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.
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]
Okay, so I'm interviewing you for a St. Louis newspaper and I've been there [with the Riverfront Times] for almost a decade, and there are still so many local bands that I want to cover. 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. Which would be like New York Rocker in New York. They might do a quick little scene report from Chicago or somewhere, but for the most part certainly cities like St. Louis, even Seattle, were completely ignored. If you were in New York, you'd have absolutely no idea what was going on in St. Louis or Seattle.
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.
People in New York wouldn't know what's going on in St. Louis, but here we're forced to know about what's going on in New York because that's what is in the news.
So 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.
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.
Continue to page two for more.