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The Seattle Miracle: Bruce Pavitt, Sub Pop And Experiencing Nirvana

Tuesday, 04 March 2014 Written by Josh Adams

Photo: Bruce Pavitt

Bruce Pavitt has been around. After spending the best part of a decade chronicling the vast landscape of American independent music as both radio DJ and writer, he eventually took the bull by the horns and, alongside Jonathan Poneman, started putting records out in the late '80s. Their label took its name from his DIY zine: Sub Pop.

What was initially a small-time venture designed to shift records they liked eventually became a project that would provide a leg up to some of the greatest rock acts of the late 20th century.

We caught up with Pavitt following the release of his new photobook, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe 1989, which chronicles an eight day period in the early touring history of Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney during the build up to Sub Pop’s LameFest in London.

So, how did you get Sub Pop started?

The roots go back to 1979. I started an indie radio show in Olympia, Washington called Subterranean Pop. The radio station I DJd at was called KAOS Radio and it had a very, very unique music policy in that it prioritised independent records.

At that time the punk culture was really kind of developing, but for me the most radical part of the punk culture was the DIY ethic – bands putting out their own singles – and so I dedicated my show to DIY music. I was a little ahead of the curve because there weren’t a lot of stations or shows doing that.

From the show I started a fanzine in 1980 called Subterranean Pop, reviewing indie American music, most of it punk influenced. By issue three the name had been shortened to Sub Pop. Through the zine I also put out cassette compilations from 1981 to ’83 and in 1986 put out a vinyl version of one of my compilations that was called 'Sub Pop 100'.

In 1987 I released the first Green River record. That band included members that went on to form Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. After that record my business partner Jon Poneman and I joined forces to release the first Soundgarden record. In 1988 we opened our corporate office doors and hence the grunge revolution to follow.

How important was punk and college radio to the foundation of Sub Pop?

It was absolutely crucial. Back in the pre-internet era attaining media attention for our music was very, very difficult. College radio and the network of fanzines was pretty much all we had. Hence us really trying to bring our bands over to the UK because the UK press was the dominant music press in the world with the competing music weeklies: Sounds, Melody Maker and NME.

On top of that you had the BBC. We had support from John Peel, so England was everything. It allowed us to get out of the indie-rock ghetto in America and actually get some somewhat mainstream attention in England. And of course that reverberated around Europe and the US and so forth. So the book, Experiencing Nirvana, essentially documents Nirvana and two other groups going from obscurity to stepping onto an international stage via the media.

New Musical Express [NME] referred to Nirvana as ‘Sub Pop’s answer to the Beatles’. You can bet major labels in America were reading that quote and opening their chequebooks. So the ironic twist of our successful campaign in England was that all the bands basically got poached and we had to start from scratch. That’s the punchline of the book that isn’t really discussed.

In the 1980s there was a big difference between US and UK indie culture. What effect did that have on you as an American label?

In the late ‘80s England had established a very sophisticated indie culture with labels like 4AD, Factory, Rough Trade. They were already established, they had money, the records looked great, they were getting mainstream exposure from the NME, the BBC and so forth.

In the United States, UK indie acts were seen with much more respect. MTV was the most powerful music media in the States at that time and their alternative music show, which was called 120 Minutes, played 95% UK acts. We occasionally got videos on that show though it was very difficult.

So American underground indie music was just not very well respected, by nature of the fact that the UK had an infrastructure that supported indies and that it was much more advanced, sophisticated and organised than the United States. There really was a huge, huge gulf, which makes the Seattle indie explosion of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s all the more miraculous. What we accomplished at Sub Pop was a miracle considering the odds.

The US is so vast. I think I read somewhere that you told your acts to really up their game on tour because of that simple fact.

Yes, the key to our thinking was to sign great live bands, because you were shut out of radio and print media apart from college radio and fanzines. So what we did was started purchasing really cheap vans and assisting with tour support for our bands, which was pretty unheard of at that time for indie American labels.

We did not have much money at the time so we bought, for example, a van for $600 and gave it to Mudhoney and they travelled the entire United States in that horrible, horrible van. But they made it to New York and got a rave review in the Village Voice, which was pretty influential at the time.

So, that’s how challenging it was to get any media attention. This band had to travel 3,000 miles, huffing carbon monoxide in a crappy van, to get a one paragraph plug in the Village Voice. But it made all the difference. That’s how ridiculously challenging it was. Some bands wouldn’t do their first gig until Minneapolis, which is a 2,000 mile drive. That’s how isolated Seattle was.

When did you first notice that the bands you were signing and the scene you were in were something different from what had come before?

Yeah, it was kind of new form: a mashup of pop, punk and indie. We were excited about what was going on. The scene was very inclusive, I swear anyone with a flannel shirt could basically show up, you know what I mean? You didn’t have to spend $500 on your clothes and that was part of why it was cool and revolutionary.

I would say that when Soundgarden got signed to A&M, which happened in ’88, we knew it was starting to be something else. There was national and corporate interest in what was going on. So Soundgarden really gave us a hint of that, however the other groups that we were working with were a little rougher around the edges and there were no certified rock stars like Chris Cornell.

So we weren’t really sure whether any of the other groups would blow up like they did. I will say however, that as outlined in the book, the London showcase [LameFest] that happened on December 2, 1989 provided a glimpse into potential global success because it was fairly well received and it was well done. All three bands performed very well and the audience reaction was fairly ecstatic as you can see by the numerous crowd shots in the book.

How did that crossover happen? Just how do you go from being nobodies in the American northwest to ruling the planet?

