Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt Explains Why Regional Music Scenes Still Matter

Bruce Pavitt at home on Orcas Island in 2012.
Bruce Pavitt at home on Orcas Island in 2012.

Bruce Pavitt is best known as a founder of Sub Pop Records -- the label that is credited with bringing Nirvana, grunge and the entire "Seattle sound" to the masses more than twenty years ago.

Pavitt's devotion, skill and connections fed the early days of this regional music movement that eventually led to a sea change in the entire music industry, but Pavitt is more than just a tastemaker; he's a hard worker. And over the years he'd built a respected brand under the "Subterranean Pop" name-- first as a radio show, then a zine and eventually as the name of the record label that he founded with Seattle DJ Jonathan Poneman that would release some of the most groundbreaking music of our time. Over the course of his life, Pavitt has worked nearly every job in the industry. He's been a radio DJ, a zine publisher, a rock column writer, a record store founder, a club DJ, a record label founder and now an author and music historian.

Pavitt spoke to us from his home on Orcas Island in northwest Washington State, near the Canadian border. He describes the island as part natural paradise (one fourth of which is a state park) but with modern conveniences, like that all-important Seattleite essential: good coffee.

Pavitt's new book SUB POP USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, available now from Bazillion Points Publishing is a massive, deep collection of all of his written work -- including coverage from his own zine and reproductions of his column for Seattle's Rocket newspaper in the 1980s.

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Jaime Lees
Bruce Pavitt's new book, SUB POP USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988

Just as an index of underground bands alone, the book is invaluable. Here, Pavitt tracks small bands from inception to death, celebrating their tiny triumphs and documenting their disasters. He had an eye on it all, and it shows. His words are often the only proper record of many short-lived but amazing bands.

Read on for the full interview:

Jaime Lees: I was really excited to get your book. And I've been reading it for a couple of weeks and it's so great because it's a book you can never finish reading, because there is so much information in there.

Bruce Pavitt: I'm really glad you think so. That's awesome.

The book is nice because it's something that I can pick up ten years from now and find something that I missed the first time through. I really like that in a collection.

Well, thank you. It's pretty unique in that at the time not a lot of writers were digging in this deep. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that no writer was digging in this deep as far as indie American culture, and I do feel that the book works as kind of the broadest and deepest index of 1980s indie culture out there. I spent eight years writing this stuff and it just kind of sat in a cardboard box for 25 years and I decided to put it back together.

Oh my god, I'm glad that box didn't get wet or something, you know?

That's right. [laughs]

I could tell how deep your coverage was in the book because I don't know about most of the bands you're writing about. So I was like "Oh, the book is not just about the bands that got famous, it's every local band that was around back then." Personally, that's interesting to me because that's what I do mostly do, too, is write about the non-famous bands.

Cool! Yeah, as you can pick up from the zine, my whole fascination was -- I realized that every city had a scene. But that most of those scenes were completely ignored even by everybody at that time in the alternative music media.

So I figured that by reviewing these indie records, I'd be able to at least tap into the vibe of these different smaller cities. I had access to probably the world's best library of independent music because I was a DJ at KAOS radio at Olympia, and KAOS was the only station in the country that prioritized independent releases. So every band who put out a single at that time -- in the early '80s most bands put out a single -- knew that if they sent it to KAOS that it would probably get played. And that's how I had access to these resources.

Because we have such a sort of unknown but very vibrant scene here, I was like, "Oh, I gotta talk to him about regionalism" because that's something that really interests me, especially with being from here. It also seems that sometimes here there's a bit of a drive to keep our music our own.

Yeah.

Which I think is kind of a shame because I think our music is so great. But, like, if I was going to say to friends of mine in a band, "Oh, I asked Bruce Pavitt what he thinks you should do with your band" they'd say, "Well, fuck what he says! We do our own thing!"

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, totally!

Did you have that kind of resistance with your city, too? Because you were the guy who was taking it international -- it was sort of in your hands. You did all of these things to get the music out and then it wasn't local anymore. Did people have a problem with you, specifically, for that?

Some people had a problem with the fact that at a certain point the scene became so hot that, um, yeah it was no longer just friends and family anymore. And the main drive for most of these regional artists is simply to play music and be appreciated, not to make a career out of it. Basically, you're talking about a network of hobbyists who are simply playing for the fun of it, but [laughs] the Seattle scene became so hot that there was a lot of money that came in and, you know, the culture changed.

