Experiencing Nirvana: An interview with Sub Pop founder/author Bruce Pavitt

By Morgan Y. Evans

Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe, 1989 is a timely and potent reminder of how Grunge hit the world with an electric roar that turned to a life- changing tidal wave that couldn’t be ignored. These days a lot of bands go through the motions but the photos of pre-Nevermind Nirvana during eight crazy days in Europe (with fellow classic Seattle bands Tad and Mudhoney) show musicians in it for the punk rock mission of it all. The Berlin Wall was falling down as the Sub Pop alumni represented in this gorgeous, photo lush Bazillion Points- published rock tome were on the cusp of knocking down cultural barriers of their own. Author and Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt believes the 1989 London Lamefest showcase that the book leads up to was the pivotal moment when the British press helped sell Nirvana to the rest of the world. The rest is contagious history.

This book is more of a time machine or document than some Nirvana books that seem to have an “agenda.” I admire you give them the same weight in the book as Tad and Mudhoney. You give the whole experience of that time.

Experiencing Nirvana - Bruce Pavitt

Yeah, the whole experience. Thanks. Well, I had a front row seat to the whole explosion and I figured it was about time to share some stories. These images can help illustrate that peak moment of the Sub Pop showcase in London, because I believe that was the tipping point where the Seattle scene was officially launched as an international phenomenon. It was the moment Nirvana really stepped on the world stage. Until you really got in front of the media and got those photos out there and reviews out there, in this case the British press, it was like a tree falling in the woods and no one there to hear it.

People talk about their OK Hotel performance where they played ‘Teen Spirit’ for the first time or Reading Festival. But this period you can really see the excitement building around the band between Bleach and Nevermind.

Definitely. For whatever reason I was compelled to take a lot of pictures of the audience and now I am stoked. People in their Nirvana or Mudhoney shirts. Sub Pop shirts. It was definitely building over in Europe and the book captured Nirvana at their peak pre-Nevermind moment.

You also have some great contextual comments in there. It is sociology. I loved how you show Billy Childish in the book and also discuss the ‘Madchester’ scene. Contrast it to the U.S. scene. People don’t know nowadays how important it was to win the British Press. Now you have the internet.

Absolutely. Sub Pop bands were locked out of all mainstream media in the United States. You couldn’t get on mainstream media. You couldn’t get in Rolling Stone. So our strategy was hire the bands with the best live shows, get ’em in a van and have them tour. It would build from a grassroots level. We knew getting our three best live bands around Europe would generate interest and the bands we were working with I felt were some of the best live bands in the world. Certainly the level of physical expressiveness was shocking. Leaping in the air. Smashing guitars. Bending over backwards in crazy yogic postures. For people to see three bands doing that blew some minds.

Even the Rough Trade record store shot of a girl really excitedly holding up two records. Or one of the best humanizing parts of the book when you ask Kurt what his favorite part was about playing the huge London show and he doesn’t talk about how good it was for Nirvana. He talks about how happy he was to play “Molly’s Lips” by The Vaselines for people. Passing on what he loved.

Exactly. That was really the true currency in the underground. Turning people on to new bands was rewarding in itself. Nobody really came home with any money. What makes the indie culture kind of interesting is the whole willingness to share information.

You talk about how some of the grunge bands had a bit more populist appeal than idiosyncratic bands like Beat Happening or Fugazi, but I had ‘Love Buzz’ coffee from Equal Exchange this morning. Or, did you ever in your wildest dreams did you think Krist Novoselic would do a song with fucking Paul McCartney some day?

(Laughing) No. I didn’t. I met these guys in the very beginning. The first time they came to Seattle there were four people in the room. They didn’t even have a posse to give them support. The first time I met Kurt in ’87 he was too humble to mention he was in a band. He just said he was a Melvins roadie. One of these days this band is gonna knock Michael Jackson, the world’s most popular entertainer off the charts and eventually Novoselic is gonna be jamming with Paul McCartney? No way. It’s surreal beyond measure, I must say. My personal interest, before the label I did indie music radio and had a column throughout the 80’s. Relentlessly promoting the decentralization of pop culture. I saw that bands like The B52’s could break out of Athens or Devo could break out of Ohio. To me that was absolutely fascinating. Sometimes if artists are from a more distant locale they can create a weirder sound. They are essentially doing it for their friends. Eventually it gets bigger and bigger. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. I believed in the idea that every city has good art and music. It just needs the right infrastructure or opportunity and promotion. That’s what we tried to do with Sub Pop. Now bands get together and post their first show on Youtube. There’s no mystery.

R.E.M. or Nirvana were such important umbrella bands. Later on you have clones but it was important for those bands to break through and create awareness for people of subcultures.

Absolutely. I remember R.E.M. used to stop by the office a few times. R.E.M. did a cover of Beat Happening’s “Redhead Walking” and Beat Happening were the ultimate D.I.Y. band.

Calvin’s voice was never gonna be on pop radio.

It never was but they somehow wrote these really great songs. To hear R.E.M. come out as an encore and do a Beat Happening cover, that was mind blowing on another level. I remember seeing Beat Happening’s first concert in somebody’s kitchen. Calvin Johnson was dancing on somebody’s kitchen table.

