Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt Writes Book, Offers Advice To Bands: “Keep It Fun, You Know?”
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Jan. 22 2015
Pavitt’s devotion, skill and connections fed the early days of this regional music movement that eventually led to a sea change in the entire music industry, but Pavitt is more than just a tastemaker; he’s a hard worker. And over the years he’d built a respected brand under the “Subterranean Pop” name– first as a radio show, then a zine and eventually as the name of the record label that he founded with Seattle DJ Jonathan Poneman that would release some of the most groundbreaking music of our time. Over the course of his life, Pavitt has worked nearly every job in the industry. He’s been a radio DJ, a zine publisher, a rock column writer, a record store founder, a club DJ, a record label founder and now an author and music historian.
Pavitt spoke to us from his home on Orcas Island in northwest Washington State, near the Canadian border. He describes the island as part natural paradise (one fourth of which is a state park) but with modern conveniences, like that all-important Seattleite essential: good coffee.
Pavitt’s new book SUB POP USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, available now from Bazillion Points Publishing is a massive, deep collection of all of his written work — including coverage from his own zine and reproductions of his column for Seattle’s Rocket newspaper in the 1980s.
Just as an index of underground bands alone, the book is invaluable. Here, Pavitt tracks small bands from inception to death, celebrating their tiny triumphs and documenting their disasters. He had an eye on it all, and it shows. His words are often the only proper record of many short-lived but amazing bands.
Read on for the full interview:
Jaime Lees: I was really excited to get your book. And I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks and it’s so great because it’s a book you can never finish reading, because there is so much information in there.
Bruce Pavitt: I’m really glad you think so. That’s awesome.
The book is nice because it’s something that I can pick up ten years from now and find something that I missed the first time through. I really like that in a collection.
Well, thank you. It’s pretty unique in that at the time not a lot of writers were digging in this deep. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that no writer was digging in this deep as far as indie American culture, and I do feel that the book works as kind of the broadest and deepest index of 1980s indie culture out there. I spent eight years writing this stuff and it just kind of sat in a cardboard box for 25 years and I decided to put it back together.
Oh my god, I’m glad that box didn’t get wet or something, you know?
That’s right. [laughs]
Okay, so I’m interviewing you for a St. Louis newspaper and I’ve been there [with the Riverfront Times] for almost a decade, and there are still so many local bands that I want to cover. I could tell how deep your coverage was in the book because I don’t know about most of the bands you’re writing about. So I was like “Oh, the book is not just about the bands that got famous, it’s every local band that was around back then.” Personally, that’s interesting to me because that’s what I do mostly do, too, is write about the non-famous bands.
Cool! Yeah, as you can pick up from the zine, my whole fascination was — I realized that every city had a scene. But that most of those scenes were completely ignored even by everybody at that time in the alternative music media. Which would be like New York Rocker in New York. They might do a quick little scene report from Chicago or somewhere, but for the most part certainly cities like St. Louis, even Seattle, were completely ignored. If you were in New York, you’d have absolutely no idea what was going on in St. Louis or Seattle.
So I figured that by reviewing these indie records, I’d be able to at least tap into the vibe of these different smaller cities. I had access to probably the world’s best library of independent music because I was a DJ at KAOS radio at Olympia, and KAOS was the only station in the country that prioritized independent releases. So every band who put out a single at that time — in the early ’80s most bands put out a single — knew that if they sent it to KAOS that it would probably get played. And that’s how I had access to these resources.
People in New York wouldn’t know what’s going on in St. Louis, but here we’re forced to know about what’s going on in New York because that’s what is in the news.
So because we have such a sort of unknown but very vibrant scene here, I was like, “Oh, I gotta talk to him about regionalism” because that’s something that really interests me, especially with being from here. It also seems that sometimes here there’s a bit of a drive to keep our music our own.
Which I think is kind of a shame because I think our music is so great. But, like, if I was going to say to friends of mine in a band, “Oh, I asked Bruce Pavitt what he thinks you should do with your band” they’d say, “Well, fuck what he says! We do our own thing!”
[laughs] Yeah, yeah, totally!
Did you have that kind of resistance with your city, too? Because you were the guy who was taking it international — it was sort of in your hands. You did all of these things to get the music out and then it wasn’t local anymore. Did people have a problem with you, specifically, for that?
Some people had a problem with the fact that at a certain point the scene became so hot that, um, yeah it was no longer just friends and family anymore. And the main drive for most of these regional artists is simply to play music and be appreciated, not to make a career out of it. Basically, you’re talking about a network of hobbyists who are simply playing for the fun of it, but [laughs] the Seattle scene became so hot that there was a lot of money that came in and, you know, the culture changed.
