Falmouth journalism graduate Taya Black caught up with the legendary co-founder of Sub Pop Records and author, Bruce Pavitt to get an inside look on how grunge stormed Europe with his raw photo journal: Experiencing Nirvana.
Originally born in Chiacago, music industry hero Bruce Pavitt moved to Seattle in 1983, and started the famed ‘Sub Pop USA’ indie music column for The Rocket magazine. Three years later he launched the Sub Pop label with co-founder Jon Poneman, and after signing artists such as Nirvana, Soundgarden and The Walkabouts, Bruce helped initiated a global interest in the original Seattle grunge scene of the 80’s and 90’s.
In 1989 the Sub Pop co-founders arrived in Rome to meet with the young Nirvana who were nearing the end of a gruelling six week tour promoting their debut album, Bleach, along side fellow Sub Pop artists TAD and Mudhoney.
Despite facing certain difficulties as a result of the exhausting European tour, Nirvana carried onto the London Astoria with the help of Bruce and Jon, where they played arguably the single most important show in their career and in the history of grunge rock; It was at this show that the then ‘support band’ stole the hearts of the British press, shedding light onto the Seattle grunge scene and inspired a generation of global grunge-rockers.
Now, twenty-five years after documenting the Bleach tour, Bruce has opened up his collection of rare, behind-the-scenes images to the public in his new photo journal, Experiencing Nirvana. The revealing, full-colour journal looks at the micro-history of grunge rock in 1989 and features Sub Pop artists: TAD, Nirvana and Mudhoney amongst others, promising music fans an insight like no other.
How did growing up in Chicago affect your musical interests and career?
I was greatly influenced by the Indy and punk records at The Wax Trax Record Store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I would Check out their selection whenever I was in Town. Wax Tracks was one of the greatest record stores in the country In the late 70s and early 80s. My first musical memory was watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and I became a fanatical record collector even as a young kid. The creativity of the punk/new wave movement of the late 70s also greatly influenced me.
What inspired Poneman and yourself to start Sub Pop Records?
We were excited about the bands were coming out of Seattle and we saw the potential for worldwide popularity. We were surrounded by great acts that no one else was interested in because of our remote location. A lot of the Sub Pop bands were listening to a mix of indie rock, punk rock and vintage hard rock. That was the formula for grunge; the Seattle sound.
When it came to singing bands, we were primarily looking for Seattle area bands that had a powerful live show, a heavy sound and a sense of humor.
When we first heard of Nirvana, Jon and I were both very impressed with Kurt Cobain’s voice. The producer Jack Endino then passed on a Nirvana demo tape to Jon and then we had them audition at the Central Tavern in April 1988, which is when we signed them.
How did Nirvana fit in with the other bands that Sub Pop had signed?
Nirvana had a slow heavy grungy rock vibe similar to some of the other Seattle acts so they fitted in perfectly. The primary difficulty was that most of the shows they did together did not pay well, and accommodations were rough. Touring on a budget can be very stressful.
What made you decide to document the Bleach tour?
I truly felt that the UK tour was historically significant and I assumed that at some point in the future these photos would be appreciated. It was very inspiring to work with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, and aside from some last minute drama on their European tour, things generally went pretty smoothly.
The show at the London Astoria was a pinnacle moment in their career and it helped legitimize the Seattle music scene to the rest of the world, through the British press. I decided to create Experiencing Nirvana as I felt that it was a heroic and inspiring story that needed to be told. Altogether the book took about six months to complete. I would describe the images as raw, intimate and spontaneously shot.
Before Nirvana’s success at the London Astoria, how did the label deal with presenting and promoting grunge to Europe to start with?
We started by sending Mudhoney over to Europe in the fall of 1988. We then brought over the Melody Maker writer Everett True from England, to Seattle, to check out the Seattle Sub Pop bands. Lamefest UK show was our third attempt at engaging Europe, and with the help of the British Press after Nirvana’s Astoria set grunge took off big time.
What has it been like working with Bazillion and seeing your book join an array of authoritative hard rock journals/memoirs?
It’s been an honor and pleasure to work with Bazillion. Ian Christe is a great publisher to work with.
Lastly, what’s next for Bruce?
There is a collection of my early Sub Pop zines and Sub Pop USA columns that will be coming out next May on Bazillion: SubPop USA, the Sub Terranean Pop Anthology, 1980-1988.
For more information on Experiencing Nirvana, or to pre-order a copy please visit: http://www.bazillionpoints.com/shop/nirvana/