The co-founder of Barsuk Records reflects on two decades of Northwest music.
Barsuk Records is one of the Seattle music scene’s most enduring institutions. Unofficially founded in 1998, the label helped pave the way for the city’s ‘post-grunge’ movement, and introduced a new generation of music fans to bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, Rilo Kiley, The Long Winters, and Nada Surf. In honor of the label’s 15th anniversary, a four-night, five-concert series featuring some of Barsuk’s most notable alumni will kick off tonight at Showbox at the Market, and continue all weekend at different venues throughout the city. All proceeds from the shows will be donated to Gilda’s Club Seattle, an organization that provides various services for cancer patients and their loved ones.
Not surprisingly, Barsuk Records CEO Josh Rosenfeld is an accomplished musician in his own right. In the early 90’s, he was invited to become the bassist for This Busy Monster by the band’s co-founders, vocalist Christopher Possanza and guitarist Jason Avinger. This Busy Monster played shows with the likes of Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, and their psychedelic sound and idiosyncratic lyrics earned the group cult status throughout the Northwest. In 1994, Rosenfeld, Possanza and the rest of the band decided they wanted to create a record label to showcase material from not only their own band, but other talented local artists and groups. Barsuk Records was born ― and the rest, as they say, is history.
I recently chatted with Rosenfeld about his most memorable experiences within Seattle’s eclectic music scene over the past two decades.
What initially brought you to Seattle?
I was born close to Telluride, Colo. In the 70’s, it was a hippie paradise; now it’s a playground for the wealthy, and not quite as cool. Still beautiful, though. My family moved around the Southwest a fair amount, and we settled in Bellingham when I was in high school.
When did you decide to take up bass guitar, and who were some of your early influences?
I decided to take up bass guitar, somewhat passively, in high school. After I moved to Seattle in the 90’s, Jason [Avinger] encouraged me to learn to play the bass better and join This Busy Monster. Jason wrote most of the bass parts for the band before I got good enough to write my own bass parts, so he was one of my earliest influences. Others include Leslie Langston (bassist for Throwing Muses). She’s such a tremendous, smart, elegant, awesome bass player. There’s also Colin Moulding from XTC, and one can never undersell the great Paul McCartney.
Tell us about the early days of This Busy Monster. How did the group form, and what were your first few shows like?
Christopher and Jason were in their early to mid-20’s when they founded the band. They started writing songs in college, and then started doing recordings together. I joined the band when I was 18 or 19, somewhere in there. I used a fake ID when we played shows in bars.
Barrett Wilke, who I had worked with at Cellophane Square in the U-District, joined the band as the drummer. We believe our first show was at a bar called Gibson on 2nd Avenue and Stewart, where they served questionable Thai food. We also played at Re-Bar, The Crocodile Cafe, and the (now-closed) Velvet Elvis. And let’s not forget the Lake Union Pub, with its sticky floor.
What are some of your favorite memories playing in a Seattle rock band during the 1990s?
Oh, so many memories! The memories that spring immediately to mind include a short Northwest tour we did with Built to Spill, Heatmiser, and the Purdins. Those were some really great shows. We had a picnic at a park in Boise, Idaho, with some of the other bands, and that was a super fun time. Playing at the Ditto Tavern with Hush Harbor is another one. There were maybe 10 or 12 people in the bar, and we all demanded an encore from Hush Harbor.
Those two pop to mind, but the general feel around that time was that there was a lot of exciting music being made that wasn’t grunge music. It was a great experience being a part of that time, knowing the people in those bands, and seeing so many of them be successful.
In 1998, you unofficially co-founded Barsuk Records with your bandmate Christopher. For those with similar aspirations, how exactly do a couple of guys start a label from scratch?
The only experience we had was that we were musicians, and Barrett and I had a little bit of insight into the retail side of the business from working at the record store. Everything else we figured out on our own, or we asked advice from friendly people who were willing to help us. Megan Jasper from Sub Pop Records was very kind to us in the early days. There was also Chris Takino, who ran Up Records during that time. He was a great guy, and we really miss him a lot.
There was a lot of trial and error. In the late 90’s, there wasn’t a huge amount of information online. So we just sort of felt our way down the hall, in the dark. It’s really helpful to have super good music to put out. If we had been putting out records that no one was interested in, then we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to figure things out on our own ― because there wouldn’t have been any opportunities, period.
Where did the name ‘Barsuk Records’ originate?
We named the label after Christopher and Jason’s dog, who was a black lab-pitbull mix. He was named Barsuk because, when he was a puppy, he looked very badger-like. Barsuk is Russian for badger.
Barsuk Records has released music from high-profile groups like Death Cab for Cutie, Harvey Danger, Nada Surf, Ra Ra Riot, and Rilo Kiley. What are some of the lesser-known gems in your label’s discography that music fans should check out?
The Wooden Birds are a really tremendous band. Some people know about them, but they aren’t a household name by any stretch. Pearly Gate Music is another example. I don’t know if many people heard the albums we put out by Jim Noir, a guy from Manchester who played only four or five shows in the U.S. I think those records are really great pop music. Those are probably the ones that come immediately to mind.