Another great part is when you and Jonathan Poneman are seeing Nirvana for the first time and loved Kurt’s voice but thought they lacked stage presence.

It was shockingly not there. Cobain’s voice is what carried the day. It reminded me of John Fogerty and then later on I’d read that they’d started a Creedence cover band a couple years earlier. Kurt had that incredibly soulful Fogerty voice. There’s a reason Creedence stuff never slowed down. You look at the re-issue charts and Creedence stuff is always kind of at the top. That kind of soul is really wanting in a lot of rock music.

Talk about populism. The pendulum swings between people wanting working class, relatable stuff or wanting to look up to rock stars as gods.

Yes. Very, very good point. I could right a book on that alone. Grunge was a different strain of punk. Both cultures had in common that there shouldn’t be a wall between the band and the audience. That’s the big difference between punk roots and, say, Indie rock superstar Coachella now. That scene is backstage passes and V.I.P. and the whole rock star culture is back with a vengeance. I always appreciate how to this day Mark Arm of Mudhoney is hanging out in the club with fans. That’s part of why they still have a career 25 years later even with no hit record. They are really personal and people love ’em.

Some bigger bands don’t stray far from press release talking points.

Bruce: Yeah. It’s vacuous. Hopefully in this book you see people being real. How down to earth and humble these people were; the deep level of camaraderie that was in the scene. I hope that influences young people.

What would the world have been like without Nirvana? Kurt during his career as the band broke big wrestled with the audience turning into “the guys that beat you up in high school.” Obviously things get diluted when they break huge but some parts will always remain pure, like Nirvana’s songs or aesthetic.

Yeah, well I guess your core question was is the world better off? It’s an interesting question but in Nirvana’s case the music was very activating and soulful. It came from such a soulful place. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say Nirvana changed their life or that they were at work and first heard the tune and left the office to go buy it! It was life changing. Unfortunately, Kurt paid a huge price for that. The pressures of that level of stardom, I can’t imagine. For anyone trying to raise a family. I’m a family guy and have some kids…I would just think the challenges would be pretty overwhelming. Mudhoney, it’s been bittersweet. They never had a huge record to cash out on but they’ve kept it real. They are normal guys and enjoy each other’s company. They’ve been able to travel around the world. I think they are in New Zealand right now. They have sustainability.

Their self-titled or My Brother The Cow are some of my all time favorite records. Mudhoney broke bigger in Europe.

The States at the time was all about MTV. Nirvana made it into regular rotation, which was like putting Jackie Robinson into baseball. They didn’t know if a 120 Minutes band would fly. It was a big experiment but that was the key right there.

Sure. I can remember exactly where I was when I saw the “Teen Spirit” video.

Mark Arm is the perpetual kind of outsider with a big heart and incredible spirit. Those early Mudhoney shows in the late 80’s-early 90’s were without question some of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. They are old guys now and put on a good show but in ’89…mind blowing. There’s one photo I caught of Mark in Pourtsmouth bent all the way back and there’s a body flying through the air. It’s the back cover of the book. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Every time I took a photo someone was jumping off the stage. I’m so glad I was able to capture that energy and share with people.

There’s also great historical stuff, like Nirvana being in Berlin when the wall was coming down and seeing people shopping on the other side of the wall for the first time since the sixties.

This really should be shot as an 8-day biopic Hollywood film. It starts off with Kurt threatening to jump off a P.A. stack in Rome and raging in a club on ecstasy with Eastern and Western Germans coming together for the first time in years and ending with the triumph of the London showcase. I was talking about it with my wife this morning and she said, “this has to be made into a movie.” And having that historical signifier, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The most revolutionary moment in Europe at that time. For me in my mind, and that will sound weird, it foreshadowed an indie and punk band knocking the King of Pop off the top of the charts. That was, for anyone into indie, like the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was never gonna happen.

If they make a movie it is too bad Chris Farley is dead cuz he would’ve made a great Tad Doyle. Just his facial expressions. Do you stay in touch with the Tad guys? I love that Lumbar record he just played on.

Chris would’ve made a great Tad. You’re right. Yeah, I see those guys. Tad is a local folk legend. He’s running a metal studio out of his basement called Witch Ape Studios.

How did you choose Bazillion Points as publisher? They put out Tesco Vee’s book. Ian Christe does great stuff.

I started the project by uploading it to iTunes as an E-book last November and I was drawn to the idea of the distribution capabilities of an E-book. That anyone around the world could download it. Ian contacted me about putting it out as a book and the company has been great to work with. Great people. Lot of integrity. It’s been a pleasure. It’s taken on a life of its own. The timing is pretty good with Nirvana being inducted into the Hall of Fame. People should revisit the pre-fame Nirvana. Bazillion is also putting out a second book of mine, Subterranean Pop. There’s thousands of reviews of some of the deepest array of indie stuff that was happening in the states. It will serve as an index of classic indie artists who are represented.

Glad you mentioned the Hall of Fame. It’s so weird to hear Nirvana on Classic Rock Radio or even Stone Temple Pilots. What the hell is going on? I’m old!

Yeah. Totally.


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