There was more competition. Some musicians wound up making a lot of money. There was jealousy. There were people coming in from out of town. So it disrupted the “Hey, let’s just play some music for friends and family” vibe. Talent scouts coming up from LA, and it really did kind of fuck with the vibe of the scene. There was a documentary that came out in the early ’90s called Hype. And that’s the essential premise of that film: that by popularizing Seattle, Jon [Poneman] and I at Sub Pop had kind of destroyed the scene.
So people always have mixed reactions about what happened. But I think on some level a lot of people from Seattle felt a lot of excitement and kind of a sense of pride for what was going on in the city. Having been ignored for decades and then all of a sudden getting the spotlight — people have mixed feelings about that.
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?
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.
Fantastic! Let’s see… that was in the third issue of my zine. There’s a quick little one page interview. I thought they were really good. They were championed by Wax Trax Records in Chicago at that time. In 1980 Wax Trax was kind of the center of the Midwest — that was the hub. Again, there was no Internet, so if you’re a music fan and you were in the Midwest, you’d drive to Chicago and go to Wax Trax records, because that’s where all the records were and all the zines. And then with the zines you could do some research and figure stuff out.
There was a publication in Chicago called Praxis which was very high end, kind of an art magazine, that focused on fashion and art and music and was part of the punk culture. And they included a flexi disc of Raymilland in one of their issues — that’s how I found out about them. You know, just a little history there.
That’s so crazy!
Raymilland was definitely seen as very progressive. A very interesting band. They sounded a little more European [laughs] which is why I think Wax Trax was so excited about them. But I think they’re really good.
I actually saw them play a reunion show in Athens, Georgia, a few years ago.
Really? Oh my god!
Yeah, they played in St. Louis and at Popfest in Athens and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I love the record but it was amazing live.
Cool! That’s great; I never got a chance to see them.
If you want a copy of the record I can send you one.
Great, that would be really awesome.
So how do you currently find new bands that you’re interested in?
Well, uh, yeah, through word of mouth. I’m actually hanging out at SoundCloud a bit. I like going to SoundCloud and typing stuff in. Having lived on the west coast here for a while I’ve been more tapped into the west coast festival circuit. There are a lot of underground festivals here; music tends to be a little more DJ-oriented and a lot of that music is available on SoundCloud. So I don’t spend a lot of time in urban clubs — just a little bit. So again, word of mouth and doing research through SoundCloud and, you know, Bandcamp as well.
Could I ask you really quickly before I let you go — what’s your opinion on the latest media assertions about Dave Grohl being overexposed?
Oh, interesting. I haven’t seen that but I just saw Dave Grohl a few days ago. He was in Seattle. I think Dave Grohl… Do I think he’s overexposed? No, no I don’t. I think he’s done an incredibly great job with Sonic Highways — it’s a really good series. I think it was a brilliant marketing move, too, to have like an eight hour infomercial supporting your album.
It was actually over-the-top marketing genius. But, you know, he played it well because he went into these cities and was incredibly respectful of the legacies of these cities. He kind of knocked it out of the park with that. I’m very impressed. He’s pretty much the ambassador of rock these days. And I think that he has really good things to say. And that if anybody is going to go out there and you know, network with the president of the U.S. and talk music that it should be Dave. So I’m a big supporter of Dave Grohl. Personally, I liked him maybe a little more as a drummer in Nirvana than as a singer in the Foo Fighters, but aside from that, I think he has a remarkable gift for bringing people together and that’s a good thing.
Yeah, he’s the ultimate networker.
Yeah, I think so. You don’t need the Internet, just talk to Dave Grohl.
That’s Enough Already, Dave Grohl
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Feb. 13 2014
Dave Grohl is one of my favorite dudes in the world but he needs to hop off my radar for a minute. I’m a mega Nirvana fan and I’ve always admired Dave for his talent and humor, but lately I can’t seem to get him out of my face. His mug is everywhere.
It all seemed to start almost a decade ago when Grohl became a talking head on VH1-type shows, providing expert commentary on some of his favorite bands. He was loose, informed, entertaining. Everybody loved him. Once his skills were exposed, he quickly became the go-to guy for a good sound bite as a talking head, a special guest or a drop-in drummer. He seems to be able to do everything (and do it well), so he’s useful in many situations. Producers have decided that he’s their No. 1 man — his presence is clearly seen as an improvement to any event. He slowly moved from his long-held role of rock & roll everyman into professional event attendee.
And now, oh now, the man is everywhere. I barely even watch television, and he still manages to make it on any screen near me with the frequency of the rising sun. Grohl is like a freakin’ jack-in-the-box — you know he’s going to pop up, you just don’t know when. One of my favorite games is to try to spot him during major televised events. I don’t know dick about football, so I spent the majority of the last Superbowl game scanning the crowd shots for his floppy hair — like a post-grunge version of Where’s Waldo. I didn’t see him during my Superbowl party, but I saw a photograph of him later after the game and felt validated. He was there. Of course he was there. I knew it.
