How the home of K Records, Sub Pop, Riot Grrrl and the punk rock librarians gave rise to Nirvana, and became subsumed into the myth of Seattle.
RIGHT NOW, I’m engaged in writing a book on Nirvana that will, I hope, help to right some of the myths and false legends that have grown up around the Aberdeen band. One of my core beliefs about Nirvana is that the reason I and many of my friends were able to feel such a connection to Kurt Cobain’s music was that his prime influences came from Olympia, not Seattle.
So what if Kurt could write a catchy refrain, had a choke in his voice, looks to kill for and a drug habit? Rock stars down the generations have boasted the same, from Keith Richards to Pete bloody Libertine. Give me three chords, two hours and an unlimited marketing budget and I could write you a song to set the world alight. That wasn’t what made Nirvana interesting. Their sense of desperation, their teen alienation matched to some feminist views rarely voiced in mainstream pop music – that was what made them so resonant, even now. These weren’t qualities associated with the more traditional Seattle rock bands — as admirable as much as some of the music emanating from that city in the late ’80s was (Mudhoney, Tad, the U-Men). These qualities were to be found in the International Pop Underground collective that originated in Olympia, centred round the charismatic figure of Beat Happening singer Calvin Johnson and later on, Riot Grrrls such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
What follows are excerpts from an interview with Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop records (the label that became notorious for discovering Nirvana, and kickstarting a new rock revolution, “grunge”), drawn from a conversation we had in Seattle, end of 2004.
(Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest region by some margin, lies to the North. Olympia — a small hippie college town and state capitol that boasts an army camp as its neighbour — lies pretty much halfway between it and the depressed logging town of Aberdeen, in the south.)
School Of (Punk) Rock
Bruce Pavitt: “Olympia is a small town with amazing resources, specifically KAOS Radio. KAOS Radio had, at the time I was there — ’79 to ’83 — the most comprehensive collection of independent music of any radio station in the United States. Think of Alexandria in Egypt. This is the mother lode library in the universe of independent punk records. Because of that library, there were a handful of people who had access to a wide body of information: Calvin Johnson, a few others and myself. If you were involved in the music scene in
Olympia, chances were you knew about records that people in Seattle didn’t.
“There was a higher degree of sophistication in Olympia, an almost academic approach to punk rock. That’s what I studied at Evergreen State College. I hung out at the KAOS library, studied their records and got college credit for it. So the scene at the time Kurt was going through was small but it was interesting, and it revolved around Calvin Johnson’s record collection and KAOS. Anybody going through Olympia was most likely bumping into Calvin Johnson or doing interviews on KAOS — or in Kurt Cobain’s case, being interviewed by Calvin Johnson on KAOS. Even though Kurt was from Aberdeen, the fact that he was sitting in the KAOS mother lode of a record library could not help but influence his approach to music.
“There was also a real purity about the vision coming out of the Olympia scene, a high level of integrity, while the Seattle scene was more about business. Kurt was schooled in Olympia. Kurt made money in Seattle. That’s how I would define it. And Kurt probably partied in Tacoma [resolutely blue-collar town, midway between Seattle and Olympia, home of the Tacoma Dome and its own legendary ‘odour’].”
I’ve been to Aberdeen once. I’d say it’s a redneck town, kind of a backwater…
“I’ve been there once. I’d agree with it.”
It seems the kind of music people would’ve been exposed to there would be metal, or AM radio —
“Or in the progressive households, FM radio.”
So it seems a band like the Melvins would have had an immense amount of influence in an environment like that.
“Yes, simply because they were a band working in Aberdeen, and there were no other bands. Buzz and the Melvins were dialled into underground culture, as well. That’s where Kurt got turned onto a lot of underground punk music, no doubt about it. But when talking about Olympia, it is crucial to mention the honouring of the feminine. Female punk bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, and obviously the Marine Girls, were highly valued and that helped lead into a lot of the Riot Grrrl stuff. That’s really a key to Kurt’s personality, his honouring of the feminine. Whereas in Aberdeen it was about hard rock, whether it was metal or punk, a lot of what Olympia was about was, ‘We’re going to dig through the crates and find female punk stuff that wasn’t quite as popular’. That was huge as far as his development as an artist went.”
I used to break it down that Olympia was a mod town, and Seattle was a rocker town. Another definition is that Olympia was hardcore as defined by Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat [his pre-Fugazi straight edge band], and some of the L.A. bands of the early ’80s; whereas Seattle was more punk, as defined by the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the British bands of ’76, ’77. As much as punk disrupted things, it was always trying to work within the mainstream, whereas hardcore didn’t see any point in engaging with the mainstream.
What kind of influence would you say Krist Novoselic had on Nirvana?
