The Almost Complete History of Kill Rock Stars

Interviews, KEXP 50, Local Music
06/09/2022
Martin Douglas
Slim Moon circa 1986 // Courtesy of Slim Moon & Dr. Portia Sabin

As KEXP celebrates 50 years of bringing our love of music to the community, we find ourselves this week exploring 1991, the so-called "Year that Punk Broke." It was also the year one of the most foundational labels to ever come out of the Northwest officially went into business. A few months ago, KEXP writer, producer, and local music columnist Martin Douglas spoke with Kill Rock Stars owner and founder Slim Moon and his wife, former Kill Rock Stars president Dr. Portia Sabin, about the label's 30-year history.


“Hi, Martin. Are you prepared to be interviewing a married couple?” 

These are the words I’m greeted with by Dr. Portia Sabin when I press record on the Zoom call. Speaking to me in late-November from their home in Tennessee, Dr. Sabin and Slim Moon — who have more than once referred to Kill Rock Stars as “the family business” — were wrapping up their yearlong 30th Anniversary celebration of the storied, influential record label with Northwest roots. 

Imagine a world without Bikini Kill, or a world where Heatmiser was cool with Elliott Smith’s songwriting direction. Imagine an indie-rock landscape without Sleater-Kinney circa Dig Me Out through One Beat (or any of the principal members’ excellent releases prior to S-K), or a Pacific Northwest scene where Unwound didn’t have a label that enthusiastically followed their artistic flights of fancy. And that’s just scratching the surface. From the great, weird bands on subsidiary 5 Rue Christine (Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu) to Throwaway Style Hall of Famers Wimps, Kill Rock Stars has endured multiple waves of the so-called death of the music industry to remain one of the most influential record labels in music. 

And with the return of Slim Moon at the helm and a new generation of bands scaling the ranks (Big Joanie, MAITA, Tele Novella, and Logan Lynn, among many others), KRS shows no signs of slowing down. Over the course of two interviews spanning between November and December 2021, I had the pleasure of traversing the entire three-decade history with Slim and Portia, filled with stories of a burgeoning Olympia music scene, grieving fallen friends, key lessons in operating as a band, and most of the absolutely outstanding bands they’ve released records by. 

Excuse the short length of this intro. At the end of this near-20,000-word feature, you’ll thank me for not writing a longer one. 

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It was transcribed in full by KEXP volunteer Natalie Vinh.]

Part I

Before the Beginning: Slim Moon’s Origin Story

Slim Moon: I went to high school in Seattle and listened to, initially, the new wave radio stations. They had two new wave stations there in the '80s, and then I discovered college radio and started to listen to more independent music, and then I stumbled into the world of live shows. I got a job when I was 16, selling carpet cleanings on the phone, and I had to take the bus to my carpet cleaning job and then take the bus home. I went to a school in the city. I went to Rainier Beach. But my job was in West Seattle and my home was in Des Moines or Burien, kind of right on the edge. 

So I spent a lot of time on the city bus and I would get off downtown and wander around to the art galleries and places and see if there were any shows going on. I stumbled into a Jesse Bernstein spoken word show at an art gallery, and it blew my mind. It was like, this is what's been missing from my life. And that's when I started writing and performing spoken word. The first time I performed spoken word, it was opening for Jesse because we became friends. And so my interest in spoken word was kind of happening simultaneously to my interest in music. I never studied them. I never played an instrument, so I never intended to be in bands. I just was interested in doing spoken word as a performance art.

KEXP: Did you go to Evergreen? How did you end up in Olympia?

Slim Moon: Yeah. Two reasons. One was I had five friends at Rainier Beach. They were all older than me. They all graduated a year before me. So, my senior year was really lonely and I ended up dropping out before the year was out. But one of my friends went to Evergreen, so I applied to Evergreen. After dropping out and living on the street for a little while, I got my GED and then my GED scores were really good. So then Evergreen accepted me. 

The other reason I ended up in Olympia was because that last year, my Junior/Senior year, I was going to a lot of rock shows and all-ages shows in Seattle. But any time a band from Tacoma or Olympia or Montesano or Aberdeen came and played, the South Sound crowd would follow them up and they would have so much more fun. The Seattle crowd in the ‘80s was so serious and the South Sound crowd was just bubbling with joy and dancing around and crashing into each other in this non-violent, fun way instead of slam dancing. And so I ended up following them down and saw a couple of shows at the Tropicana in Olympia and realized this is the scene I've been looking for, because it's so fun. That was the other reason I went to Evergreen, was so that I could move to Olympia, where the cool rock scene was.

Unwound and the Beginnings of Kill Rock Stars

Slim Moon: I moved to Olympia and started going to Evergreen in January of ‘86, so I actually started three months later than if I'd gone straight from out of my graduating class into school. But I moved to Olympia in January of ‘86, started going to Evergreen, and was really heavily involved in the music scene there for the next five years. Played in a bunch of different bands, did a lot of spoken word, put on spoken word shows, put on some rock shows, and then I started a record label to put out spoken word. I had put out one spoken word record and I was working on the second spoken word record. They were just 7"s. 

And then this band, one of the great bands in Olympia called Giant Henry, had broken up. They were a high school band and they broke up when the drummer went to college. But they got back together. He decided that college wasn't for him. He came back, they got back together, but they wrote all new songs and decided to have a new name and not be called Giant Henry anymore. And I saw their first show and it blew me away. The songs had always been great, but the songs were light years ahead of the previous songs, and I felt like this band is where Nirvana was when Nirvana did their first recording. 

But I thought, like Nirvana, they were going to probably have to struggle for a year or more to get interest from a record label, [though] I felt like they deserved to have a record immediately. The songs were already that good, so I talked myself into starting to put out rock records, even though initially I had sworn I was only going to put out spoken word records. I guess the punch line is that band didn't really have a name when I saw them that first time, but they immediately decided on a name and became Unwound.

KEXP: Tell me a little more about Unwound and their releases and the things you loved about them.

Slim Moon: Well, one of the things that was great about Unwound is that they were all friends. They'd all gone to, you know, middle school and high school together. It was really a band that grew up out of friendship. They were locals. A lot of Olympia bands were either all people who moved there to go to Evergreen, or at least some of the members were people who had moved there to go to Evergreen, but they were part of this sort of growing movement of local, homegrown bands. Karp was another one. Another thing was Justin [Trosper, vocals/guitar] had – while all three members contributed – had amazing contributions. Vern [Rumsey]'s bass playing, this sort of driving style of bass that was amazing and perfect for the band. Sara [Lund]'s drumming was perfect and really different, like rather than driving, it was punctuated or non-intuitive. Like, she did amazing things that you wouldn't have thought of, as like the obvious way to make a drum pattern to that baseline. But Justin, he was a great songwriter who was doing a thing that was sort of a perfect combination of Fugazi as an influence, Sonic Youth as an influence, and then the Chicago [based] Touch and Go bands like Scratch Acid as an influence. It was like all my favorite things rolled into one band, but then totally new and fresh and unique.

The Kill Rock Stars Compilation

Slim Moon: The rest of the story about me signing Unwound and wanting to be their record label and put out rock records because I felt they deserved to have a record, was that I realized since my label had no distribution and no past and no public awareness, if I put out an Unwound record, it wouldn't sell. We wouldn't even know how to get it in the stores. So I decided before I did an Unwound album, I would put out a compilation of Olympia bands. But then, after talking to Calvin Johnson, I changed it to a compilation of bands who played Olympia in the summer of 1991, mostly who were scheduled to play the International Pop Underground Festival. 

We found a way to get all the tracks very quickly to put together the compilation and got the compilation out in a month, which was impossible, except that we figured out if we silkscreen the covers, we could get it out in a month. And so we were able to sell copies of that compilation of 14 bands who either were from Olympia or played Olympia that summer or played the IPU fest. We got that out in time for the International Pop Underground Fest and sold several hundred at that festival. The one band that is on the compilation that ended up not playing the festival was Nirvana. They were initially scheduled to play that festival, but their record Nevermind came out and blew up. And so therefore they ended up switching to playing the Reading Festival in England and canceling the IPU.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Which is where I saw them.

Slim Moon: And Portia saw them there.

The International Pop Underground Conference

Slim Moon: During the time that I initially lived in Olympia from '86 to '91, when I was in bands and a fan and putting on shows, but I wasn't putting out records yet, the one record label of note in Olympia was K Records. They only really had one Olympia band during that time, and that was Calvin's own band Beat Happening. But one thing they really did was, they had a mail-order service of a lot of like-minded bands that were from all over the world they would sell in their mail-order catalog, and so they had customers all over the world. They sold records from England and records from New Zealand and records from all over the country that were sort of what Calvin called the "international pop underground." They were a certain kind of punk rock that was maybe less aggressive but more cerebral, maybe sometimes more twee, but not always, that had a real connection to the Rough Trade sound and Rough Trade bands of the early punk rock, early English punk rock era or post-punk era. 

And so Calvin and his partner, Candice, decided to have this convention and invite all of their customers from their mail order service, and anybody else who wanted to come to our little town of Olympia. They called it a convention. They didn't call it a festival, but [it was] basically a festival of bands for four days. All of us in the Olympia music scene kind of didn't think it was really going to happen. We thought it was going to be a flop or that it wouldn't come through or that they'd cancel at the last minute. It happened in August of 1991. By July of 1991, we really started to believe it was going to happen when they started confirming bands like Fugazi and Thee Headcoats. And then it did happen and it was the coolest thing ever. It really put Olympia on the map. 

It also was just so fun just to see, to have all these like-minded people from around the country, around the world, come to our town and watch [Nation of] Ulysses and Fugazi and Thee Headcoats and Melvins with us and also all these Olympia bands got to play. It was just the coolest thing, and it really sort of kickstarted the 90s being an incredibly fertile time for Olympia, where a lot of great bands came out of Olympia, but there were also a whole series of great festivals. There was the Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go festivals and there was Homo-A-Go-Go. And [IPU] sort of created the blueprint for that.

KEXP: One of the things I've always wondered about was how Calvin inspired you and how watching K Records inspired what you did with Kill Rock Stars.

