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“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.
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.
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.
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.
You speak very highly of Mudhoney’s live performances in your book. Since they’re still playing and around, have you had a chance to see them recently, now later in their career?
I recently saw them when they performed on top of the Space Needle. You know, they’re older so they’re not as physically expressive as they used to be, although they still rock really hard. If you see in some of these pictures, Mark Arm had the unbelievable ability to almost do these yoga-style backbends while he was playing guitar which was just phenomenal to watch. The band never slowed down on-stage. I don’t think they can quite pull that off these days.
When you left Sub Pop in ’96, did you also completely abandon Seattle’s music scene? Or do you still pay attention to it?
Certainly, I do. I’m currently on the board of advisors at Sub Pop, so I keep abreast of what they’re doing. I think there’s some really good music coming out of Seattle right now. I’m particularly excited about the band Rose Windows as well as a hip-hop duo called THEESatisfaction. A lot of good music coming out of the city.
You described Nirvana as the “epiphany” of LameFest UK. What made them seem that way to you?
When I first saw them perform a year and a half earlier, they barely had any good material and their live show mainly consisted of Kurt and Krist staring at their shoes while they performed. So, they had grown exponentially. Kurt kept writing better and better material, and by the time they finished the six weeks in Europe, their live show had become really fine tuned. So even though bands like Mudhoney really delivered, as they were great from the get-go, Nirvana’s accelerated growth really caught everybody by surprise. They were the opening act at LameFest UK, and they really surprised everybody with how great heir performance was and how great their material was. Case in point, on the live CD On the Muddy Banks, there are a couple of tracks from that show. In particular, their version of “Polly” is phenomenal. It’s an easy way for anybody to check out how great that band was at that time. They went from opening band to international rock stars at that moment.
Which bands from that Seattle era do you wish would’ve gotten more recognition outside of the scene?
The Tad band never really got their due. The 8-Way Santa LP came out then it was recalled due to the controversy around the cover art. So the release lost its momentum. It’s a great record. Phenomenal live band. I think they were the true underdogs of the story. I really wish that people would go back and revisit some of their music.
Do you find all of that ’90’s nostalgia endearing or detrimental?
It’s just human nature to want to revisit history. That’s why I wanted to release the book. There was some great music and great culture from the time. I was a History major in college, so I place great value on revisiting culture. I think it’s important because there are always lessons to be learned.
What is your favorite memory from the ‘Heavier Than Heaven’ tour?
I would have to say spending a day with my business partner Jon Poneman and Kurt Cobain walking through the wonders of Rome was one of the highlights of my life. Going to the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel. Having an opportunity to discuss music with Kurt Cobain who was a very serious student of indie and punk culture was an honor and is one of my fondest memories.
Bruce Pavitt will be in conversation with Michael Azerrad and signing copies of ‘Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989’ at Rough Trade NYC on Saturday, 1/11, at 4:00 p.m. The already opened “Experiencing Nirvana” photo exhibit will be at Rough Trade until February 2, 2014 and copies of Pavitt’s book are available here.