Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt on 'Bleach'

Remembering Nirvana's debut album
Bruce Pavitt
Behind every great band are some great people willing to take a chance and give them an opportunity. For Nirvana those people were Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, the founders of Sub Pop, who released ‘Bleach’ in the summer of 1989. Pavitt still remembers the early days of the revolution with great fondness.

“Jack Endino, who was a brilliant recording producer and engineer, had passed on a demo to Jonathan and Jonathan was really moved by the demo and passed the demo onto myself,” says Pavitt of his first recollections of Nirvana. “I remember listening to it with Mark Arm, the lead singer of Mudhoney, and we were both really impressed with Kurt’s voice. At the time the material hadn’t quite come together but there was no doubting Kurt’s voice.”

Pavitt, who along with Poneman was responsible for helping get the Seattle sound recorded and out to the wider world, sees ‘Bleach’ as a record that was representative of a scene attempting to combine metal, pop and punk all at once. “By the time ‘Bleach’ came out they had really begun to refine their song writing to some extent, but ‘Nevermind’ is what really brought it to the top,” he tells me. “I think there’s a number of really excellent songs on ‘Bleach’ and I think many people were surprised by the track ‘About A Girl’ as it showed a deeper pop sensibility, but personally I was leaning more towards the heavier dirgier material. ‘In Bloom’, which starts the album off, is probably my favourite track.”

Nirvana had built their reputation from the ground up on the back of relentless touring, and Pavitt admired this work ethic. He recalls: “They had a tremendous drive and you have to remember that in America in ’89, the touring network was very raw. It had essentially been laid out by bands like Black Flag in the Eighties who helped to create a network of venues who would hire bands playing original material. I remember one story when Nirvana were down in the south, I think it might have been in Texas. They had to sleep outside of their van and they kept a baseball bat near them because there were gators in the nearby pond. Having to worry about whether you’re going to be attacked by a crocodile is not quite the level of luxury that we associate with rock stars.” It certainly flies in the face of the indulgences of the established acts of the time. “They were outsiders. My first impression of Kurt was that he was very shy, sensitive and modest. Krist was more overtly social. He liked a drink, liked to get a little bit rowdy. They were opposites in a way and it was interesting to see the polarity but they seemed to be best friends.”

This dichotomy seemed to be at the heart of Nirvana and their allure, but to put things as simply as this would be to sell their intense charisma short. Pavitt puts things more succinctly. “The music was really soulful and it came from the heart and I think that’s why it endures. That’s why I listen to music and that’s the one quality I continue to look for in music.”

Looking back on those heady days he encapsulates it all perfectly: “It sounded real.”

Words by Karl O’Keeffe

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Read more of Clash Magazine's celebration of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's 'Bleach'.

A classic interview with Nirvana from 1989 by John Robb
Everett True dispells some myths around Nirvana's final UK appearance at the Reading Festival in 1992
An assessment of the band's back catalogue of albums
An interview with Sub Pop records boss Bruce Pavitt
Producer Jack Endino recalls the recording of 'Bleach'

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