One of the best parts of being a record collector is getting to cherish every piece of vinyl you own. VNYL’s #FirstSpin is about sharing those histories. We’re telling the stories behind the first albums and music memories of your fave artists, bands and fellow vinyl lovers. This week we chatted with indie music guru and die-hard vinyl record collector Bruce Pavitt, the founder of Sub Pop Records.
We love records; you love records — let’s talk records.
Name: Bruce Pavitt
Music History: Founder of Sub Pop Records; Author of Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980–1988 and Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989
Hometown: Park Forest, Ill.
Current City: Orcas Island, Wash.
How did Sub Pop evolve from a radio show to a record label?
Way back in ancient history, in 1979, I was involved in the Chicago punk scene. I moved out to Olympia, Wash. to go to Evergreen State College and wound up spending all of my time at Chaos Radio. They happened to have the world’s best collection of indie-punk records because it was the only station in the world that would play your homemade record if you sent it to them. They prioritized DIY recordings, so I had access to this amazing library of music. I started playing them on my radio show, then I started a fan zine, Subterranean Pop, which morphed into Sub Pop. While I was doing the zine, I decided to release cassette compilations of demos under the Sub Pop name. Bands were happy to just send me their material so I could distribute it. I wound up moving to Seattle and starting a record label. Those are the roots — DIY and all that.
Has music been a part of your life since you were a kid?
Absolutely. The best purchase I ever made was a $5 transistor radio from Sears Roebuck. I could listen to Top 40 music 24 hours a day, which in the ’60s was amazingly good. At the age of nine, I decided I wanted to start buying records, so I went door-to-door in July in the summer heat convincing people to buy Christmas cards. As a nine-year-old! They all took pity on me and gave me money. I made just enough to buy a record player. From that day forward, I spent every cent I had on records. In my twenties, I had no car because all my money went to records. It was kind of ridiculous.
What is the most prized album in your personal collection?
The one I keep going back to over and over again is Funhouse by The Stooges. That record kind of served as a template for Mudhoney and a lot of the garage bands. There’s a reason why: It’s the most primal rock I’ve ever heard. I keep going back to it , because it’s just a masterpiece.
Do you have a favorite album from the Sub Pop days?
I would have to go with Superfuzz Bigmuff by Mudhoney. I know it’s not an album persay — it’s a 12” record — so I’m going to bend the rules a little bit. Superfuzz Bigmuff was the record that really put Sub Pop on the map. It sounds incredible. It really announced to the world that there was a new style of rock and roll being made in this very obscure city that most people had never heard of.
Believe it or not, Seattle was just a blip back in the day. I remember seeing Superfuzz Bigmuff stay on the indie charts in the U.K. for like a year, which was a complete phenomenon because indie music from America was very much ignored during the ’80s. Towards the end of the decade, a few bands were starting to get attention from places like NME, like Sonic Youth when Sonic Daydream came out in 1988.
The majority of the ’80s was a real wasteland. We did not have the infrastructure to promote indie music, so labels like Sub Pop and SST worked really hard at helping to develop one so that indie culture was empowered when the ’90s came around. By the time Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, everybody was like, ‘There’s this amazing music that’s bursting out of the underground.’ It became a lot easier for indie bands to get major media attention and commercial radio play, but the reality is that prior to Nevermind, it was ten years wandering around in the desert with a Thermos of water.
Nevermind is generally cited as the album that put Seattle and grunge on the map.
It did, but it also signaled to the industry that they didn’t know what they were doing. They basically said, ‘Okay, let’s find every Stereolab and Hole-type band we can think of.’ They really didn’t know what was going on, so there was a brief period in the early ’ 90s where the majors were just signing any indie band they could, and that was all because of Nevermind.
What blew up Nevermind was MTV deciding as an experiment they were going to take one band from the underground and see if anybody reacted. They literally had a board meeting where they said, ‘Lets take a chance and put an alternative band on heavy rotation.’ It was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That’s what made all the difference.
Prior to that, indie and alternative college bands were delegated to 120 Minutes, and ninety percent of the bands were British. They would play one or two American bands. I know this by heart, because it used to drive me crazy. I kept saying that one of these days, the American underground was going to blow up and people were going to realize there’s a lot of good music here, but until you saw it on daytime TV or on heavy rotation on MTV, it was just going to remain an enigma. Whoever made the call at MTV to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, they are the real revolutionaries — they made shit happen.
My First Album: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The first record I ever acquired was the “Sugar Sugar” plexi-disc by The Archies. I cut it off the back of a Sugar Pop cereal box. I will always treasure that. It was just a brilliant marketing gesture to have “Sugar Sugar” on the back of Sugar Pop. Genius! That was my first record, but my first album was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I was nine and living in Park Forest. At the time, Sears Roebuck sold records, and that’s where I bought most of mine — in a department store. I had already picked up a few singles by The Beatles, so I thought I should buy this album that everybody seemed to be talking about. It was a good call.
My major in-points on record buying at the time were based on who was performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the one show that you watched with your family, and they always had a band on. I was a huge Creedence fan, and Creedance was on a lot. When you’re a kid, mainstream television and radio are your conduits, so I would basically run out and buy a single by whatever band was just on the The Ed Sullivan Show.
When I got Sgt. Pepper’s, I was playing “A Day in the Life” a lot because it was so strange. I had never heard anything like it. I had certainly heard a lot of The Beatles on the radio, but “A Day in the Life” was a novel experience — a pretty trippy track. I think it seriously rewired my neuro pathways.
A lot of people talk about the sound quality of vinyl. Sure, but I was always enamored by the packaging and the artwork. Back in the day, when I was really involved with Sub Pop, I was the Art Director. I took great pride in working with photographers and illustrators to really focus on the packaging. Take the cover of The Stooges’ Funhouse with the shot of Iggy Pop — it’s beautifully rendered. It’s art. If you’ve got a record collection, you essentially have an art gallery. You can’t experience that with digital music.
The Sgt. Pepper’s cover in particular was really rich in detail, and I was able to recognize a few of the personalities. I was a little too young to recognize William Burroughs, for example, but I did recognize Marilyn Monroe and the four Beatles. I knew there was a mystery there, and if you were really smart, you could crack the code and figure out who was socially significant. I loved the fact with vinyl, I was checking out the artwork while I played the record. It was a different experience. Mixing the visual with the audio puts you in a different state of mind.