On December 3, 1989, Nirvana pulled into London at the dog-end of a harrowing six-week tour that had sent the group zigzagging across Europe. Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Chad Channing were on the road promoting their debut album Bleach, and were sharing the stage with Sub Pop Records' labelmates TAD and Mudhoney. It had been a journey plagued by peril, including a drive under war-like conditions, a temporary breakup for Nirvana, and a mental breakdown for Cobain. It was also the build up to the most important gig any of the bands had ever played: LameFest U.K. at London's Astoria Theatre. The label showcase would introduce the world to Seattle, Sub Pop, and grunge music. In his latest book, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989, Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt chronicles the long ride across Europe, documenting every victory and speed bump along the road to a vital but unsung event that would change the face of rock 'n' roll.
In the beginning, Sub Pop signed Nirvana for $600. But according to legend, the label didn't have $600 at the time.
Bruce Pavitt: Our financial resources were constantly strained for the first three years. In Nirvana's case, there was a fourth member of the band who didn't play on Bleach — Jason Everman. He advanced the recording cost for Bleach, which was $600. When Nirvana came to us they wanted a contract signed. We pieced it together. At the time of the signing we didn't even have $600 to reimburse Jason. It was something to put in the blank spot on the contract. We were broke, but we were a savvy media company, and we were able to successfully market the whole Seattle scene, and present it to the U.K. press. Within a couple of years, people all over the world knew that Seattle had one of the great rock scenes of the country. We did that on a shoestring budget. Getting our best bands in front of the U.K. press was a pivotal moment for the bands and for Sub Pop. That's what the book captures.
How did Nirvana's first European tour fit into the bigger picture of Seattle's cultural and economic boom of the '90s?
Seattle blew up in the '90s with Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, grunge and so forth. In the '80s, it really wasn't even on the map. The odds for a handful of musicians from a remote outpost of the U.S. going to Europe and changing the face of rock 'n' roll weren't in our favor. In a lot of ways I see the story as being somewhat miraculous. When you flip through the book, you realize that not only were there two bands packed into the van, but there was a sound guy, a manager — nine guys plus merch and instruments — driving all over Europe. It was harrowing: Kurt had a nervous breakdown in Rome. He climbed a speaker tower and threatened to jump! It took the bouncers 10 minutes to talk him down. He'd smashed his last guitar. The odds of getting the band to England for the international showcase were not good. I see it as a heroic narrative where outsiders challenge the system and succeed on their own terms. That was later echoed when Nevermind came out. People said it would sell maybe 50,000 copies and be done. But it has sold millions and millions of copies. It took Michael Jackson off of the top of the Billboard chart.
Telling that story seems to be the real purpose of the book.
I was reviewing the photos thinking I'd really like to share them with people when I realized that it's not just a hodgepodge of cool, never-before-seen photos of Nirvana in Europe. It tells a very dramatic story. The more I looked, the more inspired I became to take the time to put it all together. Hopefully it will inspire people to tap into their DIY selves. ... Nobody made any money playing indie, punk, grunge stuff in the late '80s. But when you look at the culture that's on display in the book, there was a lot camaraderie and hard work. People did it for the love of music. In the post-Nevermind world a lot of indie artists prioritize having a manger, attorney, and getting their songs on TV commercials or shows. That's a lot of the indie game now. Back then, none of those options were available.
I always saw TAD, Nirvana, and Mudhoney as bands celebrating life outside of commercialism. It was a culture of contempt for commercialism that was full of raw energy.
In some of the Mudhoney photos you see people flying off the stage. People were experiencing ecstasy and celebration, and I saw it night after night. That's why we worked with these bands and went on the road with them.
When Jon [Poneman] and I first saw Nirvana in April of '88, the band had no stage presence whatsoever, and hardly any good songs, frankly. Kurt had a good voice, and we saw that they were going some place. We signed them, did a single, and Kurt kept gaining confidence on stage — which, I believe, had a lot to do with him watching Mark Arm from Mudhoney. Mark channeled Iggy Pop. When he was on, you didn't know what was going to happen. The shows were physical, and Kurt took a lot of cues from watching him. They toured together, and by the time they got to LameFest in London, they were in prime form.
You worked with Mark Arm at the Muzak Corporation before Sub Pop got rolling?
Yes, and TAD. There's going to be a TV movie about it one day. The story is too ridiculously ironic. We all worked at Muzak because the pay and the health care benefits were good. Work was essentially hanging out with friends, and during coffee breaks we listened to demos. The Muzak break room is where I first heard Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," and it's where I first heard TAD's "Daisy" demo that we put out as a 7-inch.
What's your role at Sub Pop now?
I'm on the board of directors. I've recently moved back to Seattle from Orcas Island. I raised my kids there in a healthy environment. Now my teenagers are bored and want to live in the big city. I'm situated here now, and I'm planning on being more involved with the label.
It has evolved in interesting ways: When I was a teenager in the '90s the big three labels were Sub Pop, Touch & Go, and Dischord. Touch & Go faded away, and Dischord has remained a Washington, D.C.-centric label. By not diversifying its roster, Dischord hasn't seen the same growth that Sub Pop has experienced.
I didn't sign any of these bands myself, but if you look at the first 10 years of the 21st century, Sub Pop has put out some classic records of the decade — the Shins, Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, Postal Service — some great records that will stand up to the test of time. They've got a great band from Canada called Metz, and they've tapped into Seattle hip-hop with Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. Ish from Shabazz is putting together a studio and will start recording a lot of Seattle hip-hop.
Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 by Bruce Pavitt. Bazillion Points Publishing. Hardcover, 208 pp. $29.95.