From Toledo ground to the Seattle sound

An interview with Sub Pop Records' co-owner Jonathan Poneman

by Steve Howell

S: I heard you were from Toledo originally.

J: Yeah, I am.

S: Were you born here?

J: Oh yeah, I was born at Riverside Hospital.

S: Do you mind me asking when you were born?

J: Oh, I was born on Oct. 9, 1959. My father, his name was Dr. Harold Poneman, and he practiced medicine in Toledo for about 40 years.

S: Was it a family practice, or did he work for Riverside?

J: He had a partnership with two other doctors, who have since retired. My father passed away in '97. He was a chief of staff a couple of different times at Riverside. I grew up actually in Ottawa Hills, but they lived... God, I forget where they lived before I was born. But, I grew up right on the fringes of Ottawa Hills over, if you know where Central [Avenue] and Talmadge [Road] are, right over there, like a block away.

S: Did you used to frequent Boogie Records [in Toledo]?

J: I sure did. I know those guys well. I know Pat [O'Connor, co-owner of Boogie], and he still works there. I don't know if you know Don Rose.

S: Is that the Rykodisc founder?

J: Yeah, he used to work there as well.

S: Yeah, I remembered Pat was telling me about that, and I wasnıt sure of his name, but I thought that sounded familiar.

J: Yeah, there's more indie record moguls out of Toledo I think than there are just about anywhere else.

S: Yeah, I was thinking about that, because there's Corey Rusk (founder of Touch and Go Records).

J: Right, exactly. I was going to say Corey's from Toledo as well.

S: Yeah, because I think he was from Maumee, right outside of Toledo. Now, did you attend high school in Toledo, or had you already moved out by that time?

J: Actually, I went to Maumee Valley for junior high school. I went to my full elementary school at Ottawa Hills ­ Maumee Valley, ninth grade at Ottawa Hills, and then, 10th and 11th grade I went to this school called Cranbrook, which was up in...

S: Is that in Detroit?

J: Right outside of Detroit. Then, I got kicked out of Cranbrook, and then I graduated out of high school in Arizona.

S: Did you move up there [to Detroit] to attend Cranbrook, or just commute?

J: No, I was a boarding student.

S: When did you become involved in music?

J: Well, I'd always played in a bunch of crummy bands when I was a kid on through college, and then, I got involved in Sub Pop while I was working at a university radio station; a publicly-funded radio station in Seattle.

S: Was that KCMU?

J: It was KCMU, yeah. Then, from there, I got to know a lot of the bands and the individuals who made up the early Sub Pop roster, including Bruce [Pavitt], my partner, but then, I also met Kim Thayil, who later went on to be in Soundgarden.

S: Now, I also heard that [Sub Pop staff photographer] Charles Peterson worked there to, is that correct?

J: Charles Peterson worked there. Mark Arm worked there.

S: Did you frequent any of the clubs around [Toledo] at all when you lived back here?

J: I was too young then. I mean, when I lived there... I split Toledo once and for all when I was 16 years old. I mean, I've been back over the years, I go to Frankie's, but yeah, I was just a little punk.

S: I wanted to ask you about as far as the songwriting goes, I know you've mentioned before in interviews, like I think I saw it in Hype! , that you mentioned you were a failed songwriter. Did you ever perform with any bands around this area (Toledo)?

J: I never did. I played in your classic high school garage bands. I remember one time out in Sylvania (a suburb of Toledo), I played at some weird pool party, and I played guitar, and we played like "Wonıt Get Fooled Again" over and over. This was the early '70s, and it was pretty god awful. I remember seeing The Raisin Band play at the park a bunch.

S: Did you know those guys: Chris Arduser, Bob Nyswonger [and Rob Fetters], because theyıre playing with Adrian Belew now (editor's note: actually, Belew and the former Raisin Band have been playing together since 1985 as The Bears)?

J: Well, Adrian Belew was in The Raisin Band. Wasn't he?

S: No, the rest of The Raisin Band moved to Cincinnati.

J: I remember when they moved to Cincinnati. That's right, former members of The Raisin Band went on to play with Adrian Belew, and what was his band called?

S: It was called The Bears. I just saw them play up in Detroit.

J: Oh, they're still around?

S: Yeah, I didn't even know they were back together, because they split in like '89. Now, theyıre back together again. They just recorded a new album.

