Bruce Pavitt is famous for being the guy who signed Nirvana.Pavitt founded Seattle’s Sub Pop record label in 1986 and went on to discover and promote bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and TAD, which put him in the eye of the storm that was named grunge and put Seattle on the map as a music mecca.
Pavitt resigned from Sub Pop in 1996. In 2012 he released the interactive e-book “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989,” featuring never-before-seen photos from Europe’s first encounter with Sub Pop’s grunge rockers. In 2013 the book was released in print. Before visiting Moscow to talk about his book and spin some records March 29, Pavitt, 55, talked to Inland 360 about the rise of grunge and the power of Nirvana.
360: Where are you living now?
Pavitt: I live in Seattle. I lived on Orcas Island for 17 years and in Ashland, Ore., for five months. I’ve been back in Seattle for nine months. I have some teens who were getting really bored with living on a remote island.
360: You are coming to Moscow to talk about your book with Mark Baumgarten. Do you two know each other well? How did you come to be speaking in Moscow?
Pavitt: I was basically invited and accepted the invite to come out. I do not know him well but I’m a big fan of his book (“Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music”). I think he did a really good job with that.
360: What originally drew you west from Chicago to the Northwest?
Pavitt: Olympia has a very unique state-funded alternative school, The Evergreen State College, that prioritizes independent study. At that school I was able to spend a good amount of time at KAOS radio, which was, and remains, one of the most interesting stations in the country because it prioritizes independent music. It was there that I learned about all the independent labels in America.
360: When you founded the Sub Pop record label did you think of the bands you signed as having a distinct regional sound?
Pavitt: Let me step back and give some context. Out of the radio show I started a zine called Sub Pop, from the zine came cassette compilations and some records. I (operated on the theory that) every city had a happening scene, you just had to look for it. I reviewed rare (local and regional releases). I had a long-standing interest in local and regional scenes. In 1987 I realized one of the hottest scenes in the country was really in my own backyard. I went from compilations to focusing on bands in Seattle with my business partner, Jonathan Poneman, who got on board in 1987. Once we realized there was a distinctive scene, a slower grungier take on punk rock, we thought it was best to focus on that one aesthetic, because it was what we were most excited about and also because it gave the label an identity.
360: When did the word grunge come into play?
Pavitt: I will say I know it was used infrequently by the music press. Sub Pop was the first label to use it more as a marketing term. In doing so, that’s when other labels were going ‘that’s what’s going on in Seattle.’ We used it to describe the Seattle band Green River. Its use in the catalog initiated the use of the term.
360: Do you think there is something about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest landscape that contributed to the creation and sound of grunge?
Pavitt: That’s a really good question and I think, most likely at the time, I would say that it would be more appropriate to the look that was fashionable — work clothes and thrift store hats.
In the 1980s Seattle was a working-class town. Now it’s Amazon and Microsoft; then it was Boeing. Right now it’s a cosmopolitan tech city and that was not the case in the mid-’80s when everybody I knew was buying Carhartt jackets and $2 hats at thrift stores.
360: Your book “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989” follows Sub Pop grunge bands touring Europe. This was the same year that Nirvana released their first album “Bleach” on the label. Why did you want to take the bands to Europe and why did you go with them?
Pavitt: In the pre-Internet era, let’s back up a bit. Talented music will go nowhere without the proper media attention. That’s part of what a label does — take a talented artist and amplify their existence through the media. In the pre-Internet era the best avenue for potent press was to go to England because there were so many music weeklies competing to find the next best thing. That wasn’t happening in the United States. Independent music was also played on BBC. England was the key to breaking bands in our opinion. England was definitely the finale, it was the focus. It was all about getting to the last show. We thought if we had the best three bands from Seattle play all at once, we’d make a splash and that was the case.
We (Poneman and Pavitt) went for a week to connect with writers, photographers, media people, retailers. We ended up going to Rome briefly when we heard Cobain was having a hard time, to check in with him. As you know from the book he ended up basically having a nervous break down that night, he broke up the band and didn’t want to continue. I feel it was probably a good thing we showed up and helped to get him to the big show.
