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Beyond Sup Pop

3 local labels on the verge, and two dozen more that matter

Sweet Mother's parents (left to right): Alex Calderwood, Nasir Rasheed, and Jared Harler.
Alice Wheeler
Sweet Mother's parents (left to right): Alex Calderwood, Nasir Rasheed, and Jared Harler.

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The more the major record labels consolidate, the more mainstream culture narrows, driving music fans to search for alternatives. Paradoxically, when huge corporations dominate entertainment, independent labels tend to flourish, at least artistically. In Seattle, this indie resurgence has been under way for a couple of years. Gone are the days when the city's record labels began and ended with Sub Pop, C/Z, and PopLlama. A whole new crop of local musicians and music fans has plunged into the turbulent waters of commerce, putting out records by themselves and their friends. Who will sink and who will swim? We talk to three local labels in the fast lane and 11 others to look out for. Plus, we run down the list of a dozen more small but worthy indies—and of course, no discussion of Seattle labels would be complete without checking in with the godfathers at Sub Pop.

Sweet Mother

Owners: Nasir Rasheed, Alex Calderwood, Jared Harler

Best known for: Releases from hippie-soul band Strange Voices, trip-hop duo Dragonfly, and hip-hop-inspired High Fidelity

Recent releases: 12-inch from Tripoli

Future releases: A commercial reissue of the compilation Limitless Luxury, Volume 1, originally distributed only to attendees at a Swedish design exhibition

Four years ago at Re-bar, Nasir Rasheed had a brainstorm. The Seattle DJ and promoter was part of the club's weekly acid-jazz/hip-hop night, Mocambo, a favorite among musicians and DJs. "There were a lot of people coming to this night, giving me these tapes," he recalls. "And they were fantastic. I thought they should be known outside of the Northwest."

So, in time-honored DIY fashion, he maxed out his credit cards to start Sweet Mother Recordings, an ambassador from Seattle to dance floors around the world. After enlisting his friends, local club promoters Jared Harler and Alex Calderwood, Rasheed released the 12-inch "On the Rocks," which he had recorded with Ben Saunders under the name Sharkskin. This debut record attracted one very important fan, Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, whose enthusiasm led Sub Pop to distribute the fledgling label's first CD, a compilation of Seattle acts called Free Activation Series No. 1.

Though the two labels' business association was brief, Rasheed professes gratitude to the older company for both its monetary support and the example it set. "Sub Pop was an inspiration in the way they started—their visual identity, their aesthetic," he explains. Rasheed also admired Sub Pop's initial policy of carrying the banner for hometown artists. "My focus has been to develop the Northwest scene," he says. "There's a good, healthy, creative scene here that has a unique sound from the rest of the country and from Europe—a definite warmth and soul. There don't seem to be influences from San Francisco or LA, or even New York or London."

Paradoxically, for a label that focuses on local acts, Sweet Mother is probably best known outside of Seattle. "Fortunately or unfortunately, our reputation is bigger than the label itself," Rasheed admits.

In fact, Sweet Mother gets submissions from as far away as England and Sweden, thanks in part to a limited-edition compilation, Limitless Luxury, Volume 1, distributed exclusively at a Swedish design exhibition last summer sponsored by the ultratrendy magazine Wallpaper. The exhibit's theme was luxury, and the objects on display included a custom-made Saab and Prada's "ultimate" handbag: heady company for a small Seattle record label, but the compilation was so well received that a commercial version is in the works. It will differ slightly from the original release due to the logistics of licensing and publishing. ("Doing a compilation is like doing a Rubik's Cube," Rasheed quips. "Once you get one side together, the other side falls apart.")

The label's only full-time employee, Rasheed looks forward to the day when he can hire someone else to handle day-to-day marketing, promotion, and distribution chores. For now, since distributor Cargo went out of business—owing Sweet Mother "thousands of dollars"—Rasheed is busy exploring alternative distribution via Internet sales and through cross-promotions, including one with the Nordstrom clothing line Evergreen. Like most indie-label owners, he's willing to do almost anything to get the records in fans' hands. "Our artists make this amazing music, and I just think it's got to be heard," he enthuses. "That's what inspires me."


Owners: Chris Takino, Rich Jensen

Best known for: Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Quasi

recent releases: The Pastels, the label compilation Up Next, the Dark Fantastic

Future Plans: Modest Mouse singles collection, new Quasi album, new Land of the Loops

When Chris Takino first heard a recording of Built to Spill's unreleased second album, There's Nothing Wrong with Love, the thought of starting a record label had never crossed his mind. But when he played the tape to Jonathan Poneman in hopes that the Sub Pop head would sign the band, Poneman instead fired off a suggestion. "He said, 'Why don't you put it out yourself?'" Takino recalls, sitting on one of the thrift-store couches that occupy a corner of the Up Records office, ironically located in the basement of a Capitol Hill apartment building.

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