There was more competition. Some musicians wound up making a lot of money. There was jealousy. There were people coming in from out of town. So it disrupted the "Hey, let's just play some music for friends and family" vibe. Talent scouts coming up from LA, and it really did kind of fuck with the vibe of the scene. There was a documentary that came out in the early '90s called Hype. And that's the essential premise of that film: that by popularizing Seattle, Jon [Poneman] and I at Sub Pop had kind of destroyed the scene.

So people always have mixed reactions about what happened. But I think on some level a lot of people from Seattle felt a lot of excitement and kind of a sense of pride for what was going on in the city. Having been ignored for decades and then all of a sudden getting the spotlight -- people have mixed feelings about that.

You sort of drew the blueprint for what happens when a music scene blows up nationally or internationally.

Yeah, I've got to say it's an interesting story. I'm kind of deviating here, but when I stand back and look at it, this book kind of unveils the unknown story of all of the small, ignored scenes and the small ignored bands that created kind of a tribal network of punk enthusiasts and hobbyists and that network kind of grew over the '80s and it's... it's a pretty fascinating story.

And it sounds weird to say that because it's kind of my story here. But when I look back and review this book, it just... it's really kind of almost unbelievable about how you can witness the growth of these small scenes as documented in this book, and then you see this energy kind of coalesce around Seattle and the essential premise of the book was that subterranean pop -- underground pop -- that any band could be popular if given the opportunity. That's the essential premise of the book.

So you see all these rich local scenes kind of developing over the '80s and then Seattle became kind of like the perfect exclamation mark at the end of the premise. Yes, the theory is correct. You know, if a scene gets nurtured and has some support and gets a little attention, then that music can go on to become very popular. Um, I know I'm kind of jumping around here a bit. Continue to page two for more.  

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Jaime Lees
The essential premise of the Hype film, spotted two weeks ago at a mall

No, that totally makes sense because you can shine a light anywhere and find the good stuff there.

You can! And with the right -- I would say -- nurturing and support, really, any scene can blow up. And I would say in the back of my mind I always kind of thought about Jamaica. How the island of Jamaica and the city of Kingston could create a sound that would effectively influence global music. And it was just a handful of low budget studios in Kingston that created reggae and dub and Marley and affected the world.

So I always kind of had that model in the back of my head, and I would actually look at Washington state almost as an island. Not just Seattle, but Washington state. Because a lot of these bands -- Screaming trees, Nirvana, Melvins -- a lot of these bands were coming in from the outlying areas. And I just figured: If they can do it in Jamaica, if they can do it in England -- another case in point -- then there's no reason why it couldn't be done in Washington. And it really came down to sharing information, communication and awareness.

The [Sub Pop] zine was read by just a small handful of other zine writers and musicians, but by the time I moved to Seattle and started writing for the Rocket... The Rocket was printed up in editions of 50-60,000 and distributed all over the state. So Kurt Cobain down in Aberdeen would go pick up a Rocket, and in my column he could read about Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers and Black Flag. And I know my column very much influenced him and influenced different musicians around the state. They got turned on to this underground culture that was just bubbling under the surface. I hope some of that makes sense. I hope you can edit that in a way where there's a linear story there.

That doesn't need editing, that makes complete sense. I just think it's cool that having done all of these things for so many years, what I think must be nice for you is that if it wasn't your story, that you could look at your book and be interested in a historical perspective, at least, as a music historian.

Definitely. You know, it's funny because when I first pieced this book together, it was a little difficult because, you know, imagine putting together writings that you created at the very beginning of your career -- it's kind of a mixed bag. Some of my writing, I think my writing got pretty good by the time of the Rocket -- but it's hit and miss. So, you know, to publish everything that you've ever written is a little daunting, you know, because the editor in me just wanted to go in and just cut it up and just put in the best pieces. But I knew that I couldn't really do that because the power of the book is the volume of information. And that's part of the story there.

So I do -- to answer your question -- I can completely appreciate this as a history book. And this is a history book that documents a culture that a lot of this information isn't even available on the Internet. This is a forgotten history. This is a piecing together of a history that in many ways that has been long-forgotten. You know, band from Oklahoma presses 500 singles, three people buy it, band breaks up two weeks later. Well, guess what? They're still in the index in my book.

Yeah, there's still a document of it somewhere. So, to me, you've done sort of everything in the industry for the most part. When young bands ask you for advice what do you tell them? Because you've seen it from all sides.

I definitely have seen it from all sides. I've worked radio and clubs and I had a record store -- I pretty much did work every facet of the business. And when the label started, I was art direction, getting the records in production and so forth. But really, the core advice to any artist is: Keep it fun, you know? This is really about a celebration of spirit and creativity.

