Bruce Pavitt was Seattle's first underground music mogul. Today he's a psychedelic raver dad still pushing for a revolution.
Shooting stars streaked like glowing threads across a velvet-black night sky. From the distant hills, a breeze hushed over fields of freshly cut hay, rippling a little pond and rustling long silken banners, red and yellow and pink, hanging from bamboo posts flocked in the grass like one-legged birds. The banners flapped and wagged in the breeze, a gentle counterpoint to the manic house music pulsing from inside a nearby geodesic dome. It was one of those moments—not so rare, really—when Orcas Island feels like a world unto itself.
A hundred or so people in various states of intoxication clustered here and there across the secluded, pastoral grounds, talking and laughing loudly, hugging fervently, carrying on. A hundred more danced with loose limbs inside the dome.
Bruce Pavitt started throwing these gatherings—Dragonfly Parties, he called them—before he moved to Orcas from Seattle in 1997. With an eye toward cutting-edge electronic music and artful décor, he exposed the locals to a level of professionalism, intensity and indulgence they had never seen. Early Dragonfly Parties were held at Pavitt’s sprawling compound on Mt. Woolard; this balmy August evening in 2004 was the first one held across the island on Pavitt’s friend Kaj’s land. Inside the dome, a DJ played hard-thumping house and droning trance music, sending dancers into a frenzy.
Around 2 a.m., Pavitt stood on the stage behind the DJ, surveying the celebration with Adam Farish, one of the first friends he made on-island. Glorious revelry: The crowd was ecstatic, the music reaching peak pitch. Pavitt put his hand on Farish’s shoulder, leaned in and shouted to be heard above the music.
“This is so great for me!” he said, his smile beaming in the blacklight. “I feel totally anonymous right now!”
At that moment, the DJ dropped a bassline that triggered a rabid response from the crowd. When Pavitt recognized the house-style remix of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” his face dropped. Maybe it was a tongue-in-cheek move by the DJ, but the timing was brutally apropos. Even at a rave in a dome on an island, Pavitt couldn’t escape his past.
On Orcas, Pavitt didn’t want to be known as “the Sub Pop Guy” or “the Nirvana Guy”—though the label that released Nirvana’s debut album was his life’s work. As founder of Sub Pop—the launching pad for global superstars Nirvana and Soundgarden, as well as underground heroes Mudhoney, TAD and countless other Seattle rock bands—Pavitt instigated America’s most significant pop-cultural upheaval since the ’60s.
His accomplishments are testament to the power of the superfan—one with great taste and a prescient sense of the zeitgeist. In the early ’80s, while local critics bemoaned the state of Seattle music, Pavitt published fanzines and put out cassette tapes featuring dozens of his favorite underground bands. Those bands were his friends, those zines and compilations labors of love. He was the guy at the front of the stage at the local rock show, dancing like a crazy person, gushing about it afterward.
It wasn’t about a “grunge movement,” as the media came to call the flood of rock bands that poured out of Seattle. From the beginning, Pavitt’s goal was decentralization: to disempower top-down culture, to network underground music scenes around the U.S., to establish a forum for outsider voices so they could be heard in the farthest corners of the world. And to have fun doing it. Which is exactly what he did.
But even the revolutionary doesn’t know what the revolution will look like until it comes. Pavitt stayed in Seattle long enough to see its music scene explode into overexposure and dilution. Then he split—for a secluded island, a tight-knit, rural community of friends and family, and occasional gigs as a party DJ named Space Buddha.
Last year, media around the world dutifully commemorated the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the “album that changed everything,” as the Washington Post noted in September. Writers, fans and musicians continue to obsess over the music’s legacy. Pavitt looks ahead. It sounds funny, but the life he built on Orcas is only a short philosophical step from the one he left in Seattle.
On a beautiful October evening, Pavitt is sitting in the living room of the two-story Craftsman he moved into in early 2011 with his wife Jyoti and their teenage kids from previous marriages. Outside the picture windows, a sunset explodes in pastel across the Salish Sea. Pavitt sips red wine on the couch, Jyoti paints at an easel across the room, his son and stepdaughter come and go through the house. It’s a scene of affluent bohemian domesticity.
“It’s less noteworthy to have a rocking family life,” Pavitt says.
