WHAT PART OF "WE HAVE NO MONEY" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? But thanks to restructuring their business, a lucrative Single of the Month Club and the best-selling album it had ever had, Mudhoney's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Sub Pop gradually went into the black.

And then they really went into the black. Although Sub Pop rarely had contracts with its bands, Nirvana's Chris Novoselic went over to Pavitt's home one night, pounded drunkenly on his window and demanded one. Poneman wrote up a contract, which the band signed. When Nirvana signed to DGC, the label had to buy Sub Pop out of the band's two-album contract. Sub Pop got $75,000 and three points on each album sold. With Nevermind sales topping 3 million in the U.S. alone, that's $720,000 – so far. And Sub Pop nets an estimated $2.50 on each copy of Nirvana's first album, Bleach, which should go gold (500,000 copies) by the end of the year. But the best part of the deal might be the Sub Pop logo on every Nirvana disc.

Sub Pop was still in the midst of its financial crisis when America's mightiest indie band finally decided to shop for a major, winding up with Warners. "We just kind of had it," says Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. "We'd meet with them [Sub Pop], and they'd say, 'Come down tomorrow and we'll cut you a check.' And we'd go down there the next day, and they'd say, 'I didn't say that. You must have misunderstood me.' "

Mudhoney's lethal garage-punk kick only temporarily masks the humor and intelligence that makes the band better than simply very good. Despite Mark Arm's snarling whine and the distort-o-matic guitar work of Steve Turner (the Eric Clapton of grunge), they're remarkably unpretentious.

Nobody ever thought Mudhoney would go to a major, but the band had simply gotten too big. The members did it their way, striking a canny deal with Warners and retaining control over everything from artwork to videos. True to its indie roots, Mudhoney is probably one of the few bands that would have to fight to record for a lower budget rather than a higher one.

Mudhoney was the last of the original Seattle music community to graduate to the majors, a community that started to unravel when the bands began to go on lengthy national tours. "When you'd get back, the other band would be gone, and it wasn't the same thing anymore," Cornell says. Now the sniping begins: Mark Arm wrote the corrosive "Overblown" after seeing Soundgarden's bombastic video for "Outshined"; Nirvana and Pearl Jam are feuding after Kurt Cobain accused the band of selling out in an interview.

"The bands that created the scene are the bands that are out there getting the benefits of what they created," says Chris Cornell. "And what's come in after that was never a scene to begin with. This scene was basically bound to end one way or another, and it's a happy ending in that the bands that started it are all having some good success."

"We aren't signing very many bands from Seattle these days," says Jonathan Poneman, "simply because a lot of the bands here are starting to suck. So many of them are trying to conform to what they think a Seattle band is supposed to sound like." But Sub pop still has some great new bands up its sleeve, such as the Afghan Whigs, Seaweed and Love Battery, and other outstanding Seattle bands, including Flop, Treepeople, Gas Huffer and Stumpy Joe, prove there's life in the old town yet.

Some say that what happened in Seattle was just dumb luck."But the thing that's wonderful about dumb luck is that it will happen again," says Poneman. "Right now, there's a new scene being born somewhere."

This story is from the April 16th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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