Megan Jasper, left, and John Roderick doing what they do in the breakroom at Sub Pop Records’ Belltown office. Photo by Steven Miller.

Feature

Silencing the Knuckleheads

Musician and City Council hopeful John Roderick and Sub Pop exec Megan Jasper talk about Seattle's past and future in Jasper’s cluttered office.

At this stage in his long, eclectic career, John Roderick is known as much as a social-media gadfly with a book of published tweets as founder and principal songwriter of indie-rock band the Long Winters. This spring he announced his candidacy for one of two at-large seats on the Seattle City Council and has already amassed a formidable campaign fund. After a three-year stint as receptionist at Sub Pop Records in the late ’80s, Megan Jasper returned to the label in 1998 and helped guide it to financial solvency and vaunted status as an ongoing indie success story. Now she’s executive vice president. The pair’s roots in the Seattle music scene run deep and they’ve been friends for a decade. They talked—and talked and talked—in Jasper’s cluttered office at Sub Pop.

Megan Do you have a campaign manager?

John I do—and boy is he young. Like, 25. He’s of a different generation. Last week I got a call from Duff McKagan and Duff was like, “Hey man, I’m doing a book reading and then Krist Novoselic is gonna interview me and then we wanna talk about your campaign, so just let us know what we can do.” I told my campaign manager that Duff said we should do something at this book reading with Krist Novoselic and he was like, “ Who are those people?” And I was like, “Seriously?” No idea.

Megan That’s so awesome.

John He’s young, so he thinks he knows everything, just like we did when we were young. They’re smart, you know, people in their mid-20s. Super smart.

Megan And not caught up in yesteryear. They’re thinking about tomorrow.

John They don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. [laughs] I can’t run a campaign that’s based on Seattle 20 years ago.

Megan No one’s interested. Especially not you.

John Everybody’s interested in Seattle 20 years from now, which is actually what we were interested in 20 years ago. But the Seattle we made isn’t quite the one we imagined.

Megan When you think about that, what are the good things? What are the disappointments?

John It’s really hard for us to remember how much worse it was, right? When I moved to Seattle it was on the cusp of the gay rights movement. Most of gay culture in Seattle was all still underground and Capitol Hill was kind of a dangerous place. The whole city was.

Megan It was scary because huge parts of the city weren’t open at all. They were shut down, even downtown. Do you remember? It was dark. There was no business. Pike/Pine was empty.

John I lived at 11th and Pike, and on a Friday night you’d go out and it was like tumbleweeds. It’s hard to remember how different it was because all this progress feels natural. Like, of course it’s legal to smoke pot here! It should’ve been all along, and how weird that it wasn’t.

[Short, amiable interruption by Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman, who jokes about trying to sign Roderick’s first band, the Western State Hurricanes, in the late ’90s.]

Megan I bet that even if you had [signed with Sub Pop], you’d still be running for city council.

John Yeah, there’s a natural arc to the way this has all unfolded. The music industry keeps changing, but the whole world that the music industry lives in keeps changing. You guys have weathered changes too. If I had every article that said “Sub Pop is dead” pinned to a wall… I bet you guys do have some wall here with every “Sub Pop is dead” article, right?

Megan We don’t. It’s too many to collect. For decades now people have been writing off the label and at this point writing off the music industry. So many people are afraid of change and other people embrace it as the most exciting thing in the world. At Sub Pop, the most important thing for us is to see obstacles as challenges, because there’s always life beyond whatever the struggle is. The best shit comes from overcoming the struggle. Sub Pop has seen incredibly exciting times because we had no choice but to march through the storm.

John Do you think that it’s because of your and Jonathan’s personalities? That you don’t naturally despair?

Megan Oh, it’s not all that. I will say that I am maybe one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever known.

John Yeah, that energy is all over you.

Megan We tend to get through difficult times because the people who work here care so much about the artists and people become so close. When you know not just what you’re working toward but who you’re working for, that makes a mammoth difference. It makes people understand that they play a profound role in the lives of these musicians who give them this great gift, which is the music.