He’s never flaunted the usual leather-studded trappings, but Pavitt is a lifelong punk. Despite a wholesome, middle-class background—or maybe because of it—he’s always aligned himself against stasis and the status quo. Active engagement in unconventional communities is the common thread throughout his life. Early in his development it was punk rock. Now it’s something gentler.
“I reached a point where I really didn’t want to go into a bar for four hours and stare at a band,” he says. “That format does not work for me.”
Pavitt’s methodical way of speaking makes sense when you learn he spent time in the company of Terrence McKenna, the noted author, ethnobotanist and philosopher who lectured on the other-dimensional “machine elves” he encountered while under the influence of Ayahuasca—an Amazonian psychedelic—and DMT, its synthetic analog. His tone, and more so his gaze, suggest a man who has returned from a journey with an ironic understanding: He’s seen too much to tell but is nonetheless compelled to try.
Physically, only his receding hairline and the salt in his goatee hint at Pavitt’s 52 years, and those are offset by a tiny diamond stud in the center of his upper lip. His cheeks are boyishly smooth and rosy, his green eyes, bracketed by crow’s feet, are set perpetually to wide. For a guy who spent 15 years deep in the nocturnal scrum of hellaciously loud rock clubs, surrounded by abusers of every sort of substance, he’s in remarkably good shape. Today he describes his state of mind back then with acute detail.
“I’ll tell you something: Music in a club system can sound really good on MDMA,” he says. “It can make music sound so good you’ll rush home, pick up the phone and beg your father to send cash because you have to put out a record by a band that’s so mind-blowing.”
A native Illinoisan, he has a Midwesterner’s offhandedly hilarious way of pacing an anecdote grounded by a historian’s grasp of facts and dates. He enthuses articulately and at length about his passions—music, art, spirituality—and their ramifications, both personal and societal.
“I remember going to my first shows, going to see Devo before they put out their first album and thinking, what are people wearing? Where the hell did they get this stuff? They just kind of designed it themselves. It was a revolution in design and fashion as well as the music and the people. So that’s what you look for: Is it participatory? You see these themes in real revolutionary movements that actually have meaning, and it’s a template that you can overlay onto any scene and go, are you just a bunch of consumers or are you participatory citizens?”
For the last 10 years, Pavitt has been involved in what he calls “the West Coast festival scene,” traveling to neo-hippie art and music gatherings like EarthDance, Symbiosis, the Oracle Gatherings and Beloved, all of which take place in beautiful settings around California and the Northwest. He’s attended Burning Man in the Nevada desert five times, twice with his kids.
“The smaller festivals offer a genuine sense of community,” he says. “I have time to speak to people, hear what they have to say, hug people, see friends. There’s intimacy. There’s more options available and magic happens in those situations. There’s intelligent people giving a workshop over here, you can hear a DJ, you can see a band. It’s a holistic system where everything about it has integrity—the food vendors have integrity, the artists have integrity. There’s no corporate sponsorship whatsoever in any of these events, which is where indie rock went. You got half the bands on Sub Pop trying to get their music on McDonald’s commercials, and they’re still going, ‘We’re alternative because we buy our clothes at Urban Outfitters.’ That’s where it’s going and to me it’s been a cultural dead end.”
Earlier in October, Pavitt marched alongside 3,000 other activists at the Occupy Wall Street rally in downtown Seattle. He follows the movement’s worldwide convolutions via Twitter and Facebook feeds. In his view, its nascent state is similar to the pop culture revolution he was part of 20 years ago.
“When punk rock happened, all of a sudden it was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’” he says. “All of a sudden it was everywhere. It caught fire in a really magical way. That’s what’s going on with the Occupy movement, with people waking up to the fact that part of their duty is to express their grievances with the way things are. I think it’s catching fire and it’s going to be huge. As somebody who is sensitive to trends, I’d say that there’s no doubt that we are entering an epic period in history and that the artists and musicians that
come into alignment with that energy are going to be profoundly respected in a way that we haven’t seen in the past 10 years.”
Later he’s more concise. “I believe we’re witnessing the collapse of industrial civilization,” he says.