That's why most of these bands in this book put out records. They weren't really thinking in terms of career. And I think the mistake a lot of artists make right now is that they analyze their career moves a little too closely. They'll get a manager and an attorney after a couple of rehearsals. They'll start contemplating licensing deals. And a lot of that affects the quality of the music. And I feel that a lot of indie music these days completely lacks the spirit of the music of the '80s that was more punk-influenced. I find a lot of the music from this period more spirited because these bands, their basic goal was to put out a single and maybe do a regional tour. So they had nothing to lose and they put everything that they had into it. And they were willing to take risks and they were willing to look ridiculous because their aims were not commercial. There was no way that they would ever make money doing stuff, so a lot of these recordings, to me, are a lot more spirited. Whereas a lot of the indie culture these days is kinda cerebral, a little more calculated, lacking in spirit. So my advice is really do it for the fun of it and things will flow from there.

A perfect example from that era would be a band like the B-52's. They started out as a house band playing parties. Then they went up to New York a few times -- I was fortunate enough to catch them at Max's Kansas City in '78, maybe 30 people in the audience. And at the time, they were just so original. I'd never seen anything like it. They'd just pressed their first single. I think they might've done an edition of 2,000 copies, and that was that. But because they were having fun and not necessarily being careerists, they wound up being very successful. People tapped into that risk-taking and that sense of joy that they had because they were just playing for the fun of it.

Yeah, who could guess that they would've gone as far as they did based on what they did?

Yeah. They were just having fun.

It seems like a lot of the bands here -- and this is just my stupid little observation -- some of my favorite bands that don't go far locally, even, it's because they don't go to other people's shows. And it's not that they're being punished for not going to others shows, it's just that they miss out on that idle bar chat that eventually turns into, "Hey do you want to get on this show with my band?" It seems like the more everyone communicates around here, the easier things flow.

Absolutely. And this is -- that's actually a really good point. And the number one question I get asked all the time is "Now in the Internet era, does regionalism still matter?" Because people can network on the Internet. And I always say, "Absolutely." There's no substitute for going to a show, bumping into another musician or maybe a photographer and sharing ideas and developing a bond. And it's those bonds that are developed through interpersonal connection that really help gel a scene. Internet communities are no substitute to a great local club that's open to new artists.

We have a few of those here, so we're really lucky. They really help to feed the community.

Yep. In Seattle a perfect -- just to reflect on this, what happened in Seattle -- a key factor in the Seattle success was the fact that a local photographer Charles Peterson was obsessed with documenting these live shows and he had a very unique style-- you might be familiar with his work?

Of course.

He had a lot of crazy action shots. Anyhow, I came across his photos at a party. I instantly recognized that if I could package the Seattle music with these images and was really consistent about that, then people would be intrigued. There was just no doubt in my mind. And this all happened by going to a party and meeting Charles, and that's the thing about scenes: One thing leads to another and the next thing you know you have a culture.

So how do you currently find new bands that you're interested in?

Well, uh, yeah, through word of mouth. I'm actually hanging out at SoundCloud a bit. I like going to SoundCloud and typing stuff in. Having lived on the west coast here for a while I've been more tapped into the west coast festival circuit. There are a lot of underground festivals here; music tends to be a little more DJ-oriented and a lot of that music is available on SoundCloud. So I don't spend a lot of time in urban clubs -- just a little bit. So again, word of mouth and doing research through SoundCloud and, you know, Bandcamp as well.

Could I ask you really quickly before I let you go -- what's your opinion on the latest media assertions about Dave Grohl being overexposed?

Oh, interesting. I haven't seen that, but I just saw Dave Grohl a few days ago. He was in Seattle. I think Dave Grohl... Do I think he's overexposed? No, no I don't. I think he's done an incredibly great job with Sonic Highways -- it's a really good series. I think it was a brilliant marketing move, too, to have like an eight hour infomercial supporting your album.

No doubt.

It was actually over-the-top marketing genius. But, you know, he played it well because he went into these cities and was incredibly respectful of the legacies of these cities. He kind of knocked it out of the park with that. I'm very impressed. He's pretty much the ambassador of rock these days. And I think that he has really good things to say. And that if anybody is going to go out there and you know, network with the president of the U.S. and talk music that it should be Dave. So I'm a big supporter of Dave Grohl. Personally, I liked him maybe a little more as a drummer in Nirvana than as a singer in the Foo Fighters, but aside from that, I think he has a remarkable gift for bringing people together and that's a good thing.

Yeah, he's the ultimate networker.

Yeah, I think so. You don't need the Internet, just talk to Dave Grohl.

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