Experiencing Nirvana: Bruce Pavitt’s New Photo Book Chronicles Groundbreaking ’89 Tour

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    [Photo: Bruce Pavitt]
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    [Photo: Steve Double]
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    [Photo: Steve Double]
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    [Photo: Steve Double]

As he is quick to point out, Bruce Pavitt had a front row seat to one of rock’s most exciting periods. In 1986 the Chicago native formed the influential indie label Sub Pop Records to chronicle the louder than love sounds of his adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington. Along with partner Jonathan Poneman they released seminal recordings from such groups as Soundgarden (whose lead guitarist Kim Thayil is a childhood friend), Mudhoney and most famously Nirvana, whom Pavitt is said to have personally signed. The latter two bands are the subjects of Pavitt’s new book, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, available now from Bazillion Points Books. The book chronicles in photos and text Nirvana’s 1989 tour of Europe with label mates Tad, leading up to their career making appearance at the Lame Fest Sub Pop UK Showcase in London with headliners Mudhoney. Bruce Pavitt spoke to us about grunge’s golden era and the groundbreaking record label he left in 1996 but still maintains close ties to.

Kurt Cobain at the Piper Club, Rome, 11/27/89.

VH1: How did the idea of this book come about and come together?

Bruce Pavitt: First of all, I should preface by saying that I’m highly aware of the fact that I had a front row seat to one of the most exciting periods in music history and I really felt it was about time to share some stories. I went through a box of memorabilia and the more I went through the photos of this particular trip to Europe, the more I realized that there was a narrative, a mini-drama, that kind of unfolded and that the whole collection of images served as a storyboard for a film. As I pieced it together, I said, I should put this together as a book. Initially it came out as an eBook last fall and then (indie publisher) Bazillion Points picked it up and now we’ve got a hard cover edition coming out this week with some additional images by photographer Steve Double and also licensed a (Seattle music magazine) Rocket article from 1989 where they interview Kurt and Nirvana when they’re over in Germany.

What was that storyline that you saw being told?

It was essentially the kind of classic hero’s journey. A young artist working outside the system, experiences challenges, overcomes them, and ends with a triumphant finale. This all happened over an eight-day period. When (fellow Sub Pop founder) Jonathan Poneman and I originally arrived in Rome Kurt was suffering from nervous exhaustion. He eventually had a nervous breakdown in Rome. We pulled him out of the van for a day to allow him to chill out. He had stated that night in Rome that he was over being in Nirvana. The band did literally break up in that moment and he did not want to finish the tour. Jon and I knew that the upcoming Lame Fest UK Sub Pop Showcase in London was going to be the biggest show of their career. They would be performing with Mudhoney and Tad in front of a variety of photographers and music writers. It was the biggest opportunity in their career and we knew that we had to get Kurt from point A to point B. After playing that show they were referred to as Sub Pop’s answer to The Beatles by New Music Express. That’s a pretty fat quote for a young band from Aberdeen, Washington who had just barely played their first show a year and a half ago.

Bruce Pavitt onstage with Nirvana’s Kris Novoselic, London, UK 12/3/89. [Photo: Steve Double]

Was the entire tour with Mudhoney or had they been touring solo prior to that?

They had been touring with Tad. It was called the ‘Heavier than Heaven’ tour. It was Nirvana and the Tad band, that’s seven musicians, plus sound guy and a tour manager, there’s nine guys in one van, plus merch and instruments, zig-zagging throughout Europe for six weeks. It’s a wonder none of the other musicians came close to having a nervous breakdown. It just blows me away, the amount of energy these guys put into promoting their career. It’s heroic, and that’s not an overstatement.

It’s interesting that Nirvana became the breakout stars as on this tour they were very much a second string Sub Pop band.

They were the underdog. And what you see in this book is the underdog, the opening band, blow away the most jaded audience in the world, which is the London crowd. Every band in the world comes to London to prove their stuff and when you open up the book you see the relentless stage diving and crowd surfing in reaction to Nirvana’s performance. If you listen to the From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah live CD there are a couple tracks from that show, including a version of “Polly,” that is absolutely amazing. By the time Nirvana reached London, after that grueling six-week tour, they were in prime form. Their songs were good. Their performances were amazing. And I’m speaking as somebody who saw their first show in Seattle at the Central Tavern before an audience of four where everybody was staring at their shoes. That was just a year and a half prior. What I got to witness was the blossoming of their genius and it was very accelerated. They just kept getting better and better and better.

You’re often quoted as saying “The Seattle Music scene is going to rule the world.” What gave you that faith? I’m not sure anyone else was so sure of that at that time.(laughter).

