Kill Rock Stars at 30: ‘A garbage heap that grows nothing but flowers’
Matthew “Slim” Moon is president of Kill Rock Stars, the beloved independent record label that’s played a part in some of the most important albums in rock music history. The label has worked with a laundry list of influential artists, including Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, The Decemberists and Elliott Smith.
It’s Moon’s dream job, and he’s dedicated most of his life to it. But it hasn’t been without ups and downs.
“Fifteen years ago I got to a really depressed place about music,” recalls Moon. “I felt like rock became a museum. It became like blues or jazz, where there is very little creativity and a lot of wanting to recreate the music of the masters.”
Whether or not one subscribes to that loaded opinion, it’s easy to argue that rock-n-roll is no longer the cultural behemoth it was for much of the latter part of the 20th century. However, in 2022 Moon sees renewed vigor in the genre that’s been the cornerstone of the label he started 30 years ago.
“We might be deep into a post-rock world, but the weirdos that insist on still being rock-n-rollers — the creativity is just incredible,” says Moon.
“It’s fetid,” he adds with a giggle. “It’s like a garbage heap that grows nothing but flowers.”
The label’s current lineup perfectly encapsulates that new wave of talent.
Blistering guitar rock musician Tamar Aphek hails from Tel Aviv, Israel. Bass-heavy avant-garde outfit ONETWOTHREE is from Switzerland. TEKE::TEKE is a psych rock band out of Montréal, Canada that draws inspiration from traditional Japanese music.
While Kill Rock Stars might have global reach now, it started as a hyper local affair.
“Before the interconnectedness of the modern world, if you had a dream to be an actor or a musician you really moved to LA or New York or Nashville,” says 54-year-old Slim Moon.
In the mid-1980s, he moved to Olympia, Washington.
According to Moon, it was a city filled with the artistically ambitious.
“When you’re not making music with a commercial success in mind, it frees you up to push the envelope and try new things or to just get freaky,” he says. “And that was definitely happening [in Olympia].”
Moon thrived in that creative environment. He spent several years playing in bands like the experimental rock group Witchypoo and promoted shows around the Pacific Northwest. In 1991, he took a stab at self-releasing a vinyl record of poetry.
“The first release we called ‘Wordcore: Volume 1′ and side A was Kathleen Hanna doing a poem—a spoken word piece—and side B was me doing a couple of spoken word pieces,” says Moon.
It could have been a one-off, but later that year Olympia hosted an independent music festival called the International Pop Underground Convention. The multi-day event was organized by Calvin Johnson and Candice Pedersen, founders of K Records. With the encouragement of Johnson and the help of early collaborator and artist Tinuviel Sampson, Moon designed and released a compilation record to coincide with the festival.
Kill Rock Stars as we know it was born.
Alongside established regional acts like Nirvana and the Melvins, the compilation featured a virtually unknown punk group from Olympia named Bratmobile.
“The reason Bratmobile decided to work with Kill Rock Stars — number one — was they asked,” says the band’s drummer, Molly Neuman.
At the time, Bratmobile was relatively unusual. The group featured an all-woman lineup that played brash, 2-minute-long songs and embraced progressive political activism as a central pillar of its art.
“I think the element of activism that Kill Rock Stars had in the early years was somewhat different and very intentional,” says Neuman. “I think Slim is very clear that he was more interested in women’s voices. And so I think that that was a reflection in what records were put out and where the investments were made.
The fledgling record label backed early releases from a slew of like-minded punk rock bands including Heavens To Betsy and Bikini Kill, which featured vocalist Kathleen Hanna (who appeared on the very first Kill Rock Stars record).
These musicians would lead the riot grrrl revolution of the 1990s – an artistic, political and social movement rooted in modern feminism that eventually spread around the globe.
These early artists would also define Kill Rock Stars for the next three decades.
“I think the legacy [of Kill Rock Stars] is giving very intentional voice to things that are not really aspiring to be mainstream,” says Bratmobile’s Neuman. “What’s cool is that there have been a few instances where that has resulted in things that are much more mainstream or much more successful by standard metrics and measurement.”
Arguably the most fruitful partnership in the label’s history was its association with a Portland-based songwriter named Elliott Smith.
At the time, Slim Moon knew that working with Smith would represent a huge sonic departure for the record label. But he was deeply attached to Smith’s alternative folk sound.
“I’m enmeshed in this punk rock scene and I love these punk sounds… but I had this whole other thing where I had listened to singer songwriters all my entire life and my first favorite band was Bob Dylan when I was seven years old,” says Moon.
