Two examples of some of the more inventive graphics from Sub Pop, from left, a colorful textured look to the cover of one of Hot Hot Heat's albums and a party invitation.

Pop art from grunge

A small record label turns
its innovative covers into art

Gary C. W. Chun

It started off as a small record label out of Seattle with more energy and spirit than money. But Sub Pop Records was there to document the origin and international explosion of what was labeled as "grunge" -- punk-influenced music with a stoner attitude.

From the late '80s through early '90s, the Sub Pop label, while responsible for introducing such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to the mainstream, was also home to great regional and independent-minded bands as Mudhoney, the Afghan Whigs, Sunny Day Real Estate, Sebadoh and L7. After a brief hookup with Warner Bros., the label has since gone back to being an independent, with a strong roster of artists that include Beachwood Sparks, Mark Lanegan, the Pernice Brothers and Hot Hot Heat. The label even released a well-received Bruce Springsteen tribute album called "Badlands."

Sub Pop distinguished itself graphically as well, and a sampling of the label's album art, posters and other ephemera, such as invitations and Christmas cards, will be on display at the bar and gallery Ground Level downtown.

Art director Jeff Kleinsmith said Sub Pop's look evolved naturally through the years. "There have been no philosophical directives from the owners, and the label's artistic design has always been one of our strong points, hiring only the best graphic designers and illustrators in the area."

Early on, that included the black-and-white photography of Charles Peterson, whose work, unfortunately, will not be part of the exhibit, but his photos chronicling the Seattle music scene have been collected in a book entitled "Screaming Life."

"He was a big part of our look back then," Kleinsmith said. "Of our first eight to 10 albums, it was his photos that were featured on the covers. He's such a strong photographer and was a huge influence on the scene."

A fold-out vinyl album cover for artist Damien Jurado.

Comic-book illustrators whose work was featured by nearby Fantagraphics, such as Kaz, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Charles Burns and J.D. King, also contributed their talents to Sub Pop.

"What has worked since the beginning was the combination of talented bands and inventive marketing," Kleinsmith said. "Of course, it went much bigger with the phenomenal successes of Nirvana and Soundgarden, and it was global domination. But we started here in the art department with three people and no money."

Kleinsmith and his partner Jesse LeDoux have continued to carry on the tradition of inventive graphics at the label, even running a side poster business through their Web site

"What started off as 11-by-17-inch black-and-white flyers stapled to telephone poles has become screen-printed, larger, more colorful posters displayed on cafe windows," he said. "They've also become limited-edition collectibles, which make them a bigger deal."

THE WOMAN who's behind the local exhibit is longtime underground scene promoter Kristien Amer. "I've always been a big fan of their artwork and design," she said. "I'm a graphic designer myself, and it's nice to bring out such exceptional work to Honolulu."

Amer has done her best to keep some sense of a small and creative scene alive both artistically and musically, and she's giving it another go after admittedly being burned out by 1995 promoting punk and alternative shows around town. The recent downtown underground block party was her first attempt back.

Amer's love for all things Sub Pop began with brief visits to Seattle in '91 and '95. But her love of the music started with the band Mother Love Bone. "I was 19 at the time, going to film school in L.A., and the band was looking for a designer." The band's late lead singer, Andrew Wood, sent her an unusual package filled with personal artwork and photographs that Amer felt was more than a business mailing. "It was like he was trying to reach out to someone with his art," she said.

Wood died of a heroin overdose before MLB's major-label debut, "Apple," came out. Amer said, "That album changed my life. I still cry whenever I listen to it."

She remained in contact with surviving members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, plus Eddie Vedder, an unproved musician from San Diego who told her that he was going to be the new singer for a band called Pearl Jam with Jeff and Stone.

It's in that spirit that Amer has assembled this exhibit.

Sub Pop Records Art Show

Opening with Extra Stout, Niki Dellios and Walks Among Us, and the Haunted Pines, plus deejays Maggie the Cat and Independent

Where: Ground Level, 1154 Fort Street Mall
When: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. tomorrow
Admission: $6, 21 and over
Call: 546-9998
Note: Exhibit runs through Oct. 26

Two examples of some of the more inventive graphics from Sub Pop, clockwise from top left, a colorful, textured look to the cover of one of Hot Hot Heat's albums, a party invitation and a fold-out vinyl album cover for artist Damien Jurado.

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