J: That's it, I knew there was some relationship between them. I remember seeing The Raisin Band. I didn't know any of those guys. Again, I was a little stoner fuck-up. Those guys were older than me. They were probably in their late teens/early twenties.

S: About the shows in Toledo, did you go see any bands? I know the MC5 and The Stooges used to come through here.

J: Oh, tons. I don't know if you're aware, [but] there's a book that was written called Billion Dollar Baby. Have you ever heard of that book?

S: No.

J: I can't remember who wrote it, but the book was about what was at the time a legendary rock show that took place in Toledo, where Alice Cooper -- I was at the show -- went onstage, this was during the Billion Dollar Babies tour and got blown off the stage after two songs because kids were throwing firecrackers. This shit is like so junior league at this point, but at the time, the correlation was made that nihilistic youths [were] on a rampage. It was kind of like this apocalyptic rock 'n' roll fable kind of thing, except, it wasn't a fable, it was based on real hard journalism, but I think there was supposed to be some kind of morality tale in there. I remember reading a bit of it when I was much younger. It's still around. Billion Dollar Baby is what it was called. Now, I don't know if it's still being published, but maybe if you look on Amazon, you might find some reference to it. But, I saw that [concert]. I saw Bob Seger a ton. I mean, I saw all of the late sixties, early seventies... I saw David Bowie at the Sports Arena. I saw Bruce Springsteen play, not at the [University of Toledo] Fieldhouse, but at the student union. I saw Jim Croce and Randy Newman. I saw Steely Dan. I mean, I could go on and on and on with all of the bands that I saw.

S: Did any of that have an impact on you at all?

J: Yeah, it all did. I actually did see The Stooges, but I wasn't realizing that at the time I was seeing The Stooges, which was when I was really young. Another show I saw that was pretty pivotal was, WIOT... my mother -- when I was like a freshman in high school -- briefly worked in an advertising agency, and one of the people who she was in contact regularly with was a guy who was a promotions director at WIOT at the time, and he set up with my mom, the opportunity, if I'd go around to the various malls, which at the time, there was Franklin Park and Southwyck, and I think Woodville, and I would get my dad or somebody to cart me out to Woodville. I'd go to the record stores, and I'd do this in exchange for a couple of tickets. So, there were two shows that I saw: one was the New York Dolls and the other was Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The New York Dolls played in the Sports Arena, not in the main arena, but in the little exhibition center right off to the side of it, and there weren't very many people there. It was really funny. I remember everybody sitting down and kind of like... I didn't get it. I was like a Creem magazine reader, and I remember buying the first [New York Dolls'] record and going "Wow!" I was into Todd Rundgren, and Todd produced that record. I was going, "What the fuckıs up with this?" There's no (Poneman proceeds to imitate an insanely fast guitar solo). I didn't really get it. This is before The Ramones; it was even before [The Stooges'] Raw Power came out, as far as I can remember. And, so, that's the thing about my earliest experience with punk rock is I thought it sucked, because there weren't enough notes. I was much more [a fan] of like Skynyrd and Allman Brothers and even barfier than that. Oh, I saw the Selling England By the Pound tour, when Genesis came through and like all those barfy prog-rock bands; Yes, I was like "Wow, man!" I only got into punk rock my junior year in high school. Actually, I had become aware, because I was also into Bowie and Roxy Music, and of course Roxy Music/Brian Eno, and I kind of got exposed to that whole kind of post-prog world. Like Robert Fripp briefly inhabited that whole thing, with the No Pussyfooting record. But, my introduction to punk rock was not the Sex Pistols and wasn't The Ramones, it was Marquee Moon by Television, which for me caught the spirit of the Lower East Side [of New York] as kind of danky, murky, trebly sound, but there was also the noodly thing that I was familiar with, even though it was in a completely different context. So, that was the first band. They were never really considered to be punk rock, but because they were part of the whole CBGB's scene, they kind of got mixed in with The Ramones and Blondie and Milk and Cookies and the other bands of the era -- Talking Heads of course. So, it was through that, and from there, I went, and I heard The Ramones, and for some reason, when I heard The Ramones second record, all of a sudden, everything made sense, because even with Raw Power, which had come out beforehand, I had listened to it, and I go, "It sounds cool," but again, I grew up... I think it was a real typical Midwestern phenomena at the time, which you kind of like players who can (imitates insanely fast guitar solo again), you know, like do all of that wanky...

S: There's still a lot of that around.

