Song Writing

Sub Pop Founder Bruce Pavitt On How To Create A Music Scene

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"I think it's the broadest, deepest index of American indie culture out there right now. There have been some good books out there, but my book really hits a number of different towns and different regions for almost the entire decade [1980s], and I'm really proud of that. And it's trippy to see the diversity, especially, when you get some of the metal and hip-hop reviews in there like, Metallica and Run-D.M.C., back when they were on indie labels and they were still super cutting-edge and hadn't broken through."

~Bruce Pavitt, author of Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, and founder of Sub Pop Records

Independent music aficionados might recall Bruce Pavitt's name... he was the guy who started Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label that launched Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and — indirectly — Pearl Jam. Sub Pop made grunge viable when Pavitt and partner Jonathan Poneman turned it into a full-time business in April of 1988.

Music experts might not be aware, however, of what motivated Pavitt to create his record label in the first place. Prior to arriving in Seattle, he ran a fanzine that took the form of print media, cassette tapes, and radio shows. Originally from the Chicago area, Pavitt found a kinship with underexposed bands emanating from his hometown's punk scene. Then in 1979, he ventured to Evergreen State College, a sort of hippie, free-form educational institution located in Olympia, Washington. There he found himself falling in with a group of like-minded individuals, people who wanted to change the music world from the ground up.

Like, for example, Stephen Rabow, who expanded the format of what could be played on Evergreen's KAOS radio, offering up anything from Mozart to U2 to Elvis to the Ramones. John Foster took that concept a step further, instituting KAOS' still-in-effect "Green Line" policy, which requires 80% of the station's music to come from independent sources. Foster then started Op magazine, which reviewed independent music from around the world. Calvin Johnson (not Megatron) took that aesthetic and founded Olympia's K Records as well as his band, Beat Happening. Johnson's band would help create Olympia's "infantile rock" scene, which would explore seemingly innocent childhood subjects, albeit with a punk attitude.

It was within this environment that Pavitt began his Subterranean Pop fanzine, later shorted to Sub/Pop. Building off of the Op concept, Pavitt's zine focused exclusively on punk or punk-related music coming from the United States. His mentor Foster encouraged this venture, even allowing Sub/Pop to share Op's Olympia post office box.

Sub/Pop, the zine, lasted for nine issues, three of which took the form of cassette samplers. The tapes sold in the thousands, which later encouraged Pavitt to turn his Sub Pop concept into a full-time record label. In 1982, Pavitt moved to Seattle. The following year, he turned Sub Pop into a column in a local music paper called the Rocket, and a radio show on the University of Washington's KCMU.

Pavitt talked with me about his new book, which reprints all of his fanzines and Rocket columns.
Stephen Tow (Songfacts): Certain people descended on Evergreen State College who were on a mission. So people like yourself and John Foster and Calvin Johnson and Stephen Rabow, everybody had their own little mission. You folks at Evergreen, the money was not really what you were going for, but there was something you just felt you had to do. What was driving you to expose independent music to the rest of the world?

Bruce Pavitt: First of all, I was just intrigued by the notion that there was a core of creative people in every city in America that was working outside the system. And by starting my zine, I was able to network with these people — become pen pals with them, and eventually meet some of them. In many ways, that was the reward: searching out for the creative minds and creative people. Secondly, I got to hear records sent to me while doing the zine. Thirdly, if I'm really true to myself, part of my motivation was the fact that I knew that there was creative stuff happening in both Chicago and the Olympia/Seattle area, 'cause I lived in both areas. But these scenes were not given the respect they were due. I think part of me just felt motivated to shine a light on these scenes that I knew were vital. In doing so, I was shining a light on other smaller, regional scenes as well. I was very irritated by the fact that Chicago could pump out a bunch of singles and they would never get reviewed anywhere.

Songfacts: That comes through, especially early on in your book. You have this, "Ok, LA and New York are getting all this publicity, but what about Portland, and what about, Chicago — even the underground bands from LA and New York." That clearly comes through in your book.

Bruce: I had witnessed a model with Ohio — Cleveland and Akron — Pere Ubu and Devo, the Dead Boys, and so forth. I was fascinated by the idea that a state like Ohio could create such interesting music and somehow it could also get some recognition as well. Because without recognition, artists will oftentimes just fade away. You need a support system. You need the recognition. You need a reaction to your art as an artist. Otherwise, you give up.

Songfacts: One of the other things about you personally that you're bringing to the table when you started Sub Pop — I remember a conversation I had with Seattle photographer Charles Peterson. When you were living in Seattle, back in the '80s, he said he'd go over to your house and there'd be a party, and he said you never knew what was gonna drop on your turntable. I mean, it could be anything from hip-hop to punk to whatever — experimental music. And I guess my question related to that is, what was it that drove your eclectic musical taste?