Slim Moon: Over time, as I found out about independent music, I discovered that I was particularly obsessed with indie labels and the motives of the owners. A lot of my friends would just be obsessed with the bands, and I got obsessed with the labels. And so I started following closely K Records and Sub Pop and Touch and Go and Dischord and SST and New Alliance and Frontier, and every time a new record would come out on one of those labels, I would try to think of, like, why did they sign this band and what direction are they going? I'd look at their advertising choices, like what magazines they advertised in and what the advertisements look like. So looking back, it was natural that I ended up putting out records because I was super interested in that process and in the mentality that went behind it and how they selected bands and how they presented those bands in the marketplace. 

But of course, Calvin Johnson was the guy locally in Olympia who was doing that. He was the guy who was a friend that I could ask for advice or ask his motives or suggest a band. And he'd say, “Oh yeah, I already thought about that band, but I decided not to put them out.” And so I'd understand, not only when you would sign a band, but when you would decide not to sign a band. Every scene has a vibe. And the Olympia vibe and the K vibe overlapped a lot. His taste put a big stamp on Olympia, but also Olympia put a big stamp on Calvin and what K Records was all about, just like it put a big mark on Kill Rock Stars. I feel like a lot of what we did in the early days was just to document our scene in both Olympia bands and bands that Olympians were particularly fond of, from around the world.

The Inception of Riot Grrrl

Slim Moon: Well, as I understand it, a bunch of women from the Olympia scene all ended up moving to Washington, D.C. sort of at the same time. They were all in Washington, D.C. in 1990, 1991. And that meant they had moved en masse as a group, their bands had moved, not just their persons. So that meant that Bikini Kill had moved to Washington, D.C. and Bratmobile had moved to Washington, D.C. and then while in D.C. some [members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile] created a band called The Frumpies. And while they were there, they made friends with other women in D.C. You know Washington, D.C. was known as being a very political punk scene with Dischord and Positive Force as two of the main organizations there. So they met some of the women in D.C. and one thing led to another. And the riot grrrl meetings started and the Riot Grrrl fanzine started. And those two bands initially, and then some other bands soon thereafter, started to be labeled riot grrrl bands. And then eventually those bands moved back to Olympia. So Riot Grrrl was initially sort of a Washington-slash-D.C., phenomenon.

Around summer of 91, when the International Pop Underground Festival happened and the first night of the IPU was so-called Girl Night and Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy and Mecca Normal and 7 Year Bitch and other bands I'm forgetting right now all played. From that time on, there was a slogan in Olympia that people would repeat all the time, and the slogan was, "Girls rule this town." And what riot grrrl was initially... I mean, it came to mean a lot more and really get its tendrils in a lot of things and change culture in a positive way. But if you read the initial fanzines, riot grrrl was, in particular, started as a reform movement to make the punk scene less sexist. [The saying] "girls rule this town" was, “Here's a punk scene where women are setting the tone and setting the standards, rather than punk scenes all over the country that were very male-dominated.” And the riot grrrl movement was making waves around the country and around the world and inspiring young women to become music fans or to pick up guitars or to start bands. But it was also reforming punk rock in lots of other ways. And I feel like Olympia was like a test case of the way a punk scene could be reformed by women to be a more inclusive, sort of feminized thing that was just way more positive, I think.

Bikini Kill

Slim Moon: After I signed Unwound and put out the Kill Rock Stars compilation and sort of told my friends, Hey, I am going to be a “real record label” (in quotes), not just a spoken word record label, after all. Then somebody from Bikini Kill living in D.C. got a hold of me and asked me if I would put out their first record, which was a six-song EP. And I was so excited; I thought they were the best band in the world and I'd been friends with [drummer] Tobi [Vail] for a long time, and other folks, but I especially had known Tobi for a long time. And I was friends with [singer] Kathleen [Hanna] because she was on the first spoken word record that I put out. I initially became friends with Kathleen through spoken word, and so I flew to D.C. on vacation. I had a job as a computer programmer at that time. I flew to D.C. and actually used vacation time — which I'd never done before — to just meet with them and sort of cement the deal. Just make sure they really wanted to do it and tell them how seriously I would take it and how I would try to do a really good job for them. And I really feel like, you know, Unwound was great, but I really feel like it was Bikini Kill that really got the Kill Rock Stars label the momentum to really become a functioning label. And really, I think they just wanted to work with me out of friendship. They knew I was somebody they could trust who was organized and could do math.

Bratmobile

Slim Moon: I knew Allison well from the Olympia scene, much like the guys in Unwound, she was one of the local kids who went to one of the local high schools, not a greener, you know, not somebody who came for college. She was deeply involved in the music scene. You know, I'd seen her at parties and shows and hung out [with her] for years and years before Bratmobile started. And she went off to college after she got out of high school, [and] met Molly Neuman at college. They formed Bratmobile, then they moved back to Olympia and then to D.C. and then back to Olympia. But they were just the greatest. I mean, if you've heard the music, you know this, but Bikini Kill had more of a punk sound and Bratmobile had more of a garage rock sound. Bratmobile really came into their own as a full band when they moved to D.C. and added Erin Smith, the guitar player.

Video Fanzines

Slim Moon: Well, you know who was really a pioneer in video fanzines was Miranda July. She was in Portland doing video chain letter fanzines, where if you sent in a homemade video that you had made like a film, a short film on video, then she would put it on all these other videos. And so sometime later, you would get a video back with all of the videos that had been submitted around the time you submitted your video. And then she would also sell those video fanzines, but Kill Rock Stars was involved. We joined the video fanzine movement, the sort of underground video fanzine movement by making collections of our rock videos, plus some sort of documentary footage and other things that just sort of made sense. We had some dance stuff and some more cerebral, strange short films. Some of that has been digitized and is now on YouTube, but not all of it.

Elliott Smith

KEXP: How did you first hear of [Elliott]? I assume that you were a Heatmiser fan.

Slim Moon: You know, I didn't really hear Heatmiser until after I met Elliott. [When I met Elliott], my band had broken up and I was doing some solo shows. Tammy from Kill Sybil was doing some solo shows, Carrie Akre from Hammerbox was doing some solo shows, and Sean Croghan from Crackerbash was doing some solid shows, and Elliott Smith from Heatmiser had some new solo music. And so Carrie Akre put together a little West Coast tour where we all went on a West Coast tour and I just met Elliott completely just through being on tour with him. But I was so amazed by his music, I'd never heard anything like it. And it was so out of step with what was happening in the indie music underground at that time, I was just so impressed and he was such a great guy. And so I got to know Heatmiser and became a Heatmiser fan after that.

KEXP: Do you have any specific memories from those first three records, just your relationship with Elliott or the records themselves, or the acclaim that surrounded Elliott as he was making these records?

Slim Moon: Yeah. I was working with Mary Lou Lord and a couple of other sort of acoustic artists and you know, punk rock, indie rock, a lot of times the shows are in loud bars and people have had a couple of drinks, and so when somebody climbs up on the stage and starts playing a quiet acoustic guitar, a lot of times, if the audience hasn't heard of that person, they just talk through it. And it just really can be a tough thing to play to a room of people who are just talking to their friends and the crowd noise is louder than the singer. 

But Elliott had this ability — it might not be right at the first song, but within a few songs, the room would have gone quiet. He would command the room, and he didn't do it by being louder or being shriller. He did it almost by getting quieter in those situations. And letting the songs speak for themselves and just sort of demanding the respect of the audience through his ability and through his quietness. So that's one thing I really remember about him. 

I remember that backstage and in the van, he was super funny, he was always a really funny guy who always had a quip or a wisecrack. And I also remember that we put out his second record and it was hard at first to get editors and journalists and record stations to listen to it. You know, they'd sort of put it on and go, “Oh, it sounds like Simon Garfunkel,” which it totally doesn't. But that's what people used to say back then. And they wouldn't really give it a chance because sort of solo acoustic music was just super uncool in the indie rock scene. 

I mean, if you look at what indie rock is today, it's kind of hard to realize how uncool it was in 1995 and how it really took some work for people to notice the genius without dismissing it just because of the package it was coming in at first. But by the time Either/Or came out, he had a lot of fans. His earliest fans were mostly other artists or other musicians and filmmakers, and they sort of carried the news to the rest of the world and once people really listened, then that's all it took.

Heavens to Betsy

Slim Moon: Well, you know, the first time I saw Heavens to Betsy, they played the IPU Conference and they were teenagers. So primitive, just bass and drums or guitar and drums or bass and guitar like they changed instruments every song; it was just the two of them. They weren't very sophisticated on their instruments, but Corin's voice was so big and so powerful and so engrossing, and her lyrics were so powerful. You know, in a lot of ways, that's exactly what Olympia was about. It was about simplicity and genuineness, like music that was real or natural talent rather than trained skill. And so, you know, everybody who saw that first Heavens to Betsy show in Olympia just was like, Who is this like? You know, we were so glad when they moved to Olympia and became part of our scene. And I was so glad that they made an album on my label. 

Sleater-Kinney

Slim Moon: Well, Carrie Brownstein was a Seattle woman who moved to Olympia and had formed a band called Excuse 17, and Kill Rock Stars had signed Excuse 17 and put up the first album [their final full-length as a group, Such Friends Are Dangerous]. And, you know, at that time, we had a pretty cool roster of women-led bands like Heavens to Betsy and the English band Huggy Bear. And so Corin and Carrie started a band and they named it after the street their practice space was on. And they went to Australia and toured and made a record, and they came back. 

And the story I heard, or what seemed like the truth at that time, was this was just a project to make it possible for them to go to Australia, and it was gonna be a document of their trip to Australia. So when they brought it to me, I declined to put it out because I had put out what I called side projects from other bands before and it seemed like a distraction and harder to sell those records. So I really wanted to focus on people's primary bands, and I didn't think of Sleater-Kinney as their primary band. I was still very excited about Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy, but that record was really well-received, and those bands ended up coming to an end. And Carrie and Corin became really serious about Sleater-Kinney as their primary band. 

So when they were ready to switch labels, they approached me again, and I think they'd had a positive experience working with Kill Rock Stars in their other bands, so Sleater-Kinney ended up on Kill Rock Stars, which was awesome, you know? It was just as awesome to put out Sleater-Kinney as it was to put out Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, and that was what they were choosing to put their energy into. So that's where it went, and that worked out great for everybody. I mean, incredible band, obviously.

