Twenty five years ago, on Aug. 16, 1991, my publisher/editor Drew Masters offered me a last-minute phone interview with a band called Nirvana from Seattle. Its album, Nevermind, would be coming out a month later on Sept. 24. Glam-metal acts, such as Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant and Cinderella, ruled the rock airwaves, but this kind of rock was the complete antithesis, raw, visceral and intense. I liked it.
There was no term for it then. “Grunge” had not entered the musical lexicon. I was just starting my music journalism career and wasn’t the best interviewer (as you’ll see). But what made this conversation with frontman Kurt Cobain especially tough was the phone connection was so bad, I strained to hear what he was saying. Even now listening back, there are some words and sentences that are completely inaudible.
I also reference the bio that Nirvana’s new record label, Geffen, had sent with Nevermind, but don’t have that now. By the sounds of it, it was quite funny and must have referred to them being art students. The band consisted of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, the newest member. My interview was scheduled with Novoselic, or so I thought…
The following is a transcription of that interview recorded on cassette on my answering machine.
Operator: Good afternoon, thanks for calling the Beverly Garland Hotel. How may I direct your call?
Can I have room 158 please.
158, one moment please — I’m sorry. They’re at the desk. One moment please.
Thanks for calling the Beverly Garland. This is the front desk. How may I direct your call?
I wanted room 158.
Okay one moment please.
[long wait, rings]
Unknown person: “Hello.”
Can I speak to Krist, please?
“Krist isn’t here right now.”
It’s Karen Bliss from M.E.A.T. magazine in Toronto. I was supposed to do an interview with him.
“Oh, right now?”
“Oh, do you want to talk to somebody else in the band?”
“[To person in room] ‘Kurt, do you want to do an interview? [To me] Talk to Kurt, okay?”
He’s the drummer, right?
“No, he’s the singer.”
Oh, he’s the singer. Okay. Thanks.
Kurt Cobain: “Hello.”
Hi, It’s Karen Bliss calling from M.E.A.T. in Toronto. Hi.
Are you prepared to do an interview now?
Kurt Cobain: “No, I’m never prepared.”
[Laughs] Well, I’m not either so that’s cool. Are you based in L.A. now or are you just down there doing promotion?
“Yep, that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re just doing promotion. And we played a show. Well the main reason we came down here is to… [inaudible – sounds like he said ‘to see Shonen Knife’].”
You know what, I’m having trouble hearing you. Can you hear me okay?
“Yeah, I can hear you.”
‘Cause I can barely hear you — shit.
“No, we’re still in Seattle.”
Everything’s getting a bit more corporate now, are you finding?
“A bit more busy. We’re constantly doing interviews. I mean, we don’t even have any time for ourselves anymore. We just do interviews all day for some really ridiculous things too, a lot of heavy metal magazines, hard rock magazines that feature Guns N’ Roses and stuff like that. So it’s kind of, um, I don’t know it’s different for us.”
You don’t feel you fit in there?
“Well, maybe we fit in musically, but I can’t, personally, I don’t personally like most of the bands that are in those magazines. So it’s just kind of alien to me. It just makes me wonder why. But I’m not complaining. It’s something to do. It’s kind of fun, actually.”
When my editor gave me this assignment, he said something like, “Yeah, I think Geffen Records is trying to make them into their Faith No More and they’re probably going to break in eight months.’ Or is it going to be a really slow build before people really get hot to what you guys are doing?
“Yeah, well, I don’t know. I don’t really know what their plans are. I know everyone else are real excited about it, a lot of enthusiasm.”
How did they lure you away from Sub Pop? Money?
“Yeah, they bought them out.”
Was there a marketing plan or something they wanted to do with you guys or did they just say they can take you further or you guys can tour the world?
“Well, um, just going with a major label is proof enough that we’ll have our records in stores everywhere. Every [album] will be available [inaudible]. Just that in itself is different.”
Was that a problem before, when you put out Bleach  — that it wasn’t being distributed properly?
“Yeah, There were a lot of places that you couldn’t get the records.”
Now, you might even be in the truck stops as you travel across North America.
“Right right exactly…[rest inaudible]”
Have you been to Canada yet?
“Yes, we’ve been before.”
You and Krist initially started the band and you had a lot of problems getting a drummer that maybe would fit in with your sense of humor or what you wanted to do?
