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Meet the punk who saved Sub Pop

Foul-mouthed and community-minded, Sub Pop records executive vice president Megan Jasper steers the indie powerhouse into its 25th anniversary year.

Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times

Megan Jasper at the Sub Pop offices.

Record Executive Megan Jasper

In this year-long series, The Seattle Times and KUOW connect you with 13 people poised to shape the future of the arts in the Northwest.

Back in 2005, soon after then-Mayor Greg Nickels officially acknowledged pop music was a big deal in Seattle by adding music to the Office of Film, newly hired director James Keblas brought his boss to an industry event.

Across the room, Keblas spotted Megan Jasper, the tall, scarlet-haired executive vice president of Sub Pop Records, the label that started it all in the late ’80s with the grunge band Nirvana. Suddenly, Keblas heard Jasper cheerfully calling — “ James! ” — followed by an unbelievably vile, unprintable exhortation.

Folks who don’t know Jasper might have taken her for a gate crasher. But this foul-mouthed maven is actually one of the country’s most influential music executives, whom many credit with turning around a label that was in real trouble.

And Sub Pop, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in July, was a label worth turning around.

“Sub Pop has always been the gold standard,” says David Orleans, president of the label’s distributor, Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), who mentions Sub Pop in the same breath as the outfits that produced Elvis Presley, Motown and Bob Marley.

“They’ve achieved what very few labels in the business have — the label itself has an identity. It’s not just about the artist. Sub Pop is one of the very few labels to achieve that magic. Megan simply perpetuated that spirit and grew that.”

A Boston-area native who brings a wiseguy sarcasm to Seattle’s notorious culture of “nice,” Jasper has worked at Sub Pop twice — she was laid off the first time — and has labored in almost every corner of the music business.

A fearless prankster with a head of punk-dyed hair and a potty mouth, Jasper, 46, is credited by co-workers with resetting Sub Pop’s once dysfunctional corporate culture.

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For all her punk attitude, however, Jasper is also a quintessentially mild Northwest character who rides a bicycle, meditates, gardens, does triathlons for charity and valorizes community — especially as it relates to youth. Like so many Seattleites, she has managed to dovetail grass-roots values with profit-making entrepreneurship.

“It’s never a direct line to the bottom line ...,” says Jasper, sitting in her office on the second floor of a Fourth Avenue building better known for the Dahlia Lounge. “You never look straight down, you make your way there, and how you get there needs to work for a lot of other people.”

Jasper grew up in a comfortable home in Worcester, Mass., about 45 minutes west of Boston, the daughter of two teachers. In her early teens, her parents began to quarrel — “we were a dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family” — and Megan and her sister Maura rebelled, spiking and dying their hair (Megan sported a Mohawk) and riding a Greyhound on weekends to Boston, where they danced in mosh pits to loud, abrasive hard-core punk bands — or “hawdcaw,” per Jasper’s then thick “Woostuh” accent — like Bad Brains, the Misfits, the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat.

“I was a little shit, a crusty punk,” Jasper confesses on the Sub Pop website. “I almost always carried a bottle of Aqua Net Super Extra Hold in my bag and I used to have to tilt my head sideways when I sat in a car so that the ’hawk could fit.”

At 15, Megan, her sister and a friend got a show playing “hawdcaw” on the local NPR affiliate.

“We were oddballs,” says Jasper.

Though her teenage years were rocky, Jasper was an honor-roll student who made it to college, fashioning her own major in children’s literature and minoring in German at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

After a “gap year” in Berlin — an inveterate self-improvement junkie, she went there to improve her German vocabulary (she would later take piano lessons as an adult) — Jasper decided she wanted to live on the West Coast. Passing through Seattle, she dropped by Sub Pop. Something clicked.

Jasper talked her way into a job as receptionist (she had no experience) and soon found herself fielding angry calls from creditors.

Co-founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt had officially launched Sub Pop in 1988 with $20,000 and the earnest mission to “decentralize pop culture” by promoting local bands. In the process, they had tapped into an underground pool of Northwest musicians, including Soundgarden and Nirvana, who would transform rock music.

But despite the 1989 release of Nirvana’s wildly successful “Bleach” and a tsunami of hype, the label somehow managed never to have any money.

“Bruce and Jon didn’t know how to run a business or even how to write a budget,” Jasper said in a 2005 talk at the Red Bull Academy music retreat.

But the world came knocking on their door, anyway. When The New York Times called, Jasper hoaxed a reporter into printing what he thought was an authentic “Lexicon of Grunge,” a string of ridiculous slang phrases she fabricated on the spot, including “swingin’ on the flippity flop” (hanging out) and “lame stain” (uncool person).

