Beyond Grunge At Sub Pop -- The Party's Over. It's Back-To-Work Time At The Little Record Company That Defined The Seattle Sound. -- Beyond Grunge At Sub Pop -- Back To Work, The Party's Over

AT MOE'S MO' ROC' N CAFE, among the rock-'n'-roll tourists, the store-window rebels browsing for a cause, and the stunted lives stuck in the spin cycle of their teenage years, at least one man is trying to live up to his adult responsibilities.

Jonathan Poneman, 36, does not drink, nor does he enjoy bumping into the many who do in these darkened clubs that his career requires him to frequent. Squint and you can see the nicotine floating by in cumulus convoys. Poneman also does not smoke.

He does practice transcendental meditation but, more to the point, is here to preach the virtues of 5ive Style, the opening band, and one of the latest to be given a recording contract by Poneman's small but famous record label, Sub Pop. Like many of the bands he has signed recently, 5ive Style bears little family resemblance to its older grunge siblings, sharing neither grunge's attitude nor sound.

Nightclub fashion - the various adulterations of human skin, the unwashed hair and the cancerous clouds hurdling silver, glossy lips - is a tolerable part of Poneman's job of disseminating really cool music that might not ordinarily be heard on Casey Kasem's top-40 countdown. And in the meantime, make enough money to fund Sub Pop's 401K program.

Sub Pop is Poneman's love and life work, becoming in three years one of the region's great success stories. Its bands have gone on to be famous and wealthy, like Sub Pop's owners.

Sub Pop may have more capital, but as a shaper of tastes, its most rarified days have probably passed. Used to be, by the time you got your hands on a Sub Pop album, the group might no longer exist.

"They had a moment that no other indie label ever had," said Mike Rubin, music writer for the Village Voice and Spin magazine. "There was this mythic idea that Seattle was the Valhalla of rock. History will think fondly of them."

Seattle had its music, its clothes, its smugness, its plywood stages, even its drug use. But it was Sub Pop that created the perception that all of it was part of a cohesive, unified culture, and the most profound thing happening in the known universe. Along the way, Sub Pop found Kurt Cobain.

Having done that, Poneman's rich and somewhat powerful company might never be as great again, no matter how funky 5ive Style's guitarist is.

Poneman and his now-departed business partner, Bruce Pavitt, were the original diviners of the phenomenon that would become Nirvana. In the time that followed, they would come to be ignored, famous, broke, rich, overexposed, disillusioned, which in total describes a process called growing up.

"When you're 27 as opposed to 37, which I will be in October, you have a different relationship with your work," Poneman said. "When I was younger I was more connected with the scene. I'm not going to try to be a teenager. Teenagers are supposed to be teenagers. These days I want the music to do the talking."

MOE'S ON A SATURDAY night is Seattle at its most glamorous. It is counter-culture in a showroom display, young and on the edge. Boeing made Seattle prosperous; Microsoft made Seattle smart; Starbucks made it sophisticated. But rock music - the kind borne of depressing weather and the troubled childhoods of white kids in the age of entitlement - made the city sexy.

Anger, subversion, sarcasm and dysfunction became symptoms of Seattle's sex appeal. The evolution of Seattle chic was based on the idea that the city was on the fringe of American society, geographically and spiritually, inhabited by loggers and serial killers. From here came "Twin Peaks," its plots morbid but delicious, and "Northern Exposure," its characters psychotic but endearing in their genius. And from here came a brand of rock music a British music writer knighted "grunge."

Without caution, Poneman and Pavitt bluffed and overstated their label to the top, perhaps never believing they would actually get there, excusing their egoism with humor. Nonetheless, they were unabashedly striving to be successful and to make sure the music was widely heard. That alone set them apart from Seattle's greater music community.

"Nobody in Seattle is encouraged to take themselves seriously," said Lisa Dutton, 37, an industry insider and co-producer of the documentary film, "Hype," about Seattle's music boom. "If you had an ego, if you were out for fame, you earned the scorn of your colleagues. It was a game to gain recognition and play the game of the media."