Award show? Grohl is there. Major festival? Grohl is playing it. High-profile collaboration? Grohl designed it. Supergroup? Grohl is up in it. Featured drummer? Grohl can do that. Receiving honors? Grohl is good at it. Star-studded tributes? Grohl jumps in. Music documentary? Grohl makes them. Rock the vote? Grohl rocks it all night. Photobombs? Grohl kills. Film festival? Grohl can hang. One-off performances? Grohl makes it happen. Television cameo? Grohl picks the X-Files. Country music? Grohl loves it. Foo Fighters videos? Grohl does them perfectly. Charity events? Grohl participates. Led Zeppelin? Grohl digs ’em. Internet memes? Grohl makes a fresh one. Protesting? Grohl does it in costume. iPhone party? Grohl wants in on that action. Lemmy time? Grohl steals the show. Punk legends? Grohl knows them. Video-game conventions? Grohl is the wizard. Late-night talk shows? Grohl does Letterman. Roling Stones concerts? Grohl makes them better. Producing sitcoms? Grohl thinks it’s easy. Birthday celebration? Grohl works those. Saturday Night Live? Grohl is the most frequent musical guest. Video guest star? Grohl wiggles on in. Surprise gigs? Grohl is all over it. South by Southwest? Grohl gives the keynote address.
Forget about Kurt Cobain: Grohl is clearly the voice of our generation — if only because he never lets anyone else speak.
There’s a reason that his number is always called: He’s smart, he’s funny, he speaks well, he’s good-looking and he always seems to be in on the joke. He’s an affable dude, and his laid-back nature and casual cursing makes him seem like cool big brother. Grohl is nearly universally loved. He just gets it. And he seems to genuinely enjoy making fun, collaborative things happen during otherwise boring events. There are very few people who most of us would like to kick it with, and Grohl just seems like the kind of guy who would never have to buy his own shot in any bar on the planet.
Last year, Grohl released his Sound City documentary. It’s pretty excellent, though it did sort of seem like 108 minutes of justifying Grohl’s eventual purchase of the Sound City Neve board. (Apparently the most holy console since the Megasound 8000 in Josie and the Pussycats.) This documentary served as his official entrance into the film world, so expect him to expand his appearance résumé to include events that aren’t musical at all. In this and other mediums, Grohl seems to be the opposite of everything that his generation is usually accused of (unambitious, lazy, directionless). Homeboy is going to get it all done, no matter what.
Lately, Grohl seems to be fixated on sucking at the teat of Paul McCartney. But if you’re going to cling like a baby rhesus monkey to somebody, it might as well be the only living Beatle. (Shut up; nobody counts Ringo.) Still, Grohl seems to have been a barnacle on Sir Paul’s nards ever since they got together to make a Sound City song. They’ve played together many times since then and just a few days ago, Grohl performed “Hey Bulldog” in that Grammys tribute to the Beatles. (Shit, Grohl could even pass for George Harrison at this point.)
Despite his many ass-kissing obligations, Grohl always seems to find a way to give back, too. His counterprotests of Westboro Baptist Church, participation in charity/awareness events and the small ways that he always seems to try to give back to fans do not go entirely unnoticed — but sometimes it’s hard to see these beautiful little gestures through the absolute blizzard of Grohl appearances.
So is Dave Grohl good? Yeah, he’s fucking great. And if he is our new cultural king, then we should welcome him — we could do much worse. But right now he’s like the ex that won’t stop texting you. You feel smothered. You wanna be like, “Dude, if you would just get up out of my business, like, ever, I would like you so much more.” So go away, Dave Grohl. But don’t stay gone forever, just enough to make us miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and we’ll be ready to love you again later, but for right now you just need to get up out of my face for a while, OK?
Rewind: Nirvana’s In Utero, 20 Years Later
By Jaime Lees
Tue., Sep. 24 2013
Today marks the re-release of Nirvana’s In Utero. The album recently turned twenty years old and this milestone is being celebrated with the release of a “Super Deluxe Edition.” The new edition offers remixes, demos, compilation tracks and rare, previously unreleased tracks, but we wanted to take a look back at the original twelve songs recorded by core Nirvana members Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl in 1993.
In Utero was a polarizing album. After gaining sudden world-wide popularity with the release of Nevermind in 1991, it would be an understatement to say that Nirvana’s second major label release was highly anticipated. The whole planet seemed to be paying attention and expectations were not entirely positive. People were waiting for Nirvana to flop, or to deliver Nevermind Version 2.0, but what came from the band was unexpected and brazen.