J: Oh no. I know that. I go back fairly frequently; not to Toledo really, but I know that. It kind of blew me away when I was last in Toledo, which was not quite a year ago. I was just driving through. I was actually with my girlfriend. We were driving from Chicago to Toronto, and I was like (talking to his girlfriend) "This is where I grew up. This is where I went to school. This is Riverside Hospital. This is where I was born," and all the while listening to WIOT, and I'm like, "Fuck, if they're not playing the same goddamn music as they were 30 years ago." I mean, not entirely, but it's sort of like, and I mean God bless'em. Pat O'Connor turned me onto so much great music, but Jesus fucking Christ, it's 30 years later, and he's still working in a record store. I mean, power to him, in a lot of ways, there's something really cosmic about that.

S: He's one of the only independent stores around [Toledo], because it's all Media Play and Best Buy, but I give him credit too for sticking around.

J: In a way, there's something really great about that, but it's like, on the other hand, there's this illusion of progression in our lives. Toledo is just fine, I guess. Did you grow up in Toledo?

S: Oh yeah, I was born at Parkview Hospital.

J: Where did you go to school?

S: Actually, I went into Michigan to Bedford High School, and then I went to Bowling Green State University.

J: Oh, that's cool. So, did you do the whole pop culture thing in Bowling Green?

S: Yes, I did. That was my major. When I started out, I had a scholarship for journalism, but I hated the program down there, because they had ex-DJs from WVKS teaching the courses, so I just got out of there quick. But, I'd heard about the popular culture program and one of my friend's was in it, so I got into that.

J: That's a world-renowned program.

S: Yeah, it's a pretty interesting program. It encompassed everything about media you wanted to know, but a lot of people -- when you go for a job -- scratch their head and go, "What exactly is popular culture?" Then, my minor was in music history, because that was one of my main interests too, because I'd played in bands down there, but that's about it. I've never really gone too far outside of this area, except for traveling, but right now, I'm trying to do this Web site because there are quite a few bands around here, but there aren't a whole lot of original venues to play at.

J: Is Frankie's not still around?

S: It's still around, but [proprietor] Rob Croak's been having problems.

J: What bands do you think are pretty groovy around there? Are there any that stand out in particular?

S: I like Stylex a lot.

J: What are they like?

S: Kind of like Kraftwerk, Devo and Brainiac all rolled into one.

J: That's cool.

S: Yeah, but of course Devo and Brainiac are from Ohio, so I guess that probably makes sense. Then, there's a band called Pulled Groin.

J: Pulled Groin!?

S: Yeah, it's kind of a weird mix. It's like Minutemen and like [Hee Haw banjo player] Roy Clark.

J: Wow! That sounds awesome!

S: It's pretty good.

J: Yeah, that sounds super great! There was this guy who was writing for The Blade, who sent me like a bunch of CDs like five or six years ago -- super nice guy -- but every single CD kind of blew.

S: Yeah, there's a lot of that around here to.

J: I mean, there is everywhere, but it was...

S: It was probably [Blade writer] David Yonke or somebody.

J: Yeah, it was David Yonke.

S: He's now the religion editor there I think.

J: The religion editor!? Well, there you go. That kind of shows you how rock he was, huh?

S: Yeah.

J: Some of the stuff he sent me was just like (makes holding nose sound) "Whewww!"

S: They've put out some compilations around here that were pretty bad, but you have to look for a lot of things around this area. There are a lot of bands just playing in their garage. But, there's still a lot of hair metal and mullets.

J: Right. It wouldn't be the Midwest without them.

S: Did you work for any record labels prior to Sub Pop?

J: No, this is my first one.

S: But, I read that you were a promoter for a while [in Seattle]. Is that correct?

J: Yeah, I put on little bar shows.

S: I didn't know if you were involved with bringing in any outside acts.

J: Well, you know, there was Susan Silver who went on to manage Soundgarden and marry Chris [Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden] and [managed] Alice In Chains, [and she] had a lot of the outside connections. So, I co-promoted a few shows with her, but generally speaking, I did a lot of Soundgarden's earliest shows, a lot of Green River's earliest shows, a lot of that -- Skin Yard -- the mid-to-late '80s Seattle bands I was involved with.

S: I heard that your relationship with Bruce Pavitt developed in 1987 from the mutual friendship that you both shared with Soundgarden and plus the radio station.

J: Yeah.

S: Did you realize at that time that there was a particular scene emerging in Seattle?

J: Oh, totally!

S: Was the label basically started to release material by a few bands that you enjoyed, or did you realize that...