By hyping the label instead of its artists, Poneman and Pavitt created a perception of Sub Pop as the definitive alternative label. Hence, any artist who recorded on Sub Pop was cool. They put Seattle's music on MTV and in the nation's cultural conscience. As a city, we finally had a national identity. We had a seductive underworld.

Poneman and Pavitt, as much as any outsider, also had a hand in ruining it. The music in Seattle originally belonged to a small circle of friends and siblings who gathered in each other's basements and taverns to hear the stuff, using it like a precious drug.

"I remember Bruce telling me he was trying to find a band and a song that would do in its time what `Can't Get No Satisfaction' did in its time," said Bart Becker, former music writer for the Seattle Weekly. " `Smells like Teen Spirit' became that song. The sound was suburban white-boy blues but the genius of it was that it resonated with other people in a very compelling, emotional way."

The Weekly's offices used to be in the same building as Sub Pop's. Becker shared many elevator rides with Poneman and Pavitt and some of the label's early musicians. Jeff Ament, before he became Pearl Jam's bass player, pulled espresso at a restaurant next door, and often engaged Becker in long, philosophical discussions about books and music. Becker's perception of Sub Pop in the 1980s was of an enthusiastic hobby.

"I believed they were going to have a lot of fun and make some records in the meantime," Becker said. "But frankly you're skeptical. I mean, who's ever going to discover this, and why? "

THE LOCAL MUSICAL DELICACY was uniquely Seattle - like punk rock, but more sensitive and earthy, though it encompassed the same three chords. Composted punk. The thrift-store costumes of grunge were practical, not flamboyant. The rest of the world loved it.

But money changed everything.

Suddenly garage bands were superstars. Suddenly people in Osaka and Oslo, upon discovering you were from Seattle, were saying, "Ah yes, Nirvana." Suddenly, everybody's brother and sister with a band was moving here and J.C. Penney had a grunge clothing line.

"When anything gets discovered, it's always sad," said Doug Pray, the director of "Hype," which has yet to be released nationally. "Because whatever is precious about it, is now shared by millions, and open to everybody for total misinterpretation."

The upside was that more clubs, Moe's being one of them, opened and bands were taken seriously. Bands with the Seattle sound didn't have to sign with an independent label because the majors were fishing in our small ponds. Poneman saw this coming; in a sense, this was what he and Pavitt wanted.

"The world is a totally different place than it was five years ago, thanks to Jon and Bruce, because they signed Nirvana," Rubin said. "Prior to `Nevermind,' a band that did their own thing had to scrape money together to put out a single, tour as far as your gas money could take you, and if you were lucky, put out an album by yourself. Now if you're from a college town, you could form a band and nine months later be signed to a major label. It's totally possible."

Music as youthful rebellion is not a notion of the 1990s. All answers can be found in history. Consider the wistful message contained in "American Pie," wherein Don McLean laments the passing of rock 'n' roll, its original purity devoured by big business. The songs change, but the refrain is the same.

Elvis eventually left Sun Records and played Vegas; the Motown sound made it to the weddings of white folks; and Nirvana graduated to the Kmart shelves.

To remain on the blade edge of original thought and art is nearly impossible in the Information Age, the most commercialized and publicized time in the history of man. Aided by technology, our ideas, fashion and lifestyles are chronicled, collated and put up for inspection in the time it takes to set up a Website or order cable television.

Sub Pop has tried to stay atop the undertow of pop culture, but struggles all the same as the shelf life of what is hip and fresh becomes shorter and shorter. If the grunge movement drove Sub Pop, then the label will not survive. If Sub Pop drove grunge, then the label will live, finding other forms off which to make its living.

LESS THAN TWO YEARS AGO, Sub Pop released the first album of an obscure group called Combustible Edison, which played music equated with cocktail lounges of a bygone generation. Already, the movement has a name, "Cocktail Nation," has been documented as a trend in USA Today, and is one step away from being the question to a "Jeopardy" answer.

Older and less concerned with making a statement, Poneman has quit trying to live up to the alternative dictum, a mostly elitist view held by the young. Every rebel eventually dies or grows up. Grunge may be dead but Sub Pop is still very much alive.

