Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989 is one of those perfect records of music history that galvanizes the pedestrian as easily as the aural devotee. Chronicling eight electric (and sometimes volatile) days of Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Tad’s 1989 European tour, Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt has curated his memories, reflections and beautiful photography in an intimate compendium.On the very cusp of the grunge explosion, Pavitt had the wherewithal to photograph the small moments—moments which provide an ambient framing for this lovely scrapbook.
Bruce was kind enough to give Dangerous Minds an exclusive interview on the book, which helps support Seattle’s Vera Project.
(And for those of you in the New York area, Pavitt is launching a month-long installation exhibit at Rough Trade NYC. This Saturday, he’ll be there signing copies, with a Q&A session lead by Michael Azerrad. I’ll be in the corner fangirling and livetweeting @Amber_A_Lee.)
Amber Frost: How did this book come together?
Bruce Pavitt: My friend and editor Dan Burke and I originally released Experiencing Nirvana as an e-book using iBooks Author. Ian Christe from Bazillion Points then contacted us and offered to release it as a hardcover. The whole project has taken about a year and a half, and it’s been quite a process.
Amber Frost: The concept of a retroactive tour diary is total brain candy. Is it what you had in mind at first? Or did the format take shape as you organized your thoughts and materials?
Bruce Pavitt: From the beginning, we knew that we had a series of images that told a story; in fact we feel that Experiencing Nirvana would make an ideal storyboard for a film! Of course, we realized that the photos needed to be embellished with reconstructed diary entries to fully bring the images to life.
Amber Frost: There’s this strange sense of excitement in a lot of the photos—how much of that was the band’s growing success, and how much was just the thrill of being young and traveling?
Bruce Pavitt: A bit of both. My biz partner Jon and I knew that Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney were three of the greatest live bands we’d ever seen. Those feelings were validated from both the crowds and the critics overseas. People went off at every show, and it built to a climax when all three bands shared the same stage in London. The photos show our appreciation of both the bands and the awe inspiring scenery.
Pavitt’s picture of Kurt Cobain in Rome
Amber Frost: What was your sense of the tour’s significance at the time? Did you have predictions? How did they turn out?
Bruce Pavitt: I’ve never taken more photos, neither before nor after. I instinctively felt that this tour would be historically significant, and both Jon and I believed that this London showcase would put Seattle on the map. As it turned out, NME proclaimed Nirvana to be “Sub Pop’s answer to the Beatles.” Our gamble paid off.
Amber Frost: You describe a lot of stress on the tour—particularly with Kurt wanting to simply go home. How fragile or stable did the band feel?
Bruce Pavitt: Both Tad and Nirvana were fairly ragged after zig zagging across Europe in a shared van for almost 6 weeks. By the time we met up with the crew in Rome, Kurt was out of patience. It was just day by day after that, until the band finished up in London.
Amber Frost: A lot of Nirvana’s legacy is obscured by the tragedy of Kurt’s death, so much so that his personality is often simplified into depression and addiction. How would you describe him as a person?
Bruce Pavitt: Kurt was essentially a sweet and sensitive guy, creative, humorous and a true fan of indie music. He was also moody, introspective, and appreciated his alone time.
Amber Frost: In the book you obviously talk about Mudhoney and Tad as well Since grunge was gaining popularity as a movement, did you predict at all that Nirvana would becoming its unwitting “stars?”
Bruce Pavitt: My Sub Pop partner Jon Poneman was Nirvana’s earliest and biggest fan. However, by the time Nirvana played London in December of ’89, I was a true believer.
Amber Frost: With the genre name no longer in use, and Sub Pop now an institution, what do you think the “legacy” of grunge is?
Bruce Pavitt: Grunge was very welcoming and inclusive. For a not-so-brief moment in time, anyone with a flannel shirt and a pawn shop guitar could feel that they had a chance to change the world. I welcome a resurgence of that attitude.