Sinister Six: Six important northwest independent record labels that aren’t Sub Pop
Sub Pop is to many people synonymous with grunge. The label of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney were undoubtedly the most successful independent label of the so-called grunge era, but they were not the only influential record label. These six indies all had a critical impact on the pacific northwest music scene
Click a name to view each entry:
Bands: Skin Yard, Built to Spill, the Gits, 7 Year Bitch, Treepeople, Coffin Break, Alcohol Funnycar, Melvins
Albums: Deep Six compilation, Another Pyrrhic Victory compilation, Teriyaki Asthma series, Six Songs by the Melvins, self-titled by Skin Yard, Sick Em by 7 Year Bitch and Frenching the Bully by the Gits
C/Z was founded in 1985 by Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale, who had moved to Seattle a few years prior. C/Z released their first record, Deep Six, a compilation of six then-unknown Seattle bands (Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, Melvins, Soundgarden and the U-Men), in March 1986. Realizing that running a label was not for them, Hanzsek and Casale turned the label over to Skin Yard bassist Daniel House. Some of the first releases on House’s C/Z label were by the Melvins, Skin Yard and My Eye. By 1990, House was able to quit his day job at Sub Pop and focus on C/Z. The label grew in stature, releasing records by 7 Year Bitch, the Gits, Coffin Break, Hammerbox and Built to Spill and became one of the most well-known independent labels in the pacific northwest.
However, just as the “grunge” hype dissipated, so did C/Z’s prospects, with a sour deal with a Sony distributor one of the causes. The label switched back to a part-time venture, and the label’s output decreased dramatically after 1996. The last release, the Skin Yard compilation, Start at the Top, was released in 2002.
Bands: Crackerbash, Dead Moon, Derelicts, Gas Huffer, Girl Trouble, Zipgun, Steel Wool, Gruntruck
Albums: Inside Yours by Gruntruck, Destination X by Dead Moon, The Shrill Beeps of Shrimp by Gas Huffer, New American Shame by Girl Trouble
Empty Records was started in 1984 by Blake Wright, but was relaunched in 1987 as a Seattle record label. The early releases were all local bands that included the Accused, the Derelicts and the Fartz. In the 1990s, Empty’s roster grew considerably, with bands like Gas Huffer, Zipgun and Crackerbash joining the ranks. Mirroring the grunge explosion, the early-to-mid 90s were the peak of Empty’s success, although very few of the bands on the label sounded like what was considered “grunge.”
In 2000, Empty got into an ugly dispute with a former partner in Europe over the Empty Records name and logo. The two labels eventually settled out of court, and Wright continued to release new music despite turning the label back into a part-time venture. Empty Records shut down for good on February 8, 2008, after 20 some years in the music business.
International Pop Underground Convention poster, 1991.
Bands: Love As Laughter, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Beat Happening, Some Velvet Sidewalk, Halo Benders, Lync, Satisfact
Albums: Jamboree by Beat Happening, International Pop Underground Convention compilation, Whirlpool by Some Velvet Sidewalk, These are Not Fall Colors by Lync
K Records is simply put one of the most important independent labels in the region. Since 1982, when it was founded by Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson, it has prided itself on strict independence. Johnson founded the label with the initial intention of being a cassette label, not releasing their first vinyl record until 1984 when he released a 7” by his band Beat Happening. Candice Peterson joined K in 1986 to manage the label.
One of the most important events in K history was the week-long International Pop Underground Convention in August 1991, which celebrated independent music (no major label reps were allowed to attend) and helped launch the riot grrrl movement.
The label remains active today, and while the sound of the roster has changed, the label’s commitment to independence and DIY continues.
Kill Rock Stars
Kill Rock Stars is one of two labels on this list that are still active, having recently celebrated their 30th anniversary as a record label. It was founded in Olympia in 1991 by Slim Moon and Tinuviel Sampson. The label’s first release was a spoken word 7” of Kathleen Hanna and Moon, but its first major release was the influential Kill Rock Stars compilation, released in time for K Records’ International Pop Underground Convention, which included bands such as Bikini Kill, Nirvana, the Melvins and Bratmobile.
Kill Rock Stars would later release albums by artists who became identified with the Riot Grrrl movement, including Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney and the aforementioned Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. KRS would also strike gold with Portland’s Elliott Smith, ex-Heatmiser, who became one of the label’s biggest commercial successes.
Moon left the label in 2006 to pursue other opportunities, right before the bottom dropped out of the music industry. KRS was forced to cut down, but survived. Moon returned to the label in September 2019, and Kill Rock Stars remains a key player in independent music.
Bands: Young Fresh Fellows, Posies, Presidents of the United States of America, Red Dress, Fastbacks, Picketts, Squirrels, Walkabouts, Pure Joy
Albums: Failure by the Posies, Bite Back: Live at the Crocodile compilation, See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens by the Walkabouts, The Fabulous Sounds of the Northwest by Young Fresh Fellows
Seattle’s Conrad Uno had been recording bands since the late 1970s, but things took a new turn when he was asked to record the Young Fresh Fellows’ debut album in his basement studio, which he subsequently released on his new record label, PopLlama Records. Throughout the decade, Uno became known for both his recording and record label ventures; the latter released albums by some of the most well-known bands of non-Sub Pop Seattle, including the debut albums of the Posies and the Presidents of the United States of America.
Despite the Seattle invasion by the music industry in the 90s, PopLlama remained a small outfit. Uno has since retired both his studio and his record label.
Bands: Built to Spill, Caustic Resin, Mike Johnson, Modest Mouse, 764-HERO, Quasi, Butterfly Train, Hush Harbor
Albums: There’s Nothing Wrong with Love by Built to Spill, The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse, Get Here and Stay by 764-HERO, Fly Me to the Moon by Caustic Resin
Sub Pop employee Chris Takino started Up Records in 1993 and the first release was Violent Green 7” single. He also put out singles from regional acts and friends Juned, Mike Johnson and Butterfly Train. Up became a full-time venture for Takino after the release of Built to Spill’s second album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, which became an indie hit.
In the next few years, Up released records by 764-HERO, Modest Mouse, Caustic Resin, Quasi and Mike Johnson. Built to Spill and Modest Mouse were eventually signed to majors, and Up became known as a tastemaker in the indie rock scene. At its peak, Up had 20 bands on its roster, despite only signing bands with whom Takino had a personal relationship.
Up’s fortunes declined after Takino’s leukemia diagnosis. He succumbed to the disease on Oct 13, 2000, at age 32. His partner, Pete Ritchey, took over the label under the agreement that he would only release records by artists that Takino had signed. After a few one-off releases, including a solo album from Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, Up was done.
Candy-Ass, Chainsaw, Collective Fruit, Dashboard Hula Girl, Estrus, Good Ink, Loosegroove, Pattern 25, Rx Remedy, Slabo, Suicide Squeeze, Superelectro, Tombstone, Sweet Mother, Vagrant, Zeno