Experiencing Nirvana

An Interview with Bruce Pavitt

by Eric Goldberg

6 November 2013

Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, talks about the early days of Sub Pop, indie culture in the 1980s, and his new book about breaking the most legendary band of the '90s in Europe, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989.
cover art

Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989

Bruce Pavitt

(Bazillion Points)

It was the show that changed everything for Sub Pop. It ignited the worldwide phenomenon that was grunge. It began Nirvana’s ascension in to the biggest band in the world. Most importantly, for Bruce Pavitt and Jonathon Poneman, it ignited Sub Pop’s rise to world domination. The show was Lamefest; the UK version of a concert Sub Pop had first put on in Seattle. The Seattle version was a huge, unprecedented success so Pavitt and Poneman, Sub Pop’s co-owners, hoped that a UK version would get the same reaction. Lamefest UK was to feature three bands: Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. Pavitt and Poneman knew that on the right night, these three bands could captivate the UK music press and public alike. Bruce Pavitt is now telling the story, complete with incredible pictures of the bands on stage and off as they travelled through Europe. The book is Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989.

Recently, Pavitt returned to Seattle after exiling himself from music and pop culture for a decade. He wanted to get away from the commercialization of alternative culture and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It took him a while to come back to this time period because of the way it ended, but time has a way of sanding down the sharp edges of the past and in 2010 Pavitt decided he was ready to revisit it. “I knew I had some of these photos around and a couple years ago I started flipping through them and thought I should really share these in some way, wouldn’t it be cool to do a book,” remarks Pavitt. “The more I flipped through it, the more I realized that it really told an interesting story. So the book kind of wrote itself based on the series of images.” Experiencing Nirvana is an interesting and breezing read and a must-have for any grunge or Nirvana fan. It gives a unique perspective on the time period told through the words and photography of the people who were there.

Bruce Pavitt was on a mission in the ‘80s because the American underground was consistently being overlooked. “For eight years between doing radio and writing record reviews, I was promoting U.S. indie culture and it really was very much ignored in the ‘80s. For example, MTV had an alternative music show called 120 Minutes on Sunday nights and I would observe this time and time again that every video they played was from England. Out of two hours they’d play one token American indie video,” describes Pavitt. In April 1988, Pavitt and Poneman quit their day jobs to concentrate on Sub Pop Records full time, but they already had obstacles to overcome. Their two bands Soundgarden and Green River were gone, the former leaving the label and the latter breaking up. Luckily, Pavitt and Poneman were in the midst of a very fertile local scene and a hard rock renaissance. Within the span of two weeks, they heard Mudhoney’s debut single, the classic “Touch Me I’m Sick”, and discovered a three-piece band from Aberdeen named Nirvana.

With Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana on Sub Pop’s roster, Pavitt and Poneman set about the promotion of the label and the bands. Well versed in music history, the label’s releases, photos, and t-shirts all had a similar look and aesthetic. The label and bands were marketed as a complete package, one synonymous with the other. World domination was the label’s goal and it was the attitude with which they ran Sub Pop: half serious, half joking and plenty of sarcasm. Sub Pop popularized the “it’s cool to be an outsider” aesthetic that took over the ‘90s. “When we opened the doors, we had no resources. We didn’t have a computer, we didn’t have a fax machine. It was basically two guys in one room and we had a telephone and a couple of pencils,” reflects Pavitt. “All we could do was try and do as many interviews as possible and tell people around the world how awesome these bands were. And slowly but surely people began to believe what we were saying.”

Sub Pop was founded on a deep love and enthusiasm for indie music and culture. Both the bands and founders were self-described music nerds and championed the music they loved. In the book, Pavitt describes how Mudhoney were honored to play with their hero Billy Childish in England and Kurt Cobain screamed out that the Vaselines were the greatest band in the world at Lamefest before launching in to a cover of their song “Molly’s Lips”. “Kurt really honored and valued a lot of outsider music like the Vaselines from Scotland, perfect example. He really went out of his way to champion outsider music throughout his whole career. And that’s what I was doing throughout the whole decade of the ‘80s through my radio show and my zine and so forth. We were both really passionate about sharing cool music with other people,” Pavitt explains. “That was the whole basis of the indie culture, getting turned on to new music, meeting interesting people on the road and you know this is pre-internet so good information had a lot more charge. It was harder to find this stuff out.” 

Pavitt and Poneman were convinced that the best way to break their bands was to target Europe and specifically the British music press. Gaining popularity and favor amongst the British music press was the key to gaining notoriety in America and the rest of the world. He explains, “It’s much more challenging to generate attention through media or through touring in the U.S. whereas in Europe, if you’re good, word travels fast. You got an hour drive between shows. You’ve got competing weekly magazines in England, you have indie charts in England, you have the BBC playing indie music so word travels much faster over in Europe. In addition to that, a lot of the American press would read the UK press to see what was hot. So that’s how we worked it.”

In 1980s England, the Madchester and shoegaze scenes were popular. Sub Pop was the antithesis of that. Pavitt describes perfectly in the book how in live performances the UK bands were very understated whereas Sub Pop bands were very overstated. They channeled the reckless, wild stage presence of bands like the Stooges and the MC5. Aside from the actual sound of the bands, the trait that united all of the Sub Pop bands was their great live show. “[In the 1980s, American underground] bands were completely shut out and the only way they could really make a name for themselves was to tour. So if you were an indie band in the ‘80s it was all about having an amazing live show. That’s one of the reasons Seattle really blew up because we made that kind of a condition with all the bands that we signed, that they had to really deliver live.” 

Experiencing Nirvana begins in November 1989 when Pavitt and Poneman fly to Europe to meet up with Tad and Nirvana on their legendary Heavier than Heaven tour. Mudhoney was Sub Pop’s flagship band at the time and they had been building Sub Pop’s presence in Europe. They were making a name for themselves in the UK music press with their intense live shows as well as an early 1989 tour opening for Sonic Youth. Tad and Nirvana were on the last leg of their grueling six-week European tour, traveling in a tiny van and the bands were tired and homesick. In many ways, Pavitt and Poneman arrived just in time. They acted as Kurt Cobain’s guardian angels for the next week, convincing him not to break up Nirvana, buying him a new guitar, getting him a new passport when his wallet is stolen, and being there to keep him in good spirits so that Nirvana would make it to Lamefest. Lamefest UK was the end goal and Pavitt and Poneman knew it would be a big break for their bands.

It was during this time that Nirvana started to outshine Mudhoney. “Kurt’s writing had really started to kick in, some of their new tunes like “Been a Son” and “Immodium”, just amazing stuff. The book really captures, I think, a moment where all of a sudden many people were starting to see Nirvana as potentially the flagship band,” says Pavitt. “I will say that with Nirvana, a lot of the energy of their show, I think they were really inspired by Mudhoney, who put on unbelievably intense live shows.”

LameFest UK took place on December 3, 1989 at the Astoria Theater in London. British fans were showing up in Mudhoney T-shirts and flannel, which was very strange at this period of time. It was clear that grunge was already beginning to take hold of London. All of the bands played triumphant sets that night but it was the opener, Nirvana, that made the biggest impact. Even Mark Arm, Mudhoney’s leader and Seattle luminaire, was smitten by Nirvana’s performance. Pavitt explains, “The British bands had the luxury of getting a lot more press and a lot more airplay over there so they didn’t necessarily have to have a great live show. John Peel is playing their music on the radio, they can just be geeks in the studio so I really believe that when those three bands went over to the UK, the London scene in general were seriously blown away.”

Now when Pavitt looks through these pictures, he remembers and feels a triumphant time where he and a bunch of his friends were affecting the world through the music they loved and an indie culture they had helped nurture. “It’s an amazing feeling for me to flip through the book and reflect on this period of time where, yea, there’s struggles and challenges but there is also a sense of hope and victory and accomplishment. It’s a wonderful feeling as contrasted to viewing the whole narrative where, yes, Nevermind changed the world of rock music but the stresses of being suddenly catapulted in to the role of the world’s biggest rock star were too much. You know, it’s a real tragedy and because it’s a tragedy a lot of people have trouble going back and revisiting the Nirvana story because it ends on such a tragic note. At least with this book, it’s a real joyful feeling when you finish reading it.” And joy is exactly what you feel by the end. The photos especially give the reader a vivid sense of this moment in time and the people involved.

“My fantasy is that at least a handful of people are going to buy this book and follow the route and visit all the clubs,” Pavitt remarks jokingly, “Anyway, it’s just kind of a strange little fantasy I have.” Mainly, with Experiencing Nirvana, Pavitt is trying to inspire. “I’m picturing high school kids picking this up and going damn these kids went there in their early twenties, I can do that.”  The book comes out in November and next year Pavitt will also be releasing a book complete with the articles he wrote for his Subterranean Pop column in Seattle paper the Rocket in the early ‘80s. Grunge was a musical movement that started in an overlooked region of the U.S. and evolved in to a global phenomenon that still resonates to this day. Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 by Bruce Pavitt provides a unique perspective on a singular time period and the humble beginnings of the most legendary band of the ‘90s.

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