Because of sheer exposure, Nevermind was for everybody. But the songs on In Utero were a sharp departure from the pop tinged anthems that made the band popular. In Utero was louder, weirder, an artistic statement. To release an album with a combination of beautiful dirges mixed in with such a heavily corrosive rock sound was, well, ballsy.
From the off-kilter, screeching beginning of the first song, “Serve the Servants,” it is clear that the band was doing something different. And while Nevermind was written and recorded in relative obscurity, most these new songs were put together under while under the intense focus of an international microscope.
Main songwriter Cobain was keenly aware that his every word would be dissected and examined with medical precision, and many of his lyrics here are preemptive rebuttals to criticism, almost post-modern in their self-awareness. (The opening line of the album is “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” and “Tourettes” begins with the spoken phrase “moderate rock.”)
Many of the classic Nirvana lyrical themes like personal dissatisfaction and family trouble continued to pop up on this album. But after a few years in the spotlight, Cobain also seemed eager to explore the topic of his own public persecution, real or imagined. His words felt more aggressive at times (“You can’t fire me because I quit”) but he also seemed to ask for mercy, expressing his own vulnerability and fragility (“Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath”) throughout the album.
Cobain always claimed that with Nirvana the music came first and the lyrics were secondary– that they were almost an afterthought. Not buying it, Mr. Cobain. The lyrics here that might at first read as obtuse or purposefully nonsensical eventually morph into brain poetry, exposing the deeper meanings hidden in the phrasing. (“Bi-polar opposites attract / All of a sudden my water broke”)
Because Cobain committed suicide less than a year after this albums release, it’s tempting to go back and read all of his lyrics as deep and autobiographical, but to do that is to discount Cobain’s storytelling skills. His words are clever (“If you ever need anything please don’t hesitate / To ask someone else first”) and he was adept at using cultural references as a jumping off point or metaphor for another topic. (“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”).
As far as history is concerned, Nirvana is Cobain’s band. And that’s not just because he’s the idolized dead guy, he’s considered the driving force behind the music. Nirvana was shaping Cobain’s public reputation, and he knew it. And though he claimed to be deeply uncomfortable with his newly appointed “Voice of the Generation” title, Cobain still used his powers for good– pushing pro-woman, pro-choice and pro-gay values in interviews and liner notes. He was also acutely aware that he was perceived as a sell-out, another title that was offensive to his punk rock heart.
With this in mind, Cobain hired Steve Albini, the legendarily difficult no-bullshit engineer, to record In Utero. For a band concerned with its street credit, Albini was a step in the right direction. Albini is not only is the guitarist for original alt-rock heroes Shellac and Big Black, in his studio he uses ancient machines and records to tape. He is known for recording not just cheaply and efficiently, but also for imparting a certain nebulous honesty to his products. (Some of the songs on the album were also mixed by long-time R.E.M. producer, Scott Litt, but Litt’s contribution was downplayed in favor of highlighting Albini’s involvement.)
The album introduced unsuspecting Nirvana listeners to a whole new sonic palette. In the damp, dark sludge-fest that was the Seattle scene, Nevermind was a cute-sounding, almost child-like release. It was an album full of rhymes and hooks and sing-alongs, really. With In Utero, Nirvana seemed determined to prove that it could out-grunge the grunge-sters. The sound is abrasive. The drums are relentless, the guitar frequently feeds back and Cobain howls like an injured animal, all bitterness and bile.
At the time of its release, In Utero seemed to be a dare to the listeners. Songs like “Scentless Apprentice” and “Tourettes” tested their endurance for chaotic, grinding expression. It was as if the popular band was saying, “Oh yeah? You liked Nevermind? Well, here’s In Utero. Do you still like us?” As a whole, the album sounds like a defiantly bold statement for a band that was so well-known. Even now, 20 years later, In Utero still stands as a piece of art and a proud, defining bookend for a troubled, yet brilliant band.
About twenty years ago, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore asked his friend, filmmaker Dave Markey, to document the band’s short European tour, including its performance at the massive Reading Festival.
Markey (best known for his underground classic Desperate Teenage Lovedolls) left with his passport, a camera and a suitcase full of Super 8 film. When he returned he had nine hours of raw footage and the makings of the best visual documentary of 1990s indie rock before the grunge explosion. The film features many indie bands in their prime, including Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr and Babes in Toyland. It’s sort of the video companion to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.
1991: The Year Punk Broke existed for years as an out-of-print VHS with a cult following, but it was finally released on DVD last week. The DVD release contains the original documentary and a shit-load of extra features, including more than an hour of interviews, bonus footage and rough edits.
