Nirvana had much to live up to following the release of its groundbreaking 1991 album, “Nevermind.” But, with the weight of the world on them, the grunge trio surprised (and perhaps alienated) many with its raucous and emotionally raw follow-up two years later.
Released on Sept. 14, 1993, on DGC/Geffen, the Steve Albini-produced “In Utero” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Nirvana’s only album to bow at No. 1, but its fourth overall) and has sold 4.2 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The set also spawned a pair of No. 1 singles on the Alternative chart with “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”
“Kurt Cobain had a really determined point of view about what he wanted ‘In Utero’ to be,” says Mark Kates, who became Nirvana’s A&R person at Geffen toward the completion of “In Utero.” (Kates now manages bands like MGMT and Saves the Day.) “I know he had very determined point of views about ‘Nevermind’ after it was successful. It was important to him to make a record that he didn’t feel was quite so commercial.”
In commemoration of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, Universal Music Enterprises has re-released “In Utero” with a slew of sonic goodies. Along with buying newly remastered CD and digital versions of the classic 1993 set, fans can also purchase a three-CD and DVD combo that contains more than 70 previously unreleased demos, live recordings, rarities and B-sides. The reissue was released Sept. 24.
Twenty years after the original release of “In Utero,” Billboard.biz spoke with key former Geffen executives who worked on the original marketing and promotion of the album. Here, music industry vets Kates, Ray Farrell, Robert Smith and Jim Merlis — all of whom still work in the business to this day — share their fondest memories (some business, some pleasure) of working on “In Utero” at a time when Nirvana ruled the alt rock world and a vast swath of popular culture. The stories include Geffen’s initial reaction to “In Utero,” how chain stores’ made “Rape Me” into “Waif Me,” Cobain shutting down a taco shop, Nirvana refusing to do promotion in Texas Kurt hit a bouncer with his guitar, watching a front-to-back live rehearsal of the album (with a Raincoats song getting the Black Sabbath treatment), and much more.
MARK KATES became Nirvana’s A&R person at Geffen toward the completion of “In Utero.” Prior to that, he worked promotions at the label. He now manages bands like MGMT and Saves the Day.
On meeting with Nirvana to discuss marketing strategy for “In Utero”:
“I went up to Seattle to have a meeting with Nirvana and (then-publicists) Jim Merlis and Luke Wood. It was the initial marketing conversation for ‘In Utero.’ I’ll never forget, the one thing I remember from that meeting is Kurt saying, ‘If we’re going to do promotion for this record, I’d like to avoid going to Texas, if possible.’ That’s because of an incident that happened at Trees in Dallas on the ‘Nevermind’ tour, where the security guard got hit by Kurt’s guitar (see video below). He was a little concerned about heading to that part of the country to promote his record. To be honest with you, I thought it was funny at the time. And it’s hilarious to talk about it now. My guess is the bouncer that got hit is probably so proud at this point. I wasn’t at that gig.”
On Nirvana’s sense of humor during the release of “In Utero”:
“The band really had a sense of humor. I don’t think they ever took themselves too seriously. [Cobain] wasn’t a guy who was brooding and depressed all the time. He just wasn’t. He found humor in a lot of things.”
“The trailer [below] we did with [comedian Bobcat Goldthwait] in Lamaze class — that day was just priceless (see video below). It was such an amazing moment. To these guys, hanging out with Bobcat was kind of a big deal. He was a great guy to have around, and he opened some of the shows on the ‘In Utero’ tour. It was Nirvana, Mudhoney, Jawbreaker and Bobcat. Bobcat being on the road is something you have to tell people or they wouldn’t actually believe it happened.”
On Nirvana not making another video after “Heart-Shaped Box”:
“I think ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was a record that was going to get played the minute the radio stations got it. What I remember most is that we could never get another video made. That was a blessing for me, because I had to go on the road and talk to them about it. I got to see them play in Grenoble, France, which was one of the last shows they ever played. I got to see them play in Seattle the last time they played there, too. Coming up with an idea for another video after ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was a challenge for Kurt. He and (director) Anton Corbijn really achieved artistic heights with that.”
RAY FARRELL worked in the sales department at Geffen. A former employee at SST (Black Flag, Minute Men, Dinosaur Jr.), which Cobain admired, Farrell now works as the head of Finetunes for the U.S.
On chain stores’ reaction to the song “Rape Me” being listed on the album:?”
“We were told that the largest chain department stores would not sell this title with the song listed on the cover. It would have to be changed to be available in these stores. Geffen gave Nirvana the option for the album to be sold in these stores or not. In many parts of the country, these were the only stores where you could buy CDs. Kids shopped there with their families. The choice was that Kurt would rather reach kids in the stores rather than not be there at all. So he agreed to change the song title, but it had to be done quickly.