It leases three floors in downtown's Terminal Sales Building and has offices in Boston and London. General manager Rich Jensen, who drove a Metro bus part-time while weathering Sub Pop's lean years - the company was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1991 before Mudhoney and Nirvana laid golden eggs - expects sales of about $10 million this year. Warner Music recently purchased a 49-percent share of Sub Pop, which earned about $20 million in the deal - to some a much better deal for Sub Pop than for Warner. Sub Pop retained full artistic control, Poneman said. A company of eight employees five years ago is now a company of more than 50.

Though independent labels usually grow on the strength of local musicians, invariably they must go elsewhere to thrive.

Few of Sub Pop's bands are from Seattle anymore, coming from such strange places as Calgary and Nova Scotia. Sub Pop's mission, true to its name, is to produce records major labels will not take chances on, be it punk or lounge.

The label reflects the tastes of Poneman, who signs most of the bands. Joyce Linehan, who heads the Boston office, also signs bands. Poneman grew up in Chicago listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Steppenwolf and most of the Motown artists. He is partial to soul and jazz.

Combustible Edison is among Sub Pop's bestsellers. ("Sub Pop 200," the definitive compilation of the label's early years, and Nirvana's "Bleach" remain the label's most consistent sellers.) Once ridiculed, the lounge genre is now valued for its kitsch. It is a prop of adulthood, much like cigarettes, and thus loved by the young.

The stylistically accomplished go to rock clubs on specified lounge nights, dress up in pearls, furs, long gloves and velvet jackets with wide lapels, grab a cigarette and a martini, and listen to the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. or Herb Alpert all for this incongruous purpose - to be more like their parents.

Likewise, Eric Matthews is a stretch for Sub Pop, if only because he loves Burt Bacharach, hates Nirvana, generally thinks his own record label has taken music nowhere good, and considers punk rock plain bad music under the guise of a social movement. Matthews uses a full orchestra to articulate his brand of art rock.

The Scud Mountain Boys sound eerily like the Eagles, the anthemic band of the baby-boom generation, of which Poneman is not so coincidentally a member. Velocity Girl is a more abrasive version of the 1980s bubble-gum girl band, the Go-Gos. Of Sub Pop's new groups, Teen Angels sound most like grunge, a sound already referred to as "old-school."

Sub Pop's biggest digression has been the release of a Beach Boys - yes, those Beach Boys - single containing previously unreleased versions of three songs from the group's "Pet Sounds" album (considered an ambitious experiment at the time). The single, which has sold very well, is in the words of Rocket editor Charles Cross, "a complete bastardization of what Sub Pop is about."

This is more or less your dad's Buick. Take 5ive Style, a trio led by guitarist Billy Dolan, a skinny kid of 25, from Rockford, Ill., who grew up on Shaun Cassidy and Cheap Trick, but plays a style more suited to James Brown. No one in his band sings.

"I wouldn't say we're reinventing ourselves," Poneman said. "We're going to be doing the soundtrack for `Hype,' which is full-on grunge, and we're not embarrassed by that at all. The only thing we wanted to do is diversify. There's a lot of great vital music out there. Journalists over and over again, say, `God, this music is so beautiful, and to think it came out on Sub Pop.' That's a lazy journalist's tack to equate Sub Pop with Nirvana."

Rubin refers to Pavitt as the Sub and Poneman as the Pop in Sub Pop. He expects the company will now cater more to popular tastes.

Pavitt, 37, officially resigned last April, making the announcement to his co-workers by e-mail two days after the company's eighth-anniversary party at The Showbox. For the past two years he had worked mostly out of his Central District home and left the handling of artists to Poneman, who described his partner's retreat as a gradual bleeding of passion.

"Too much exposure to the press, too much glad-handing, too much being Mr. Grunge, a lot of this stuff adds up," Poneman said. "It's difficult when you go into the business as a fan of the music that you love.

"When I hear a great rock song, I get transported back to being a teenager. I don't think anything can transport my partner back. His relationship with music has changed."

In 1979, while a student at Evergreen College, Pavitt began writing a fan newsletter he called Subterranean Pop. From 1980 to 1986, he released three cassettes and one record, all of them compilations under the name Sub Pop. The first two groups to record albums with Sub Pop were Green River (in 1987), two of whose members went on to be in Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden (1988), whose guitarist, Kim Thayil, introduced Pavitt and Poneman to each other. Soundgarden's first album, "Screaming Life," was the first project jointly produced by Pavitt and Poneman, who quit their day jobs shortly thereafter.