Lovingly described by Moore as a “home movie,” TYPB is gritty, shaky and absolutely perfect. Live concert footage is spliced with scenes of the bands shopping, eating, exploring various cities and just kind of hanging out. Sonic Youth serves as the main subject of the documentary, with Moore emerging as particularly hammy and entertaining. (See: Thurstonitis)
To truly understand TYPB, viewers must first watch Madonna’s Truth or Dare. Madge’s classic black and white tour doc had just been released at the time and it was a major moment in pop culture. There are many skits and inside jokes included in TYPB that reference Truth or Dare. (Including a brilliant scene where Kurt Cobain plays the role of Kevin Costner.)
In the two decades that have passed since 1991, grunge took over and indie stopped meaning anything. But what has all this change wrought on the specific bands featured in 1991: The Year Punk Broke? We check in on some of the featured personalities below:
The doc was filmed one year after the release of Goo, but still before the release of Dirty. In the film, the members of Sonic Youth come off as just a little bit older, cooler and more harder-working than their peers. This has never changed. Sonic Youth will forever be populated with people that seem like cool older brother/sister-types. And they’ve become even more prolific: the band has released nine studio albums since the documentary, and the members have embarked on countless solo projects ranging from music to books to photography to art to fashion. Sonic Youth has always been a band that stood on a well-earned mountain of cred, and this has only become more true over time. Still, it is totally shocking that the band is still as well-respected and, well, as good as it was twenty years ago.
Babes in Toyland
The Babes were fresh off of a tour with Sonic Youth and seemed to be extra feisty. The band only had one song featured on the video, but it was the tribal and violent “Dustcake Boy.” This song is one of the better examples of singer Kat Bjelland’s trademark angry leopard-like yelps. Babes released its biggest album, Fontanelle, in 1992 and had a couple more albums after that before calling it quits. There have been a few reunion shows, but the most interesting story to come out of the demise of Babes in Toyland is what happened to Kat Bjelland. Anyone familiar with Bjelland’s work would should not be surprised to find out that she began to suffer from multiple personalities and was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 2007. She spent a year under medical mental care and came out just as stubborn and creative and badass, releasing albums with her new band, Katastrophy Wife.
Mr. Cole was not in a band included in TYPB, but it is fitting that he was included in the film. Cole was known as a roadie for Black Flag, the best friend of Henry Rollins and was a cheerleader for seemingly every band on the SST roster. He can be seen in the background many times, and there is one long shot of his face, watching a band from the side of the stage, radiantly happy with his arms around his girlfriend, Michelle Leon of Babes in Toyland. Tragically, Cole was shot and killed just a few months after this summer in a random act of violence in Los Angeles. Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins and Hole all dedicated future works to his memory.
We all know what happened with Nirvana. Mere milliseconds after Markey wrapped filming, the whole world fell into Nirvanamania. The little band would soon eclipse its heroes, becoming the biggest thing that happened to popular music that decade. Amazingly, Markey manages to capture a side of Nirvana that the general public would never know: the happy side. In TYPB, the band members are still relatively unknown. They are wide-eyed and playful, with frequent smiles and passionate stage show. But that levity was lost when the fame came along. The band would only release one more studio album, In Utero, before singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Drummer Dave Grohl went on to form the ultra-successful Foo Fighters and bassist Krist Novoselic expanded his interests from music to politics, even running for office in his home state of Washington.
Miss Love can be seen in the original doc (and in the extra footage) trying to get the attention of cameraman Markey. Her role in the video is very small- she wasn’t performing, she was in England to hang out with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. Of course, she went on to marry Cobain of Nirvana and the two became the Sid & Nancy of the ’90s. Love’s band Hole was also on the verge of fame, having released its debut album, Pretty on the Inside, in August of ’91. Hole went on to release a few more albums, including the highly successful Live Through This in 1994. Love went on to become a famous disaster and the topic of much tabloid speculation.
Dinosaur Jr was always bigger in Europe, due to constant touring of the Continent. This is most apparent during on of the most beautiful, chill-inducing moments of the film. The band is playing “Freak Scene” and at the very end of the song, the whole dang audience sings along to the all-important line “Cause when I need a friend it’s still you.” Dino went on to release five more studio albums and the band is still active today (with years of breaks in between). The members have also put out solo albums and they remain some of the mostly highly respected individuals in indie rock.
Though his band, Mudhoney, wasn’t featured in the film, Mark Arm can be seen in several scenes in TYPB. His little blond mop is always bopping around, accenting a goofy smile. Mudhoney was kind of Nirvana before Nirvana was Nirvana, and it certainly had a longer career. The band has put out ten studio albums in its career and is still active (and awesome) today, mostly playing large international festivals.
