The dot-com boom might have given Seattle a facelift, but you can still find evidence and tributes to the city’s place in history as the birthplace of ’90s-era grunge. Jonathan Poneman, chief of Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, lifts the velvet rope on some of his favorite haunts from the legendary, flannel-drenched music scene.
In the mid-1980s while the rest of America worshipped synthesizers and big hair, Seattle was incubating a very divergent rock scene. Not quite hardcore punk or heavy metal but a fusion of
both, grunge – as the genre came to be known by the early ’90s – was defined by melancholic riffs, thrift-store clothing and combat boots, and the angst-meets-soulful mosh pit. The music (and flannel) of grunge eventually spread across the country and grew to distinguish the culture of Gen Xers. But it might have never existed if it weren’t for one iconic independent record label rooted to Seattle: Sub Pop Records, responsible for signing and giving a voice to such revolutionary Pacific Northwest indie bands as Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and, perhaps most importantly, three world-weary guys known collectively as Nirvana.
“Grunge was an intersection of social activity, distortion, and a genuine sort of mind-bending wonder. And hormones,” jokes Jonathan Poneman, who co-founded Sub Pop with partner Bruce Pavitt in 1988. While the record label – which, still helmed by the 58-year-old Poneman, celebrated its 30th birthday in 2018 – went on to sign more modern-day artists such as The Shins, Iron and Wine, The Postal Service, Fleet Foxes, and more, it is still best known for its association with the grunge scene. “There will always be young people who need noise. It’s that simple, really,” says Poneman. And in Seattle, you can still find several places and spaces that defined that noise.
Moore Theatre [Belltown]
As Seattle’s oldest operating theater, built in 1907, this seven-story Italianate and Byzantine building with opulent interior details like a grand lobby with mosaic floors, marble, onyx, carved wood, and stained glass certainly doesn’t fit the grunge archetype. Regardless, in the ’90s, it was the place to see local grunge bands: In addition to hosting Nirvana, Tad, and Mudhoney during 1989’s Lame Fest, it also served as the music video settings in both Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” and Alice in Chain’s Live Facelift album and a Soundgarden live album.
Black Sun Sculpture [Capitol Hill]
Located across from the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, just 2.5 miles east of the Space Needle, the nine-foot circular black granite monument by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, installed in 1969, is thought to be the inspiration for the name of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” According to Poneman, after frontman Chris Cornell passed away in 2017, thousands flocked to the landmark, leaving roses, half-smoked joints, Sub Pop Records stickers, and old CDs and Walkmans at the base of sculpture that, if you orient yourself just right, perfectly frames the Space Needle through its center hole.
Re-Bar Lower [Queen Anne]
Located just outside of South Lake Union’s booming hub for Amazon and the biotech industry, this small and squat retro club dedicated to counterculture has been a cherished home for “grunge punks, misfits, and weirdos for more than 25 years,” says Poneman. Resembling something of a diner mixed with a soundstage, the indie venue embraces underground electronic music, fringe theater, poetry slams, and live local bands. In 1991, Re-Bar hosted the release party for Nirvana’s then-obscure Nevermind album, from which the band was kicked out of their own party after starting a food fight.
Museum of Pop Culture [Queen Anne]
This colorful Frank Gehry–designed building in the shadow of the Space Needle is dedicated to the history and exploration of popular music and pop culture. While the building itself didn’t play any sort of role during the grunge era, it houses some pretty fantastic memorabilia including one exhibit known as the Northwest Passage. Here, you can see rare and unseen artifacts from Nirvana (including the first guitar Cobain smashed on stage), as well as play electric guitars, drums and keyboards, and learn short riffs from famous songs with computer-screen guidance.
Light in the Attic Records [Seattle Center]
Founded in 2002 in a basement apartment in Fremont, Light in the Attic may not be a grunge-era label, but it is a re-issue label. That means Seattleite and founder Matt Sullivan releases and resurrects forgotten classics for a new generation of vinyl fetishists and crate diggers, including contemporary bands to grunge-era heroes that – for whatever reason – never saw the light of day. “This retail front for the label is located in the heaven of music itself, Seattle radio station KEXP,” says Poneman, and in addition to used records and Light in the Attic releases, “offers guest coffee roasters and great live music.” The Edgewater Hotel