“Krist was very outgoing. He and Matt Lukin [Melvins, Mudhoney], those guys could rage. In practical terms, a lot of what touring is about is networking and meeting people and building contacts. Kurt by nature was fairly reserved and shy. Krist was the guy forging a lot of social connections, going to parties after the show or partying during the show. He was a fun guy to hang out with. Are you asking more specifically for musical influences?”
“That I don’t know. I remember visiting really early back in the day and him being way into the first Jane’s Addiction record. He was very progressive. It’s not like he was the metal guy and Kurt was the sensitive punk guy.”
And Chad [Channing, first “permanent” Nirvana drummer] —
“Chad was a little more like Kurt — very sensitive, soft-spoken, creative.”
When I first met Nirvana, I got the two confused.
“I remember setting up their first professional photo shoot, with the Tacoma Bridge in the background. To think, three years on, they were going to be the biggest band in the world…”
Did you expect that?
The point I always make when people say, “Sub Pop said they were going to be the biggest band in the world” is, “Yeah, well, they said that about everyone!”
“This is what I will say about Nirvana. What impressed me most was the spectacular growth in artistry. At the first show, at the Central Tavern, there was Jon [Poneman, co-Sub Pop founder], the bartender and me. There were three people in the room. And their songs were bad. They played one good song, and it was by Shocking Blue, called ‘Love Buzz’. None of the original material was outstanding in the least, but Kurt had a good voice. I thought well, we could probably get away with putting out the Shocking Blue cover. That was my initial impression. And that the drummer had a moustache and that was problematic.”
Was that Aaron?
“Yeah. So. To see this band and think, This is going to be the biggest band in the world in three years’ — no way. I’d put that at about a billion to one. But we were singles oriented, and I felt they had enough material for a good single and their vibe complemented what we were doing. And that was the most important because Sub Pop was cultivating a certain vibe, a la Blue Note or Factory. They fit in.”
What were you doing at this show?
“Poneman told me to show up. Jon said, ‘Hey, we got this tape.’ There’s a famous story of me bringing the tape into the Muzak workspace, and we’re sitting around at coffee break, and Tad [Doyle] and Mark [Arm, Mudhoney] are listening to the tape, and people are giving it a thumbs down. Jon thought there was something there, and I was sitting on a fence, so Jon said, ‘Let’s go see them.’ And we did.
“From that point, they slowly got better and better. The talent grew exponentially in a way I’ve never witnessed. The growth was phenomenal. Six months after I saw them, they started to become really good. OK, so they’d gotten Chad. That made a difference. And Kurt started to become more expressive on stage. He became more flamboyant, and made the shows a lot more interesting, and the songwriting started to improve. The turning point was at an all-ages show at the Annex Theatre on Fourth. You’re probably familiar with this gig.
“Even though they spent five minutes tuning up between each song, and it was therefore grossly incompetent, there was definitely some magic. A friend from Olympia came up to me and said, ‘They are the next Beatles.’ And I looked at him — it was a really interesting reaction because I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or being sincere, and I found that my own feelings were the same. There was some alchemy going on that was very powerful.
“Things kept accelerating. We put out Bleach [the debut album] and the response was overwhelming. When you look back at it, it’s an OK record, but not brilliant — ‘About A Girl’ is great, ‘Blew’ is great — but again, there’s a special alchemy there. Look at the difference between Bleach and Nevermind — the amazing amount of growth, especially with the songwriting. Between ’88 and ’90, the songwriting completely transformed. That was magical to witness first hand.”
Were you upset when Nirvana decided to start talking to major labels?
“I was extremely upset, and hurt, because I was the last person to hear about it. Everyone was telling me, ‘Hey, I was down in Olympia, Nirvana are driving around in a limo and everything. Pre-Nevermind, you just didn’t do that — especially in Olympia.
“In retrospect, everything makes sense, but at the time, very few bands had signed to major labels, maybe Sonic Youth. It was a shock. Post-Nevermind, every band wanted to, no big deal. Also, the label was taking every ounce of energy I had to keep it together. So I felt that even though we were constantly broke, and in some ways dysfunctional, everything I had was going into the label. And I felt the least I deserved was to have some honest communication.
“I would reflect back on things like, ‘Oh, I remember being in Rome with Kurt when he had his nervous breakdown and he smashed his only guitar so we took the last little bit of money that we had to buy him a guitar and then we were broke, and then he got his passport stolen and we helped him get a new passport.’ Those times where you give everything you have to help someone out, and that was the spirit of the label, this deep sense of camaraderie. So for them to do all this shopping and not even tell us — it didn’t feel good.”
Sub Pop must have been at least partly shaped by lessons learned in Olympia. A sense of community would have been part of that.
