‘UNPOPULAR’ revives the alternative music scene of the ‘90s

Dive into the 90s alternative music scene in this major archival exhibition of over 200 original objects, imagery and ephemera drawn from the collection of music promoter Stephen ‘Pav’ Pavlovic.

Titled ‘Unpopular’, the exhibition stages a revival of some of the most influential bands of the alternative music scene, including Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Bikini Kill to name a few, and is on display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Ultimo until 3 June 2023.

‘Unpopular’ exhibition view featuring Sonic Youth, ‘A Thousand Leaves Tour’, The Metro (Sydney), artwork by Cathie Glassby, 1997. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy Stephen Pavlovic and Powerhouse Ultimo

From his extensive personal archive, Pavlovic shares his story and those of the bands he encountered with his collection of never-before-seen video footage, unheard music demos, live audio recordings, interviews, photographs, bill posters, graphic art, zines, tour itineraries, setlists, handwritten letters and postcards in this documentary showcase that celebrates his extraordinary career and some of the most memorable moments in Australia’s live music scene.

In the late 1980’s, at the age of 19, Pavlovic left his hometown in Canberra and took a punt on life in Sydney, and as it turns out it was a journey that kickstarted his career as a promoter of both Australian and international bands. In a recent interview with ABC Double J radio presenter Zan Rowe, Pavlovic describes his experience with the music coming out of America in the 80s/90s and the energy it generated as transformative and a time of personal revelation that inspired him to set his sights on bringing the new wave of American bands to Australian audiences. Selina’s Coogee Bay Hotel, The Phoenician Club, the Hordern Pavilion, and The Big Day Out, are just a few of the iconic venues and events that played host to Pavlovic’s band touring sets on home soil.

One of Pavlovic’s major promotional successes was the launch of the 1995 Summersault festival that billed in five cities across the country, and which headlined the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Beck, Foo Fighters, Pavement, Rancid, Jawbreaker, Bikini Kill and The Amps. ‘Summersault brought a complete lifestyle to accompany the music. There was art for your eyes, streetwear for your back. A club night party or mega-festival performance. There was no music-genre tribalism. It was just either cool or not. Many of the artists were at the peak of their powers, little did we know that it was the beginning of the end of what was an exceptional period in music,’ Pavlovic says.

Kurt Cobain, Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, photographed by Neil Wallace, 1992. Courtesy Stephen Pavlovic and Powerhouse Ultimo

Reflecting on the excitement of performing in Australia, Dave Grohl, drummer of Nirvana and founder of Foo Fighters says, ‘We came down here because the opportunity was beyond imaginable in a way… it was, oh my god, now we’re gonna go to the other side of the hemisphere to play music. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would be possible. […] this place was a mystery to us. We had no idea what to expect. We did love bands from Australia and there was some sort of Seattle-Australia connection.’

Exhibition highlights: ‘Unpopular’ includes live footage of Nirvana’s journey down under in 1992 and their debut performance at the Phoenician Club, the band’s late lead singer Kurt Cobain’s Martin Guitar, which is noted as the world’s most expensive guitar is on display (on loan from Peter Freedman, founder of RØDE), and the spotlight is also on alternative bands like Fugazi, Hole, The Lemonheads, Mudhoney, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Helmet, and many others.

Newly commissioned works by Melbourne artist Lillian O’Neill reimagine aspects of Pavlovic’s collection in large-scale collaged creations, a significant new work by filmmaker Julian Klincewicz is on view, as well as work by graphic designers Ben Brown, Cathie Glassby, Paul McNeil and Paul Curtis, and photographers Sophie Howarth, Neil Wallace and Piet Weinman.

Public programing: from Friday 2 to Sunday 4 December a series of documentary films will pay homage to key rock bands of the 90s era in Uncensored. Screenings include Cosmic Psychos: Blokes You Can Trust (2013), Fugazi’s Instrument (1999), Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), The Man from Mo’Wax (2016), and the Australian premiere of Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. (2021). Tickets include films and late-night exhibition access.

Workshops: during the April 2023 school holidays, the artists behind the posters in ‘Unpopular’, Ben Brown and Paul Curtis, will present a program of analogue art workshops and drop-in sessions for families and young people in Unproductive.

‘Unpopular’ exhibition view featuring photograph of Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, backstage at Summersault, Adelaide,1996 and Rancid backstage at Bikini Kill set, Summersault, Sydney by Sophie Howarth, 1995. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy Stephen Pavlovic and Powerhouse Ultimo

The ‘Unpopular’ publication written by Stephen Pavlovic is scheduled for release in early 2023 and will be bursting with images and ‘diary-like insights into the bands, shows and everything in between as alternative music moved out of the fringes and into the mainstream.’

Lisa Havilah, Powerhouse Chief Executive says, ‘Unpopular looks back at an extraordinary time for live music through the lens of Stephen Pavlovic, telling the story of the international and homegrown musicians and communities that drove the thriving Australian alternative music scene of the 1990s. Pav was there in it all and we are so thankful that he created this important archive that connects us with a time of great creativity.’ 

Powerhouse Ultimo is located at 500 Harris Street Ultimo and is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, and until 9pm on Thursday.