Bruce: My very early years — going back to being nine years old, I invested in an AM radio and a record player. And for whatever reason, I became obsessed with pop radio. And you have to realize that AM radio back in the '60s was extremely eclectic, so that's how I'm wired. I wanna go from The Temptations to Dylan to Van Morrison to James Brown. And that was the typical 15-minute segment on AM radio. So I've always thought in those terms and that's always made the most sense to me. I'm pretty ADD in that way. I jump all over the place.Songfacts: Getting back to the beginnings of Sub Pop and your association with John Foster, who of course started Op magazine. He's open to any kind of music as long as it's independent, but you're more within the rock realm. How did you differentiate Sub Pop from Op in those early days?

Bruce: Well, for one thing, Sub Pop is only US, and it's rock-based. It's music that's coming out of the punk culture. So if the experimental artist puts out a single, I'm gonna cover that. They might be playing an art gallery with a punk band or something. So it all kind of flows through what was noted then as the punk culture. So I covered just about anything that came out of the US that had an edge to it or flowed out of that culture.
From left, KAOS DJs Cherri Knight, John Foster,
Steve Fisk (who later produced Nirvana and Soundgarden)
and Pavitt, Summer 1981, Olympia, WA.
Songfacts: John wasn't like, "Oh no, Bruce is gonna undermine what I'm doing." He's like, "Go ahead. Use the Op PO box," encouraging you. I think that's a pretty cool thing, just in general.

Bruce: Absolutely. We were missionaries, evangelicals as it were, preaching the gospel, encouraging essentially cultural self-empowerment, people putting out their own stuff. And we just saw it as kind of a mission.

Songfacts: Young people are used to being able to communicate instantly anywhere on the planet. I'm intrigued by the whole concept that you're bringing out here with the zine culture, hopefully educating younger people just how you communicated, how different scenes communicated with each other back then.

Bruce: Yeah, it's pre-internet. It's in the same way my 16-year-old son loves getting on Facebook and networking with all his friends. I was really motivated to do that, too, but there wasn't an internet. So, by putting out my own zine, I got to have all these pen pals who sent me letters, and zines, and records. Every day I'd go to my PO Box and it would be Christmas.

Songfacts: Given your wide range of musical interests, you're reviewing all these records. When you hear something — because you're so open to different things — what makes you go, "Oooh, that's something I'm really intrigued by," or "Nah. This is boring. This is a piece of crap"?

Cover of Sub Pop 5 cassette fanzine,
July 1981. Artwork by Charles Burns.
Bruce: Well, there are I would say four things. Personality and spirit, I think are the foremost qualities - the artist's unique voice. And the spirit oftentimes has to do with the performance, but it equally has to with the production. I think the production's really key. That was one of the reasons I was so excited to work with [Seattle producer] Jack Endino, because everything he touched turned to gold. You heard Superfuzz Bigmuff, it sounded like Mudhoney was right there in your living room — way more intense. Again, it has to do both with performance and production.

And, lastly, I know this sounds kinda funny, and it's not as important in a digital world, but back then when you bought a single or an album, the artwork and the way things were visually presented kinda prepped you to be stoked. If you loved the cover or the style, you felt a connection there. You were immediately prejudiced positively to like it.

Songfacts: You talk about recording many times in your book. Some of your reviews state "this was very well recorded" or "this was very badly recorded." Did that just come from years of listening to a lot of records or from exposure to the studio?

Bruce: No studio experience, really. It's all just listening to music. And being aware of how crucial production is, and the sound of the room.

It was just generally understood in the Northwest that Greg Sage from [Portland's] Wipers had just a golden touch. He was very specific with his vintage tube-amp gear and so forth, and the rooms he recorded in, and it made a difference. Those Wipers records sound completely timeless. And anybody who really loved rock n roll in the Northwest just acknowledged Greg Sage to be a master.

It really, really makes a difference. Production is so crucial. The Beatles without George Martin wouldn't really have been The Beatles. He was the fifth member of the band.

In some ways, Portland became a model for Seattle and Sub Pop's aims. Unabashedly defiant in both music-making and promotion, Greg Sage's Wipers provided a template both for Bruce Pavitt and for grunge bands like Mudhoney to take Seattle's independent scene to the next level. Pavitt's love of the Wipers comes alive many times in his book, most notably in a review of the band's Is This Real? LP, taken from Sub Pop #1, May 1980:

There is an incredible honesty conveyed by these guys. The Wipers show an amazing awareness of emotional interplay, tension and release. They'll constantly strip back a layer of sound, leaving only the bass, drums and vocals; when the guitar finally rips in, you feel it.

Seattle's latter '80s grunge scene prided itself on emphasizing such honesty in performance and production over technical virtuosity.
Songfacts: When you first started out, you were looking at different scenes: Chicago and Portland, Akron, etc. John Foster was not a proponent of regionalism. He did not believe a region made a difference on a sound, but you disagree.

