Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
In 2006, Kill Rock Stars president Slim Moon decided to step away from the house he helped build.
For fifteen years at that point, KRS had established itself as a benchmark of independent rock music. A cornerstone of feminist punk music with releases by Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, and many others. Label home to beloved indie-rock acts like Unwound, the Gossip, and Deerhoof. Before Elliott Smith and the Decemberists signed major label deals, they released some of their best work with Kill Rock Stars. This is not to mention his work for KRS' experimental sister label 5 Rue Christine, which released projects from acts like Xiu Xiu and Hella.
After Moon left the label to perform A&R duties for Nonesuch in the mid-2000's, his wife, Dr. Portia Sabin, took the reins. Running a record label during a period where the entire music industry was changing had to have been a tall order, but Dr. Sabin's vision led KRS into a new era of artistic fulfillment, working with comedians such as W. Kamau Bell and Cameron Esposito while signing incredibly talented bands like Wimps (who I've made no secret is one of my favorite bands of the past decade), Marnie Stern (easily one of the best guitarists in the world), and Lithics (whose 2018 release, Mating Surfaces, was one of the most underrated records of the year). Dr. Sabin will be stepping down from her position at Kill Rock Stars to become the new president of the Music Business Association.
I was given the pleasure to ask both Moon and Dr. Sabin a few email questions about the self-described "family business" that is Kill Rock Stars; where the label has been and where it is going, the chapters of the label and what they're most proud of.
KEXP: Could you offer us a little snapshot of the conversation that took place when Slim stepped away from Kill Rock Stars? Was it immediately decided that you'd take over?
Dr. Portia Sabin: Slim asked me if I’d take over the label, release the 27 records for 2007, and then run it as a catalog. At the time I was managing the Gossip, which meant I was flying to the UK about once a month, and I was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, so I was commuting from Olympia to Seattle. I felt that his offer came at a point when I really needed to make a decision about what industry I wanted to be a part of — music or academia — and I decided that music was it for me. I thought about it for a few days but really it was an easy decision. And then after putting out 27 records, I found I really enjoyed it so I kept signing bands!
Do you think the label was altogether different from when Slim was in charge, or was there a vision you strove to uphold and stay consistent with?
Slim created such a strong punk, feminist, queer-positive ethos at the label that it continued after he left for sure, but it was easy to be consistent with it because those are my values, too. The thing that changed was the music scene, the technology, the bands, and the whole way we used to make money — when he left it was still a majority physical market and now it’s majority digital.
When were you approached by the Music Business Association? How long did it take you to realize you were going to take the position?
I was headhunted for the position back in April. I was familiar with the organization because I've gone to the MusicBiz convention for the last two years and I think it’s one of the best. Through my podcast, The Future of What, I’ve gotten really interested in industry advocacy and the issues we all face as a music community, so I felt that this was a great job for me. It took them a while to offer me the job, but when they did, I said yes!
You described Kill Rock Stars as "the family business" when it was announced [in the press release I received] Slim would be taking over again. Was there any consideration for someone other than you and Slim to run the label when you took the Music Business Association gig?
No! We’ve run the label for a combined 28 years and we’re committed to seeing it through. Once upon a time independent labels would get to a certain point and then get purchased or absorbed into a larger company, but right now there are several important indies that are going through the same process of having to figure out next steps. I think it’s fascinating and I certainly want our family to be a part of coming up with solutions.
What are some of your proudest moments in your time as head of Kill Rock Stars?
Working with a bunch of amazing alternative comedians who really embodied the KRS ethos, like W. Kamau Bell, Hari Kondabolu, and Cameron Esposito. Signing Horse Feathers, the Thermals, and Thao With the Get Down Stay Down. Winning an A2IM Libera Award in 2018 for our reissue of Elliott Smith’s Either/Or album — the competition was incredibly strong and it meant a lot to win. Putting out Cindy Wilson’s solo album. But most of all: sending royalty statements to all our artists every single quarter for 13 years!!
KEXP: When you left Kill Rock Stars in 2006 to work for Nonesuch, what was the impetus behind that?
Slim Moon: I wanted to try working at a label in a different context, with more resources. I wanted to discover and develop the "next Radiohead" and have the resources to take that as far as possible. But I didn't want to sell KRS or have it become part of some kind of "upstream" situation with a larger label. It was cleaner to just go work at a great label like Nonesuch than to involve KRS in my wanderlust. Also, I was tired of being a boss. My time at Nonesuch and then Rykodisc didn't work out and I quit less than two years later, but I don't resent the experience or regret having given it a try. I got to work with some great music people like Ruby Marchand and David Bither and Jac Holzman, and meet some neat musicians like Don Was and Christina Courtin and Jeff Tweedy.