Kurt said, ‘Why don?t you just change it to ?Sexually Assault Me??’ I said, ‘?The problem is that it won’t fit in the artwork as designed. It will be clumsy and take too long to modify.’ So I asked him to come up with a four-letter word that wasn’t a swear word, and we can substitute that. You can imagine some of the four-letter words he came up with to explain his position on it. Then he said, ‘?I?ll tell you what, just call it ‘?Waif Me.”? I thought that was a brilliant substitute, specifically because in his view a waif wasn’t gender-specific. That was the substitute made and how the release went out into the big chain stores.”
On Geffen’s initial reaction after hearing ‘In Utero’ following the success of “Nevermind”:
“There was a rumor within Geffen before the album had been completely turned in — and I heard it more from press than in the halls of Geffen — that there was some banter about the album maybe not being accepted by the A&R guy, or that the radio people said it wouldn’t work. I don’t remember anyone telling me that outright. I remember getting a cassette brought to me by Kurt, simply because he said, ‘I don’t know how long it will take for all of the right people within the company to hear this. So I made this cassette for you so you could hear it early.’ I thought that might be some pre-emptive situation so he could rally the people that would be sympathetic toward what they were going to do. But any record company is certainly thiniking about how to match or increase sales in a situation like what they had with ‘Nevermind.’ ‘In Utero’ was a development from ‘Nevermind’ and showed where they were going had they stayed together. It might be considered a knee-jerk reaction for a record company to say, ‘We hear the songs but we don’t hear the mixes and hits.’ I can’t really speak to all of the specifics about doing different mixes for radio and video.”
On watching Nirvana rehearse ‘In Utero’ live in Seattle and making anything sound like a Black Sabbath:
“The rehearsal was Nirvana playing ‘In Utero’ in sequence live. From what I remember, it was a place that restored old jukeboxes during the day. They did all the songs on the album, but the very last song was not on the album. So I’m thinking, ‘Maybe this is a B-side or something that will come out later.’ After the performance was over, Kurt comes up to me and asks what I thought of the last song. I told him it sounded like a cover of Sabbath?’ He looked at the other guys in the band, laughed and said, ‘Ray, that’s a Raincoats song.’ The reason it came up is because I had asked Kurt to write liner notes for a reissue we were doing of part of the Raincoats catalog. They were one of his favorite bands. So they were doing a very basic, stripped-down version of the Raincoats’ song “The Void.” I thought it was funny that Nirvana could make a Raincoats songs sound like Black Sabbath.”
ROBERT SMITH was the head of marketing at Geffen/DGC during the release of “In Utero.” Today he’s GM of the Verve Music Group.
On Nirvana’s (Lack of) involvement in the marketing and promotion of “In Utero”:
“They were definitely involved. Kurt wouldn’t get on the phone and sit through marketing meetings. They had really good management who were very involved. Between Mark Kates, Ray Farrell and Gary Gersh, they were three very good communicators with the band. But [the band] would never sit down and say, ‘When is the single going out?’ They were involved in the artwork and what the record sounded like and knew what we did with it. It was a partnership that worked, because they certainly trusted the label. They weren’t micromanagers from the beginning.”
On the effortless marketing campaign for ‘In Utero’ following the monumental success of “Nevermind”:
“Coming out on top of ‘Nevermind,’ following with ‘In Utero,’ I don’t recall we didn’t anything really special. We put out a follow-up record by the most significant band of the decade, outside of Guns N Roses, whom [Geffen/DCG] also had. By the time ‘In Utero’ came out, Nirvana was universally known and had access on every level to press, TV, retail and touring. Everything they did, people paid attention to. So it took no extraordinary effort on the marketing side to set up or put out ‘In Utero.’”
JIM MERLIS became an in-house publicist at Geffen about a month before the release of “In Utero.” For the release, he worked alongside longtime publicist Dennis Dennehy, who today works at Interscope Records. Merlis still handles publicity for numerous artists at Big Hassle.
On Kurt Cobain’s reaction to a negative review about “In Utero”:
“I thought the record would offend some people. I was only thinking in terms of press. I was shocked how overwhelmingly positive the press was, to the point where there was just one bad review. I would fax reviews to Kurt’s house. I faxed the one negative review and remember writing, ‘This is just the exception to prove the rule right.’ Then I got a call from their management, saying, ‘You really bummed Kurt out with that.’ I said, ‘Jesus, man, I sent 100 great reviews!’ (laughs). But I remember being really surprised that the reaction was what it was.”
On Geffen’s press strategy for “In Utero”:
“We wrote press letters in those days to introduce the record. I remember writing a very tongue-in-cheek letter that said, ‘This is a little band out of Seattle called Nirvana. Their music is often described as ‘grunge.’ It was a joke about this being a hugely anticipated record. But there wasn’t a lot of promotion. They did ‘Saturday Night Live’ around the release and appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards but didn’t perform there.”
On taking Cobain to a taco restaurant after a show”:
“I went on tour with them for quite a bit. I took Kurt to a taco place next door to a venue after a show, which literally stopped the entire taco place. It was just hilarious. All the people had just been to the show and there’s Kurt walking in. I’ve never seen a place absolutely stop.”