Smith’s second record with Kill Rock Stars, “Either/Or,” was already a surprising commercial success when several of his songs were featured in the film “Good Will Hunting.” He was eventually nominated for The Academy Award for Best Original Song.
“That was mainstream attention like nothing we were involved with had ever gotten [before],” says Moon.
That whirlwind culminated in an iconic moment at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony. Smith wore a white suit and performed a song with a full orchestra while Celine Dione and Madonna waited in the wings.
Smith’s breakout success ushered in a new era at Kill Rock Stars. In the following decade, the label embraced a broader sonic palette that increasingly leaned on folk rock-inspired musicians like The Decemberists and Thao Nguyen.
“It was very songwriter-centric and definitely more acoustic,” says Nguyen. “And I don’t know if I would have had a place there in a different era.”
Despite the changes, Nguyen, who released four records via Kill Rocks Stars with several bands, says the label clung to its original riot grrrl spirit.
“They were always so forthrightly feminist and gave me a courage that I didn’t have before. I think they helped me sharpen my teeth a bit,” she says.
Kill Rock Stars also became known for its prolific release schedule. The label sometimes put out more than 50 albums a year, a number that eclipsed the output of nearly all other record companies at the time.
“And that was completely because of my motor, my engine, my desire to get involved in new things all the time,” says Slim Moon.
That torrid pace eventually took a toll on Moon. He won’t call it burn out, but in 2006 he decided to step away.
“I think I just got stir crazy and I was like ‘I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’m in a rut,’” he says.
He approached Portia Sabin, his wife and most trusted friend, and asked if she would be interested in taking over the label.
“This [was] a shit or get off the pot moment,” recalls Sabin, who had worked in artist management and had filled in at the label off and on throughout the years. She didn’t hesitate.
Sabin: “I just said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’”
In a cruel twist of fate, just as she was settling into the role, the bottom fell out of the music industry. A worldwide financial crisis in 2008 was accompanied by the growing dominance of digital music and streaming services like iTunes and Spotify. They changed the way music was consumed and caused monumental disruption that threatened the very existence of the label.
“2009 and 2010 were tough, tough years for everybody in the music business,” says Sabin. “I think we put out one record in 2010, pared all our expenses back, went down to two employees, and really just survived.”
During the tumultuous years of the late 2000s, Sabin says, she never considered shutting down the label. In fact, she saw an unexpected opportunity to expand into an artform that she viewed as underserved and largely unaffected by the economic turmoil: stand-up comedy.
Hari Kondabolu was at the forefront of a wave of up-and-coming comedians who released records with Kill Rock Stars. His debut, “Waiting For 2042,” came out in 2014.
“They found a way to attract interesting voices that maybe weren’t getting the same amount of attention,” says Kondabolu of a diverse group of comedians that included W. Kamau Bell, Cameron Esposito, Kurt Braunohler and River Butcher. “And there is something validating about the fact that a rock label, a legendary rock label, would invest in artists who didn’t necessarily have a guarantee that this many people would buy their record.”
Sabin says it was a natural transition.
“Almost everyone we put out was really political, had an opinion, had a point of view that they wanted to share, and to me that felt really transformative and like we were really getting back to what Kill Rock Stars was originally started to do,” she says.
That may be true, but comedian and former Kill Rock Stars artist Ian Karmel (who grew up near Portland and is now head writer for The Late Late Show With James Corden) says that undersells the degree of difficulty associated with successfully curating stand-up albums and making money. Comedy, he says, is a notoriously insular world.
“The fact that Portia, specifically, was able to look at comedy and see there are smaller trends—that was crazy,” he insists. “That an outsider was able to see that was very rare and very cool.”
In addition to the expansion into comedy recordings, Portia Sabin also created a podcasting unit inside the label. Under that umbrella, she hosted the music industry show “The Future Of What,” where she covered and demystified complex topics ranging from copyright law to disability access at music venues.
As her business-savvy profile grew, new opportunities arrived. In 2019, she accepted a job as the president of the Music Business Association.
“And so when they offered me the job, I asked Slim if he would come back,” says Sabin.
Rested and recharged, Slim Moon is once again running the independent record label he started in 1991. Three decades later, he can’t wait to share music with a new generation of fans.
“It’s so fun to reach fifty-something people and twenty-something people and teenagers with the same music,” says Moon. “That’s part of what is possible for us as a mature 30-year-old label with a history that speaks for itself. I just don’t think it was quite that way when we started in the ‘90s.