You didn’t have to be anywhere near early-Nineties Seattle to feel the effects of its awesome force. The sound it emitted — a dirty punk/metal hybrid wrestled from battered guitars — impacted everything from indie zines to Rolling Stone, MTV and Hollywood films. Hell, one might’ve lived under a rock, never bought a single Nirvana record and still know today that Kurt Cobain — permanently hoarse, stringy-haired and in every way the anti-rockstar — literally took this world by storm (without for one moment meaning to). Over time, drugs, boredom, chronic pain and debilitating self-consciousness would become irrepressible strands of his eventual, tragic lore.

Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records, entered Kurt’s life before the celebrity and dogged discontent, signing Nirvana in ’88 while curating ‘Seattle’s sound.’ Soon after, escorting Mudhoney (Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Matt Lukin, Dan Peters), TAD (Tad Doyle, Kurt Danielson, Steve Wied, Gary Thorstensen) and newbies Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing on a trek of Europe, he unwittingly documented what became a pivotal period in Grunge’s history: An 8-day tour culminating in one unforgettable performance, ultimately declaring ‘Grunge’ a worldwide phenomenon.


Your new eBook, Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989
, is clearly a deeply-personal project. How did you finally arrive at the decision to write the story and share your photos?
Well, when I got back from the trip I had my photos printed up, took a look at them, then threw ’em in a box and forgot about them for awhile. There was one picture in particular that really stuck in my mind though, and that was Kurt in front of the Coliseum. I thought that was a very powerful shot. After Kurt’s death, I put my box of grunge memorabilia away in the attic and didn’t feel  inclined to go through it and relive those memories; frankly, [the photos] made me a bit depressed. Then a couple years ago, I went into the box and flipped through the photos and realized that they really told the story of an interesting mini-drama that unfolded over 8 days and ultimately ended on a very positive note. I felt compelled to organize something after that. I was introduced to some people at Apple and I thought that an eBook — an interactive photo journal — could be a really interesting way to piece together the story.

And are you pleased with the result?
The photos look stunning illuminated on the screen and there’s a lot of interactivity that I’m really happy with. Not to over-hype it too much but it’s kind of revolutionary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

So tell me about that 8-day mini-drama.
There was a lot that happened. Literally six hours after I arrived in Rome, Kurt…(sigh)…had a breakdown. The band broke up temporarily. [Jon Poneman and I] knew the whole purpose and ultimate end result of their very grueling six-week tour was a performance in front of the British press, various scenesters and British musicians and that it was a make-or-break time for Nirvana. It was very important to make this show happen. In the end, Kurt went on and totally rocked it and put on an incredible show in front of the most jaded international audience you can get.

Take me back to when you signed Nirvana. Certainly you saw potential but you could never have foresaw what they would ultimately become. What exactly did you see in them?
Jon and I first saw them play on April 10th, 1988, and very specifically, that something was without question Kurt’s voice. His songwriting matured and came into its own as we started working with him and the power and the presence of the band really developed with a lot of touring — they were very influenced by Mudhoney who had a strong physical stage presence with a lot of moving around — so I think they picked up their performance style and their songwriting a little later in there career. Definitely though, when we first saw them, Kurt’s voice was undeniable. Ultimately the power of his voice is what sticks with people.

What was the Sub Pop climate at the time you were heading over to Europe for this tour — and how old were you?
Let me see…I was 30 years old. The label had been operating full time for a year and a half. We were certainly struggling financially but we were also getting incredible feedback on all of our bands and we knew that Seattle in particular had some amazing live acts. In that pre-internet era, our whole philosophy around breaking bands was to find ones with a great live show and get them out on the road. You couldn’t post videos on YouTube or any of that; it was just a completely different era. The label was working creatively on limited resources and every month, I just hoped that I could  keep it going for just another one or two months. I knew that what we had was something totally incredible and that if we could just hang in there long enough to give the world a taste of what we had the scene could really blow up. We believed the key to that was doing a show in front of the British press because British publications like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds were the trendsetting zines that we felt publications like Rolling Stone listened to.

So what kind of guys were Nirvana at this phase in their career? What was their mindset?
Interestingly, Chad and Kurt were somewhat similar. They were both very soft spoken, not hyper-social. Krist Novoselic was the exact opposite (laughs): Tall, gregarious, and very loud in a good way. It was a very interesting study in contrasts. Kurt was a creative thinker and a deep thinker; he thought about music quite a bit and had a lot of interest in fringe and alternative artists. He kept to himself as much as possible, as did Chad. Those two were very gentle souls.

What was their attitude about performing for UK taste makers? Were they enthusiastic about that?
They were stoked. Being in their early twenties and playing Europe for the first time was very exciting. By the time they got to London they were very exhausted but they understood the importance of the event. The significance of that show lay in the fact that for the first time ever, all three of these groups would come together to perform for a European crowd. This was a culmination of two different tours — TAD and Nirvana were on tour and Mudhoney had a separate tour — and the synergy and the power of the three groups playing together completely solidified that Seattle was home to one of the most raging rock cultures on the planet. It was pretty undeniable. Any one of those groups was pretty good on their own but putting them together was a very unique and powerful experience.

