Eleven years before the release of Nirvana's juggernaut Nevermind during the apex of glam metal, Sub Pop Records was a fledgling Xerox-and-X-Acto-knife-produced fanzine that championed local music scenes across the country. They produced cassette compilations that showcased regional music from every little scene in the U.S. all before becoming a genre-defining record label.
Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt has released all of the zines in their entirety in book form. Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology 1980-1988 is published by the mighty Bazillion Points. I had the good fortune to have a chat with the man.
Note: There are long passages where two music nerds talk shop and make nervous small talk. All that has been edited out for readability. An uncut version will appear somewhere down the line.
MN: The book is overwhelming in scope. You look through it and you think you know what it's going to be, and then you look at how tiny the print is and you're like no -- these guys really worked in a lot of words per inch.
BP: The key is the index in the back, you're just like "oh my god," there's over a thousand band names and I haven't heard of more than half of them.
MN: That's the exciting part for me. I listen to several new albums a day, a hobby really. I'm thinking I'm gonna know who most of these bands (in the book) are and I don't. So I gave up on writing lists.
MN: Anyway, I've got some questions prepared for you.
BP: We'll see if I can answer them.
MN: Out of the hundreds of maybe thousands of cassettes that passed through Sub Pop in the '80s, are there releases that stood the test of time that you feel keep returning to you?
BP: Yeah, I would qualify that with that it wasn't as many cassettes as it was mostly records. So yeah, I would say there are some records that really inspired me at the very beginning. The early recordings by The Wipers from Portland were a major influence on Nirvana. There was a girl group at the time called the Neo Boys that were produced by Greg Sage of The Wipers. Their material was just reissued by K. Most people have never heard of the Neo Boys, great material. When I came out to KAOS radio in '79, there was a whole stack of northwest indies that I had never heard of before which was one if the major reasons I started my zine, as I felt that people needed to hear about this stuff.
MN: Sure -- these two really stood out. The Wipers' influence was really huge especially after Nirvana covered those songs.
BP: Yeah. That would be an example of a group that had gone on to build in stature over the course of history. There are many smaller releases and lesser-known bands -- the Neo Boys would be a perfect example of a great band with a great producer, Greg Sage, and whose recordings had never really broken out of Portland. Again, one of the reasons I started my zine was to shed a spotlight on recordings that were coming out of "non-media-centric" locales like Seattle and Portland and so forth.
MN: It's interesting that you broke it down to two bands. I figured you would be like "there's hundreds."
BP: There are lots; if you can plug one band then someone would download those tunes.
MN: Good idea. My next question is whether the inclusiveness and eclectic spirit that Sub Pop embodied were a factor in breaking down the walls of certain juvenile factions between certain subcultures. At the time you had punk vs. metal, punk vs. everybody. Do you think there was a conscious effort to not feed into that thinking? Or was it that the times were merely turning?
BP: I had a very unique filter. If it were indie I would review it. Period. I was also reviewing some indie books, indie films and so forth, but I was really trying to support the culture of self-empowerment, [proving] that they just need a little bit of support and exposure and those were my premises. Anything released on an indie record deserved support. So I approached things in a relatively non-prejudiced manner. Certainly I had my own spin on things, but by breaking out of the tunnel vision of just reporting about hardcore or about experimental or reporting about indie pop, I think I frankly did the music scene a service by being so eclectic and expansive. And as we know, it's those crossover things that really move the culture forward. Grunge being the perfect example of the perfect fusion of punk, metal and pop. When we first put out records by Soundgarden and Nirvana people were kinda scratching their heads, "what is this?" -- you know? That's how you move the culture forward is by embracing synthesis and cross-pollination.
MN: I agree, I think that it's a really Darwinian approach to listening to music if you think about it.
BP: My own personal tastes are extremely eclectic and I just personally appreciate anything that has some personality and spirit to it.
MN: I often find that the groups that are between two periods are the most interesting like The Gun Club and how they were straddling the lines of post punk, the Deathrock thing, blues, and all these different things. That's more interesting to me than someone like The Exploited who stuck to a script.
BP: Absolutely, The Gun Club - Fire of Love is one of the absolute great recordings of the '80s. I believe it came out in 1980. Yeah, referencing Blues and country and punk, extremely underrated record. That's another disc I would throw on the pile of potentially long-forgotten records that deserve reexamination.
MN: There's so many, we can have that discussion about this all day. The bands that fell between music movement's periods are the larger point. This is something I think Sub Pop was looking at. There was certain narrowness in zine culture as it were.
BP: Most zines were like, OK we've got some hardcore scene reports, and that was pretty much what was going on in the zine world with few exceptions.
MN: Around Sub Pop #8 there were more long-form interviews and longer record reviews. Was there an ambition to become more of a bigger magazine at this point, you sorta get the impression that after you turn Sub Pop into a mixtape every other "issue", But the zine would get more long form, was there an ambition to move that way?
BP: I think there was a brief ambition to move that way with zine #8 where I started including interviews with artists from Olympia; that was my scene and that was a brief experiment. We had some specialist essays in there. My girlfriend at the time, Jan Loftness, did an essay that gave an overview on her favorite thrift store finds and yeah, there was a brief sojourn into expanding the format there to include essays and interviews. Then I winded up moving to Seattle and things shifted, and I focused the column.
MN: Yeah that was gonna lead me to my next question, which is when exactly did you start the column at The Rocket? Did The Rocket approach you? How did that come about?