The Ramones were included in The Year Punk Broke, but the band’s time in the film was so short and so stiff that it seemed like the Ramones were more included as a tribute to punk elders than as a viable band. Still, the Ramones had one of the most interesting careers in music history. In 1991 the band was already 27 years into its career and it would be another five years before it officially disbanded. After TYPB the band put out three more studio albums, but it didn’t much matter. The Ramones were already considered the greatest American punk band.
Gumball is the only band included in TYPB that never quite achieved any level of mainstream success. Despite releasing 1991’s Special Kiss (featuring both Thurston Moore and members of Teenage Fanclub), Gumball never really caught on with indie audiences and was dropped from its label in 1994 due to disappointing sales. Gumball disbanded shortly after that, but the band members went on to have very successful individual careers. For example, frontman Don Fleming is a noted producer and participated in many other musical indie ventures, including Half Japanese, Dim Stars and The Backbeat Band.
Nobody really hates the Foo Fighters. That might seem like an odd distinction, but this is a rarity for a modern rock band. For how highly anticipated a Dave Grohl project was in the wake of Nirvana-cide, the Foos has really been a sleeper of a band. Though it has always been high profile, the FFs went from being those dudes who made funny music videos to one of the most solid rock bands in the States. The bands reputation has been building, along with its fan base, for over fifteen years, making the Foo Fighters genuine stadium rockers at this point. Sometimes good guys win.
After The Show: Expect a near-religious conversion into full fandom. You’ll be telling your friends to call upon the name Foo and ye shall be saved.
- Riverfront Times – link
Frances Bean Cobain And The Other Nine Hottest Offspring Of Musicians
By Jaime Lees
Thu., Aug. 18 2011
Today is Frances Bean Cobain’s 19th birthday. Time flies, right? In celebration of Miss Frannie, we’ve compiled a list of hot rock ‘n’ roll spawn. These people have at least one rock star parent and their moms are frequently models. (Figures.) They are all totally bangable, and many of them have their own interesting careers. Who do you think should be added to the list?
Frances Bean Cobain
Daughter of musicians Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Courtney Love of Hole
Frances was on the “countdown to legal” list for many grunge fans. Now, at age 19 FBC has just posed for a collection of photographs that show that she’s all grown up. Eyes! Lips! Midriff! Décolletage! Tattoos! It’s all there, in this frequently topless but never outright scandalous set of photographs. Captured in dramatic black and white, “The Bean” looks absolutely smokin’. She’s sultry, she’s sassy and she looks like she’s either going to scream at you or make out with you or both. HOT.
Daughter of musician Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and scenester / groupie Bebe Buell
The quintessential foxy rock ‘n’ roll daughter, Liv first came to attention starring in Aerosmith’s video for “Crazy.” In the video, she played a pouty-lipped Catholic school girl who skipped school do naughty pseudo-sapphic stuff with co-star Alicia Silverstone. She’s since put her big lips on the big screen, with major roles in films like Empire Records, Armageddon and Lord of the Rings.
Son of Beatle John Lennon and artist / musician Yoko Ono
Sean is probably the most famous son of rock. Lookin’ like exactly half of each of his parents, the bespectacled musician doesn’t have to push his pedigree, it is already obvious in his pretty eyes and cute little mouth. Bonus: Sean seems nice, his music is good and he doesn’t disrespect his father’s legacy (unlike Lennon’s other son, jerk-ass Julian). And like a proper second generation famous kid, he has dated Mick Jagger’s daughter Elizabeth and also…
Daughter of John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas and model Geneviève Waïte
Young Bijou is a looker, but not really in a classic way. Her teeth are kinda weird and her vibe is kinda dirty, but these things somehow just make her damn sexy. She famously lost her virginity to Evan Dando and the hot little hippie has been banging famous dudes ever since. She was with Elijah Wood, then she dated Sean Lennon for years and now she’s engaged to Danny Masterson (aka “Hyde” from That ’70s show).
Daughter of musician Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet
It’s absolutely shocking that Zoë Kravitz is good looking. Both of her parents are so. damn. hot. that it only makes sense that their individual hot qualities would get canceled out in war for gene dominance, leaving just a sad little unremarkable, unhot blob baby. Instead, the biology lottery resulted in Zoë becoming mega hot broad with a tight little body, her dad’s sense of style and her mom’s creamy skin. Yowza.
Son of musicians Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5
Jackson looks sweetly disheveled in that slightly scruffy post-hipster way. He plays guitar for his mom on tour and his good looks are a little distracting on stage- he has bright eyes and the same kind of quiet intensity that both of his parents pulled off in photographs. Also, he was cool enough to score Meg White of the White Stripes as his wife, which means the world might get a third generation of Detroit hotties.