John All you have to do is be a band to know you desperately need the music business.

Megan Your music always needs to be marketed in some way; it always needs to be distributed in some way.

John What you were saying about change and the way a lot of people fear it and some people are energized by it—it’s really true in Seattle right now. We’re on the cusp of a big change and everybody feels it. The city we imagined 20 years ago, the city that had a cool transit network, that was a liberal utopia—we have the energy here to build a really great unprecedented kind of gem. The culture stuff we’ve been advancing, but the city stuff… Nobody can get around the town anymore. You can’t afford to live here anymore. And the artist community is the canary in the coalmine. If your artists can’t live here then you won’t have a city anymore. You have a housing development and a business complex. Those solutions are exciting. It’s confusing to me how you can be afraid to make that leap when it’s just a matter of portioning resources in the right way.

Megan Yeah, and understanding that you can’t control how everything evolves. But you can be a part of it.

John As I’ve joined the political class, I realized there are so many ways in which it’s analogous to the music business. You walk into the music business and the first thing people do is tell you all the things you can’t do and all the ways you’ve got to do it. A lot of people follow that advice. But then there’s always that band that comes along and says, “We’re gonna do it our own way” and then they change the machine. The same can happen in politics.

When I walked in, everybody I talked to was like, “That’s real good that you’re running for city council, but you have go on the attack, you have to be a policy wonk and you have to really nail people on their inconsistencies and get ready for the big fight.” And I was like, “I’m not going into this to fight. I’m excited about Seattle. Everybody is. We don’t have to fight, we have to work together.” That’s not a battle.

It’s very similar to the feeling I had in 1995 when people were like, “You need a promo photo. You should go stand on some railroad tracks, smoke a cigarette, maybe there’ll be a brick wall behind you. Brick wall, railroad tracks, cigarette, leather jacket.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m not going to do that.”

Megan While we chat I realize that as a musician, you impact people’s lives in mostly an internal way. You inspire them, you make them happy, you make them sad, you make them angry. I love that you’re in a position now where you can impact people’s lives in a more external way, by being a part of allowing the city we live in to evolve differently and change their day-to-day lives.

John I’m hearing people talk about their city in ways I never did before. Because the typical way we sit around in bars and talk about the city, it’s all complaints, kvetching. But when you run into people and they’re excited about you running, they’re talking about all the stuff they want to see.

Megan They’re dreaming.

John That’s right. So much of Seattle politics is played out in what some would call realism but is really a kind of cynicism. When people start dreaming about Seattle, the realist cult wants to shut that down and tell you all the ways it’s impossible and too expensive, too pie-in-the-sky. And yet the Seattle we all are dreaming about is completely within reach. We built the Interstate Highway System on the flimsy premise that we can drive away from nuclear war, right? We’ve built amazing things in this country. We built a freakin’ Space Needle in this town!

Megan We’re encouraged to shoot for the stars, not for the trashcans.

John Right! But when people say, “What about a light rail all over the city—why is that so hard?” Well, blah blah blah, money and the state, and it’s a list of reasons. But that’s just a list somebody came up with. It’s not actually an impediment if you can get enough people together and find the resources and apply them correctly. That’s the role of city government.

You know, our generation 25 years ago, everybody in the world was listening to us for a while. But we thought of ourselves as just the antagonists—the world was built a certain way and the only way you could change it was by rebelling. Now those of our generation who’ve made it—and a lot of us didn’t—now we have another opportunity, and everybody is more engaged and there’s more positivity about it.

Megan That’s one of my favorite things about living in Seattle. It’s a city, but it’s small enough that the neighborhoods feel like college towns. You can know so many people who work in different places or hang out with different people, and if you know them well enough, you want to collaborate with them. If Sub Pop can partner with the Vera Project in some way or the Pearl Jam folks or KEXP in some way, it’s fun. That’s why the whole Music for Marriage Equality campaign was such a blast, because it allowed so many people to come together and work toward something fun and exciting that creates change.