Sub Pop started as a radio show in 1979 and then morphed into a fanzine, and tape compilations and a column in The Rocket. I reviewed and observed pretty much every indie record that came out in the ‘80s so I had a good feel for where this was going and what sold me was the consistently amazing live performance of the bands. It wasn’t just one good band. It was a scene that was growing day by day. In my mind’s eye what I saw was kind of a resurgence of The Stooges / MC5 Detroit scene. What I said in my column many times was that the scene happening in Seattle was going to rival Detroit. Detroit wasn’t huge and it certainly didn’t take over the world, The Stooges and MC5 records actually didn’t sell that much, but they were great records and it was a great scene. And that was kind of the vision that I was seeing at the time in like 1986 and 1987. Punk started becoming increasingly codified by the mid-1980s with the hardcore scene. It started to feel really stiff. What emerged in Seattle was a lot looser and a lot more inclusive. Any kid with a flannel shirt and a pawn shop guitar could start a band. The bands didn’t take themselves too seriously. I really believe that underlying sense of humor and self-deprecation was in large part responsible for their popularity.

Mark Arm of Mudhoney. Kurt Cobain is the onstage spectator wearing scarf and holding aluminum beer can, Lame Fest UK, 12/3/89.

Why do you think the Seattle scene was like that?

I think there were some key personalities. First and foremost, I believe Mark Arm, from Green River and Mudhoney, was a real leader in the scene. His commentary on stage was just hilarious. And Tad was hilarious and so were the Nirvana guys. Kurt was understated but he definitely had a sense of humor as witnessed in a lot of the Nirvana videos that became popular. You know, sometimes it just takes a personality or two to set the tone for a scene. I did a lot of the “ad copy” for Sub Pop and my strategy was to be as self-deprecating as possible but speaking in kind of fake corporate language to parody and undermine it. It was still punk, but a different take on it.

Self-deprecation though often belies real confidence, in your case, that these really were the best bands in the world which is a double edged sword.

It is and we worked at it as hard as we could. When we talked about “World Domination,” it was always kind of a joke but we half believed it and half thought it was crazy. And we found out the more exaggerated and outrageous our proclamations were, the more and more it started to manifest as reality. I’ll tell you, that was pretty strange.

So many bands came out of the early Sub Pop scene. What are some of the other Seattle bands that you wish had been bigger?

First and foremost, Tad. They rocked London too. When you read all the British press reviews that are in Experiencing Nirvana half of them say that Tad stole the show versus Nirvana. Their album Eight-Way Santa was pulled after two weeks because of a very controversial cover then they had a single that was pulled after a few weeks. They lost a lot of momentum in that first month and I think that really harmed their trajectory. It’s kind of a sad state of affairs because Tad’s music was awesome and as a personality he’s one of the most interesting, humorous, and creative people I’ve ever met. You get that guy in front of the camera and somebody’s going to start giving him a million dollars a year for a reality TV show. That guy deserved to be a star because he is a star. He is truly larger than life personality.

These were some of the things we would take into account when we signed bands, like, sure they write good songs, etc, etc, but when these people step into a room, do people look up and go “Damn, who are these people?” Did they have personality? I think that’s really key. One other band I would mention is Malfunkshun with Andy Wood. They were a pretty amazing group in the early days. And The Melvins. They’ve definitely had a successful career on their own terms but I think they deserve to rock stadiums.

Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989 cover.

What do you think people get wrong about Sub Pop and the Seattle scene?

Well, first of all, Jon and I, when we started the label, we were complete music omnivores. Some people saw Sub Pop as just a hard rock label but we were truly an indie rock label. We just believed there was a very interesting hard rock / punk scene that we wanted to focus on because that’s what was happening here. And when that culture blew up we went into a number of different directions. As soon as something became popular, it’s like, well we’re not going to put out the next Pearl Jam sound-alike band, we’re going to put out Sebadoh or Combustible Edison, who were a lounge band.

Secondly, I would say, as far as the scene goes, there was a lot of humor there. Some people wrote it off as really angst driven and depressing and there are some heavy, Black Sabbath-like tones in the scene for sure, but there was always an underlying feeling of celebration and humor and good spirit. And that’s what’s hopefully seen in the book is the level of camaraderie between the bands. A lot of smiling, a lot of mutual support, not a lot of ego. Everybody’s wearing each other’s t-shirts. That’s some of the magic of the indie culture, that level of cooperation versus egotistical backstabbing.

I think of Sub Pop as being part of the American indie rock continuum that starts with (Black Flag’s) SST Records through Dischord in Washington D.C. and Tough & Go in the Mid-West.

I’m working on a second book project called Sub Pop U.S.A. that covers the period from 1980 to 1988. I’m re-printing all my early reviews from that period and all the bands that you can think of, every single one of them that you can envision, is going to be in this book, because I covered everything in my original Sub Pop columns. And in addition I’ll be providing photos and commentary. I believe that that era was so under the radar, that it’s never really gotten its due and it was a golden era.

What is your biggest regret from those days? Is there anything that if you could you would do differently?

You know, I’ve been asked that question before. I don’t think I’d change a thing to be honest. It was extremely challenging. It would have been nice to somehow have acquired more capital so we could have paid our bills on time but then we probably wouldn’t have been as pressed to be as resourceful and creative as we were. The grueling process of trying to stay alive was what forced us to make the exaggerated claims and jump up and down and try to get the world’s attention which is ultimately what led us to our success. So, I would never do it again, but I wouldn’t change anything.

Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 is available now from Bazillion Points Books.