Daughter of musician Lionel Richie and Brenda Harvey
Nicole was adopted, so she can’t claim her good looks from Lionel or Brenda. But she was adopted from the famous musical Escovedo family, and can count Sheila E. and Alejandro Escovedo as some of her close biological relatives. The doe-eyed former party girl has had public struggles with her weight and the law, but nothing obscures her natural good looks and funny personality. In the grand tradition of celeb spawn, Nicole dated DJ AM (Adam Goldstein) and is now married to Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden.
Son of musician Frank Zappa and Adelaide Gail Sloatman
Just like his father, Dweezil is an acquired taste. His bright eyes are intense and surely one of the features that won over former girlfriend (and librarian glasses enthusiast) Lisa Loeb. Yeah, he seems like he can be kind of a douche, but that doesn’t cancel out his dark, almost John Stamos-y sexiness. Fun facts: Dweezil was an MTV VJ for a minute and has many musical credits to his name (including playing lead guitar on the the Fat Boys’ “Wipe Out”). He also had a bit part in Pretty in Pink as Andie’s friend Simon- this lil’ cameo automatically puts him in the Forever Hot Club.
Nicholas Des Barres
Son of musician Michael Des Barres and original groupie Pamela Des Barres
Best known as Murdoc on MacGuyver and the dude who replaced Robert Palmer in Power Station, Michael Des Barres has an interesting career as both an actor and a rock singer. His former wife, the beautiful Pamela Des Barres, is an author, a ginger and legendary groupie. Together they made Nick, who is tall and handsome with a striking blend of features from both of his parents. He’s also probably the most talented person on this list, finding success an actor, a writer and a designer.
Daughter of musician Donovan and model Enid Karl
Best known as Diane Court from Say Anything, the object of Lloyd Dobler’s affection won over teen audiences with her fresh face, crooked smile and quirky mannerisms. Basically, all straight men of a certain generation will always think that Ione Skye is just the hottest shit ever. She could have pretty much any dude she wants, but Ione keeps up the tradition of inter-industry dating: she dated Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, she was married to Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys for a few years and she’s now married to musician Ben Lee.
Daisy Lowe – Daughter of Gavin Rossdale of Bush and Pearl Lowe
Sally Taylor – Daughter of musicians / songwriters James Taylor and Carly Simon
Amber Le Bon – Daughter of Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran and model Yasmin Le Bon
Elizabeth Jagger – Daughter of musician Mick Jagger and model Jerry Hall, dated Sean Lennon
Riley Keough – Granddaughter of Elvis Presley, Daughter of Lisa Marie Presley
Rufus and Martha Wainwright – Musician children of Loudon Wainwright III, songwriter / singer
Peaches Geldof – Daughter of Bob Geldof, musician, and Paula Yates, Brit television presenter
Alexa Ray Joel – Daughter of musician Billy Joel and model Christie Brinkley
Elijah Blue Allman – Son of musicians Cher and Gregg Allmann
Stella McCartney – Daughter of Beatle Paul McCartney and photographer Linda McCartney
Using Their Illusion: Ferocious — and funny — locals the Livers hope video builds the radio star
By Jaime Lees
Published: April 23, 2008
9 p.m. Friday, April 25. The Bluebird, 2706 Olive Street. $7 21-plus, $10 under 21. No phone.www.myspace.com/bluebirdstl.
BFFs Scot Freeman and Luke Roulston hit a rough patch last year. Mired in typical twentysomething malaise, they found themselves working too hard, drinking too much and continually complaining about their lack of a creative outlet. Both were seasoned musicians who admired each other’s skills and former bands (Freeman’s Chiaroscuro and Roulston’s Poe’s Music for Weirdos), and so as an extension of their bromance, these multi-instrumentalists decided to quit their bitching and put together a new band.
There was just one problem: They only wanted to play with each other.
Freeman and Roulston began trying to find a way to multiply their sound without adding any extra people. They jokingly wished they could form a band with clones of themselves to fill out the empty instrument positions. As the story goes, one day Roulston said, “What if we just did that?” And so after considerable preparation and months of trial and error, they managed to invent something brand new: a four-person rock band with just two band members.
This is accomplished by both Livers playing guitar in front of a prerecorded video of themselves as the rhythm section (with Roulston on bass and Freeman on drums). But the virtual band members don’t just play, they also have names (Karl and Merl), distinctive personalities and sassy attitudes. Through the magic of painstaking video editing and green-screen wizardry, all four band members have the ability to interact with each other. (In fact, the video Livers frequently talk back to the live Livers.)
This elaborate presentation is helped along by Zak Thenhaus, the unofficial third (fifth?) Liver. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, Thenhaus fills the role of the unseen magical man behind the curtain (or video screen) who assists the real-life Livers in their video interactions, largely by handing them props. Between songs every last Liver gets to catch a break as hilarious commercial-like clips — such as a Laverne & Shirley spoof, or one for Evan Williams brand whiskey — appear on the video screen. (These riotous, between-song bits are also known as the “interstitiary videos” in Freeman’s professional-speak.)