“We had a couple of drummers in the first year of the band being together who we felt were never really going to fit in, but they were the only drummer that we could have at the time. It’s real hard to find drummers.”
What did they need to fit in with?
“Mainly liking the same music, having the same taste and [inaudible] so serious about it. The drummer problem isn’t as much of a problem everyone makes it out to be. It wasn’t like we got all these great drummers and we just couldn’t deal them other ones, like personality conflicts. It was mainly just musical differences and stuff like that.”
In this bio, there’s a focus on punk a lot. Were you part of that scene or too young?
“I was about 12. But I did follow it through Creem magazine, wishing I could be there. I was getting into punk in the early ’80s through hardcore.”
What was it about that era you think that’s missing now?
“There just doesn’t seem to be as much excitement in the underground as there was at the time. But that could have a lot to do with just my being 14, 15 or 16 when I started to get into it. I happened to have a different perspective then and being exposed to music that’s completely different than I was used to before was still exciting. It was revolutionary to me at the time. When I was 16, punk meant a lot more to me and as I’m getting older, it just doesn’t seem there’s as much enthusiasm and spirit in the underground scene.”
Do you think now there’s a real fine line between the underground scene, and say the commercial scene because radio is opening up. Even with major labels and independent labels, there really isn’t that much difference between what the labels are picking up these days.
“No there isn’t.”
You have a pretty intense sound for a three piece. Was there ever a consideration of adding of like maybe you not playing guitar and adding a guitarist?
“Well, we tried that, right after we recorded our Bleach album [Dec. 1988 to Jan. 1999]. We got another guitar player for a bit, but it just didn’t work out. It really didn’t make much more of a difference. So we kicked him out and replaced him with [deadpans] the tabernacle choir [inaudible].”
Do you think bands are misguided in that they keep adding guitarists and keyboard players and that kind of thing? They don’t think you can get that kind of fury from a three-piece?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. All bands are different. Some bands need [that]. The simple stuff that we’re doing doesn’t need another guitarist, but that may change.”
What are you like onstage? Does it get in the way, maybe, that you’re playing guitar and singing?
“It’s definitely hard. It’s really hard to concentrate on full gear, and singing, making sure I hit the right notes with my guitar and I have to turn my distortion pedal up and all the different effects boxes and still make it look like I’m having fun and not just concentrating. It’s definitely hard, but [inaudible] every time we’ve gotten another guitar player who didn’t really relieve me of that.”
King of Kings is on Geffen too and they put out a great record. They’re also a three-piece and the bassist is the singer. I went to see them in New York and they were, I don’t know, really boring. He wasn’t moving from in front of the mic stand. Did you build up a following through your live show?
“Yeah and our record too.”
How well did it [Bleach] do?
“I don’t really know how many copies it sold. Probably over 100,000.”
That’s great. You don’t concern yourself much with the figures?
“No. I don’t care.”
Are you still working? Do you have day jobs?
“No, we haven’t worked for a couple of years.”
So what were you doing after you recorded Bleach? You just toured behind that?
Isn’t that costly or Sub Pop was fronting the money?
“We made enough money to tour… [rest inaudible]”
Are you sure you can hear me okay? I’m totally straining. I can barely hear a thing you’re saying. It’s really hard. Shit.
“I can hear you just fine, but I’ll speak up though.”
Did you just wake up or something?
“No, I just got back from another interview.”
What are your plans now? Just going to hit the road?
“Yeah, we’re going over to Europe. We’re going to play the Reading Festival and a week’s worth of dates in Germany with Sonic Youth. “
It was Sonic Youth that pushed you in the direction of Geffen?
“Um, the fact of them being on the label had a lot to do with our decision.”
Were you actually sending out demos after you put out your debut or people started approaching you?
“No, we didn’t send out any demos… [rest inaudible] taking us out to dinner.”
Buying you lots of drinks. So tell me who’s Butch Vig? Who has he worked with before?
“He’s produced and recorded a lot of the Amphetamine Reptile bands, an independent label. [Kurt asks someone in the room]: Where’s Amphetamine Reptile? Chicago or Minneapolis? Minneapolis, yeah. He’s done bands like Killdozer, Laughing Hyenas, lots of good bands.”
And you were very much involved in the production of this record?
Have you had a lot of experience in the studio?
“Not a lot but we’ve always had a good idea of what we want to sound like. When the drums don’t sound good, we have the engineer put more low end in it…[rest inaudible].”
