This season we’re delving into the depths of Grunge, Seattle’s most famous export (sorry Starbucks). In this, the fourth installment of our GRUNGE SEASON series, we take a look at the record label right at the heart of the scene, Sub Pop Records, and its connection to the rich art scene in Seattle at the time.
Originally a fanzine, Subterranean Pop debuted in 1980 while founder Bruce Pavitt was a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Pavitt’s Sub Pop fanzine set out to cover every DIY scene in the country. Olympia in the late 1970s was a hotbed of new cartoon talent; artists such as Matt Groening, Lynda Berry, and Charles Burns all attended Evergreen State College – Lynda Berry and Charles Burns designed early covers of the fanzine.
“Originally a fanzine, Subterranean Pop debuted in 1980”
After releasing a handful of issues and cassette compilations, Bruce Pavitt turned Sub Pop into a regular music column for the Seattle music paper, The Rocket. The Rocket was an indispensable free periodical that covered everything music-related in the city. Once a year, the magazine even published a special issue in which they reviewed every demo tape sent to the office. It was in The Rocket’s office that Sub Pop art director Lisa Orth designed Nirvana’s logo. Lisa was also responsible for the artwork on the several seminal early grunge records, such as Nirvana’s Bleach, Afghan Whig’s Up In It, and the Sub Pop 200 compilation.
Although The Rocket had several art directors, Art Chantry might’ve had the biggest impact when it came to Northwest graphic design. Chantry’s hand-made and historically informed approach is one of the most recognizable and rewarding in the field. His work graces records on such labels as Sub Pop, Estrus, and C/Z; sometime the cover designs are even better than the actual records. His gig posters are also true pieces of art, which work both stapled to a telephone pole or framed in a living room.
Before achieving mainstream movie success with Ghost World, cartoonist and illustrator Daniel Clowes, known then for the series Eightball, designed record covers for such great bands as Thee Headcoats, Cheater Slicks, and the Supersuckers. Clowes’ resume is long and impressive, but one of the stranger items on it is that he created the art work for a bizarre, Generation X cash-in beverage called OK Soda. The soda tasted awful, of course, but the art work was stunning, and the “you are being manipulated” marketing campaign was at least interesting.
The secret behind Sub Pop’s early singles was the design. Sub Pop proudly displayed its logo on the upper front cover, making the label almost as important as the band. The design was a signifier: you saw the logo and the Charles Peterson or Alice Wheeler photograph of a hairy rocker, and you knew what to expect.
In addition to discovering the grungiest bands around, Sub Pop has also showcased some of greatest underground artistic talent from the 1980s to today. Like labels such as Blue Note, 4AD, and Factory, Sub Pop had a strong aesthetic to their record designs. Brand identity and a strong regional focus were important in separating the label from so many other independent labels in the 1980s. In addition to modeling itself after other well-known labels, Sub Pop also found inspiration from the art world. From photocopied punk zines, alternative comics, cut-and-paste punk fliers, and black-and-white action photography came the Grunge Artistic Aesthetic.
“There is a direct link between punk rock DIY culture and Grunge design. Both are about being creative and economical.”
There is a direct link between punk rock DIY culture and Grunge design. Both are about being creative and economical. It’s about what you can do with limited means. It’s the handwritten flyer, or a friend’s artwork that you used on your self-released 7” single. This is nowhere near complete history of the role art played in grunge or independent music. It’s just a sample of some of cool and creative people who continue to do cool things and continue to inspired others to pick up a pencil.
Keep an eye out for our final instalment of GRUNGE SEASON. Coming soon.