Quasi

Slim Moon: Oh, yeah. Well, my Quasi story is terrible because right towards the end of Heatmiser, when they were playing their final shows, they had a temporary bassist, they had a fill-in bass player and I was hanging out backstage at a Heatmiser show, I got introduced to the bass player Sam [Coones], and he gave me a cassette of his band and said, “You know, I'd really like this to come out on Kill Rock Stars. I hope you like it.” And I lost it, or I never listened to it. And then a year later or sometime later, that record came out on Up Records and it became my favorite record of that year. So I've always been really mad at myself. 

And the funny part of the story is Sam had a mustache, like a real macho mustache, at that moment when he was playing bass in Heatmiser and I honestly have to say I kind of didn't take him seriously because I misread what kind of guy he was, I thought it was going to be like a metal tape or something like that. But if I had just listened to it with an open mind, I would have loved it and I would have totally liked to have put out that record Featuring "Birds". And so the cool thing is, years later, after Portia took over the label, Quasi did end up signing to Kill Rock Stars, which is a very happy ending.

Miranda July

Slim Moon: Yeah, the way I remember it is, I had a band with Sue Fox called Refectory Effect, and we needed a photoshoot for our seven-inch single. And she said she knew this woman who took pictures, so we drove to Portland and had met this woman, Miranda, and we walked around and took a bunch of pictures and I got in a conversation with her about what she does, and she told me how she did these one-woman shows at Gilman Warehouse in the Bay Area before she had moved to Portland. And I just thought she was like the coolest, most interesting person. So basically, I signed her on the spot, like I invited her to put out a spoken word record on Kill Rock Stars before I ever actually heard her work. And then she did. She recorded it with Calvin, or maybe she recorded the first one with Tim Green, I can't remember. She recorded and we put it out, and we ended up doing two records with Miranda. And then, you know, from there, she started to tour, and then she started to play more like art spaces instead of punk spaces, and she learned how to write grants. And, you know, one thing led to another and she became an award-winning filmmaker. Her movies are terrific, you know.

Free Kitten

Slim Moon: Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore were really my favorite bands in the 80s, and I really mean that. And so when Julia from Free Kitten and Kim from Sonic Youth created a band together, then it was natural that they would become one of my favorite bands. The first few years of Kill Rock Stars, I mostly put out Olympia bands like bands for my own scene or bands who I identified and went after, like, chased after them and said, Hey, you should put out your record on my label. The first exception to that, the first band who approached us and said, "Hey, will you please put out a record?" who was from out of town was Huggy Bear, but then Free Kitten ended up being another one of those where they just approached us. They said, "We like the Huggy Bear. We like Bikini Kill. We like what you're doing. We'd like to put a record on your label." So I end up getting to do two Free Kitten albums and a 12-inch and a seven-inch.

Overlooked KRS Records

KEXP: Do you have any favorite bands from this time that you feel people overlook? Like I, for one, love the Emily's Sassy Lime record [Desperate, Scared, but Social]. That's one of my favorite records you guys ever put out.

Slim Moon: A couple of records from the early 90s that I feel are sort of overlooked, I really like Star Pimp, which was a San Francisco band that we did. And I really like Universal Order of Armageddon, which was a band from Baltimore who really had a lot in common with Unwound and with San Diego bands like Heroin and Antioch Arrow. But they were just randomly in Baltimore, Maryland, and they just played the most wild, crazy, frenetic shows. And their songs were really short. Their sets were really short and it just was such an experience. But I feel like their first EP really captures the chaos, the controlled chaos of their live sound in a way that I still feel really great about.

The Inception of 5 Rue Christine

Slim Moon: Right. I think, yeah, 5 Rue Christine started in '97 and what had happened was I started to stretch the label so that I started doing a few more things that were more like my personal taste and not just things that the Olympia scene really loved. And two of those were... well, the Olympia scene did love Thrones, but two of those, one of them was Thrones, which was this sort of solo heavy doom rock project of Joe Preston and another one was Deerhoof, which at that time was two guys playing pretty much free improv music. And those two records were like the worst-selling records Kill Rock Stars had ever put out. [laughter] 

And I had this sort of revelatory moment where I realized, you know, we're pushing our audience too far. Somebody would like these records, but the people who would like these records aren't listening to Kill Rock Stars, and they're not expecting records like this to come out on Kill Rock Stars. And the people who do like Kill Rock Stars who like Bikini Kill and Unwound, this is just pushing it too far for them. And so I decided to start a new imprint to do the more experimental side, or you can say avant-garde side of my taste. And as soon as I started it, then I signed Hella and Xiu Xiu and I talked Deerhoof into switching over to 5RC or being co-released on 5RC and Kill Rock Stars, and another band called Godzik Pink and a band called Semiautomatic, and then eventually Marnie Stern and that label did surprisingly well. I thought it was going to be kind of a labor of love and kind of obscure avant-garde records, but Xiu Xiu and Hella and Deerhoof all grew exponentially as musicians. 

I kind of feel like 5RC gave them the chance to spread their wings and really mature as artists. Their early stuff was great, but they just kept growing and growing and the audiences really respond. Those records did really well.

Deerhoof

Slim Moon: Yeah, you know, there's only one original member in Deerhoof, that would be Greg Saunier because Rob Fisk was the other original member, and he left after a while. But everything Rob has ever done is brilliant. Rob is just a musical genius, so Nitre Pit, his band before that and all the side projects he's done over the years, everything he touches is gold. But some of it is like avant-garde experimental gold that only a fringe number of people are ever going to be into. And then some of it is like stuff a larger number of people can see the genius of. And they added new guitar players, they added Satomi, the singer, and their sound evolved into something that people really, really loved in the late 90s, early aughts and ever since, you know, on Kill Rock Stars and on other labels after that.

Xiu Xiu

Dr. Portia Sabin: We saw them in a warehouse in San Francisco.

Slim Moon: Jamie had sent me a demo where he'd like hand spray painted the cover of the CD jacket. You know, some bands just send you a CD-R in a jewel case that's just completely plain with their phone number on it. But so every once there's a band that'll make it a one-of-a-kind, beautiful, handmade package. Jamie had done that, but I had listened to that demo, which was their first album, a couple of times during the daytime and it hadn't caught me. But then one night I was doing royalties and I threw it back on and it was like midnight. And then, you know, Xiu Xiu is kind of like midnight music in a way, and it just really caught me. And then I realized, "Oh, this is brilliant," you know? But like Deerhoof, even though I loved what they were doing, I never could have predicted the artistic maturity that Xiu Xiu developed into and all of the great work that Jamie has done ever since, and the incredible partners, collaborators that he's chosen over the years.

Hella

Slim Moon: Yeah, I mean, the original Hella demo that became their first album also came as a demo. Had never heard of them, but I just thought it was the most original. You know, people used to make fun of Olympia for how many bands didn't have a bass player. Now, you know, in the world after White Stripes and Sleater-Kinney and The Black Keys, not having a bass player seems like no big deal, but in the 90s, a lot of people felt like if you didn't have a bass player, you weren't a “real” rock band. They'd really give us a hard time about having all these bands with no bass player and about liking bands from other places in the world with no bass player. But Hella had the most extreme and unique no bass player band that I had ever heard, you know, the guitar playing and the drumming and the way they worked together. I just never heard anything like it, and I just thought it was super powerful. And I just felt like I just had to work with them, you know?

Part II

How Slim Met Portia

KEXP: How did the two of you meet?

Dr. Portia Sabin: We met at a Sleater-Kinney show at Irving Plaza in New York City in 2000. We had a mutual friend who was friends with my band. I was in a band called the Hissy Fits, which was an all-girl power trio in the late 90s, early 2000s. Sleater-Kinney was our favorite band as a [group], so we had gotten these tickets, you know, immediately when we could. And then we had this friend who told us, "Oh, I'm friends with Slim Moon, who's the guy who runs their label and he's going to come and stay with me. So I'll introduce you at the show."

Slim Moon: But then she introduced herself.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah.

Slim Moon: He didn't even come to the show if I remember.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I think he was there. I don't remember.

Slumber Party

Slim Moon: My marriage to Portia is my second marriage. My first marriage was to a woman named Virginia Benson, who was from Detroit, came out to Olympia and we met in Olympia. We had an incredibly brief marriage, but in the short time that we were together, she introduced me to a few Detroit bands, and that led to me getting to know about Slumber Party. And Slumber Party was great, especially the first album.

The Gossip

Slim Moon: Yeah, you know, ironically, that story that we just told about how we met was at a Sleater-Kinney show but the opening band was the Gossip, so we really met while the Gossip were playing. And then, funny enough, you know, 10 years later, well, six years later, Portia became their manager.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Five years later, it was 2005.

Slim Moon: Okay, five years later, Portia became their manager and helped them get famous in England and which led to [them getting] famous worldwide. But so that was interesting.

Dr. Portia Sabin: They were the first opener. It was the Gossip, Butchies, and Sleater-Kinney on that bill, and I don't know what happened to them. They were so young at that time. That was 2000. They were so young that they couldn't drink like they couldn't go to bars. And there were actually a lot of places that they played that they weren't allowed to be in the club at all, except when they were on stage. So like, The Crocodile in Seattle was one of those places where I remember hanging out in the green room, which was this tiny little box off the side of the stage with the Gossip because they actually couldn't go out into the club because they were too young and couldn't drink.

KEXP: Was it one of those old-school situations where they had the X's on their hands and everything?

Dr. Portia Sabin: Exactly. So that was, you know, Slim and I met during the show. But then afterward, the band and everybody went across the street to this bar in New York across from Irving Plaza. And I was just thinking about the fact that the Gossip didn't go. But of course, they didn't go because they were kids. Like, they were 18. So they didn't come with us, and that's where Slim and I ended up really talking to each other in this bar with Sleater-Kinney in the other booth, and my guitar player like making a complete fool out of herself because she was such a huge Corin Tucker fan. It was really kind of embarrassing.