Is Dave [Grohl] very much a part of the decision-making process now?
“Dave? Oh, definitely.”
Because I would think it’s hard to come into a band where there are two guys who have been together for a really long time.
“You’d think so, but we get along so well. We think exactly the same. There’s just no problems at all. Everyone has… [rest inaudible].”
What about lyrically? It’s it just your lyrics?
“Yeah, I do all the lyrics.”
Is it important to them to know what you are singing about?
“Um. I’m sure it is. We usually don’t discuss the lyrics. I usually just come up with them and that’s the way they are. I’ve asked them their opinion on things. But mainly I just do it myself. They don’t really care. It’s not like they feel the need to add their lyrics to [it]. I don’t even think they write lyrics.”
So you had a lot of time to write these lyrics from the time you had off.
“Not really. At least 50 percent of the album are old songs. They had been there [inaudible] for two years. In fact, two of the songs were written three years ago, before the Bleach album.”
Which two are they?
“’Polly’ [very long pause]. Um. [very long pause]. ‘Polly’ and…[inaudible]. Oh, lyrics, that’s what you were asking about.”
Are you writing from first person? Obviously not ‘Lithium,’ when I read what that’s about.
“These are ideas I’ve had, different scenarios, different things, stuff from television, books, characters. [To someone in the room – ‘What? Oh, no thanks.’]. Um, a lot of the lyrics were written just minutes before we recorded the vocals in the studio. I don’t like to take my things. I like to get them done, be spontaneous. It usually lends to a better creative force.”
I’m surprised because a song like ‘Territorial Pissings’ or “Birth” or what’s the very first track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
“’Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ yeah.”
Those ones were impromptu?
“Territorial Pissings’ was written within an hour or so. I had some ideas and I have a lot of notebooks that I can just use as references, and I can take lines out of it, that was written before. I write a lot of poetry and stuff like that. So I use that stuff. I did take my time on ‘Teen Spirit.’ It took me about two days, but I did write them during the week that we were recording the album.”
So you think a lot of teenagers are really apathetic towards issues?
“Yeah, pretty much.”
But what about in rap music? There’s some young people who are confronting things.
“Definitely. I’m all for it. I think rap music is the only vital form of music that has been introduced to music in a long time since punk rock.”
And yet you wouldn’t attempt it?
“[inaudible] Well, no, I would never do rap music. No. There’s just no sense in it. The people who do rap music do it just fine. I usually don’t like — never mind.”
“[inaudible] I’m usually offended by people like Vanilla Ice and stuff like that.”
The people who really didn’t come from the streets.
“Right. The white man ripped off the black man long enough. They should leave rap music to the African-Americans because they do it so well and it is so vital to them.”
And yet rockers didn’t leave the blues to them.
What kind of music do you like that’s happening right now, some of the young bands you think are doing things that are vital and unique?
“I think the Breeders. I like the Pixies. I don’t like their last album though. I have faith that they’ll put out [audible]. I like R.E.M. I like the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins, [inaudible] Shonen Knife, Bikini Kill. There are a few other bands I like. I’m kind of picky.”
Do you like any of the contemporary hard rock bands?
“No. I can’t think of any.”
Do you think songwriters are becoming too lazy these days?
“Yeah. All formula. In fact most of the songwriters, most of the heavy metal bands, don’t even bother with the songwriting. It’s all spit out of a computer [rest inaudible].”
So you’re going to Europe first then you’re coming here. What did you think of that quote from Melody Maker, calling you one of the most beautiful bands on the planet?
“[Laughs]. I don’t know. I can’t believe they put that. It’s a pretty heavy statement.”
I’d say. When I read your bio, you guys obviously have a sense of humor and get along together as people. [From bio] You guys were art students?
You weren’t? That’s a whole joke?
“I was supposed to be an art student and I didn’t go.”
What’s a saw blade painter [also must’ve been in bio]?
“Well it’s a pretty popular thing in the Pacific Northwest. Rednecks who live in the wood decide to become artists, so they use whatever they can find in their environment, like saw blades, pieces of wood and burlap, stuff like that and they paint, painted landscapes on pictures of mountains and shit like that. It’s really tacky. It’s about as tacky as Elvis tapestry.”
Laughs. Is that really how you met Krist or no?
How did you meet him?
“There’s really no story about it. We were just growing up in the same town and know each other from parties. I really can’t remember how we know each other.”
Well, good luck with everything. Thanks.