Few people can lay claim to starting a rock ‘n’ roll revolution, but Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt can do just that. In the late-1980s and early-'90s, Pavitt, 53, and his business partner Jonathan Poneman, transformed Seattle’s local indie-rock scene into a global phenomenon. Deafening bands with sludgy riffs that once frequented the rock clubs of the Pacific Northwest were playing sold-out venues around the world, and flannel made its way from Tacoma thrift shops to Marc Jacobs’ infamous Perry Ellis “grunge collection” show in Paris.
This month, Pavitt has released an interactive iPad book, Experiencing Nirvana, that chronicles a chaotic 1989 European Sub Pop tour that featured grunge heavyweights Tad, Nirvana and Mudhoney. To celebrate the occasion, Pavitt is DJ-ing at Manhattan’s Ace Hotel tonight at midnight. We caught up with Pavitt, who lives on Orcas Island, Washington, to chat about life on the road during grunge’s heyday.
On the 1989 European tour that you chronicle in Experiencing Nirvana, you portray Tad and Nirvana as up-and-comers nipping at the heels of Mudhoney, who you called Sub Pop’s “flagship band.” The tour climaxes at a show in London when those three bands share a bill at Lamefest UK. At that show, who put on the best performance?
The thing about that show was that all three bands did really well. Mudhoney was in peak form. It’d be a hard call to say who stole the show. But ultimately, to answer your question, I’d say Nirvana stole the show simply because, up until that point, they were the perennial opening act. They were Mudhoney’s little brother. When we first started working with Nirvana, their live show left a lot to be desired. After those five-and-a-half weeks in Europe, they really came into their own. So, at the Astoria in London, they took everyone by surprise. It’s rare for the opening act to get such a stunning response. If you look at the live photos at the end of the book, you’ll see legs sticking out in the air, and people jumping off the stage during Nirvana’s set. You typically don’t see that kind of reaction for an opening band, especially for an audience as jaded as London. That was the beginning of Nirvana’s ascension. They were never again looked at as an opening act. Needless to say, six months later, Kurt’s idol, Iggy Pop, showed up at their show at the Pyramid in New York City, as well as the DGC corporation, who signed them shortly thereafter. I really feel like that London show put Nirvana on the map and initiated their ascendancy.
What was your impression of Nirvana the first time you heard them play?
Jon and I saw their very first show in Seattle, which was almost more of an audition. They did the show, and literally nobody showed up. It was 8 o'clock on a Sunday at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square. Aside from the bartender and the doorman, it was basically Jon and I. I was not overly impressed with their show. They were not physically expressive at all. Kurt basically stared at his shoes. They didn’t play any of their better new material. They were lacking in material and stage presence. However, it was apparent from the initial audition that he had an amazing voice. In retrospect, in really going through the music and sitting with it, despite his songwriting, as strong as it was, and his guitar playing, as strong as it was, his true legacy is his voice.
As a contrast, what was your impression of Mudhoney the first time you heard them play?
I thought they were one of the greatest bands in the history of rock 'n’ roll! That, for me, is such a stunning contrast. Those guys had a lot of experience with prior groups, and they just brought it all together. They were absolutely amazing from the very first second they walked onstage at the Vogue. Interestingly, I think it was something like four days after that when we saw Nirvana for the first time.
In reading the book, it seemed like Kurt Cobain needed a lot of hand-holding on that 1989 tour, from getting his passport and wallet stolen to smashing his guitar, to getting homesick. Is there one particularly fun memory you have of Kurt from that tour?
To put things in perspective, I have to say that the tour Tad and Nirvana were on was insanely grueling. It would’ve been taxing for anybody. But we had heard rumors that Kurt wasn’t doing well, frankly, and that’s why we went down to Rome at the last minute to check him out. So we spent some time with Kurt, we spent a day walking around Rome. And I got to see some of the deeper parts of his personality. He loved to talk about music. By the time that day was finished, he was in pretty good spirits. He just really needed a break. I would say that simply getting to see him talking about music was an opportunity to see him having fun.
Soundgarden and Mudhoney, two of Sub Pop’s earliest bands, are still making music today. What characteristics of these bands do you think makes them so enduring?
Well, that’s a good question. They’re classically great rock bands. They put on a really good show. They’ve got a great catalogue of material to draw from. Mudhoney and Soundgarden could essentially never write another song again, and could tour on their catalogue, and their fans would still be pretty stoked. They’re resilient enough to go out on the road and rock out. So I’d say it’s because they’re resilient, they’ve got a great catalogue and they put on a good show.
You’re DJ-ing at the Ace tonight. What’s the most danceable grunge song?
Ha! I’d have to say the first song that comes to my mind is a single that we put out by Nirvana that a lot of folks aren’t too familiar with, and that track is called, “Dive.” It’s super heavy. It’s got a great groove to it. I remember when it came out, I’d hear it at parties all the time. As soon as we’d throw it on, people would have a very physical response to it. Mostly standing in one place and banging their head. But it always triggered that physical response because of it’s great groove, and I’ll be playing that tune [tonight].