Bruce: Definitely. It's not just a sound. It's a culture, right. So maybe there's an artist like Charles Peterson who's doing cover art for a variety of bands, and that unifies the aesthetic. Psychologically, that's a really key component. Every scene kinda has their own illustrator — like Gary Panter was doing stuff down in LA. And so the visual comes into play as well. Production comes into play.

Greg Sage didn't just record the Wipers. He also recorded [Portland's] Neo Boys. So you hear a Neo Boys record next to a Wipers record, and you're like, "Ok, there's just something that clicks, something that works. Something that's kind of unifying the culture." And that's when people really start to notice. That's what we did at Sub Pop Records in Seattle. We worked with Jack Endino. We worked with Charles Peterson. Even though Soundgarden and Mudhoney were polar opposite bands, it clicked for people: Oh yeah, this is a culture. It's not just a bunch of random people going in and putting out records. There's a scene.Songfacts: Throughout your book, you mention Olympia's Beat Happening, and Chicago's Big Black, the U-Men from Seattle, and New York's Sonic Youth. Those are particular bands, that as a reader you can tell, "Yeah, he really likes them." And they're all very different.

Bruce: It's funny, because Beat Happening and Big Black are like opposite ends of the spectrum. But, going back to my original comment, they all had personality. And all those bands were punk in that they had their own unique sound. I remember, Beat Happening would tour with Fugazi, and people would be like, "Why? They don't sound punk rock at all." But it wasn't their sound. It was their stance. You know it was radically individualistic.

I remember a classic anecdote where Beat Happening is somewhere in California at a Fugazi show, and a Fugazi fan threw an ashtray at Calvin's face, and he was bleeding. The story is, he just stood there — didn't flinch. Kept singing about picnics while blood's dripping down his face. Like, "This is who I am. There is nothing you can do to change that because I'm punk, you know." And that anecdote perfectly illustrates the strong sense of individual identity that these artists had. That's what I responded to.

Songfacts: If Calvin had thrown it back or attacked the guy, it would have defeated the whole purpose.

Bruce: I have one other anecdote I'm just gonna throw out there just 'cause it cracks me up, okay? I saw Beat Happening open up for Fugazi at Washington Hall in Seattle, and there was a skinhead who was taunting Calvin. He invites the skinhead on stage, asks him to rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time. And then the skinhead couldn't pull it off. Calvin just pushed him off stage and it was a radical moment. The guy's a master of improvising and dealing with conflict.

Calvin Johnson performs at the Sub Pop USA
book release party while Pavitt looks on.
Photo by Gillian G. Gaar.)
Songfacts: Congratulations on your second printing. Let's just say you're gonna provide a "lesson learned" to the next generation, to sort of summarize, "here's why you should read my book."

Bruce: The lesson learned is that I still believe that every community has a creative spark and if that spark is nurtured or supported then that culture can go on to do bigger and greater things and interact with global culture. And this book, the premise is: yeah, any scene can blow up. And of course it's the prelude to the Seattle explosion. It's just a case in point that my premise is spot on.

And also that if you're resourceful, you can do anything. I basically initiated a media empire of sorts. It started with a glue stick and an X-Acto knife and $50. And now there's a Sub Pop store at the Sea-Tac airport. So, there are a lot of lessons there. An individual can shift culture. So can an artist. So can a regional scene. This book is proof positive that that's the case. So I really think some of these artists — pioneers like Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü and Big Black and Beat Happening — these brilliant, pioneer types, they really need to get their due, because these were brilliant and very creative people who crisscrossed the country in tiny vans and slept on floors and created art. And they created a foundation for the cozy indie rock scene that exists today. So, it's a tale of perseverance, of courage, and pioneering spirit. That's how I see it.

Songfacts: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Bruce: I just want to point out one thing about the book that's kinda key: that Ian Christie from [publisher] Bazillion Points was kind enough to piece together the index in the back. I want people to flip through and go, "Oh, my God. There's like over a thousand bands here and I haven't heard of at least half of them." And so, some band from Des Moines, Iowa releases a single and sells 50 copies. Well, guess what? They're probably in the book. And my running joke is, if every drummer from every band in the index buys one copy, I'll be on the New York Times best seller list. So that's kind of my marketing strategy.

January 12, 2015
Sub Pop USA can be ordered from Bazillion Points Publishing, from Amazon, and other national retailers.

Stephen Tow, a professor of history at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, specializes in American popular music and culture. He is the author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. He also contributes to national music blogs, when he finds cool bands or music books to write about.
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Comments: 1

  • Mr.murder from Onw Raider NationJohnny Appleseed in terms of influence. Maybe not spreading seeds so much as watering and nurturing roots already sprouted in other regions. Everywhere is a region, every place is a scene, every scene is a song.
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