John I’m having this new experience where I’m realizing there are developers and restaurateurs and environmental groups and transit scientists and actual scientists who can be brought together in collaboration to do cool things. Some of those people have a ton of money and don’t have a lot of opportunity to apply that money in a positive way. A lot of those people have big ideas, and no one comes to them in the spirit of collaboration and says, “Seattle has to build in not just an environmentally sustainable way, but Seattle needs to be a carbon sink in 25 years.” It’s time to do it and some city has to do it first—it should be here, right? Not Shanghai, not Rotterdam, but here.

Let’s get the architects, the developers, the people who are building big projects and let’s just agree to a set of terms that we’re all going to build now according to these principles. Not address it like, “We’re gonna pass a law that requires everyone to do it this way!” But rather say, “Are we not all in agreement that the people who want to build polluting buildings should feel shame about it?”

Megan You know what kind of pollution I do appreciate?

John Tell me!

Megan Pollution of the mind. And sometimes soul.

John There’s a lot of talk about how to provide for artists in Seattle. I’m running as the artists’ candidate and a lot of developers and housing advocates turn to me and say, “How do we provide for the artists?” My answer is, you don’t need to provide for the artists, just get out of the way of the artists. Artists don’t want to live in an artist’s housing complex. They want to live in a warehouse. So you can’t just tear down the warehouses and assume that you’re going to keep a vital cultural life. It’s more than an economic argument. The value of decrepitude, the value of dirt is a thing we’ve been arguing about in Seattle since Mark Sidran, who wanted the town to be really clean, which he equated with nice and prosperous. What we were saying the whole time is the dirt is where it all happens.

Megan Yeah, I mean, this is where grunge came from.

John Literally the word means dirty.

Megan I have a question for you: Did being one of the Seattle music commissioners play a role in your wanting to step into city politics?

John It did. I was on the Grammy board for a full term and watched that organization—which has a lot of money and is a national organization—try to get music education kickstarted here in Seattle. Then I was appointed to the music commission and saw how much firepower there was in that room, and how great the challenge was to activate all that goodwill.

I’ve always been political. My dad was in politics; it wasn’t an alien world. But watching our music community go from being a vilified bunch of degenerates in the city’s eye, where they were actively trying to squash us: “Keep kids out of music and keep those kids away from our downtown!” And over the 25 years I’ve lived here seeing the music community keep saying, “No, we are integral to the town!” We’ve made so many arguments that were economically important, culturally important and seeing the city gradually accept us as a…

Megan An undeniable force.

John Undeniable force! Watching the people who have been in it all this time grow and become more active, more confident. So much of the mentality still regards us as a window dressing, as a cultural thing you apply at the end of the process to make it seem like we also care about culture. Music education and arts in every aspect of civic life is a pillar of Seattle. So of course one of us should run for public office. It naturally follows. We are citizens and I’m a leader in my community and one of us has to step forward.

Megan Have you brought your guitar to any of the meetings? Please say yes.

John I haven’t. You know, I used to talk a lot at our shows, and as time went on I talked more and more, because I loved it. It’s my show, you paid to see me, and I’ve got a microphone so I would spin stories and get in conversations with the audience. But I always had that guitar, which was plugged into a very loud amplifier, so when the story started to wander or when the audience started to get bickery, I could always light it up with like, Wooooo! One two three four!

Megan Shut up the fucking knuckleheads!

John Right. And now I can’t hide behind a guitar. I have to stand up there just all-talk-no-rock.

Megan You can hide behind your tie.

John I haven’t really been in a debate yet. I feel like when that happens my years of silencing hecklers is gonna be a good set of skills.

Megan Well, you could shut them down with egg farts.

John This is one of the things about growing up: At a certain point you’re an adult and you still don’t feel like one. Then there arrives a moment when you’re an adult and you do feel like one. I think the way my opponents and the incumbents on the current city council are gonna run is by saying that they have experience and that they’re the grown-ups in the room. We’re used to that kind of condescension from the city government. But we’re grown-ups now. We know what we can do.

Megan We choose to do what we want.

John And choose to not bicker or hesitate or stall. That’s an adult choice, not one that needs to be moderated by voices of authority.