Megan Jasper has worked at Sub Pop Records for most of her adult life and is now the label’s chief executive
It was September 1989 when I began my internship at Sub Pop Records in Seattle. I sat on the floor of the company offices, listening to Erica Hunter, Sub Pop’s one-person marketing team, call college radio stations in the hopes of them playing more Mudhoney. I was immediately amused by her strategy. “Hi. Is Robbie there? No? OK, can you please tell him that Erica Hunter from Sub Pop called? Yes, Erica Hunter as in Man Hunter.” I loved Erica straight away and as I stuffed Cat Butt’s new record – Journey to the Center of – into mailers for college radio stations, I knew I’d found my place. Sub Pop’s offices had an energy that was constantly abuzz. The main lobby was daubed with graffiti and looked like a New York subway in the mid-1980s. The Dwarves spray-painted “You owe the Dwarves $$” on the floor. There was a colourful chaos of posters and stickers on the walls and piles of records, music magazines, cardboard boxes and mailers everywhere. The phones rang off the hook, the few employees ran back and forth between offices and there was always music playing. Sometimes the music was loud and heavy like TAD or Poison Idea and sometimes it was the soundtrack to Twin Peaks or Lou Rawls, something begging to create balance amid a grunge windstorm. Mostly, it was TAD and Poison Idea.
My desk was front and centre in that lobby since I had been immediately promoted from intern to receptionist, a job that paid me $5 an hour. I felt like I had struck gold. Charles Peterson, our then-UPS guy who became an internationally famed rock photographer, brought me an old wooden desk from the 70s. It was shaped like a kidney bean and had a red top. I found every sticker in that office and started covering the desk. On the very front was a sticker that said “I hate your band”. It must have been during one of the quiet morning hours that I had the time to write in a thick marker “I have grunge in my pants” and “Anal leakage rocks” on it. I started out as the girl who answered phones and I couldn’t have been happier. I had no idea that I was about to embark on my own “journey to the centre of” and that one day I’d be calling the shots.
One of the first rules I learned was to never say no to Mudhoney: they were the main reason we had jobs. The band had a sludgy, distorted, loud, heavy grind going and Mark’s raw scream could cut through all of it, his hair flailing wildly. The band was blowing up and for good reason – they were fucking great. Mudhoney were the band. They had smarts, rebellion, humour and confidence in spades and they were seemingly unstoppable. Their shows were selling out in the US as well as overseas. “Sub Pop is the house that Mudhoney built.” That was the line we used when we gave tours to journalists and tourists when they dropped in, which was often. One afternoon when I was stuffing singles upstairs at my desk, Krist Novoselic called. He needed to talk to Jonathan [Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were Sub Pop’s co-founders] who was on another call. He told me that one day he wanted to live on a farm, one with enough acreage to not have close neighbours but close enough to one house, where hopefully Kurt [Cobain] would live. For a band that spent so much time stuck in a van together, stopping and playing in cities for weeks and months at a time, I found his desire to live in the country, close to his best friend, sweet.
Nirvana practised in Tacoma and I went to a barbecue they had after one of their practices. The band had just parted ways with their original drummer, Chad Channing, and Dan Peters from Mudhoney had been sitting in. A few of us drove down to see how things were going. Tracy, Kurt’s girlfriend at the time, was there with their pet rabbit. The rabbit seemed a bit “off”, dragging its butt on the floor. Kurt came up next to me and started patting it. “She has a prolapsed uterus,” he said. “If it comes out, you have to reinsert it.” “Do you reinsert it yourself?” I asked. “Yeah, with the eraser tip from a No 2 pencil.” A dirtbag with a gentle touch, I liked that about him. I never looked at a No 2 pencil again in the same way though.
In the Sub Pop offices, all of the staff perfected the art of hustling. We rushed to get the word out that Nirvana and TAD would be touring in the UK and Europe in October 1989, a massive opportunity for both bands at the time. We blasted the incredible news that Mudhoney’s first full-length record was the No 1 most added record [to radio playlists] on CMJ [College Media Journal’s new music report]. And we quietly and secretly stuffed a bonus Soundgarden 7”, Room a Thousand Years Wide backed with HIV Baby, as a surprise for the faithful subscribers of Sub Pop’s singles club, a mail-order club that sent limited-edition, coloured-vinyl 7” singles by bands like Nirvana, Fugazi, Sonic Youth and so many more to its members. Soundgarden first recorded for Sub Pop and had just recently released their first major label record, Louder Than Love, on A&M records. The singles club members were fucking psyched that month.
Although the hustle worked to promote the bands and their music, there was a constant struggle for cash. Sub Pop didn’t have budgets for any of our projects and we constantly scrambled to make ends meet. So many of the phone calls I answered were people asking for or demanding money that they were owed or that they needed: people who made T-shirts for us, artists who were heading into the studio, credit card companies, phone companies, vinyl manufacturing plants, printers. The list was endless.
Being the first person in the office had its advantages, especially every other Friday, which was when our pay cheques arrived. A number of my co-workers would show up early so that we could run to the bank when it opened in hopes of successfully depositing or cashing our cheques. It was never a given that the cheques were good and they often bounced if we tried to deposit them rather than just cash them out. I found a couple of my old pay stubs with “NSF” (non-sufficient funds) stamped multiple times on the face during an office move and they now hang framed on our office walls. The bands knew that the label’s finances were shaky but there were so many other people who believed the hype. The label ironically marketed itself as a record company with endless cash reserves driving full speed towards world domination. Somehow we were getting towards world domination but on an empty tank.
A car horn was honking wildly one day while I was walking. Johnny Kessler, who had a fanzine called Northwest of Hell, was waving the back cover of his new issue. “Don’t believe the hype!” was spelled out in block letters. It felt like the ground beneath us could give at any moment. The good days were great but the stressful ones were unbearable. Quitting never felt like an option though. Something was going to happen and we were all determined to find out what it would be.
This is an edited extract from This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, published by White Rabbit (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply