Nirvana in Australia
Nirvana in 1991 (Paul Bergen via Getty)

An Interview With the Guy Who Brought Nirvana to Australia

From signing Tame Impala and the Avalanches, to touring with Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys. Stephen Pavlovic has had a big career in music.

It’s 1992, and 25-year-old music entrepreneur Stephen Pavlovic, known by friends as Pav, has just finished organising a Southern Hemisphere tour for one of the biggest bands in the world: Nirvana. A year before they had unexpectedly hit the mainstream with their life-changing track “Smells Like teen Spirit”, and after a phone call to Kurt Cobain’s personal number (handed to him by a member of Mudhoney), they found themselves on Australian shores. 


“I remember Dave Grohl saying, ‘It’s not the shows that I remember but the days in between’,” Pavlovic told VICE. 

“Taking them to the beach, or taking them to a record store, or taking them camping on the beach and making jaffles in jaffle irons while sitting by the fire, going swimming naked. Just the funny stuff,” he says.

From his memories come the many photos: Kurt Cobain sitting in the sand; in a hotel; on stage. The portraits of just another guy enjoying his days off, rather than the enigmatic persona most people have prescribed to him. It’s an intimacy with a larger-than-life musician that not many have, but something curated in Pav’s own personal collection – which is now on display at the Powerhouse Museum in the heart of Sydney. 

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Posters from "Unpopular" at The Powerhouse

Titled Unpopular the exhibition depicts the stretch of a decade known for unfiltered, DIY music, when musicians weren’t as concerned with their image or brand as they were with their music. It is an unequivocal retrospective of the 90’s. 

Spread out in various rooms of the museum is never before seen footage, travel itineraries, posters and memorabilia spanning bands like Fugazi, The Lemonheads, Sonic Youth, and The Bloody Valentines – all of whom Pav knew intimately. Kurt Cobain’s Martin D-18E guitar hangs on the wall, lent by RODE microphone’s Founder, Peter Freedman, who bought it for $9 million. On another wall is a petition from Nirvana fans in Perth, calling for the band to schedule a show in the West coast city – sadly they missed out in 1992 – with one begrudged fan writing “I have a gun”. 


In a glass case in a room surrounded by a cacophony of colour – touring posters mostly – sit personal postcards to Pavlovic from the various musicians he’s met. The contents mostly focus on the day-to-day: “I’ve stopped drinking”, “I’m on tour”, “thinking of you”. 

For someone who hailed from the bland, concrete city of Canberra it’s impressive. But unlike much of the industry today, continuously looking for the next big thing, Pavlovic was always in love with the music itself.

In the late 70’s, at 11-years-old, he bought his first record: David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It was a whole nother world and I wanted to be a part of it,” he says.

A little later, in his late teens/ early 20s, he hitched a ride to Sydney with a band he’d become friendly with – The Plunderers – unhappy with his life, his job and his relationship.

“If I stayed in Canberra, I was just going to breed like a rabbit. I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to life’. The Plunderers were moving to Sydney and I asked if I could hitch a ride, and along the way we started to organise things. I became their manager on that trip to Sydney.”

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Kurt Cobain's Martin D-18E guitar

Organising shows, calling up as many people as he could, he managed to weasel his way into a booking gig at The Palace Hotel. A couple of years later he took over The Lansdowne. 

Throughout his career, Pavlovic has continuously been credited for his nose for talent. Presently, he’s the founder of Modular, which manages artists from The Avalanches, to Tame Impala, to The Presets and Wolfmother. 


“It probably comes from loving music, not thinking about whether they’re going to be popular, just following the things that you love,” he says.

“So I never worked on things that didn’t speak to me. So anytime I heard a band like Sonic Youth or Beastie Boys, I fucking loved it. And I was pretty adventurous, I liked a bit of chaos. I would just be ringing people up.”

The name of the exhibit itself, Unpopular, stems from living a life that hasn’t always rubbed people the right way. Not like he was trying to, anyway.

“I feel like following my dreams and passions, there were times where I would annoy people, so I could be quite unpopular,” he says.

“So I thought about the music. All of these bands were part of this outsider community, they were different from the norm. They wanted to be different. Then they became really popular, but they didn’t set out to be that way, they set out to make music and for people to enjoy it. I don’t think they thought about anything else.”

After his successful tour with Nirvana in 1992, the summer of 1995 to 1996 rolled around. Pavlovic’s contacts within the industry culminated in his first festival, Summersalt, honing the talents of the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Beck, Beastie Boys and Ben Lee. 

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Photos On Tour

The festival didn’t prove to be a financial success; it also, to Pavlovic, seemed to mark the end of an era for bands as everyone knew it.

Looking back on that time, however, Pavlovic says he wasn’t really aware of the history or legacy that that period of music would present years later. He was just in the moment. In fact, his hoard of documents, which became his current exhibition, was never really meant to be an ode to the 90’s, but rather an archive of his life up to this point. He just had too much stuff.

In the future, archives of Tame Impala, Wolfmother, and The Avalanches may come into the picture. As for now, he remembers the 90s as a time of unfiltered, unprocessed mayhem. Maybe a time that will never be replicated.

“You could just ring people up and just make a magazine or just put on shows. There’s a huge industry now and it might not be as easy to just pick up the phone and call a band that you like.”

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