Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt Writes Book, Offers Advice To Bands: "Keep It Fun, You Know?"

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

Well, you're from Chicago, so you can probably understand that here there's sort of an... extra healthy dose of Midwest skepticism for outsiders?

[Laughs] Yes, yes, definitely. Very similar, yeah.

I'm just interested in the potential parallels. You sort of drew the blueprint for what would happen if St. Louis music blew 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.

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.

Yeah, most of our musicians are artists also. So it's easy for a musician to work with a photographer or a painter and on and on.

Yeah, one thing leads to the other. Hey, I wanted to mention just in passing that in one of my early zines -- I can't remember which one -- but there was a St. Louis band and they were kind of a big deal at the time. I just wanted to drop in their name -- that's a group called Raymilland, named after a B-movie actor.

Ooh, I have that record sitting ten feet away from me.

Pardon me?

Continue to page three for more.

About The Author

Jaime Lees

Jaime Lees is a digital content editor for the Riverfront Times.
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