Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt Discusses ‘Experiencing Nirvana,’ New Book About 1989 European Tour
If you browse the “rock” section of your local bookstore (they still have those, right?), you’re guaranteed to find a few titles covering Kurt Cobain, Nirvana and the grunge scene, but only one bears the byline of Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt. It’s impossible to talk about the Seattle music explosion of the ‘90s without mentioning the Sub Pop label and its influence, and for that reason, Pavitt’s new book ‘Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989’ is a must-read for fans of the era.
A photo journal covering the final eight days of a backbreaking six-week tour of Europe featuring Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad in 1989, ‘Experiencing Nirvana’ includes more than 200 images shot by Pavitt.
“We had this insanely lucky break in the summer of 1988 where we convinced a German promoter to fly Mudhoney out to his country to play a state-funded festival and continues to blow everyone away even though they had only been together like six months or so,” Pavitt tells Diffuser.fm. “From there, a European promoter decided he wanted to bring Mudhoney back to tour with Sonic Youth. The tour did really well and gave promoters the confidence to back these kinds of bands. That changed everything.”
Mudhoney’s maiden trek of Europe proved to be a pivotal moment for both Sub Pop (all three bands featured in the book were signed to the label) and what would eventually be known as the “grunge movement.” After an explosive Seattle show featuring Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad sold out a 1,400-seat venue in June of 1989, Pavitt and Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman knew they had to get the three groups over to Europe together in a package tour.
“We felt that all we needed to do was to get the bands in front of the photographers and the British press,” he says. “The music weeklies were starving for material [In 1989, the UK had three important weekly music publications: Melody Maker, New Music Express and Sounds], and we knew if we got the writers there to get excited about the bands, it would help ignite an international phenomenon. And that’s what ended up happening.”
In addition to his firsthand account of the European trek, ‘Experiencing Nirvana’ features never-before-seen photos Pavitt shot of the musicians on and off the stage during his eight-day trip, including shots of in-store meet-and-greets.
“As far as I know, the photos you see in the book are the first times most of these guys were signing autographs,” Pavitt says. “Mudhoney might have done some autographs when they were out with Sonic Youth, but I kind of doubt it. The in-store you see in the book was done at Rough Trade in the U.K., which as far as I’m concerned, was the best indie store in the world at that time. It was an epic moment.”
While the six-week tour ultimately became a turning point for Nirvana’s popularity in Europe, the band was on its last legs after dealing with the trip’s grueling schedule and trials and tribulations. To compound everything, Kurt Cobain’s passport and wallet were stolen during the trip. Luckily, the upcoming stop at London’s famed Astoria Theatre would change Nirvana’s fortunes — at least from a commercial standpoint.
“I think the best band that night was Mudhoney, but Nirvana had grown so much in such a short period of time that by the time they played the opening slot that night, they proved they should not just be seen as an opening kind of act,” Pavitt says. “They were going to headline from that point on. So yeah, of the three bands that night in London, they were definitely the biggest surprise. After that performance, they became our secret favorite band on the label.”
‘Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989’ is out now via Bazillion Points.