360: You’ve said that you thought Nirvana was one of the greatest rock bands in the world at the time. What convinced you of this?
Pavitt: My background was that I was a scholar of indie music in America. By the late ‘80s I was a walking encyclopedia of every radio station, record store and band. I’d been reviewing every record in my magazine and playing their music, not just on KAOS but also on KCMU, which is now KEXP (in Seattle). I was familiar with most major bands that came through Seattle, half of them crashed on my couch. I’d spent eight years observing 24/7 so I had a pretty good take.
I think in Seattle, because it was so regionally isolated, bands were not creating music to start a career or get signed to a major label, they were simply doing it to entertain their friends. In doing so, they took a lot more risks. Their shows were a lot wilder because it was simply for the amusement and entertainment of people in their scene. There’s that famous saying, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,’ that’s pretty much how those bands performed every night. I was convinced that because of the way the culture developed these were some of the best live bands in the world, or at least the United States.
360: You waited many years to publish this book. When you compiled it what did you want it to be for the readers and fans?
Pavitt: I wanted it to really, first of all, I think history is important. I was a history major. Things were different in the pre-“Nevermind” era. After “Nevermind” every garage band had a model they could look to: You can practice in your garage and within three years become the most popular band in the world. That did not exist before “Nevermind.”
Bands weren’t coming together to create soundtracks for McDonalds, something that’s popular today. In the book there’s a picture of, I think the TAD drummer wearing a Nirvana shirt. It was a culture based on resourcefulness, cooperation and passion. There was really a sense of camaraderie and intimacy and support that was really essential and I think the book really captured that.
360: Post publication and release, how do you feel about it?
Pavitt: I’ve been doing interviews almost every day since it came out. I’m very happy with how things have unfolded. The second edition came out (the week of March 17) and some of those are going to Europe where it’s not been available, really.
360: You took the photos in the book with a pocket camera. Today those photos would likely be instantly uploaded and spewed across social media to be commented on instantly. While this has helped many bands, do you think it has come at a price? Have we lost something?
Pavitt: Yeah, we have lost something, not only the visuals but the music as well. We’re drowning in information and because of that it’s more disposable. Photos and music — we’re swimming in it.
I feel, potentially, these photos have a little more weight. You forget how much it cost to be an amateur photographer. They cost me almost $500 to develop. Because of that fewer pictures were taken.
For whatever reason, I felt really compelled to document this tour. I did feel it was historically significant. It was our label’s big chance. One reviewer called Nirvana Sub Pop’s answer to the Beatles. You can’t ask for a fatter line than that.
360: Independent labels fostered bands that stretched the limits of creativity. With new technology anyone can have a label. Does this hamper community building?
Pavitt: I think that, there’s so many ways to look at it. Any artist has the ability to post something on YouTube or sell a track on Bandcamp. The challenge is there is so much competition. When music and images are so abundant it tends to have less value. Just as the right gallery proprietor can help generate a scene, so can a label. The true value of a label is to bring together like-minded artists and foster a scene or a community. That’s just a very valuable function in my opinion. In some ways it’s easier than ever to do it. On the other hand the whole music industry is collapsing. It’s an interesting time for sure.
360: Anything else you’d like to say?
Pavitt: I’m really looking forward to going on a road trip and visiting Moscow to talk about my book. I’ll be spinning a few records afterwards. I’m grateful I was invited and that there is an interest.
If You Go
Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records and author of “Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989”
Mark Baumgarten, author of “Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music”
What: Pavitt and Baumgarten will sign books and talk music, culture and history in an event moderated by Northwest Public Radio’s Sueann Ramella. After the signing, Pavitt and Daniel Ryan of Moscow’s Deadbeat Records will deejay. Music, vinyl, T-shirts and posters will be for sale.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 29
Where: BookPeople, 521 S. Main St., Moscow
Of Note: Priority entrance will be given to those showing proof of purchase of Pavitt’s or Baumgarten’s books from BookPeople.