Pavitt has been agitating for radical transformation for three decades. His earliest mission statement was published in the spring of 1980, in the first issue of Subterranean Pop, the black-and-white fanzine he typed, cut, pasted and stapled in his apartment in downtown Olympia. His “New Pop Manifesto” read, in part:
As our teen-bongo, Space Age counter-culture becomes infiltrated by wimpoid TV “mop tops” in skinny ties and leather pants, it becomes apparent that the bland sameness of the pop suprastructure is with us once again... By supporting huge New Hollywood music corporations, you (yes, you) are not only allowing middle-aged capitalists to dictate what goes over the airwaves, but you are giving them the go-ahead to promote macho pig-fuck bands whose entire lifestyle revolves around cocaine, sexism, money and more money... The ’80s need new sounds, but just as importantly, they need new cultural heroes. Only by supporting new ideas by local artists, bands, and record labels can the U.S. expect any kind of dynamic social/cultural change in the 1980s. We need diverse, regionalized, localized approaches to all forms of art, music, and politics.
Pavitt had arrived at Olympia’s Evergreen State College a year before from the suburbs of Chicago, 20 years old with a voracious intellectual appetite. Then, as now, Evergreen was the kind of experimental counter-institution where a student could earn credit, as Pavitt did, for publishing a punk rock fanzine or hosting a radio show.
The draw for him was the work of John Foster, who ran KAOS, Evergreen’s radio station and published the avant-leaning OP magazine. A staffer at KAOS since 1974, Foster devised the station’s “Green Line Policy,” which demands that at least 80 percent of the music played must come from independent record labels. (To this day the station operates under the Green Line Policy—so called for the green marker Foster applied to the spines of independent albums so DJs could easily spot them on the shelf—though it isn’t known by that name anymore.)
The term “independent music” had been around since the ’50s, but the Green Line Policy, unique in American radio at the time, was its modernized, purist realization. Foster further articulated it in print via OP magazine, which he mailed to record labels, college and community radio stations, and record stores across the U.S. A colleague of Pavitt’s mom, a high-school social worker, ran a rockabilly record label and gave Pavitt a copy of OP’s first issue.
With his “Subterranean Pop” show on KAOS, Pavitt applied the Green Line Policy to punk rock, blacklisting international stars like the Clash and Blondie in favor of Northwest upstarts like the Beakers, the Blackouts and the U-Men, and bands from further afield, like San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys, Chicago’s Big Black and New York’s Sonic Youth. Pavitt deepened the station’s relationships with American indie labels and bands: They sent music to KAOS, KAOS played the music. By 1983, when Pavitt left Olympia for Seattle, KAOS had accumulated perhaps the most significant collection of indie music in America.
At the same time, inspired by OP, Pavitt launched his own indie publishing venture. Where OP was artistic and obtuse, Subterranean Pop—shortened to Sub Pop in its third issue—was more playful and engaged. Foster was impressed by Pavitt’s ability to identify regional music scenes and their differences.
Pillaging KAOS’ massive indie library alongside Pavitt were Steve Fisk and Calvin Johnson, the latter of whom also contributed to Sub Pop. Both played in a few bands; Pavitt was lead singer of one with Fisk, though that didn’t last long. In a few years, Fisk would record, engineer and produce some of the earliest work by Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Beat Happening and Soundgarden. Johnson would found K Records, the longstanding Olympia-based label that epitomizes DIY, lo-fi and outsider music, and helm Beat Happening, its flagship band. With Foster’s nurturing, the three of them became architects of the Northwest musical aesthetic—Fisk its downtuned, muddy, aggressive sound; Johnson its egalitarian integrity; Pavitt its wild-eyed intelligence and subversive humor.
It’s no stretch to say that the seeds for the Northwest-lead cultural revolution of the ’90s were planted at Evergreen. Or to say that Pavitt saw it coming.
Though Pavitt had released compilations and EPs under the name since 1980, Sub Pop Records claims as its official birth date April 1, 1988, the day Pavitt and partner Jonathan Poneman opened the door to the label’s first office in downtown Seattle. Its rise from the bedroom of Pavitt’s Capitol Hill apartment to world domination started as an ambitious, admittedly impossible stunt and eventually came true.
It’s an over-documented era of Seattle history for good reason: Mid-’90s grunge was the last spluttering gasp of pre-Internet American monoculture. Seattle musicians watched in horror as their scene was ripped from its damp, insular womb and broadcast to the outside world via MTV, Rolling Stone and major labels.