By this time, Jasper had already been laid off. In the summer 1991, the label was nearly bankrupt. A staff of 25 plummeted to seven. Jasper was one of the casualties. Pranking The New York Times was good fun, but it did not help Sub Pop.

Landing on her feet, Jasper went to work as a sales rep for Caroline Records, then for ADA. Colleagues remember her as a passionate advocate.

“She didn’t approach it like a salesperson,” says Mike Batt, who owns the Silver Platters record-store chain. “She approached it from the point of view that she loved music.”

For a while, Jasper tried her hand at writing children’s books, but in early 1998 she was lured back to Sub Pop. The label was still in disarray, but this time it wasn’t a startup with growing pains. It had become bloated, hierarchical and overconfident.

Though two years earlier, Warner Bros. had bought a 49 percent minority position in the label for $20 million, Sub Pop was, paradoxically, deeply in debt. Rolling Stone was predicting its imminent demise.

“We went from being a place where morale was low to a place that I may say in all modesty is really one of the best places to work in Seattle,” says Poneman. “That is largely attributable to Megan’s skills as a manager.”

Beyond interpersonal skills, Jasper also brought the one quality every record label needs — prescient taste. Despite her claim that she can’t sing in tune, she clearly knows how to pick hits, serving as part of an eight-person team that chooses artists and repertoire.

Since the 2001 release of “Oh, Inverted World,” by Portland indie rock band The Shins, the label has had a string of smashes by bands such as The Postal Service and Fleet Foxes.

Jasper brought in comedy, too, in 2002 releasing an album by David Cross that was nominated for a Grammy, and signing the zany TV duo Flight of the Conchords. A label that had once jokingly dissed itself by hanging “wood records” on the wall (to represent 100,000 sales) now boasts two platinum albums (1 million sales) and three gold (500,000 sales) ones.

All these successes happened in a decade when the challenge of digital downloading was flummoxing the major labels.

Though Sub Pop executives won’t talk about money, with Nirvana and the Shins in its back catalog, 400 titles in print and a continual tide of new artists (Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, Pissed Jeans), the label is clearly flush. It has 40 full-time employees, all of whom Poneman recently flew to New Zealand for a week, and occupies just under 15,000 square feet of downtown office space.

Though Jasper was instrumental in pushing the company to pare down its debt, she is reluctant to take credit for its financial success.

“I can’t pretend to be a business person,” she says, “because I studied writing. But I think business is similar to home, in that you just have to know what your expenses are and you have to be able to figure out about how much you’re going to be taking in. And you have to be conservative. What’s the lowest amount that’s going to come in? That’s what you can probably bank on.”

Sub Pop’s rise has lifted other boats.

In 2002, when Keblas was desperately trying to find a permanent home for his nonprofit all-ages night club, the Vera Project, Poneman wrote him a check for $25,000. The label also gave startup money to Chris Takino and his partner Pete Ritchie to launch Up Records, which released Built to Spill’s breakthrough second album.

After Takino died in 2000 of leukemia, in his honor, Jasper began to do triathlons to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. To date, she has personally raised over $100,000.

But when you ask most folks about Jasper, they don’t mention charity or business. They talk about her mouth. She seems to have a bottomless barrel of epithets related to various body functions.

“I love swearing,” confesses Jasper. “I can’t help it. It makes me feel like myself. Most people need to inhale and exhale. I need to inhale and exhale and swear.”

Though Jasper says she is careful not to hurt anyone with her pranks, she has been known to step over the line. When the Thermals drove from Portland to Los Angeles to start their first big West Coast jaunt, Jasper called them in L.A. to say, as a put-on, that they had been kicked off the tour. It’s hard to see how that was funny.

But with Jasper, any such darkness is likely a brave cover for a certain sweetness beneath.

Last year, she married landscape architect Brian Kimmell and they now live in a West Seattle house with a large garden. To hear Jasper talk about flowers, you would never guess she had ever been “hawdcaw.”

“You can truly lose yourself in the tulips,” she says. “And the tulips go away and the peonies come, and then the peonies are going and the delphinium is coming in and the delphiniums go and the dahlias are there. I love that flowers can tell time. And that they bring back so many memories or emotions from a time gone by.

“Flowers are the same as music, in that you can hear a song and it might take you back, and you can also hear something new.”

As long as Jasper keeps hearing something new, Sub Pop records — and the Seattle music scene — will probably continue to grow as colorfully as her garden.

Now if flowers could only swear.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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