BP: Basically I moved to Seattle in the spring of '83 and I approached The Rocket, they were familiar with my zine. The editor, Robert Newman, was just very welcoming, very supportive and decided to give me a spot and I really appreciated that. They printed about 60,000 copies and distributed them all over the state. So people like Kurt Cobain down in like Aberdeen were able to pick it up. Screaming Trees in Ellensburg. I think the column had a major influence on bands from small towns in Washington being like, "what's out there?". It was before the Internet. Young people were starving for information.
MN: Now it's more of a filtering process of information rather than seeking it out. It's a reductive process. Did it conflict with publishing the zine? Were you running them at the same time?
BP: I did put out the last cassette zine a few months after I started the column. I ran out of steam. The column was a lot easier to deal with. So there's a little crossover, and then in 1986, tangentially speaking here, I put out Sub Pop Records by releasing an album called Sub Pop 100, which was just like a vinyl version of my trans-regional cassette compilations. "Here's a group of tunes from around the country." I can get a feel for what's happening in Austin or Boston or Seattle, just check out this vinyl. That was part of the evolution of the label. Radio show to zine, to mixtape to column, to vinyl comp to putting out records by Seattle bands.
MN: It's important to add here for young people that the sampler was a big deal back then. Like when I was a kid getting an indie label sampler gave you a slice of that label's aesthetic. That's some pre-Internet realness.
MN: My next question is about how Calvin Johnson, Gerard Cosloy, and others give the reader a good sense of context through their chapter introductions. I was wondering how you selected the collaborators for the zine?
BP: There weren't many collaborators with the zine. Calvin Johnson helped with reviews, he started with issue #2. For issue #8 I had a network of friends. Steve Fisk wrote an essay, Jan Loftness wrote an essay, and so forth. For the most part, 97 percent of the zine is just me and reviewing every crazy record I could get my hands on.
MN: I would like to talk a little bit about how you would search out regional and obscure music in the 80's. Just a little bit about what that process would have been like for young people that wouldn't know about life before the Internet.
BP: Sure, as a DJ at KAOS radio I had access to a large library of music, probably the best collection of indie music of any radio station in the country. Being a DJ at a college radio station certainly helps. That and going to specialty stores. Like in Seattle there was Corporate Records and in Chicago, where I'm from, was Wax Trax, which had a huge influence on me. So once you get to a store like Wax Trax you could find specialty zines and papers and read about recordings which was definitely an effort. Information wasn't just one click away. There was specialty stores and there was college radio, although most college radio was playing corporate recordings in the '80s. So even college radio wasn't a good source for indie stuff. In the early '80s even college radio was still pretty conservative. That's kind of a long tangent. Thirdly, simply by publishing the zine and getting it distributed through an alternative distributor, like Systematic for example. Bands would pick up the zine and then send me records. People were sending me records; I was going to record stores and I had access to the radio station library.
MN: I got a couple more for you. Do you think that regional music still exists in a post Internet world? Could people have done what you were doing with the zine, in the form of a website, now? I suppose I'm asking if you think regional music still exists now.
BP: I do. Every music scene had a community of people who share their art; you know coming into contact with creative people on a regular basis is what creates a scene. And that's never going to change. In Seattle, for example, you had Charles Peterson going to shows and taking pictures. His photos influenced the musicians, the musicians influenced his photos. I was a writer and I enjoyed the shows. I thought Charles Peterson's photos were good. So I helped piece it together and started putting out records. This all comes from social interaction within a local community. It's always gonna exist no matter what.
MN: So my last question is what do you listen to now? Which is a question I hate being asked because I have to really think about it.
BP: I'm super eclectic. I really try to listen to a broad variety of music. One thing I do now that I didn't always do is go to the Billboard charts and observe what's popular. I very consciously go through and listen to everything that's coming out. I have this fantasy that they are gonna overturn the formulaic corporate pop that's happening now -- and occasionally you do see that with Arcade Fire or Macklemore or something like that -- like Beach House. Aside from that, culturally speaking, to be more specific, I've been enjoying experiencing music in a lot of these west coast underground music festivals which are not necessarily rock-oriented. I tend to enjoy experiencing music in festivals that are out in the woods like The Beloved Festival in Portland or Burning Man. Symbiosis, there are a number of these more alternative underground music festivals that are happening that have more of a west coast flavor. A lot of that culture is DJ-centric. There is live music as well. So just as I enjoyed the indie punk culture of the '80s and enjoyed going to underground meat lockers (laughs) and loft spaces and hearing really gnarly music. In my older age I tend to enjoy experiencing music outside of cities. I'll give you one particular artist. There's an artist from Nevada City, a DJ called the Polish Ambassador. I really like his new CD. It's like a synthesis of electronic music production and hip-hop elements, and singing; I like his arrangements. That would be an example of an artist that I would see at one of these festivals.
MN: Great. I'm going to look into that. Anything else you wanna add?
BP: I really do feel like this book is the broadest index of indie music from the '80s ever published. Nobody at that time was reviewing indie music with eclectic broad-spectrum approach like myself. In retrospect I feel like I did some good work, I'm proud of it and happy to share those insights with people at this point. A lot of the information in the book you can't even find on the Internet. And you can type in some of these bands and literally nothing would come up. It's a pull-back-the-curtains approach to what many would consider the dark ages of the '80s. Most people think of '80s music as spandex, LA rock or new wave pop, while so many people are not aware of the fact that there was a huge network of indie underground artists setting the tone for an artist like Nirvana to break through. Anyhow that's kinda my rap.
MN: You're right. I've actually tried Googling a lot of those bands while reading the book and many of them are "un-googleable."
BP: Yes, the "un-googleable." That's a good phrase.
MN: I don't remember where I stole it.