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Nevermind, The Memories

Steve Pavlovic’s UNPOPULAR exhibition provides tangible insights into the 1990’s alternative rock scene.



UNPOPULAR may be the name of music promoter/entrepreneur Steve ‘Pav’ Pavlovic’s exhibition, but with its comprehensive and loving representation of the alternative music scene of the ‘90s, it’s likely to be quite the opposite.  

As a teenage fan of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, Pavlovic was fascinated by ephemera, collecting all manner of photos, ticket stubs and posters. It was an obsession that followed him all the way though his ‘90s tenure, bring to Australia the alt-rock crème de la crème of Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Fugazi and Bikini Kill.

“I always kept things,” he recalls. “In the back of my mind it was like, ‘maybe I’ll be able to use this one day and it’ll look really cool and funny’.”

Pavlovic’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, however, means that he can’t stand mess, so the memories and relics from those years were put into storage units and out of sight.

Three years ago when he created a website portfolio for CV purposes, Pavlovic’s archive came to the attention of Powerhouse Museum Director, Lisa Havilah, who was looking to improve its music collection.

“They kindly offered to move all my stuff out of storage and into the museum,” Pavlovic recalls. “It gave me a space, and they could digitise everything and work out what they wanted me to donate.  Then as we went through everything they were like, ‘wow there’s a lot of great stuff in here, maybe we should consider doing an exhibition as well’. It just snowballed from there.”

It’s a fortunate thing, as a promoter in the midst of a golden era for music and touring, stopping to smell the roses, especially in that era with so much happening in the music culture/industry wasn’t necessarily a priority. 

“I was just living my dream at that point in time,” Pavlovic says, “just obsessed by the tours and shows I was doing and getting to work with a lot of my favourite artists. It came from a place of selfishness, really. I started bringing bands here so myself and my friends could enjoy them. There was no greater aspiration than that.

“I think it was like 10 years went by where I never really stopped to think, ‘wow we’ve done some amazing stuff’. I never really smelt the roses. It’s fortunate that I do have all this stuff to look back on and remember with.”

Featuring bands such as Nirvana, Beck, Fugazi, Hole, The Lemonheads, Mudhoney, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Helmet, Sonic Youth and many more, UNPOPULAR features all manner of photographs, posters, graphic art, fanzines, tour itineraries, setlists, personal handwritten letters and postcards, along with previously-unseen video footage audio recordings.

It documents a time that now presents many with misty water-coloured memories. In Australia triple j was at its peak as a national youth influencer, while Recovery was driving all-ages audiences towards alt-music culture.

“I would say that all the stars aligned,” Pavlovic says. “I grew up in the late ‘70s really fascinated with punk rock music. I was like a 14-year-old kid, and that became a post-punk thing. Then the second wave of punk started in America where you had a lot of hardcore bands. Then you had this moment where out of that this new wave came out that was less heavy but even more interesting with the Pixies and Sonic Youth, then Nirvana and others started to pick that up and go with it. 

“The ethos came out of that punk rock attitude but at the same time the US hardcore bands paved the way for the touring world to exist, for people to travel around the country and internationally. It seemed like there was a like-minded community formulating all around the world. It was like an infrastructure was put into place with college radio and community radio, then double j going national and becoming triple j, it’s just seemed that there was an infrastructure to support this growing wave of bands that were different to what your mum and dad listened to (laughs). 

“I look back with fascination about it. And it was very personable, it was a community that was supported by independent record stores, independent radio stations and street press. I was able to really on that to brings all these bands out to Australia, whereas 10 years earlier it might not have been doable.”

Even so, Pavlovic had an especially keen eye and ear, that extended to his record label Fellaheen and later to Modular Recordings (to be the focus of another exhibition later down the track). The man, himself, however, looks at it from an everyman point of view. 

“I always felt like a very average person and that if something resonated with me it might also for the next person and the person down the street from them and so on,” he explains. 

“I got to do things that I was completely obsessed and passionate about and I just assumed that other people would be too. It was fortunate that I was in a moment in time where I could reach out to those people directly.”

Bring Nirvana to Australia at the very time they exploded with internationally with the Nevermind album would be the jewel in any promoter’s crown, although the trek became infamous mostly due to the state of Kurt Cobain’s health. The much-anticipated Perth show was completely cancelled altogether, leaving some impassioned feedback from disappointed fans as a result.

 “I kept all the record store petitions from everyone in Perth asking for the bands to go there,” Pavlovic says. “They could leave a name and a comment and people said things like, ‘where’s your team spirit, Kurt?’, ‘I HAVE got a gun, Kurt’ and ‘you junkie piece of shit, Kurt’. That’s all ended up in the exhibition.”

Also featured is Kurt Cobain’s Martin Guitar which he played during the 1993 MTV Unplugged performance in New York. On loan from RØDE founder, Peter Freedman, at US $9 million it now holds the record for the most expensive guitar in the world. 

As part of a series of aural histories that Pavlovic recorded (others include Beastie Boys, Fugazi, Kim Gordon & Thurston of Sonic Youth, Mark Arm of Mudhoney and DJ Shadow) he asked Dave Grohl about the instrument in question.

“I said, ‘tell me, have you touched or strummed that guitar, and does it feel or sound like $9 million? He’s like, absofuckinglutely not!” (laughs).”

For Pavlovic, UNPOPULAR is more than an exhibition about the ‘90s, “it’s about friendship, family, passion and community.” 

As for the title, he says that in his drive to pursue his obsession he at times was indeed unpopular. Citing Cobain once again, it seems there are other layers. 

“You can suddenly become on the nose very quickly. Someone like Kurt Cobain didn’t want to be popular. He wanted people to hear his music, but he didn’t want the popularity and he couldn’t really deal with it. I thought about that a lot, because many of these bands started in outsider communities and then it gathered momentum and caught fire and then they were really popular. Now some people can deal with it and some people can’t.  And some people get a moment, a window where they are popular and then it goes away overnight for no apparent reason, and they seem to want to chase it.  

“It’s just a really good word,” Pavlovic concludes. “It’s part of my journey, being popular-unpopular-popular-unpopular and I think it is for a lot of the bands as well.

UNPOPULAR is now open at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.