"[Nirvana] Went From Opening Band to International Rock Stars at That Moment."
"It's kind of like coming full-circle, starting with the Subterranean Pop radio show in 1979 and finally doing this book signing at the Rough Trade Records store in Brooklyn," says Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt. Seventeen years after leaving Seattle and his iconic label behind to focus on his family, Pavitt has both physically and mentally returned to an era of rock he helped build. In his photo journal titled Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, released via Bazillion Points in December of last year, he shares a glimpse into a moment just before grunge broke into the mainstream as Nirvana, Tad, and Mudhoney tour Europe, the former two on the "Heavier Than Heaven" tour and relatively unknown on both sides of the Atlantic. Pavitt finds "beautiful resonance" in the fact that he gets to celebrate his memories at the new, Brooklyn location of the original UK record store where his book's narrative ends. Additionally, he gets to do so through a Q&A session with Our Band Could Be Your Life author and old friend Michael Azerrad. "I have deep respect for all the work that he's done to convey the intricacies of the indie culture from that era," he says.
Credit: Bruce Pavitt Kurt Cobain at the Piper Club in Rome
Prior to this event and a few months in advance of the release of his second book Sub Pop U.S.A., a collection of the thousands of record reviews he wrote for his fanzine in the '80s, Pavitt shares his reflections on his time in Seattle, the "post-Nevermind" musical landscape, and his take on '90s nostalgia.
Credit: Bruce Pavitt Kurt Cobain signing autographs at London's Rough Trade Records store
Why did you decide to release these photos and stories more than 20 years after the tour?
I intuitively felt it was time to share some stories. Sometimes the longer you wait, the more appreciated the stories are. I didn't feel it was appropriate to release the pictures five years after they happened. I've been processing them for many years, so it just intuitively felt like the right time to share them. I also feel that pop culture feels pretty stagnant right now, and hopefully this book will inspire some young musicians to rage a little harder.
In what ways do you feel pop culture is stagnant now? Can you elaborate on that?
Well, it's what's going on with indie culture right now, to be more specific. I think the indie culture that I was familiar with in the '80s had, I believe, more of a revolutionary spirit, and I feel that in this day and age, post-Nevermind, a lot of indie bands are a little too calculated. They're hiring a manager and an attorney before they start their first rehearsal. They'll gear up and try to license music for TV shows and commercials. I'm from more of the punk era where bands just created art for the sake of art. When you go back and look at the time period that is presented in [Experiencing Nirvana], 1989 with bands like Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and Nirvana, there was, I really believe, more of a revolutionary spirit. None of these bands really ever thought they would hit the mainstream. Because of that, they took more risks, certainly on stage and often times in their post-production and in creating music.
Have you read any of the biographies or oral histories on Nirvana and the Seattle grunge scene?
I've gone through some writings, but to be honest, it's something I've put aside for a number of years when I was raising kids. I'm just currently in the process of revisiting the time period, and that's kind of what this book is about.
What was it like being on tour with that particular group of guys who came to represent a specific and new image of American youth in Europe? How did cultural interactions go?
[Laughs] Well, the scene that was happening in Seattle was extremely spirited. It was extremely physically expressive. The bands had a lot of emotional depth. They were bringing a deeper level of emotional intensity and physical expressiveness. You weren't really seeing that too much in Europe. In witnessing the London LameFest tour, which was kind of the peak of the whole event, I really think the London audience was taken aback with just how intense and expressive the bands were. You can see that in the photos. You can see that in the reaction. You can see it in the dynamic movements of the artists.
Credit: Steve Double Bruce Pavitt and Krist Novoselic at LameFest UK
People today are always looking for the "next Nirvana" and that next wave of energy that you experienced firsthand. Did you find that similar thirst for a band like that prior to their explosion?
It occurred naturally. I think there's a desire in mankind to connect to active, creative communities, and oftentimes music history can be viewed through that lens. From Manchester in mid-80s to San Francisco in the mid-to-late 60's, I think there' s a deeper resonance for people when they observe there's a community of people coming together to create their own culture. Fundamentally, what this book is all about, is championing the right for people to create and control their own culture. That's what the indie movement was all about. What we were doing in Seattle wasn't really happening anywhere in the world, really.
When did you personally start to feel that a community in Seattle was being fostered through music?
Very specifically, when the Deep Six compilation record came out. [I] believe that was in '86. It became apparent to me that there was a new, heavier, more soulful style of punk that was happening. I think that compilation really helped define it. That in addition to bearing witness to the photos of Charles Peterson who captured the energy of these bands. I had an "a-ha" moment where I realized that if we could just couple Charles' photos with the sounds of these bands, that we could really trigger a lot of interest in what was going on in Seattle.
Those photos are still breathtaking to look at today.