Slim Moon: But, you know, since you asked about the Gossip, if you scroll backwards, there's also something interesting to say about the Gossip, which is, you know, Tobi Vail, who played drums for Bikini Kill, did the mail order department for Kill Rock Stars for a really long time. And she would always, if somebody wrote an interesting personal letter, she would always make sure to write them a personal letter back. So there was this weird kid in a tiny town in Arkansas, Searcy, Arkansas, who was really into our bands and always wrote these personal letters. And Tobi always wrote back, and that was Nathan. So Nathan, the guitar player in the Gossip, was just a weird kid who was really into music and really into our bands, and he got his friends, Kathy and Beth, to move to Olympia because they thought we were the coolest record label. So, you know, if it wasn't for that sort of personal touch of the DIY of us writing back to the fans, the Gossip may never have moved to Olympia and may never have, you know, continued to exist and been successful,

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, because at first he was just Nathan from Searcy because of course, that's what he wrote on his letters, you know, so that's how people like Kill Rock Stars knew them. And then it was like, Oh my God, Nathan from Searcy moved to Olympia,

Slim Moon: Now he goes by Bryce.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I would just say that Gossip was always just an explosively amazing band, like when they played that night at Irving Plaza, like everybody was just floored. They were talking about The Gossip more than they were talking about Sleater-Kinney. You know, it was just one of those things where you had to see it, like it was such an experience to see them play live. It was crazy.

Slim Moon: Yeah, they were always great live, but the records were so lo-fi. I don't feel like the record really captured the explosiveness until the Standing in the Way of Control record.

Dr. Portia Sabin: And that record, so I was managing them when they made that record. So we went up to Bear Creek Studios outside of Seattle to make that record. Ryan Hadlock was the engineer and Guy Picciotto from Fugazi produced it, and we slept there at Bear Creek for two weeks and just made this record. And it was really an amazing artistic experience. You know, to sort of watch producers, Guy really got Beth and really was able to bring a lot out of her. Like, I remember at one point, there's like one song on that record that's pretty dark and heartfelt, and he got her to sing that at night when it was really quiet and that really worked for her to be able to sort of get the emotion for that song. So it was just a really cool process to watch everybody just make a record, you know, with these other artists in the room kind of helping them put it together. 

We recorded that record in like April of 2005 and then Kill Rock Stars didn't want to release it until January of 2006, because this was back in the day when the month you released, something mattered. This was pre-digital. So in terms of store shelving and promotion and PR and stuff like that, you had to kind of pick your date and Slim really thought that January was going to be the best release date for that. So we had to just support the band, like Kill Rock Stars just paid the band's rent for the whole year until that came out because they had nothing to live on. You know, Kill Rock Stars wasn't putting the record out [until January]. 

And then during that time, that was when I was... because I had lived in London for a while and I was like, “This band is just built for the U.K. This band is going to be loved in the U.K.” And so I ended up finding this little tiny dance label that had never put out a full length before and making a deal with them. And so we put out Standing in the Way of Control with them in the UK. But we did a whole bunch of dance remixes first and then brought it to England. And then we went throughout the year 2006, we went to England once a month and it was like, I mean, it was like a snowball. It was the craziest crazy ride. And then in February of 2007, they went Gold in the UK, it was nuts.

KRS’s Classic Post-Punk Re-Releases

Slim Moon: You know, I really need to call out, give respect to Jason Gross, who is the editor of a fanzine or a magazine called Perfect Sound Forever. It's a magazine that's been around forever or for a really long time and Jason introduced me to Lora Logic from Essential Logic and introduced us to Kleenex, and he really executive produced those projects and really made them come about. So, of course, I mean, those of us who were involved with Kill Rock Stars like the original bands on the label like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and Unwound and Witchy Poo. And you know, we were all really big fans of the woman-led post-punk bands of the late 70s and early 80s from Europe, from England and Switzerland. And it was so exciting that we eventually got to work with the Essential Logic and Kleenex and then later, Portia worked with the Raincoats and Delta 5. I guess I was involved.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, you did Delta 5.

Slim Moon: Yeah. Because that, of course, Kill Rock Stars was influenced by a lot of great scenes and a lot of great bands from the history of punk rock and the history of rock and roll. But that would probably, we would really name check those bands, plus other bands like the Slits and the Dolly Mixture and Young Marble Giants as probably the most influential scene on our scene.

The Decemberists

Dr. Portia Sabin: Oh, this is a good story. So we went to something called a Rock and Swap in Portland in 2002, I think. We drove down from Olympia with a crate of records in the back of the car because we had basically been told, you know, it's going to be outdoors at a bar in the backyard. And they set up some tables. So we got our own table. So we're sitting there at this, and you know, we had this label next to us and this other label next us and just a bunch of local Portland and regional labels. 

And so we're sitting in his backyard and talking to everybody and people are walking around looking at other people's records and stuff. And I was wandering around and I stopped at this table for Hush Records and I saw this really beautiful album and I was like, God, the cover art is gorgeous on this. And he was like, “Oh yeah. They're really amazing, this is the guy in the Decemberists.” He's like, “If you're interested, you should go into the bar, because this guy Colin is playing right now.” They had an upstairs space where there was literally like a microphone with like one speaker in the middle of this dusty upstairs with no chairs or anything. 

So I went upstairs and I watched one and a half songs, and it was like me and four other people. And I came running downstairs and Slim was having a conversation with the dude at the table next to us. And I'm like, “Dude, dude, dude, you got to go see this guy right now.” And he's like, “I'm talking, I'm talking to this—” and I'm like, “No, no, no, no." I was like, "Excuse me, sorry, you gotta go right now,” because he played, I remember the song it was, "My Mother Was a Chinese Acrobat," and I was just like [explosion sound]. And it was just acoustic, right? It was just him, acoustic, standing in the middle of this room. It was his voice. It was his presence. It was the song. It was like everything, right? I was just like, “This dude has everything.”

Then [Slim] went and talked to him, and then he never came back. And I was down on the stupid table by myself for like two hours. And I'm just like, “What is happening?” while people are packing up and leaving. And then finally, when he came back down, you know, it turns out they both were from Missoula, Montana. They had just discovered that they had a ton of stuff in common. And so then that was how the conversation started, and we ended up actually licensing that record from Hush Records to put out Castaways and Cutouts and then making two more records with them.

Slim Moon: Oh, a little teeny postscript on that is that the guy who put on that Rock and Swap, Rob Jones, is now the general manager of Kill Rock Stars.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Small world.

KEXP: Was there any backlash from the punk rock community for Kill Rock Stars being the major outlet of riot grrrl and then putting out this weird folk band that's singing like old-school literary tunes?

Slim Moon: You know, the backlash from my community, when people first scratch their heads and were like, “What are you thinking Slim?,” was when I put out Elliott Smith. And that was '95. So the label was like four years old at that point, and that was the furthest thing away from what we'd been doing up to that point. And then we put out a little bit of jazz and a little bit of country and that maybe made people scratch our heads. But honestly, by the time by the early 2000s, people were more used to [the fact that] this label is a combination of what the scene likes and what Slim likes. Whereas the early ‘90s had been really sort of a documentation of the Olympia scene and also the tastes and values and types of bands the Olympia scene was all about from elsewhere. But by the early 2000s, there was also some smatterings of, “Well, Slim likes folk-rock, so he's going to do this.” 

Even though Decemberists was firmly an indie-rock band, I really also saw them in the folk-rock tradition, going back to say Fairport Convention or the Band in a way like really smart folk-rock. And so he's just such a strong songwriter and has a wonderful voice and had the work ethic. It's rare that you work with somebody who has all the things you might want with somebody. [Most of the time, it’s an artist] who has a great voice but not great songs, or great songs but not a great voice or lots of work ethic, but really not that much talent or lots of talent, but not that much work ethic. But Colin is almost the perfect musician in that he has everything you want.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, and a great stage performer, too.

Slim Moon: Yeah, exactly.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I mean, that's like when I saw him, I was just like, “There's no ‘if’ here.” Like this is just 100 percent. And the funny thing about it is, that was a band that, you know, sometimes when you're running a record label, you put an artist out and you're like, “I love it.” And I think other people will love it. And you kind of cross your fingers and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. But this was one of those ones where it was like, I mean, overnight they sold two hundred and fifty thousand copies and were touring the U.S. in a bus. A Kill Rock Stars artist. And we were like, “Okay.” 

Clearly, it was a no-brainer. It was. Everybody loved it.

KEXP: I feel like in hindsight, there's a lot of people that, for whatever reason, don't really jibe with the Decemberists aesthetic, but they've got jams.

Slim Moon: It was always like that, you know? The bands who got big while on Kill Rock Stars, you know, each one kind of has a different story. Elliott Smith, the original breaks for him were other artists seeing his talent and giving him opportunities like taking him on tour, putting him in their movies, things like that. For Sleater-Kinney, the big break was super propelled by rock critics. The rock critics really immediately saw what was great about them and trumpeted them as a great band and that led to lots of fans discovering them. Decemberists, the radio stations and the editors, maybe the people who decide whether to bring stock into a record store — the intelligentsia — kind of weren't so sure. 

But as soon as fans heard it, they suddenly had a million fans.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Like it was fan-powered, for sure.

Slim Moon: And there's still lots of people who are like, I'm not so sure about the Decemberists or his accent or his singing voice bothers me. But despite those people, there are so many people who just feel so touched and attached and really know how deep their love for The Decemberists is. You know, like this is exactly it for me, you know?

Dr. Portia Sabin: That's what I mean about, like it just sold. You know, it was like, we put it out and it was like, [explosion sound], so it's just weird.

The Dichotomy of KRS and 5RC

Slim Moon: Yeah. I mean, you know. 5RC was… going the direction of Elliott Smith and the Decemberists on the Kill Rock Stars label was really me expressing my taste, but 5RC was also me expressing my taste but in the more like avant-garde direction and I'll admit, the original intention for 5RC was probably even more avant-garde than 5RC ended up being because when we signed Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu, they were really edgy, avant-garde bands, and they got a little more mainstream indie, but also they just kept improving and improving in their songwriting and everything and they toured like crazy and worked really hard. They were just dream bands to work with. And so in the end, 5RC ends up some sort of just being like a different indie rock label with a different sound, but still probably not any more avant-garde than Kill Rock Stars was, just kind of different.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, I think you probably thought it was going to be more avant-garde than it turned out to be, because I remember what was XBXRX... did we talk about XBXRX last time?