J: Bruce actually started the label, and the premise of the label was to focus on scenes that existed outside of the national media grid, which basically, you have like New York, Nashville and L.A. were basically where everything allegedly was happening as far as pop music went, but it was Bruce's contention that the most interesting independent music was actually happening outside of those places. And, at the time that he started doing Sub Pop, which was in the early '80s, that was actually true. The Seattle scene was kind of (makes cringing sound) at the time, but when you think about it, L.A. proper, yeah, of course you had X and the bands along those lines, like if you'd follow it farther down to Lawndale [Cali.] for example, you have the whole SST [record label] scene. If you'd go into Huntington Beach, you [had] bands like Channel 3. There was the whole West Coast rock scene was actually... hardcore scene actually grew up outside what we in our minds consider to be L.A., which is basically like Hollywood. And, then of course, the Touch and Go scene, which is Toledo and Chicago, and Dischord, which was out of D.C. and everything that was happening in Minneapolis and Memphis and Boston, and it just goes on and on and on. So, Bruce was into even smaller towns like Lawrence, Kan., where you'd have bands like The Embarrassment -- I don't know if these names mean anything to you -- but at the time they were fairly pivotal bands. The great thing about this kind of music is the timeliness. It seems like a generation of bands changes every four to eight years, but then anyway, we went from there to... so [Bruce] put out a record called Sub Pop 100, which was basically an aural roadmap of the United States. So, it was like a compilation record. It had a Steve Albini spoken track on it, a Sonic Youth song, a Wipers song...

S: Scratch Acid was on there to, right?

J: Scratch Acid was on there, and then Green River, who had not had the best experience in the world on their first record, which they had put out on Gerard Cosloy's (the current co-owner of successful New York indie label Matador) label, which was Homestead. So, Bruce was a co-owner of a record store in Seattle, which was then called Bombshelter; now called Fall-Out, [which] has completely different ownership.

S: Is that [now owned by] Tim Hayes (guitarist for legendary Seattle group, the Kings of Rock)?

J: Yeah, the people who owned the store before Tim owned it were Bruce's original partners at Bombshelter, and it was through Bombshelter that Bruce met [Green River/Mudhoney vocalist] Mark Arm, because Mark used to buy records there (editor's note: Mark Arm has stated that he actually met Bruce at a popular club in Seattle called the Metropolis before Bruce had started Bombshelter). So, Mark befriended Bruce, and Bruce also had a hand in putting out the very first U-Men EP. So, Bruce put out Dry As a Bone, which was the second EP by Green River, that is if you consider [their first release] Come On Down to be an EP, which technically it is. Anyway, then I got onboard for Soundgarden, because I had befriended those guys, and I had really one hell of a depressing musical career, and I figured before I threw in the towel, I wanted to do one successful thing. So, I did, and I helped Soundgarden put out a record.

S: Were you pursuing your own deals at the time [as far as your own music career]?

J: No, the whole idea... I mean, I always figured in the back of my mind that band would end up becoming colossal.

S: Oh no, I just mean as far as your own music career went at the time. You said you were depressed.

J: Oh no, the thing is that I just overthought everything. You know, the thing that was amazing about Soundgarden is that they were just so natural. It was just like this effortlessness to the whole thing. They actually became much more polished and pre-meditated later, but at the time, they were just really this kind of... like Bruce said, that there was this unholy mixture of Black Sabbath and the Butthole Surfers, which at the time was totally revolutionary, but on top of that, you had the very obvious. There was some [Led] Zeppelin thrown in there, and there was more than a little Black Flag thrown in there, particularly in Kim [Thayil's] guitar playing. So, when I started seeing that stuff happen, I just said, "You know, I'm never going to be a rock performer. I'm never going to be successful at it." I was an OK musician, but the greatest rock bands either had a concept, or they had a personality, or else, they actually had some kind of -- what is measured in rock 'n' roll terms as being -- talent. Not necessarily being able to play like Steve Vai or anything like that, but being able to contribute something, which the record-buying public, or the show-attending public, finds to be valuable, and I don't think [the band's I was in] were abysmal; they just weren't special. As somebody who had been into rock for a long time, I wanted the things I was involved in to be special. So, that's when I started getting into the whole idea of putting out other people's records, because suddenly, I realized like the scene that was coming up around me was truly special. There were bands that never really made it, or never made it to vinyl or CD at all, who were just like... there was this band called Feast, who were probably the most popular band of that era in the late '80s in Seattle. To the best of my knowledge, nothing ever came out, but between them and the U-Men, they were like the kings of the scene. And, it's funny because Green River was pretty popular, as was Soundgarden, but they were not like the biggest bands of this particular scene. The U-Men just started becoming very reclusive, and then Feast kind of imploded for any number of different reasons. Dan Peters (currently the drummer for Mudhoney) -- he was in Feast for awhile.