2013 marks the 10th anniversary of Death Cab for Cutie’s landmark album, Transatlanticism. What were your impressions of this album the first time you listened to it?
In 2003, we also released The Long Winters’ When I Pretend to Fall, Nada Surf’s Let Go, and Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter’s Reckless Burning. Just speaking as a listener, my first impressions of these albums, down the line, were that all four were really incredible. And as 2003 progressed, there was definitely a feeling of, “Wow, we’re having a really good year!”
Death Cab came and played us Transatlanticism in our old office. They set up speakers and a stereo in one of the rooms, and we just sat and listened to the record in stunned silence. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day.
Did you immediately know you had a hit record on your hands?
No. You can never really tell that stuff. The first time I heard the Pearly Gate Music album, I felt it was going to be a huge album. And I still think it should be. I hope that everyone who reads this interview goes and buys that album. It’s really underappreciated. But over the years, I think we’ve learned to not rely too much on how we feel as music fans about the music we put out, in trying to predict how other people will think about it.
The Barsuk Records main office recently relocated to the Interbay neighborhood. How’s the new space treating you?
It’s treating us all right. It’s a little smaller than our last place, so we still have some sorting through to do. But it’s very nice ― great view of the Magnolia Bridge.
In your opinion, how has Seattle’s alternative scene evolved in the last 20+ years? Where do you see it headed?
Probably can’t make any predictions about where it’s headed. One thing that’s happened is it’s gotten much more expensive to live in Seattle, and unfortunately a lot of musicians have moved to Portland for that reason. But by and large, something that has stayed constant in Seattle the whole time is that it’s a pretty music-friendly environment. We have so many great clubs where bands play frequently. We have KEXP, and even the commercial stations here play really good music. There are a lot of indie record stores here, while a lot of other cities can’t really sustain those anymore.
The music culture here is incredible, and I think people who live here take it for granted. They should try living in other cities for a while if they want to gain an appreciation for the number of opportunities in Seattle for people who love music.
What were some of the highlights from the ’15 Years of Barsuk Records’ extravaganza at Bumbershoot 2013?
At the beginning of the day, there was a panel that [Harvey Danger frontman] Sean Nelson was kind enough to moderate. [The Long Winters lead vocalist] John Roderick, [Pedro the Lion and Headphones frontman] David Bazan, and I talked for awhile about the history of the label. Then there was an outside stage, where David Bazan, Ramona Falls, and Mates of State played three shows in a row. After a dinner break, we went inside and saw Ra Ra Riot and Death Cab play in Key Arena. It was incredible to see a packed house listening to Death Cab play Transatlanticism live, which I’m pretty sure they hadn’t ever done before. It was an extremely gratifying day overall, and we all ended it with a very warm glow.
What should ticket-holders expect from the four-night concert series that kicks off tonight to honor the label’s 15th anniversary?
We’ve been really fortunate over the years to work with some incredible musicians and people. When we decided to have this celebration, we called around and sent some emails ― and basically everyone we’ve ever worked with were enthusiastic about making time in their schedules and getting to Seattle. Every night is going to be jam-packed with fantastic music. It’s like a family reunion, since we don’t get to see some of these people very often.
Proceeds from the five shows will benefit Gilda’s Club Seattle. What can you tell us about this local non-profit organization?
When we decided we wanted to do this crazy thing ― and I have to say, putting together what amounts to a ‘little festival’ is a lot more work than it seems ― we decided we wanted to keep the prices low and try to get all the bands here. The bands have been really giving in terms of not requiring fees, so we’re just covering expenses for each group. The net proceeds from the shows and merchandise sales will go to Gilda’s Club.
We picked Gilda’s Club because a lot of people in our sphere ― friends, people we know in the industry, and actually one of our employees ― have been hit with cancer in the last couple of years. So we wanted to raise some money for an organization working in our local community to help people who are dealing with cancer. A lot of money raised for cancer research is “looking for a cure”, but it’s perennially really hard for for organizations like Gilda’s Club that provide information and support services to cancer patients and their families.
All five shows are currently sold out. If you were lucky enough to snag tickets, here is this weekend’s lineup:
- Thursday, Nov. 7 at Showbox at the Market (Doors at 7pm): Nada Surf (playing Let Go in its entirety) + Mates of State + Prom + Special Guests
- Friday, Nov. 8 at the Neptune Theatre (Doors at 6:30pm): The Long Winters (playing When I Pretend to Fall in its entirety) + David Bazan + Minor Alps + Sunset Valley
- Saturday, Nov. 9 at Neumos (Doors at 7pm): Phantogram + Menomena + Maps & Atlases + Yellow Ostrich + Cymbals Eat Guitars + Say Hi
- Sunday, Nov. 10 at Tractor Tavern (Doors at 6:30pm): Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter (playing Reckless Burning in its entirety) + Rocky Votolato + Laura Gibson (solo) + Special Guests
- Sunday, Nov. 10 at Sunset Tavern (Doors at 9:30pm): Ra Ra Riot + Aqueduct
You can find the latest news about the label’s artists, album releases, and events by visiting the official Barsuk Records website, or following them on Twitter @barsukrecords. Please visit the Gilda’s Club Seattle website for more information about this non-profit organization.