KEXP: Very briefly.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I remember we went to see them in San Francisco and their show was three minutes long, and at the end of the show, the entire stage was destroyed like everything on it. And I was like, I just had never seen anything like that before in my life. And I was like, “What is that?” And I guess I think we thought that was what 5RC was going to be. You know, these just like incendiary crazy-ass things that were very, very niche and only would appeal to a few people.

Slim Moon: Yeah, I might have said this before, but when I started 5RC, I really loved Atari Teenage Riot, and I thought that I'd be signing a lot of bands that were in that vein, but that sound didn't take off the way I expected. Atari Teenage Riot and just a few other bands kind of came and went and then that thing was kind of over, so it went a different avant-garde direction. But I do want to shout out that ATR was a great band.

Horse Feathers

Slim Moon: So now you're getting into that transition, like I left the label in 2006 and Portia took over. And so Horse Feathers is one of the first bands that Portia signed.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, and Horse Feathers was a band that Slim had, was it a demo? No, it was their first record, which was on another small Portland label, which now I can't remember the name of that label. [Writer’s Note: Words Are Dead was released in 2006 on Lucky Madison.] And he had that first album, and I remember we were listening to it in the car, driving out to my parents' house on Long Island at like 11 o'clock at night in the winter. And I just was like, “Oh my God, this is so perfect and evocative and creepy and beautiful,” and I just loved it. And so I wrote to Justin and I said, “I'd love to see you next time you come through.” He said, "Oh, I'm coming through in whenever, January or February," and I went to see him. And I said, “Hey, I noticed that these people on stage with you are not the same people that were on this album.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, everyone in my band quit, so I got an entirely new band so that I could go on this tour.” And I was like, “Would you like to be signed to Kill Rock Stars?” 

That's the kind of, like Slim was just saying, the work ethic. That's the kind of work ethic you really want in a band, where they're like, “Oh, my entire band quit and I have a tour booked, so I'm going to find an entirely new band, teach them all the songs and we're going on the road in like a month.” He was wonderful. And then to know that kind of work ethic existed was really wonderful. And honestly, Justin [Ringle] was one of my favorite people I've ever worked with. 

I actually managed that band for 10 years as well as put them out, and they just were a dream. A delight. I love his music. I love what he does. I was always sorry they weren't bigger. You know, I always feel like we weirdly missed. You know, because after Horse Feathers came along, Bon Iver really blew up and I was always like, “Oh man, it's like, did we just miss something with that?” Was it the lack of drums? Like, I don't know what the issue was, but I always thought that that band should have been bigger than they were. But they are a band that's very similar to the Decemberists in that the people who love them really love them. We got weekly requests for them to play at people's weddings. 

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Dr. Portia Sabin: Another band that I signed at the same time was Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. And she was somebody who had, were you managing her? Is that how?

Slim Moon: I was Thao's manager until when I left, my new job didn't let me continue as management, so Portia had gotten familiar with Thao because I was her manager.

Dr. Portia Sabin: And I thought she was great and Slim had been trying to sign her to a bunch of other indie labels and they had all passed and we had this great record, her first record. We Brave Bee Stings and All, which I think is still one of the best records I was involved in putting out. I absolutely love that record from beginning to end. And so I was like, “Nobody wants to put this out, I'm going to put it out.” So I was like, “Would you be willing to, you know, put this record out on Kill Rock Stars?” And she was like, “Yeah.” And that was great. That was very successful as well. Another one of those bands where it really resonated with people and they had a great work ethic and toured like crazy. And that was really great.

And then the third band that I put out my first year there was the Thermals. They had put out several records on Sub Pop, and I was already a big fan and I was sort of surprised they were free. But they were and they wanted to put out a record on Kill Rock Stars, so we did.

Slim Leaves Kill Rock Stars, Portia Takes Over

Dr. Portia Sabin: Well, at the time I was managing the Gossip, we were flying to England all the time and I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, so I was driving every day from Olympia to Seattle. So I had a lot going on and I was really losing my mind and I didn't really love my postdoc. I liked the work that I was doing. I liked my boss, but I didn't like the overarching theoretical perspective of the project. And when Slim came to me, like it was pretty early in 2006, it was like April or something. He was like, “You know, I think I want to do something different. I've been doing this for 15 years. I think it's time for a change.” He said, ”There's this job at Nonesuch in A&R that I'm thinking I'd like to apply for. And if I do that, would you take over the label and shut it down or just run it as a catalog label?” Some sort of like, I wouldn't actually necessarily run, like put out new records or whatever. And at the time, like I said, I was super busy, but I also wasn't loving my postdoc and I was like, “You know, this is really my chance to shit or get off the pot,” as they say. It's like I had one foot in music, one foot in academia. Am I not allowed to say that?

KEXP: No, this is going to be online. So you can curse as much as you want.

Dr. Portia Sabin: So I said, “Okay, I'll do it.” And the funny thing was, he already had 27 records slated for 2007. So I had 27 records that I had to release. So it was like, take it over and shut it down. [laughs] Like, that's not what was going to happen. So thank God, I had a wonderful staff who'd already been at Kill Rock Stars for several years. So, you know, in terms of putting out those 27 records, they knew what to do. They were on top of it, and I could learn. I could learn as I went. But of course, as the year progressed and we put out records and I learned how to do it and I figured out all the bits and pieces, I was like, “This is fun, I'm enjoying this. This is great. Of course, I want to keep doing this." So then I just decided we're going to keep putting records out.

The Sound the Hare Heard

Dr. Portia Sabin: Oh yeah, that was Slim, did that before he left.

Slim Moon: Yeah. You know, Kill Rock Stars was big on compilations. We did the original Kill Rock Stars compilation and then followed it up with two sequels, the Stars Kill Rock compilation and the Rock Stars Kill collection, and then later I did Tracks and Fields and Fields and Streams. And I actually was going to do one called...

Dr. Portia Sabin: Roads and Tracks.

Slim Moon: Roads and Tracks, too, but then I left before I ever did that third compilation. But all of those were sort of general, like the idea was to cover all the sonic ground and put out all the bands we liked, whether they were on the label or just bands we admired, and cover sort of like all of the sonic ground that Kill Rock Stars represented. And we'd also done a compilation on 5RC called If the 20th Century Didn't Exist, It Would Be Necessary To Invent It. But with The Sound the Hare Heard, I just really wanted to document my interest in like indie singer-songwriters and the sort of landscape of the indie singer-songwriters that existed at that time that I thought were great all around the country. But I appreciate you saying it's a good comp. I feel like that one really kind of flew under the radar. But there are some really terrific songs on that comp.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Really, really terrific songs. I agree.

KEXP: Kind of weird to see artists like Sufjan Stevens, right before he blew up, on that comp. And yeah, a lot of great artists who, you know, wouldn't necessarily get the quote-unquote "press."

Slim Moon: You know, I was thinking about, in this conversation, we've been talking about how we appreciate working with artists who have a work ethic and saying that I realize [it] sort of gives the impression that we're in it for the record sales, that we're just going to sign bands who we think have the best shot at getting that famous, which isn't really true at all. Like our motive is just signing bands we like and Kill Rock Stars, has always, I think, been attracted to weirdos and underdogs. 

But as the label got bigger and there were a bunch of employees and we were spending sort of a certain minimum, concrete, real amount of money on every release. It was just heartbreaking to have half a dozen people working really hard on a release and then have the artists themselves not work hard on it, you know? And so we had to make a decision to try to concentrate on the harder working bands because that was what was more consistent with the kind of label we had become. 

But when we did comps, we could just do tracks we liked, regardless of whether the band never went on tour or where it's just a hobby for that musician. So one thing about our comps is I think you'll find a real mixture of obscure bands and better-known bands all in one place, because really the criteria was just, "is it a great song" you know? Or is it about an artist who's producing a lot of great songs, whether or not they were ever going to be famous or not?

Dr. Portia Sabin: Right. I feel like real music fans are filled with heartbreak for the bands that didn't ever make it, you know? The ones that you saw once or twice or made one record or whatever and they never went anywhere. And a lot of times the reason they never went anywhere is because bands break up all the time for like a number of reasons, right, a zillion reasons. They don't like touring, they don't like each other. They don't like being away from home. They actually only had one album in them, you know, whatever. There's like a zillion reasons why artists break up. 

And so that is actually one of the sort of heartbreaking, sad things about doing this job, right, is because even sometimes your favorite artist or someone that you just think is so talented, you can't actually work with them because you don't think they're going to stick it. And you know, the rule in labels is we can't work harder than the artists because it doesn't work. You know, if you work harder than the artist, the artist isn't going to go anywhere.

KEXP: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it's more than just professionalism. It's like, how much do you want this? How much do you want to be that band that goes on tour and puts out records all the time [with being in] a band as [your] primary source of income? 

Gravy Train!!!!

Slim Moon: I just happened to hear their first record. And I hadn't seen them live or anything but their first record, it was an EP called The "Menz" EP, I think. And it was just so great. It was just undeniable. So I just wrote to them. I think the whole entire thing, signing them, figuring out when they were gonna record, cover art, everything was all done through email. Like, I think I barely even knew them when their first record came out. It did not disappoint. It's a really, really fantastic, very unique oddball sort of political punk rap comedy party record.

KEXP: And I feel as though Seth and Brontez are really coming into their own now, which is years and years after they put out the Gravy Train!!!! record with you all.

Dr. Portia Sabin: It's so crazy.

KEXP: It's so nuts. They're so talented and multifaceted, and you can see them doing so many things. Brontez's book is my favorite book from [2021]. 100 Boyfriends. I've read it like three times already.

Slim Moon: Yeah, I agree. And Heather does stand-up comedy.

KEXP: Oh, really?

Slim Moon: She's still making art. Yeah.