Do you have any memories that stand out from your days working in A&R and artist management after you stepped down as head of KRS?
I worked with some terrific artists but Thao Nguyen and Anaïs Mitchell really stand out as people I'm so happy I was able to work with. Helping Anaïs create her Hadestown album was really fulfilling. I also am proud of the Portland Folk Festival that I did with two partners in 2010. It was a good festival but we all had different things going on in our lives that prevented us from repeating it. In my case, I became a father and got diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Eventually you left the music business altogether, studying religious leadership and working for churches. Did working in the music industry burn you out? Why did you feel the need to step away?
Becoming a dad and being sick with Lyme Disease changed my focus a lot. I hoped to eventually be a pastor and work for a church, and I wanted to finish college and go to grad school. Portia was very supportive of my scholarly walkabout, just kind of finding myself and satisfying my intellectual curiosities. Things I learned in school and church helped me synthesize my views that were mostly formed from life experience and wise communities. I'll probably write a book someday and once again be glad I went to seminary.
What is your reason for returning to the label? Was it pretty much a no-brainer when Portia was offered the position of President of the Music Business Association?
I returned to the label in a small way about a year ago. Being around it again made me notice that I missed certain things about the life, and I certainly missed the people who love the music and the people who make the music. I think I'm wise enough to do this now in a way that won't eat me up and consume me — frankly, it did consume me in my 20s and 30s, and not in a good way.
Is there anything you're a little apprehensive about regarding your role to returning to your role at KRS?
Making sure that my family especially my son is still my personal priority while also doing right by the bands and the fans.
What are your five favorite records released by Kill Rock Stars when Portia was running the show?
This is a super hard exercise.
Elliott Smith - New Moon
Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia
Cameron Esposito - Same Sex Symbol
Cindy Wilson - Change
Horse Feathers - Appreciation
Marnie Stern should have 5 Grammies by now if the world made any sense.
Do you feel you have a new vision for the label now that you're back, or is it just the sense that everything evolves in its own way?
Should we bring 5RC back? That's an open question and I'd love to hear from old 5RC fans about that. I love that Portia did so much comedy and KRS will continue to do comedy in this next phase. We will have a narrower musical vision than I tried to represent back in my first tenure. We're even less interested in four white guys with guitars singing about heartbreak than we ever were. Back in the 90's, KRS was a record label that was very rooted in a specific community but also showed flashes of my own odd/particular tastes outside of that community. We've evolved into a family business; a family business that takes liberation seriously — theologically, philosophically, and aesthetically. Of course it'll be filtered through my personal taste, but I'll insist that the music and comedy we release be meaningful and not just "match the couch."
Black Ends Re-Release 2019 EP Sellout, Debut Bonus Track "What"
Black Ends are a Seattle trio made up of singer/guitarist Nicolle Swims, bassist Ben Swanson, and drummer Jonny Modes. Self-described as "gunk-pop," the band puts a markedly individual spin on numerous well-worn styles while Swims approaches matters of the interior in her lyrics. Released in March, their absolutely marvelous Sellout EP skips from acid-tinged post-punk to warped blues-rock without sacrificing the cohesion of their musicality. The band is re-releasing Sellout very soon with a bonus track called "What," reminiscent of pre-Lower Dens Jana Hunter, sailing to a faraway distance with horns and Swims' lyrics about what creeps into her late-night thoughts as she lay awake in bed.
Swims had a few things to say about "What," and you'll be able to listen to the song just underneath her thoughts:
I wrote "What" when I was about 21 or so. I felt pretty overwhelmed and claustrophobic in my own head and was a bit desperate in my feeling things. It came to me pretty quickly but I'm still not certain there's a definite meaning. I guess if I had to give more meaning to it, this song feels very desperate/ just being so engaged and trapped in the mundaneness of everyday living, I felt like a robot in that sense. like any wrong move I made would result in the disintegration self and it was all my fault/ I could fall apart any minute — and knowing that, as well as knowing that I was wasting my time in this grey eventless world I set up for myself, it kind of made me feel as if I was already dead. I really just longed for a feeling again mostly.
As we celebrate the life of Elliott Smith, who left the world fifteen years ago, Martin Douglas shares a personal story of bonding over his final released collection of songs.