Was the audience reaction clear right away?
Absolutely. When you flip through the eBook you’ll see a lot of crowd shots with legs sticking up in the air, people falling off the stage and a lot of stage diving. Once again, London is a pretty jaded music town seeing a bunch of different rock stars coming through every day, so it was really a magnificent reaction. I would encourage your readers to check out two live recordings that were released commercially on the 1995 album, On The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. There are two songs on there that were recorded at that show and one in particular – Polly – is one of the greatest Nirvana recordings ever. If you listen to that, you’ll get a glimpse of what that show was like and what a powerful event it was.

Nirvana were billed as the openers, right?
Yes, they were the opening act and I would say they stole that show — not because the other bands weren’t good  but because as an opening act they were so powerful.

What were your emotions as you watched all this unfold in front of you?
It was extremely satisfying to see it all come together. We had seen these three bands perform in Seattle at Lame Fest six months earlier — a legendary show with 1400 kids totally going off — and it was our dream to get the bands over to London to do that same thing again there. It was an epic ordeal, they raised an amazing crowd response, and we pulled it off.

Would you say this show changed the path of their career?

I really believe that show marked the beginning of their ascension in the eyes of the music media. They were no longer an opening act after that show, and just six months later, they were signed to DGC, Iggy Pop came to their show in New York and there was a pretty big buzz on the band from that point on.

What was your relationship like with Kurt being that you were ‘the label guy’?
I thought it was very good. Personally, I was great friends with Mark Arm and the Mudhoney guys — they were my crew. Tad and I had a good relationship, too. I didn’t know the Nirvana guys as well, so it was when we spent that whole day in Rome walking around Vatican City and the Coliseum that I got to know Kurt much better. I do know that he was really burnt out when we met him in Rome, hence the breakdown at the show that night, and I genuinely believe that our presence there proved to be nurturing and really helpful to him. The fact that we essentially pulled him out of the van the morning after all that and said, ‘Okay, the rest up the guys are going to drive up to Geneva and we’re going to go out for the day and you’re going to eat some good food and see some sites and just have a day to decompress,’ made all the difference to him in getting to London and totally rocking it.

What was his mood like as you explored Rome that day?
He was moody. He started off a little depressed but as the day wore on his spirits started to lift. There’s a picture of him and John and Steve from the TAD band walking through Vatican City and Kurt has a big smile on his face. He must’ve been thinking, ‘Okay, I’m an international rock star hanging out in Rome…This is a good time.’ You can see it in his face.

With Kurt’s fate being as unfortunate as it was, people tend to focus on that disenchanted, emotionally-delicate side of him, but I’d like to believe there was an equally excited and every enthusiastic side to him as well.
Yes, absolutely. He was moody for sure but some of those moods were pretty positive ones — especially when he was talking about music and The Vaselines and Shonen Knife and Beat Happening and the bands that he was really excited about.

He was a huge music fan, didn’t he?
I noticed when I was going through the set lists for the eBook that every night, Nirvana played a different cover. These guys were really students of alternative music and whether it was Captain Beefheart or the B-52‘s or The Stooges, they were always busting stuff out and they took great pleasure in learning about cool music and sharing it with people. Kurt was very active in sharing new material in interviews and on stage through doing those covers.

I debated this today for a good long time: Do you think there could ever be another Nirvana, or more specifically, another ‘Seattle Sound’ movement to sweep the globe?
You know, that’s a really good question. A lot of time has gone by since then. I do feel that there have been little regional scenes that have popped up since then — a cool one was in Bristol, England  in the early nineties with Massive Attack and some of that trip hop material  — but nothing like what we saw in Seattle. I think that people are still feeling the reverberations of that. It’s not that it could never happen again but it is a very different era; its an internet era where people are overloaded with a lot of information and I think their attention spans are shorter. It’s hard to say. Only time will tell.

Do you feel like Grunge suffered a blow or was overshadowed by what happened with Kurt?
…That’s a hard question. I would just say that music and culture in general went through a very challenging time with Kurt’s passing. He was a rare and powerful artist and somebody who really inspired and activated a lot of people. His death was very tragic and I’m  hoping that people can read this book, see Kurt through a different lens at a more innocent stage in his development, and leave it feeling really positive.

Being that you were so involved in breaking the Seattle scene, you must have tons of anecdotes and memorabilia to share. Do you have plans in the works for similar projects in the future?
I do. A little bit of history: I started Sub Pop as a zine in 1980 — I believe it was the first indie rock zine ever published; people weren’t even thinking in  those terms of independent labels and so forth. There was a network of Punk zines that were of a certain style but I was reviewing music through the lens of indie rock. My next project will be a compendium of some of my early zines in a digital format. I think it will give people a lot of  insight into some rare and obscure music that’s been lost to time.


Download the interactive Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 Book, brimming with dozens of previously-unseen live and candid photos taken by Bruce Pavitt’s 8-day trek in Grunge’s earliest days at Apple’s iBookstore. A portion of proceeds will benefit Seattle’s Vera Project, a volunteer-run, youth-governed arts and music venue.

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