"Jon really likes the idea of building on the organization," Jensen said. "He likes the struggle of the politics. Bruce is the dreamer. He's kind of a mystic."

Pavitt is mostly underground these days, insistent on his privacy. He declines interviews but has e-mail, about the only way his old friends, including Poneman, keep in touch.

"Essentially," Pavitt wrote by e-mail, "I felt that I had accomplished all I could within rock culture via the record business. I am passing on the torch to younger, more enthusiastic co-workers."

He is building a house in the San Juan Islands, a state-of-the-art model of eco-technology. He is still part investor (with Poneman) in Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill off Pike Street. Pavitt is also helping friends develop a performance space in the same neighborhood, complete with a disco and restaurant.

"He's a very thoughtful guy," Poneman said. "He's very conscious of his place in the world, in terms of wanting to do something meaningful. His world is outside the company. I wished I had more of that view sometimes."

Poneman's standard uniform is size-32 Levi's, T-shirt, a simply tailored, usually zippered jacket and thick-soled shoes, an assortment of rings the only frills in his wardrobe. He still looks young, though he is obviously conscious of the advancing years. The same business that has kept him young also has aged him.

"This business can be dehumanizing," Poneman said. "It never comes down to justice; it comes to money and collective tastes. I'm finished with that battle. I'd like to be an honest person in the way that I represent the artists. I hope their work makes a vital, meaningful impact on our culture."

Poneman's favorite tool in his company's early years was the media, once his greatest promoter, now of far less use to him. As the world's interest in Seattle's music peaked, Poneman estimated he did an interview every day for a year. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, the media reaction was unbearable.

"They were out for blood," a Sub Pop employee said. "I was so sickened by it. They were asking for pictures of the autopsy. They didn't understand. This was one of our own. They acted like it was my job to tell them everything I knew. It was very hard. It was incredibly hard for (Poneman)."

WHAT KEEPS PONEMAN GOING is his addiction to music.

"In the office, he'll interrupt us, `Wait, wait stop, I've got to play this for you,' " said Sub Pop publicist Cece Stelljes. "He gets so excited, which is something you don't see. All too often a person in his position is too jaded to get excited."

Be it ginseng, a macrobiotic diet, or leftover teenage enthusiasm, Poneman presses on. At midnight, after 5ive Style finishes its set, he leaves Moe's with two friends from Belgium (newlyweds honeymooning in Seattle) for the Sit & Spin, where a Sub Pop group from Calgary, Chixdiggit, is celebrating its first album release with a concert and free food and beer.

Chixdiggit's hook is self-effacing musicianship, amusing lyrics, boyish charm and an ingratiating stage presence. They are theoretically a punk group, but the requisite anger is just not there. This is happy punk.

Between songs, lead singer K.J. Jansen coaxes the audience into applause for, among others: the Seattle Sonics, everyone in Seattle, everyone at the Sit & Spin, everyone in Calgary, Jansen's mom Trish, the border police at the Peace Arch, and the drunk guy from Vancouver dancing near the stage. The crowd is so pickled, at this point, they would probably cheer Ed Asner.

Jansen is blowing kisses and saluting the audience. "You're ready to party, am I right?! Chances are, our rock-'n'-roll dreams won't come true, but tonight is the happiest day of my life!"

Chixdiggit is probably not Sub Pop's next Nirvana, high on Lucky Charms not heroin, possessing neither Nirvana's genius and originality, nor Cobain's brooding and tortured soul. But then, Nirvana might find it difficult to find its audience in the new Seattle, which smells of prosperity, much of it due to Sub Pop.

"Grunge has as much to do with vision and hope as anger," said Lisa Dutton. "The younger people are making music that's lighter and freer and happier, but then Seattle is a happier place. There's more money, more people, more work. It's not the dark, wet and isolated place it was."

Hugo Kugiya is a staff writer for Pacific magazine. Gary Settle is Pacific's staff photographer.