The Shit Show Interview w/ Sub Pop Records founder and Author BRUCE PAVITT [w/audio]
While April 1, 1988 technically marks the official date that Bruce Pavitt and his SUB POP records co-founder, Jonathan Poneman quit their day jobs and opened their business office for the first time, the roots of Seattle‘s groundbreaking indie label can actually be traced back as far as 9 years earlier to the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wa. After moving to the Northwest from the Chicago area in 1979, Pavitt started a radio show called “Subterranean Pop” on the college radio station KAOS-FM. On air, he would primarily showcase material by artists on independent labels and, within a year, Pavitt was producing a zine that shared both the title and focus of his radio program. In 1981, it was through that zine–eventually shortened to “SUB POP“–that Bruce began releasing cassette compilations of various independent acts from around the country, fascinated by the concept that each individual region had it’s own unique voice that was often going unrecognized and that, by showcasing these different scenes collectively, they would increase their exposure, not only between each other, but in general.
It was in 1983 that he moved to Seattle (a year later he’d open the now-defunkt Fallout Records and Skateboards) and quickly began hosting a radio show on KCMU-FM (now KEXP) and writing a column for the highly influential and forward thinking bi-weekly local music rag, The Rocket (R.I.P.). Both projects continued to promote independent music under the title of “SUB POP USA.” In 1986, Pavitt met his future SUB POP business partner, Jonathan Poneman, who hosted the locally focused AUDIOASIS, also on KCMU (also still a thriving KEXP radio program). That same year, Pavitt released a vinyl comp titled Sub Pop 100, which featured regional acts like U-Men, Steve Fisk, and The Wipers (Portland) among tracks by the likes of Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, Shonen Knife, Steve Albini, and industrial pioneers, Skinny Puppy. Legend has it that it was at the recommendation of Soundgarden guitarist, Kim Thayil that Pavitt and Poneman officially formed their partnership in ’87 to release the band’s debut EP, Screaming Life, which Poneman financed with money borrowed from friends and family. 1987 also marked the release of Green River‘s Dry As A bone EP; recorded a year prior, but without the funding to release it, was temporarily put on hold.
Pavitt and Poneman widely joked about world domination and gold records, but the truth is that SUB POP struggled financially for many years, writing rubber checks to stay afloat and surrounded by such threats as having their phone line’s disconnected. No one could have foreseen the magnitude of hype that would ultimately engulf Seattle‘s burgeoning music culture and actually would dominate the world. That being said, the duo’s innovative approach with marketing the label was a definite key to setting that future success into motion. Pavitt‘s Singles Club, specifically, helped to establish the SUB POP brand, by making the releases collector’s items, getting tracks from multiple artists across their roster into homes nationwide, and focusing on hyping the label itself, first and foremost. The other big move was to focus their attention on the UK press with the foresight that they would be the one’s to truly bring attention to the Seattle‘s independent scene. Of course, it worked and the rest is grunge history, but after the dust settled and the label had sold 49% of their shares to Warner Music Group in 1995, in an attempt to remain competitive, Pavitt became somewhat disillusioned with the directions being taken and he left the label that he not only started, but had been working towards for almost 2 decades. Since then, he’s been living on Orcas Island in the Northwestern corner of Washington State, raising a family (and, apparently, pursuing an interest in shamanism and the effects of ayahuasca).
The new e-book, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 marks Pavitt‘s return to the public eye. Inspired by a rediscovery of candid/previously unseen photographs and created entirely by utilizing Apples iBook Author app, the interactive release focuses on a time right before Nirvana and Sub Pop became part of a worldwide phenomenon. The story itself covers an 8-day period during Nirvana‘s first European tour, which they were co-headlining with TAD, and begins with Pavitt and Jon Poneman traveling overseas to check on the tour and Kurt Cobain, specifically, who was suffering from nervous exhaustion, due to the grueling schedule. The tale culminates with the December 3, 1989 Lamefest UK performance (also featuring headliners, Mudhoney) where, as openers, Nirvana put on a performance that won over the UK press and prompted NME magazine to champion them as “Sub Pop’s answer to the Beatles.” Promoted as a “microhistory,” Pavitt‘s new offering provides an intimate look into what is generally considered to be a key moment in advancing Seattle‘s independent music scene and in making both the now-legendary band and their label household names. [Make sure to read our extensive review of the project here.]
The morning that I received the first press release about Pavitt‘s new e-book, I was getting ready to head out to appear as a last minute guest on the Hollow Earth Radio program The Shit Show with Jaybo. Jesse (aka “Jaybo”) has become a good friend over the last couple of years, and has even contributed a couple of articles to the site throughout that time. Actively involved in the local music scene (he’s a member of such acts as Smile Brigade and G.O.A.T.) and an avid fan of the podcast format, Jesse became interested in hosting what he refers to as a “personality driven” radio show. After approaching Hollow Earth Radio, a truly great non-profit, internet-based station here in Seattle, The Shit Show was officially launched early this summer and has continued to improve exponentially on a weekly basis ever since. I personally try to tune in every week, if possible, and I genuinely believe that Jesse has proven to be a natural at this format–he’s been pulling off some impressive shit since the jump off and the interview skills that he’s demonstrated are definitely solid.
This would mark my 3rd appearance on The Shit Show and, seeing as I’ve regularly had obligations on Tuesdays over the last couple of months, it was simply a fortunate coincidence that I even happened to be available to come by when I was asked. Further adding to the serendipitous nature of things, Jesse had managed to secure former Nirvana drummer, Chad Channing, as his guest on the show 2 weeks prior. During a fascinating 2 hr interview [check that out here], Channing, who was still a member of Nirvana during the time period chronicled in Pavitt‘s new book, actually wound up discussing aspects that pertained to that era and tour specifically. Keep in mind that, at the time, none of us had any indication that Experiencing Nirvana was going to be released or that it was even in the works. It all seemed just too coincidental, so I requested to have a copy of the e-book sent over to me as soon as possible, promising to mention it on the air. Shortly into the middle of the broadcast, it arrived in my inbox and the publicist even offered to have Pavitt call in while we were on the air. With the intent of allowing more time for preparation, I began trying to arrange an interview for sometime within the next week, hoping to get Bruce down to the station, as I believed (and still do believe) that Jesse was clearly the one to conduct it and The Shit Show would work as the perfect format. With the groundwork already laid by the program through the Chad Channing interview, this would be somewhat of an apt continuation.
This was all going down the week of the book’s release and Bruce Pavitt was in New York with a speaking engagement scheduled for the SOHO Apple store location that Friday (Nov. 16) and a DJ gig at the Ace Hotel the same evening. When Bruce arrived at Hollow Earth radio to appear on The Shit Show, it was just after flying back into town late the night before, but he was more than gracious about making a concerted effort to be able to squeeze it in. Experiencing Nirvana has already been getting a ton of coverage, with multi-page spreads in magazines like Uncut, Kerrang, and New Music Express, not to mention the endless coverage from internet outlets across the globe. His enthusiasm about appearing on the program and to accommodate our requests is just further evidence of Pavitt‘s continued understanding and appreciation of independent music and the independent format, causes that he has been as relentless about supporting throughout his career as anyone.
Check out the audio from the incredibly insightful interview below. We’re convinced that you’ll find it as fascinating as we do. Jesse did no less than an amazing job conducting it.
A percentage of sales from the e-book go towards The Vera Project, a non-profit dedicated to providing all-ages events and instructional programs for the Seattle community