We had opened our doors April 1, 1988. We struggled, really struggled, to keep the doors open. Literally the phone company was telling us that they were going to unplug our phone, we had to beg for extensions. It was brutal. Right around Christmas of ’88 we released a three record boxset with this gorgeous booklet called ‘Sub Pop 200’. It sold out immediately.

We did 5,000 pressings, but the real payoff for that was John Peel writing a review in the London Observer in Februrary of ’89, in which he states that Sub Pop ‘had the most distinctive regional sounds since Tamla Mowtown’. That is a statement. That is a huge endorsement by possibly the most influential person in alternative music on the planet.

Two months later, Everett True came out to us from Melody Maker. We infamously paid for his plane ticket, which was apparently scandalous that we would pay somebody to come out and check out the scene. We did that and he was fairly excited and he claimed through Melody Maker that Seattle had one of the most happening rock scenes in the world. That’s really where the momentum happened: between John Peel and Everett True.

The Lamefest showcase of December ’89 I think amped it up a notch because a variety of reporters and photographers from the UK were able to witness all three of these bands play together and things really started to take off from then. In 1991 Mudhoney releases ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’. In August of ’91 it actually entered the pop charts and sold almost a 100,000 copies.

A month later Nirvana releases Smells Like Teen Spirit and ‘Nevermind’. Our logo is on the back with the album, they went on to DCG. They had a couple of points on the record and by Christmas we realised that they had sold three million records - around that anyway - and we knew we were going to get a check for half a million bucks…it was pretty insane.

And then it just kept getting bigger. Soundgarden were putting out more records, Pearl Jam was huge and this movie called ‘Singles’, which was a romantic comedy which took place in Seattle with the indie-rock scene as a backdrop, became huge. That soundtrack sold a million copies. So ’91 and ’92 was absolute insanity in Seattle.

What made you revisit this era with your books over 20 years later?

To be honest, after Kurt’s passing I was very deeply affected and it was very hard for me to listen to Nirvana’s music for a very long time. By the mid ‘90s the indie and alternative scene just felt to me to be so much more corporate. Post-’Nevermind’ every indie band had fantasies of becoming famous millionaires and they all had attorneys.

I ended up leaving the music business in ’96. The revolutionary spirit that I experienced in punk in the late ‘70s and the indie underground in the ‘80s, that spirit seemed to be gone. I’m not really a business guy, frankly [I’m] more of an artist or cultural revolutionary type. I like to stir things up, that’s why punk appealed to me. I’m not a guy with a suit who sits in a cubicle and enjoys talking to attorneys, that’s not my style.

I became so disillusioned with indie rock, I became despondent over Kurt’s suicide and I wound up moving to a remote island for 17 years and I just recently moved back to Seattle. Occasionally, I go through my past and sift through my memorabilia and stuff and there were a few photos that I took on that trip that just really stood out, in particular that photo on the front cover of Kurt standing in front of the cross at the Colosseum.

I began thinking: ‘This is such an iconic photo, this has to be shared’. The more I flicked through the images the more I realised there was kind of a mini narrative there and it was about time to put it together, put it out. In doing so I was able to finally process what happened: that a friend of mine who I met at the beginning of his career became the world’s most famous rock star and blew his head off. That’s a lot to take in and it took me a long time to truly come to terms with it. For a lot of people it has been hard to revisit the Nirvana story because there was so much drama that accompanied the success and the music.

I’m just hoping this book inspires young musicians to revisit the earlier part of the Nirvana story. It’s not just becoming an instant star, it’s about working the grassroots, supporting your friends, being resourceful. There are a lot of values in indie culture that I think are very important: passion, cooperation, resourcefulness, things like that. I think those values come across in the book.

What is your take on Sub Pop as a label today?

I think they’re really dynamic. If you dig into their catalogue it’s really all over the map which is kind of cool. They’ve got this band - just as an example of the dynamic nature of the label - called Clipping. It’s a noisy, industrial take on hip hop that’s very extreme, very uncommercial, very unusual. There’s a hip hop duo called THEESatisfaction who kind of remind of me Lauryn Hill in a way, very cool stuff.

So they’re very dynamic in that they’ve got records like Beach House that can break in the Top 10 of the pop charts, which is a pretty hard thing to do, and also bands like Metz who are one of the noisiest and intense bands I’ve ever seen in my life. They’ve put out some creative stuff, but the main difference between Sub Pop now and Sub Pop then is that I feel that in the early days there was a deeper sense of connection with the artists because most of them lived in the same city. There’s something special about that.

That’s how I personally like to work: with friends, face-to-face on a daily basis. There’s a lot more interaction and I’ve always been much more interested in scenes than in bands. I never really listen to band demos, that’s totally not my style. You go to a party or a show, you meet people, you see what people like, you interact. That’s how I’m wired. The way the label is run right now, there’s interesting artists from all over the world but they’re not really interfacing much and there’s not a lot of synergy, where there’s a lot of creative interaction between the artists. That goes against the grain with how I think about things.

What’s next for you?

My next project is a collection of my indie rock writing from the ‘80s and I will say that when this book comes out I think it’s going to serve as the very best index of indie American music of the ‘80s. Nobody was reviewing the volume and diversity of indie records like I was. I reviewed records from 1980 to ’88, all different genres. That’s all I did, 24/7, so when this collection comes out I think people will be able to flick through it and get a deep sense of what was going on under the radar at that time.

Music nerds are going to be very stoked to check this out. There are a lot of recordings I reviewed that are long forgotten and are not even available on the internet or anything – as an archival piece I’m very proud of it.

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