This was a real problem. Northwest artists, steeped in punk and accustomed to marginalization, equated success with failure. Some of those artists got very rich. Some of them signed to Sub Pop (which couldn’t seem to get rich by any means). Either way, by the early ’90s, Pavitt and Poneman were as recognizable around Seattle as any of the musicians on their label. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but the machinations of consumer culture had taken over.
In 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind unseated Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from atop the Billboard charts. By 1994, Sub Pop had released singles and albums by the Afghan Whigs, Sebadoh, the Supersuckers, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth—influential bands from budding scenes across the U.S. and U.K. Pavitt had achieved his goal of “dynamic social/cultural change” and “diverse, regionalized, localized approaches to all forms of art, music, and politics.” Sub Pop had won the battle for cultural supremacy despite itself, upending corporate hegemony to install a weirder, smarter, more diverse pop landscape. Victory for the underachievers.
Kurt Cobain killed himself in April of that year. Pavitt, a friend of Cobain’s, was fraught with doubt about his role in this alt new world. Would Cobain have been better off, he wondered, if Sub Pop didn’t help launch his career, sell so many records, gain worldwide fame? Not only a tragedy, Cobain’s suicide, in Pavitt’s view, was a metaphor: Unchecked growth—in popularity, in population, in production—is unsustainable.
The next year, Pavitt helped broker a deal between Sub Pop and Warner Brothers that saved the label from financial ruin while maintaining majority creative control. Right away he bristled against newly established regimentation. But he’d been pulling away from the label for awhile, taking frequent trips to Mexico, Hawaii and the Amazon to pursue his interest in psychedelics and shamanic ritual. He asked more questions of himself: What if I put the creative energy I put into music into family life? What if I were a stay-at-home dad who goes to Burning Man?
On elegantly undulating Orcas Island, one of almost 200 in the north Puget Sound, everything Northwest is concentrated—the drama, the beauty, the isolation of this farthest corner of the farthest corner. Autumn on a forested island is a startlingly beautiful transformation. The air is scrubbed crisp with the scent of salt water, the darkness outside is bottomless, the stars innumerable. This place is a million miles from anywhere.
Orcas takes DIY to a geographically necessitated extreme: Islanders are self-sufficient. Many grow their own vegetables, raise their own animals, and barter for goods and services. Not a single chain store or restaurant exists here, no freeway. It’s something of a tribal community, albeit one that counts as members a former Police Chief of Seattle, a former Defense Secretary of the U.S., and the former CEO of Union Carbide. Like Pavitt, they all traded their mainland lives for the island’s clean slate.
After a pasta dinner at his house, Pavitt and I arrive late to tonight’s weekly song circle, which he’s attended intermittently for the last two years. This is his crew, he says before we enter to a woolly group of men and women in their 20’s and 30’s, an even dozen, sitting in a circle on the floor of a carpeted cottage in the town of Eastsound. A goateed man in John Lennon specs named Fabrice plays acoustic guitar and leads the group in bhajans—Hindu devotional chants, mortal odes to the divine. The group harmonizes easy, indelible melodies and soulful refrains chanted in Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic or Quechua. Alien-seeming stuff, softened by intimacy and pot smoke. The singers leaf through photocopied, hand-written books of songs, say things like, “Let’s get some Shiva energy in here!” and pick one bhajan after another to sing.
The effect, as intended, is hypnotizing. A therapeutic calm emanates from the circle. Between songs, a young woman next to me sighs beatifically, breaking a strangely comfortable silence. Song by song, time passes. The circle winds down. It’s almost midnight and some folks have to work early tomorrow. Pulling on heavy coats, hats and gloves, everyone heads out the door.
Jamie, an old friend of mine and an Orcas local, stops and asks, “So was that cool or are we all a bunch of woo-woos?” I laugh nervously, tell her I don’t really know. Earlier in the day, YouTube footage surfaced that depicted a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters singing “This Little Light of Mine” while being harassed by New York police. Here’s this cozy little gathering, light years away from Zuccotti Park, of people doing essentially the same thing. What is so alien, so crazy, so revolutionary, about a bunch of people sitting in a circle singing songs?
“I know in the secular world of indie rock, talking about synchronizing energy would probably look woo-woo, but that’s exactly what happens,” Pavitt says over coffee the next morning. “You break into more of a trance-like connection. Music and dancing bring people together. That is revolutionary, absolutely.”
Art by Jeffrey Meyer.