“Exactly. My view was not, ‘This is a business and we are going to funnel bands up to major labels and make money’. The label turned into that later, but that was a different sensibility than what I was bringing to the table. I had a business partner, and the synergy of our two philosophies was what made Sub Pop what it was, and I give thanks for that. My sensibility was more like: this is a family-oriented thing. It’s community building. It’s about provoking the system, and helping each other out.
“After Nirvana bailed for major labels, my whole relationship with artists changed. I started to distance myself from the bands.”
What differentiated K from Sub Pop?
“I’d like to preface my answer by saying that Calvin and I worked together at KAOS, and that when Sub Pop started as a fanzine, he was the only other person that worked on it with me. We go way back. I envisioned Sub Pop as a networking tool. I was very interested in having different regional scenes-which were isolated due to lack of media at the time — connect. I’ve always been motivated by the synergy that happens when people or scenes come together. Hence the Sub Pop magazine being set up so that all records were reviewed from a regional perspective so the reader could zero in on the aesthetic of the different scenes. Then I started putting out cassettes, and then the Sub Pop 100 compilation of artists from different scenes from around the country.
“K essentially started out as a vehicle for Beat Happening recordings. It grew from there. In both cases, the personalities and interests of Calvin and myself came through in what we were doing. K was much more about releasing not only Beat Happening stuff, but other music from Olympia, so its vision from the beginning was to establish Olympia as a vibrant alternative scene. Although Sub Pop started out in Olympia and moved to Seattle, it was much more about looking at things nationally, and trying to facilitate information and sharing of music between different scenes. Sub Pop morphed into a label that promoted what was going on in Seattle. And from that it reached out once again with the Singles Club, and started working with bands from all over the country.
“Calvin and I were super-tight and we could talk music, but our tastes and interest shifted a little bit — like he was into the whole cutie thing [mid-’80s UK bands like Talulah Gosh, Shop Assistants and the Pastels]. When you have similar personalities, you can appreciate a similar kind of music. It’s really hard to find people who can appreciate a large spectrum of music like that. I think you, me and Calvin had an interesting synergy.
“When you first came out to Seattle [in 1989, to write the story that “broke” Sub Pop to the outside world], you visited me and Calvin. I could tell you about Seattle with a lot of enthusiasm, and you were picking up on it because you knew I appreciated a lot of music. If I’d just been some metal dude, it wouldn’t have happened. I was like, ‘Hmm, the guy listens to the Slits and Beat Happening’. A trust developed between us.”
Kurt Cobain and Calvin Johnson certainly shared an appreciation for many of the female-led, post-punk UK bands of the early Eighties — Young Marble Giants, Marine Girls, the Raincoats. And it’s easy to see the influence those groups had in turn on Beat Happening. It’s much harder to see that influence on Nirvana’s actual music. Some people even resent the fact Nirvana claim these bands as their own.
“As far as the Olympia influence goes, Kurt was influenced by Calvin’s championing of obscure independent artists. Kurt very proactively did that when he became bigger, and hanging out with Thurston Moore influenced Kurt in the same way. Personal anecdote — I remember visiting Kurt down in Olympia, trying to convince him to sign an extended contract with Sub Pop. I spent eight hours at his house. As a diplomatic gesture, I bought down copies of the Shaggs’ record, and a Daniel Johnston disc. Just to kind of let him know in a symbolic way that Sub Pop really supported alternative music — and also as a fan.
“A couple years later I saw Kurt in Rolling Stone wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt. I appreciated the fact he used his celebrity to promote some of the most obscure and independent music out there, even though his music didn’t always reflect that. Just wearing the Daniel Johnston T-shirt was huge!”
It got Daniel signed to Atlantic.
“Yeah, but what it really meant was, ‘Even though I am the biggest rock star in the world, I am going to champion the least appreciated artist on the planet’.”
On their final tour of the US, Nirvana took Half Japanese with them. Playing stadiums and stuff.
“That’s great. I didn’t know that, but that is a real demonstration of the Olympia influence. Half Japanese were a huge influence on Calvin and me. Seattle wasn’t listening to Half Japanese. Olympia was. Calvin was the first person in the United States to bring back Shonen Knife records from Japan. I put Shonen Knife on my first compilation because of Calvin, and years later Kurt would list Shonen Knife in his Top 10 favourite records. It’s all Olympia.
“When you’re talking about the contrast between Olympia and Seattle, there is something here: Kurt’s conflict of wanting to be the biggest rock star in the world, but also wanting to be a fully independent artist and in total control of his career. Being an outsider and an insider, wanting both and being conflicted about that. It can be seen in the relationship between Olympia and Seattle. Olympia was about valuing integrity.
Seattle was about becoming successful. And Sub Pop reflected those tensions as well. Because Sub Pop grew out of Olympia and wound up in Seattle, same as Kurt.”
© Everett True, Plan B, May 2005