The result is both spectacularly effective and logistically bewildering. Roulston dryly explains, “Yeah, it’s kind of our motto: ‘To do everything the hardest way possible.'”
Entering the Livers’ headquarters — a.k.a. Roulston’s spacious Benton Park bedroom — one immediately begins to get an idea of just how detailed the band’s production process must be to pull off this kind of act. The vast space is part living area and part artist workshop, with enough cameras, lights and cables to outfit a television studio. In addition to the clothes, electronics, books and numerous art pieces strewn around, tiny strips of green tape on the wood floors mark frequently used instrument and filming positions. It is here that all of the “rhythm section” and comedic segments are taped.
Though these ingenious videos and fun live additions make the band instantly unique, without competent songwriting and playing prowess, the Livers would be little more than an interesting live art project. But the band’s tunes stand alone and can be enjoyed, even separate from its shtick.
The admitted “control freaks” extended their hands-on attitude to their debut album, Vino in Uriam Mutando, which they self-mixed. Recorded locally at Firebrand Recording studios, Vino sounds strikingly professional (with solid lyrics, wicked riffs and intimidatingly heavy drum hits) and contains recordings of a few songs that are quickly becoming audience favorites. Freeman’s “Autistic Girlfriend” was written as a “rock juggernaut” about a cold lady with insincere feelings and “a hole where her heart should go.” In contrast, Roulston’s “She-Wolf” is a wistful, gently sung pop-punk musing on missed opportunities and misdirected emotions. Other standout tracks include the sweetly seductive “Humble Plight” (a salute to the pleasures of love and makin’ love) and “2 Legs to Dance,” a jolting bass-and-beat-filled swoop into the world of dance rock that implores listeners to get up, get drunk and start dancing.
Between the Livers’ unprecedented musical presentation and strong tunes, it’s rumored that the young band has already been fielding label and distribution interest. When questioned on this development, both guys just smile and coyly decline to discuss this topic on the record, claiming superstition. It wouldn’t be surprising; the band contains the kind of natural charisma and overflowing raw talent that label scouts are always looking to unearth. Plus, Freeman and Roulston seem to have a very brotherly relationship — where both compliments and playful ribbing are common — and both are good-natured, smart and funny as hell.
On meshing their musical styles:
Scot Freeman: Luke’s music is really complicated and the time signatures are all weird and stuff and I can only play, like, uh…
Luke Roulston: 3/4 and 4/4 or a combination thereof. [Laughs]
Freeman: Yeah! Really, just like, Top 40. I just wanna play riffs and sing soaring choruses and that kind of stuff. So when I write a song it’s usually really simple but his stuff is all over the place and I’m like, “I’m gonna go ahead and dumb this shit down.”
Roulston: Well, that’s called “rocking it up.”
On their perfectionism in the videos:
Freeman: I think I’ve worked harder on this than on anything I’ve worked on, ever. There have been times that my actual job has bummed me out, but there have been times with this shit where I wanna cry.
Roulston: It’s toil.
Freeman: There’s been times when we worked on this 50 or 60 hours a week, while still working our regular jobs 40 hours a week. I mean, [we were] working to the point where it’s almost ruined friendships and relationships.
Roulston: But the best thing about it is, the other members of the band? They don’t seem to argue! [Laughs]
Freeman: On the videos, I’m of the opinion that Luke could pretty much fake it, that he could hit some wrong notes. But he refuses. He refuses to hit one wrong note, even though it wouldn’t matter.
Roulston: If there was a bass player [in the audience] that actually had perfect pitch and knew his shit, he would know.
Freeman: And that’s why he obsesses. We’ll get done taping and he’s like “I missed a note,” and I’m like “I played it fucking perfectly! I’m bleeding!” and he’s like “Let’s do it again.” And I’m like “Fuck!” and I fucking duct-tape my hand back together, [and] do it again.
On the band’s sound and influences:
Roulston: Thus far, we’ve been compared to ’90s music. But I love ’90s music. Our big influences are the Jesus Lizard and the Pixies and Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and, you know, just hard-hitting drums. And he [Freeman] plays better than most drummers I’ve ever seen.
Freeman: Yeah, all my favorite bands are fucking gone. Jesus Lizard and fuckin’ Seaweed, Failure, whatever. Bands that nobody remembers.
Roulston: At least the Pixies came back, I guess. You know what I liked? When Frank Black came to the Duck Room. That was a really fucking awesome show. I have nothing but respect for him. Actually, I have nothing but respect for anybody in the Pixies. They’re just… God! What a great fucking band! I would say, like, that’s the band that I would aspire to lick their…