Dr. Portia Sabin: But that's the funny thing. It's like sometimes people are, I mean, many, many times people are really, truly talented, really artistic, and really creative. But maybe being in a band at that moment is not the right path for them. You know, it's OK. I feel like I'm constantly telling artists, you know, there's some people who are like, “I love to play in my band. I want to be a huge rock star,” and I'm like, “Okay, but you don't want to tour. You only want to play once a month, you know, really, what you want to do is be a hobby band, and that's OK.” Like, it's OK. You know, it's like everybody doesn't have to be the Decemberists. Everybody doesn't have to have this as their job. You know, you can enjoy playing in a band and, you know, but there's a million other reasons where like sometimes people just can't get along, sometimes whatever or being in a band, it's fun, but what your true talent is, is writing or whatever.

New Bloods

KEXP: Oh, this is a great, great segue for the next band I want to talk about, New Bloods, which is actually my favorite band from this era.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah. New Bloods were signed by Maggie Vail, Tobi Vail's sister, who was the VP at Kill Rock Stars for a long time, and I thought that was also, that's in the top 10 of my favorite records that we ever put out on Kill Rock Stars. And I think that that band and someone could correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that that band is a good example of one of the rules that we had at Kill Rock Stars, which we obviously broke a few times, which is never sign a band with a couple in it. Because if you do, they invariably break up [and] break up the band. And that's that. Pretty sure that's what happened with New Bloods.

KEXP: Speaking of multifaceted, talented artists, Osa's zine Shotgun Seamstress was very, very impactful for me as a Black person in the punk rock scene. An amazing, amazing document. 

Erase Errata

Dr. Portia Sabin: Another such a great record. Oh, I love that record so much. That was a band that you worked on that record.

Slim Moon: Well, I tried to sign them on their previous record, and they ended up deciding to go with a different label. But my understanding is they weren't happy with the experience on the other label. So when they were making the follow-up, I was no longer there at the label. But I think Maggie was still. Maggie had worked for me and then she was working for Portia.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, and we put out that record. And I think that record was sort of a casualty of 2006, because in 2006, we put out 48 records. So I remember specifically that the release and this was also back in the day when there was one release date a month. So the release date that that record came out on, there were seven releases total [on Kill Rock Stars] that came out that day. So I feel like it got a little bit lost in the shuffle, but still is one of my favorite records. I loved it. And then that band kind of, I think they just kind of broke up, I mean fizzled and just sort of didn't keep going.

Slim Moon: Yeah, but some of the members went on to do other great things.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, absolutely. But for some reason that band didn't stay together.

Explode Into Colors

KEXP: Another great band in that vein is Explode Into Colors. I think this is around the time where I was really tapped into what was going on around the Northwest and Portland was very, very hot at this time.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Martin, you and I have such similar tastes because I'm with you. Explode Into Colors. 

So that was another sad, sad tale. Actually, Claudia Mesa, who was sort of the bandleader of Explode Into Colors, she was Slim's roommate when we first were dating in 2000. She was his roommate for a few months in this little teeny house in Olympia and she was in a great band then. She's always been an incredibly talented, great guitar player and instrumentalist. And so she put together this amazing band Explode Into Colors. We absolutely loved it. And that was just one of those things where the stars never aligned properly. We talked to them for over a year about putting out a full-length. They never made a full-length. We ended up putting out like, I mean, basically it's like a four-song comp thing. You know, it's just a few tracks. I love their live show. They were fantastic. And then that was one of those situations where the band came into my office after their first tour and said, “We're never touring again because we don't like being away from home.”

Slim Moon: I just want to say everything, I wish I could remember the name, everything Claudia ever did musically was golden, though. Before she moved, I happened to meet her right before she moved to Olympia. She grew up in L.A. and my band Witchy Poo played with her high school band, Last Shuttle at The Smell in L.A. and they were fantastic. You know, it was like their final, their farewell show, but I was so glad to see them because they were also fantastic. And then she moved to Olympia. She had a band in Olympia that was fantastic. And then later in Portland, she had Explode Into Colors, which is fantastic.

Dr. Portia Sabin: She's just a terrific, terrific artist and unfortunately has not ever put together that perfect lineup where you know it, it went forward.

The Smell Connection

KEXP: Yeah. Funny that you bring up The Smell, Slim, because that was going to be my next topic of conversation. So you all put out a few records from Smell bands: Mika Miko, the Mae Shi, BARR. What kind of kinship, if any, did you feel with The Smell? I feel like it's kind of an outlier to L.A. I mean, I guess if you're really tapped in, you know that they do have a DIY scene, but from the weirdness of the bands that played The Smell, it feels as though they are kind of parallel to Olympia.

Dr. Portia Sabin: That's what I thought. I always felt like The Smell was our home away from home in L.A. like when we go there, it was like, of course we go to The Smell.

Slim Moon: There's sort of a weird art — well, I'm going to get philosophical for a second. When I started doing a label and being in punk bands and putting out punk music in the ‘90s, I met some people who had been in the original punk movement in the 70s, whose belief was punk lasted for four years and then it died. And it was just like the moment, like the Sex Pistols happened and that was punk and then it was over. Right? 

But there's this other idea of punk that kept going. That's very DIY, that's very anybody can do this. That's not about musicianship. It's like a reaction to the overblown stadium tours and laser shows of the ‘70s. And then it's the descendants, the continuation of that idea down through the decades. But also it's like that version of punk that Olympia was really keyed into is a version of punk that's about breaking the rules. And so I never wanted to get ossified into a specific idea of like punk is this kind of line up like bass, drums, two guitars and never wanted to get ossified into punk is just this one catchy sound. So it's not a pop-punk sound. It's not a hardcore sound. It's a constantly different sound. It has an avant-garde element. And so saying all that pretentious stuff, the Olympia scene was connected with the arty punk vibe, arty punk scene, DIY. 

The Olympia all-ages scene in particular had spiritual connections to the Portland all-ages scene that believed in that sort of "break the rules" idea of punk rock and that punk rock had never died. It was connected with the Berkeley and Oakland scene. It was connected with the San Francisco scene. You know, Berkeley and Oakland, it was Lookout Records. San Francisco scene, it was bands like Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu. In L.A., it was The Smell, and before The Smell it was Jabberjaw. And we had a real strong connection with Jabberjaw and The Smell and the folks who ran those places and the bands who played there regularly. 

Mika Miko

KEXP: Tell me about putting out the [first] Mika Miko record because like, I'm still very sad that they broke up a decade ago. I'm not over it.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Like I said, you and I have the exact same taste because that's another record that I absolutely loved. I mean, I feel like there's something about sort of like, kind of crazy female energy that runs through all of these bands that we've been mentioning and the albums they made. 

And they make me think of, in the major label scene, the only all-female bands that ever got on the radio, like the Bangles and the Go-Go's. And people used to be like, “Oh, the Go-Go's are the good girls and the Bangles are the bad girls,” right? And then everyone's like, “Oh, actually, the truth is, the Bangles were totally like, you know, straight edge and nice and sweet. And the Go-Go's were all like drunken corners and like shooting up and doing all this crazy stuff or whatever.” I don't know. 

But I feel like Mika Miko was so fun. Like, they were just crazy. Like whenever you would hang out with them, it was just like chaos all the time. And there were sisters in the band, which is also, like, always really interesting because there's crazy energy with sisters. I just remember one night at South by Southwest we had a showcase with a ton of bands, and so they were just like all over this club. I mean, I don't even know what was happening. It was nuts. So their energy onstage kind of was the same as their energy offstage. So they were really, really, really fun to work with and amazing people. It was so fun. I'm so glad I got to work with them for the period that we did. And I don't know what happened after. Like, I don't know why we made one record and not a second record. I actually don't remember that at all. What happened with them? I don't know if they broke up. I think I just broke up.

KEXP: Their second record came out on Dean Spunt's label PPM.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Oh, that's right. That's right. Oh yeah. And then didn't the sisters go on to be in Bleached?

KEXP: Yeah.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Another great band. So, so much talent there. Yeah. I don't remember exactly why they went to PPM, except that, weren't they connected with that, they were dating that band of dudes.

KEXP: Yeah, No Age. Yeah, yeah. I think Jennifer was dating Dean Spunt [around that time]. And so, yeah, there's that connection.

Slim Moon: I remember when Mika Miko was on Kill Rock Stars. I felt like it was a little bit, it reminded me of Emily's Sassy Lime because Emily's Sassy Lime had been a band that had sisters in it that were from L.A. and that played Jabberjaw all the time, which before The Smell had been the like all-ages venue in L.A.. And they were wild and crazy and always a super fun time to hang out with. And so Mika Miko felt like the same, it felt like Emily's Sassy Lime all over again, although even wilder crazier music, you know.

New Moon and Grief

Dr. Portia Sabin: Oh, that was rough. Yeah. You know that was tough because Elliott's family has always been really involved in the process, and so... You know, we would go to Jackpot Studios in Portland and sit with Larry while Larry played the tracks. It would be me and Maggie and Gary Smith, Elliott's dad. And it was just really tough for him to listen to that music. And of course, as you can imagine. But he, you know, he was very instrumental in helping to pick the tracks that we put on the record. So that was just like, it was an incredibly emotional experience to put that record together. It's been that way to work with all of Elliot's music and put together all the records that I put out in the last 13 years. 

You know, I was lucky enough to put out two expanded editions of Either/Or and Elliott Smith, the self-titled record and also the introduction to Elliott Smith. So, you know, it's always an emotional experience to work with the family on those projects. And it feels very personal. You know, I think once something's out in the world, people see it as something else. But when it's still with us in the room, it feels very personal and important, like the choices that we make. So yeah, that was my first experience working with the family on a project with Elliott. And it was intense. But I mean, New Moon is an amazing record because there was so much amazing music. He just made such incredible songs, so it was a joy to work on, as everything was with him.

KEXP: I wanted to get your thoughts on working through grief, like how arduous of a process is that?

Dr. Portia Sabin: I think it's very arduous. I think people have to take a lot of breaks. You know, I think it takes a long time because when grief is part of the process, you need to back off a little bit, you know, so you can't make all your decisions in an hour or whatever. You can't sit down and go, check, check, check. And, you know, making music and albums is an emotional process anyway. You know, even with the happiest of circumstances. So, yeah, I think it's tough, do you want to speak to that?