S: Was that before or after [Peters' seminal late '80s band] Bundle of Hiss?

J: It was at the same time as Bundle of Hiss. Bundle of Hiss was kind of like where [Peters'] heart was, but as far as wanting to be on the fame train, he was playing in Feast. I don't think they were compositionally particularly interesting. Their songs were very rudimentary, but they were very, very heavy. Very HEAVY! Jane Higgins, who did early artwork for Sub Pop, was the bass player. They were really good.

S: But, there's no recorded output?

J: Not that I recall, and if there [was], it probably would not catch their live intensity because the thing that was great about them is that they were shamelessly, bone-crushingly heavy. I mean, the thing about both Green River and Soundgarden is that in Green River, there was much more of a kind of ironic detachment fusing a couple of these guys who were like hair metal, misfit types -- Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament] (both later joined Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam). They probably didn't see themselves that way, but that's effectively what they were, and then you had Mark [Arm] and Steve [Turner] (both later formed Mudhoney) -- who were totally punk rock, and at the time, that fusion was not a very common thing, and Soundgarden was very, definitely... I don't know if you've ever spoken with Kim Thayil, but he was a philosophy major and can be completely, ridiculously, overly analytical about the whole thing, but the thing that was so incredible about the Seattle scene early on is that it was so unrelentingly heavy, but it was smart as well. It was obviously fueled... I mean, there were a lot of [Ecstasy] parties and a lot of drugs and drinking and stuff like that, but as well there was this feeling that it was the logical outcome of what happens when bands get faster and faster and faster. They finally get so fast that they have to slow down. That's what happened with The Melvins. It kind of goes into that whole thing in the Hype! movie (editor's note: Hype! was a mid-1990s documentary on the Seattle music scene directed by Doug Pray), but it was a very real, fresh thing that was going on in this town, and so that's kind of what led us to all starting to do the same thing.

S: Has there been one certain area in owning a label that has stressed you out more than any other aspect of it?

J: Uh, cash flow. When one runs a label as big as Sub Pop, there are a lot of people who need to get paid -- vendors, employees, artists -- and because we're often waiting to get paid ourselves, things can get tense. That's probably the most stressful thing.

S: When you and Bruce made the decision to dedicate your full-time attention to Sub Pop in April of 1988, did you feel confident enough with the bands to think that you'd eventually achieve success, or did you both have the attitude that if you lost your shirts in the deal, you'd just chalk it up to experience and return to your other day jobs?

J: Definitely the latter. Except that we were all about selling shirts, not losing them.

S: What were your day jobs when you and Bruce started Sub Pop? Were you still both DJs?

J: My last day job was at Kinko's. Bruce's was at Muzak.

S: You've stated in previous interviews that "sometimes [a label] needs to stick with an artist over several records before the artist in question reaches their commercial apex." When Sub Pop was starting to sign bands in the late '80s, you stuck with many of these groups throughout several albums on a shoestring budget, while the mammoth record companies with money to burn would chew up and spit out a band after just one release, ultimately causing disillusionment and disbanding of such groups. Do you feel that the majors need to reevaluate where they stand and take more of an indie label approach to their contracts, or do you think that the bands should start out on an indie to increase their chances of being noticed before they are thrown into the mass-produced machine that worries more about sales figures rather than the music at hand?

J: Truthfully? I believe that major corporations are going to eventually abandon the recording, marketing and distribution of music. "Eventually" is sooner than you think. The margins are going to continue shrinking, and it's all too labor intensive. I'm talking specifically about new artist development. Catalog titles are easy enough to supply as long as the retail points exist.

I believe that you will have a corporate consolidation at the top where mega-artists will be developed and fed to the public via DVDs; overpriced, theatrical concert tours with big promotional tie-ins; and low-brow motion pictures. The music biz as we now know it will become a folk industry -- kind of like how vinyl is regarded in the rock community. The hope for big profits and the motivation for sustaining huge operations will be lost. I see this all as good news. Hallelujah! The meek shall inherit the earth.

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