Bruce Pavitt Was 'There,' Man
The other day I finally spoke with Bruce Pavitt, the guy who started Sub Pop, a label that's partially responsible for my first smokin' hot teenage crush, Kurt Cobain. Bruce has sort of retired, but he just published a bunch of his tour diaries from an...
Bruce on tour in 1989 with Nirvana, Mudhoney, and TAD's "Heavier Than Heaven" tour
You may not know who Bruce Pavitt is, but you know all about what the indie label he pioneered in the 90s, Sub Pop Records. Sub Pop didn’t birth "grunge"—the media did. Bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana (duh), and the other heavy hitters on Sub Pop’s roster just made the music.
These days, Bruce has retired from running the label full time, but he recently released a photo book with Bazillion Points called Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989. The book follows Nirvana, Tad, and Mudhoney through their first European tour, and if you’ve been keeping up with VICE you probably saw the exclusive photos we published a few months back. Nearly three decades later, grunge has become a cultural phenomenon and bounced by into a retro-trend for younger musicians. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
So why put this book out now? I called up Bruce because he’s extremely cool and I wanted to talk about the 90s, the label, and why this book needed to get out into the world.
VICE: Hi Bruce. So first off, why do this book?
Bruce Pavitt: Essentially, the Seattle scene in the late 80s was a revolutionary time. The level of emotional intensity that those bands was expressing was incredible. I thought it was time to share some of those memories.
What did you think of The Oral History of Grunge?
Honestly, I didn’t read it.
Really? I mean, I don't see why you would have to as you were kind of... there.
Yep. I actually took a very long time off from thinking about the scene, after Kurt's passing. It was just last year when I started revisiting those times.
What made you come back to it last year?
I was going through the photos with a good friend of mine, Dan Burke, and we realized there was a story. From there, it just came together. I believe the story as laid out is quite epic, much more than just a collection of photos.
We can't deny the power of Kurt. Straight up. How do you feel seeing the relationship that you had? What do you think of all the biographies, re-issues, documentaries…
Kurt and I were friends. The crew of losers from Seattle that took on the world, on their own terms, and rocked it, were all friends. It was an extended family, a tribe, a community. We came out of the middle of nowhere and changed the face of popular music. Kurt's talent just exploded exponentially. I don't think any of the books out there adequately capture the camaraderie, the sincerity, or the innocence of the pre-fame Nirvana years.
And you were attempting to do so with this book?
Yes. The book shows a world of small clubs, small vans, intimate in-stores, chatting with fans, hanging with their crew. It was a moment when the talent came together in a powerful way, but before everything got put under a microscope.
I’m a musician, and I’ve done punk tours. That’s how you start—broke as fuck, but no one is relying on you yet. It’s so free. You can't eat, but at least that's your problem.
Fuck yeah. Imagine waking up as the world's most famous rock star. End of life as you know it.
How did Kurt deal with fame?
Kurt was very sensitive, even though he raged on stage. Most commercial metal bands were very yang, as they say. Perhaps you remember rocker T-shirts with slogans like “AIDS: Kills Fags Dead”? Kurt did not relate to that sentiment. Of course, the more popular he became, the more mainstream his crowd became. I think Nirvana helped shift the vibe in rock culture. You should check out the Rocket interview at the end of the book where he talks about being into "cutie" bands like Beat Happening, Pixies, Shonen Knife, and the Vaselines. Not very metal.
I was just assigned to write a short story based on "rape me" for the In Utero anniversary. It was a good assignment.
You’re familiar with the story about two "fans" who raped a girl while playing that song? Kurt tripped hard on that.
No, I haven’t heart that story…
It was a story that went around at the time.
That's horrible. I imagine if someone misunderstood my sentiment that deeply I would feel... responsible? Fucking awful? Pissed off?
Kurt went on the cover of the Advocate after he became popular. He went out of his way too promote the rights of women and gays. That was his interpretation of punk.
Hypothetical, do you think Nirvana would be a band if Kurt was alive? Do you ever think about how things could have gone differently?
Tricky question. I do believe that the relationship between band members was respectful, but strained due to another party I won't mention.
How do you feel about the way Sub Pop has grown? What were your intentions when you started the label?
My intention was to support the local scene, while acknowledging and paying respect to other local scenes (primarily through “The Singles Club”). I've always been more fascinated with the potential chemistry of scenes, almost more so than artists.
What fascinates you about that?
Scenes always involve other creative personalities—visual artists, producers, storeowners, and fans. It all comes together in magical ways. Seattle wouldn't have blown up without Charles Peterson’s photography, for example. Possibly the most brilliant rock photographer of all time. I think Sub Pop has grown in a healthy way. It's managed to stay in biz, and put out some radical recordings in the process. Have you heard Metz?
Dude, I toured the west coast with them in April. I tried to hit on Hayden so hard. It was hilarious and mortifying.
[Laughs] I tried to hit on Hayden too. We have something in common.
If you could go back in time in your career and sign or drop one band, who would it be and why?
One band I regretted not signing in the early nineties was Stereolab. Their album Mars Audiac Quintet is a unique masterpiece from the era. Huge props.
You can check out some unseen photos from Nirvana's 1989 "Heavier Than Heaven" tour right here, and be sure to pick up your own copy of Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989 through Bazillion Points Publishing.