Slim Moon: Honestly, you know, I've had a few friends who died, who were great musicians. Kurt Cobain and Jesse Bernstein and Elliott Smith, and in all of those cases, it's like it was years before I could listen to the music again. You know, it's just too emotional, you know? And so it's been interesting coming back to Kill Rock Stars and being sort of really involved in presenting his legacy, working with his family. But enough time had passed that I was able to joyfully come back to the music and just remember his talent and all of his wonderful songs and releases including, you know, we still released some new stuff last year. But I really needed a long break. Because it was just too painful to listen, you know? I kind of still can't listen to Nirvana.

KEXP: We can talk a little about that if you want. How close were you to Kurt? Like, what was the basis of your friendship?

Slim Moon: There were a few years. When Kurt first left Aberdeen, he came and lived in Olympia for a few years and he got exposed to a bunch of new music in Olympia that was different than what he discovered through Aberdeen's music scene or, you know, things like the Vaselines and Leadbelly, but we were pretty tied together for a few years. Like we lived in the same building and he played bass in a band that I was in and my band opened for Nirvana a lot. So by the time, after Nevermind came out and they went out on tour, they sort of never came back to Olympia and I think everybody sort of felt like our friendship is sort of on hold or they're really busy. And we always expected it to resume when things slow down, and then he died, and we never got that... you know...

Dr. Portia Sabin: Closure?

Slim Moon: Yeah, not closure, I don't know. It would have been interesting if Kurt had lived to see… Dave Grohl has given back to the scene and giving back to music and been a real champion of great stuff over the years. And it would have been interesting if Kurt had lived, to see what music and scenes and endeavors he would have championed, you know?

KEXP: Yeah, I think about that a lot.

Part III

Wimps

KEXP: Jumping off of this very heavy topic. Let's talk about Wimps. My favorite band in Seattle. Lovely people. I am totally enamored with Wimps.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I love Wimps. I mean, Wimps are absolutely everything that you can want to work with. I mean, they are like the all time perfect party band. They write fabulous songs. I mean, short, sweet to the point, you know? Just super catchy, super great people. Female-led. What's wrong with Wimps? Nothing. They're the best. Absolutely love that band. You know, they were a joy to work with. I loved putting out their records. You know, we got to do fun stuff like when the planetarium had a laser Wimps show, we went up to Seattle to watch Laser Wimps, which was amazing. They're just great people and I love their records and I loved working with them.

Slim Moon: 40 years ago or something like that. My favorite band, almost 40 years ago, my favorite band in Seattle when I was first discovering independent music in Seattle, was Young Fresh Fellows. And this series of cover singles that we've been putting out this year, where bands do covers of songs that we put out. The Young Fresh Fellows are doing a Wimps cover.

KEXP: So aside from "Old Guy," do you have any particular favorite Wimps songs? I feel like Wimps get better and better with each album. So when Garbage People came out, I'm like, “How are Wimps still putting out…” Every new Wimps thing is my favorite Wimps thing.

Dr. Portia Sabin: I know, I know. "Vampire" I think is my all-time favorite Wimps song. I just love that song. But I mean, they have a million songs that I love. So it's like, if you said, if you just threw out any titles, I'd be like, "Oh my God, I love that," because it's like, they're just the best. But like everything about, like the skating weenie. Obviously, they have a great sense of humor, but also they were willing to make crazy merch and just have fun and do fun things and like, make fun videos. And, you know, they were so willing to do this stuff that it takes to make this a fun experience for everybody, you know?

KEXP: I think the great thing about Wimps is that, yeah, you know, they're a humorous party band and I feel as though like a lot of, especially the critical discourse of it, a lot of people kind of write them off as, you know, unserious or whatever. But I think they have really great songs about the banality of adulthood.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Exactly. Yeah.

KRS’s Pivot to Comedy

Dr. Portia Sabin: So, you know, I always say that Slim is a visionary, and one of the things I think he sort of saw coming down the pike was this transition from physical to digital because he got out in plenty of time. But that was rough, right? The transition. You know, anybody who works at an established label that was working, you know, during the physical era will tell you that that was a rough transition. And we really had to go, like in 2010, which was probably the worst year, we only put out one record the whole year. We really had to go down to bare bones to just survive before Spotify came into the marketplace. And then I know that it's like the last 10 years between 2011 and now, there's been a lot of ups and downs. I mean, I got in trouble for talking smack about Spotify to a hand puppet. 

So, you know, there has been a lot of stuff, but you know, long story short. Streaming is a source of revenue, right? But in those early days, there wasn't streaming and it just sort of, there was this scary, scary moment where it's like the entire world had decided that music was free. And so we were still paying the exact same amount of money to, you know, to record a record, to manufacture that record, to do publicity, etc. But as soon as you would make it, it would go onto the internet and people would just steal it, and that would be it. So it was like, you couldn't make any money back, and it looked really scary and bleak. 

So during this same time in my office, I had a staff of like five people and we loved comedy. The guys in my office were always going to see comedy shows. I started going to see comedy shows with them. Like, we were really into Portland's Funniest [Person]. Like, that was a thing that happened every year, a contest that happened every year. And we were like, I wonder if we could put out standup records and we sort of started looking around and there really wasn't a lot in the marketplace besides like Comedy Central records. And so I didn't really know how to do it. So it took me a little bit longer to start doing it than it would have had I felt immediately like, Oh yeah, I know how to do this. 

So finally this comedian, Kurt Braunohler. I sent him an email or something, I can't remember exactly what happened now, it's faded like he tweeted something about us and I tweeted back at him and said, like, "Hey, we'd love to do your record." And then he tweeted, He was like, “My 15 year old self is freaking out, Kill Rock Stars just tweeted me.” But we ended up doing Kurt's first record. 

And what I was really blown away with was how it's extremely cheap to make a comedy record because with a band, you have to go into the studio. They have to pay a producer and engineer for multiple days. There's editing, there's all sorts of stuff, mastering. With a comedy record, it's like a microphone, maybe two, maybe one or two in the audience. And it's one show and you get it and it's over. And you know, it's a little more complicated because in the early days we would tape two shows and then try to edit together the best parts of those two shows. 

So there was like a little bit more money outlay in the beginning, but ultimately nothing like it costs to make an album. And then the other amazing thing was at that time, the iTunes store was still active and it was selling full downloads and sometimes with an album, people just want to hear one track so they would just buy the one track they wanted to hear for 99 cents. Well, with a comedy record, they want to hear all of it because it's all funny and you want to hear every joke. So people were buying full album downloads of these comedy albums, which we had paid very little money. So they were breaking even really fast, and we were able to pay the artists really fast. Like, normally it takes six to nine months for, you know, if something breaks even for us to, like, start paying the artist. 

But in this case, it was like they were breaking even and we could pay them like the very next order, like the very next pay period. So that was really, really exciting and it felt really successful to all of us. You know, for me, there's nothing more successful feeling than paying the artist because I feel like that shows that everybody's bet was correct. Like, we made a bet and it was right, like it paid off. We made our money back and now everybody's making money. So yeah, that turned out to be amazingly successful. And then after Kurt, we put out Hari Kondabolu's first record, Mainstream American Comic

And it was so great, because the comedy that we were going to see the most was sort of alternative comedy like what would, I guess, be called alternative comedy. I mean, it was, you know, mostly Black people, gay people, queer people, women, just all sorts of whatever. I mean, I guess that's alternative comedy. To me, that's comedy. But you know, at the time, it was alternative comedy, and it started to feel to me a lot like the early days of Kill Rock Stars, because a lot of what people were talking about was being from a marginalized community, and they had a lot of political things to say. And so to me, it really felt like we were getting back to our Kill Rock Stars roots with riot grrrl. So it felt like a real homecoming for me. So I just felt really, really excited about being able to do the comedy albums that we did.

Obligatory DSP Content

KEXP: How long did it take for Kill Rock Stars to adjust, you know, going from the physical world to, “Now we're mostly streaming.” I feel as though physical is still a big thing for us obsessives. But out in the world, streaming is the thing. Do you still feel like y'all are trying to adjust?

Dr. Portia Sabin: Well, here's the funny thing, so nothing ever stays the same in the marketplace for whatever you know, for better or for worse. And so as streaming, you know, we get super disrupted and then streaming came in and streaming services are like trickling in. But then, as streaming is trickling in, vinyl sales started exploding. 

So it's like we'd always put out vinyl, and it had been nice and healthy and a good thing. But it was like, I don't know. It felt it was more special, it was like this band only is going to get vinyl because we know for sure that they have enough fans to buy the vinyl. And then it's like all of a sudden like Record Store Day started, I think that was 2010. And so like right around there, this vinyl resurgence started happening and it wasn't just us, the vinyl crazy people, you know, the music crazy people who are buying vinyl. It was also, you know, kids were coming into stores and buying "vinyls" or whatever it is that they call them. And it really started kind of like counterbalancing. 

So now especially for indie labels, you know, vinyl is such a huge part of the marketplace. So the streaming is great, you know, especially on those catalog artists that do well. Streaming is also, can really be driven a lot by the social media stuff. So like for Kill Rock Stars, there was a TikTok earlier, I think, last year using a Bratmobile song that rocketed that into like the top three of streaming because, you know, people saw the TikTok and then wanted to hear the song and went to Spotify or whoever and started streaming it or Apple, you know, whoever. So like it got into the algorithm. So like, there's just so many components, moving parts that it's hard to say, you know, one thing over the other thing, but at the same time, the vinyl is massive for us, too. So yes, it's streaming, but it's also physical stuff.

“Girl Germs: A Podcast About Bratmobile’s Pottymouth

Dr. Portia Sabin: I started doing a podcast myself in 2014, and it was also a radio show. And so it was sort of in this radio show format like 52 Minutes. And so when we did the Bratmobile podcast, I'd been doing a podcast for several years already, so I had a studio and I had an engineer and I had like all the component parts. We were going to reissue Pottymouth. I said, "Why don't we do a podcast series where we talk to the band and other people about the band?," and the band liked the idea. So we recorded it. I mean, like I said, I had the studio and everything, so it was easy to sort of, you know, the groundwork was there. So then I got people to come in and talk about the band, and it was just so great. 

We also did a similar thing with Elliott Smith. We did this podcast series called “Say Yes,” which was also just really amazing and fascinating to listen to the stories that people had to tell. So I mean, I think podcasting definitely, I mean, podcasting is such a weird thing because I feel like musicians didn't embrace podcasting early. But and of course, now they totally have, which is good. But I always felt like music and podcasts go together so well. And, you know, it's funny. Slim just mentioned Dave Grohl. I was like, "If this was, you know, in 2014, 2015, if Dave Grohl had like a podcast, or it was just him and a friend talking about like their favorite recipes or something, people would lose their shit!" They would totally love to listen to something like that. 

And of course, now I'm sure he does. Or, you know, his dog, you know, I mean, whatever.

Slim Moon: Who did embrace podcasting, including the people you were working with as comedians?

Dr. Portia Sabin: Comedians, yeah, exactly. So that was helpful.

Lithics

Dr. Portia Sabin: So yeah, that was an A&R move by my employee, Ben Parrish, who worked for Kill Rock Stars for many years and lived in Portland.

KEXP: Ben's a great guy. Yeah.

Dr. Portia Sabin: You know Ben?

KEXP: Through social media. But I know enough to know he's a great guy.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, he has impeccable taste in music, and he really wanted me to listen to this band Lithics. So I did, and I thought they were great and we saw them live and I thought they were great. And yeah, I mean, they're terrific people. So, yeah, we did that record. I mean, that was another one of those sort of no-brainer situations. I loved what they were doing. 

Aubrey had been an intern at Kill Rock Stars. She had worked for us, so she already knew us, but I didn't know Bob and the rest of the band, so I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know that she could sing. I didn't know their weird-ass aesthetic. Like, I just loved everything about them. They were so different and interesting, and to me, they almost seemed like a 5RC band. If 5RC had still been in existence, I think that would have been a good home for Lithics, just so interesting and innovative and everything that I love about a band, right, like unexpected. You know, when bands do things that are unexpected, I just absolutely love that. And I loved how she sort of weirdly sings like Mark E. Smith, like this kind of jerky, weird, dry delivery. And I hadn't been expecting that from her at all, so it was really a delight to have that, and we're so happy that we were able to work with them.

KEXP: Yeah, they're such a great band. They have this like, no wave, almost free jazz aesthetic, which they blend with such catchy songwriting. They're just amazing. 

The Return of Slim

Slim Moon: Well, basically, I came back to Kill Rock Stars for the same reason that Portia came to it. You know, she came to it when I left for another job, and so I came back when she left for another job.

Dr. Portia Sabin: Yeah, I got hired. The Music Business Association, which is a music industry trade association, so I said, “Hey, you want to take over this label again?”

Slim Moon: Yeah, and you know, when Portia took over, she was kind of the only one in the world who could, you know, she had done all the different jobs, she'd worked on production for us, getting the records manufactured when somebody was on vacation, she'd done it for a couple of months. And then when somebody else was on tour, she had been the publicist. She was the Gossip's manager. She's just the only person who knew it inside and out and the only person I could trust to absolutely, Kill Rock Stars has a lot of sort of values built into how we do business, and she was the one person I could trust to really keep it true to its origins, and so I think it's the same thing when she was ready to leave the person she trusted. I'm speaking for you [Portia], to keep it going in the same spirit would be the founder, you know, give it back to the guy who started it, and it's been really great to come back. I may have been thinking one thing when I left. I mean, I left to go to a different music job.

But after doing that music job and then being a manager, a music manager for a few years, I actually needed a break from the music business entirely. And I went back to college and then I went to grad school and I was a stay-at-home dad. And the break was wonderful and I came back reinvigorated and now I'm really excited about music again.

MAITA

KEXP: So, yeah, around this time, I feel like it was almost a parallel announcement, but when Slim comes back you announced the signing of MAITA. 

Dr. Portia Sabin: MAITA was a band that I got really excited about, Portland band that I had seen play and that I'd gotten their demo and I just thought they were... I loved what they were about in terms of like, I love Maria's songwriting, I love the way she sings things, it's real hard on your sleeve writing, but it had enough of an edge musically that it keeps me interested. I find that a lot of indie rock, what people now call indie rock is, to me, a little boring. Like a little pretty or a little not so edgy like you and I, obviously, if you like Mika Miko and New Bloods and things like that. You know, I like my music to have a little punch to it, a little edge, a little unexpectedness. And I felt like her songwriting really did that and the musicianship. 

And when I went to see them live, the band they reminded me the most of live, completely, weirdly, was the Pixies. And I feel like I haven't seen, I mean, I hadn't heard a band that reminds me of the Pixies in forever. Like, maybe never, you know, I was like, “Whoa.” It was so out of left field. So I just really love them. And I had been kind of in the middle of signing the contract with them and, you know, making sure they were going to make the record when I just got this job. And so I sort of just handed it over to Slim and I was like, I hope you like this band. We're kind of signing them.

Slim Moon: I love them. You know, I mean, I sort of tell it is like they were the band that were so exciting, but it made me want to come back to the label. You know, that thing about edge, well, actually all bands were hurt by the pandemic and the lack of touring and the staying home, but some were hurt more than others, and I feel like it really did a disservice to MAITA that their record came out right when the COVID hit because there's a whole additional element to MAITA that they really bring it. They're a really great rock band as well, you know, the records have some edge and some smoothness, but I don't think the records necessarily show you what a ferocious rock live band they are. And I think now that they're getting out there and touring people are going to come to appreciate that, the live side of MAITA.

Portia Sabin: Yeah. And I feel like that's, you know, that's a struggle that everybody has, right? It's really tough to capture on vinyl, you know what someone's live performance is really like. And I feel like the band that really encapsulates that for me on Kill Rock Stars is Kinski, because they are, I mean, without a doubt, my favorite band to watch live. I love them live. They're so exciting and such a great band and such great songs. And for a band that's mostly instrumental, like, I can't even believe I'm saying that, you know, it's like shocking because I love a good lyric.

The New Generation of Kill Rock Stars Bands

Slim Moon: You know, in the original, my first 15 years, I signed some bands from demos where I'd never seen them live, but a lot of the bands, most of the bands that we worked with, I'd seen live once or 10 times or 100 times. You know, some of the bands I discovered by seeing them live as the first time I ever heard of them, or sometimes somebody would suggest them to me or they'd contact me, but I wouldn't make a decision. “Do I want to work with this band until I had seen them live?” and that would help me determine. So not having live shows this last couple of years, it's been interesting the process of signing bands. 

You know, honestly, some of the bands, whether or not their live show was great was less relevant to me, like I really, really, really wanted to work with Tele Novella just because the songwriting and her singing voice and their organizational choices of how they arranged their record is brilliant. And you know, they're finally playing shows now and everything. But I wouldn't have needed to see them live, you know? But there's other bands I've just had to take it on faith. 

I mean, luckily, Tamar Aphek had live recordings on YouTube because, I mean, she made a brilliant record. But also her trio is, I know, going to be a live favorite. I really think they're going to play a lot of festivals and really be a live favorite because even though she can write cute, endearing little songs, she can also just totally jam. You know, she can really play guitar and her band can really stretch things out. And so it's been interesting, some of the bands were really just signed on the strength of the record that they had made at home or made before the pandemic. And some of the bands were signed on faith that their live show was great. You know, a band like TEKE::TEKE, it's everything.

Dr. Portia Sabin: They're still going to be amazing live.

Slim Moon: Yeah, you can tell from even what's on YouTube that their live show is terrific, but also they are studio wizards, you know, and you can hear that like they did a cover of an Unwound song where they completely change the vibe of the song. And it really shows that their studio wasn't dirty so that the original is brilliant in one way, and the cover is brilliant in an entirely different.

Dr. Portia Sabin: And TEKE::TEKE is one of those bands where it's like, I actually think they remind me of Deerhoof in their musicality, right? And their proficiency. So even though they don't sound anything like Deerhoof, that's the parallel that I make with that band.

The Future of the Family Business

KEXP: When KEXP announced that Slim was coming back, you both described Kill Rock Stars as "the family business." Do you anticipate, do you want the label to be succeeded to future generations of your family?

Dr. Portia Sabin: If you knew our son. [laughter]

Slim Moon: You know, that's been a tough question, is this question of what happens as we get older? What happens to all these recordings? Our son is 11, and he's not showing an interest in that direction. So it's an interesting challenge to figure out what if we get so old we want to retire or in what way shall we provide for the future of these recordings after we're gone? You know, I don't have answers yet, but we're getting old enough that it is something that we've been trying to figure out and think about.

Dr. Portia Sabin: And it's something I've seen a lot, you know, there's an interesting trend in American music where, you know, a lot of the independent labels throughout the history of, you know, the last hundred years in America have been run by one person, usually a guy. And they get to a point where what do you do like, what are your options? And in the past, it's often been like selling to a major label right to keep the recordings in circulation. And so, you know, I think what's fascinating about this time right now in history is that there's other options. Other options are coming into the marketplace for people. And so I think it'll be interesting to see as we go forward. But, you know, ultimately our goal is to protect these songs and make sure that people have access to them forever.

Slim Moon: Well, and to make sure that, I mean, one of the primary values of Kill Rock Stars from day one was our 50-50 profit split and paying bands honestly with integrity, keeping really good record of our income and expenses and paying people on time because a lot of labels struggle to keep good records or struggle to pay their bills on time, or even do shady bookkeeping to try to pay bands less. And we've just really tried to never be any of that, you know? And so whatever solution there is for five years from now or 100 years from now, from these recordings, one of the most important things will be the value of making sure that the bands continue to get paid the way we've always paid them, which is honestly and with integrity and on time. 

Related News & Reviews

Features Local Music

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train: A Critical Overview of Unwound

Two decades after their breakup, Martin Douglas explores the history of the influential South Sound punk band through their music.


Read More
Throwaway Style Interviews Local Music

Throwaway Style: The Return of Slim Moon

After 13 years away from the label he helped start, Slim Moon has returned as Kill Rock Stars president. Martin Douglas discusses Moon's return with both Moon himself and outgoing president Dr. Portia Sabin.


Read More
Click anywhere to return to the site