NFC Nirvana Information Exclusive interviews by NFC Pat Smear interview

This interview by NFC with Pat Smear was done in Sep. 2002.

Pat started his career in The Germs, the legendary L.A. punk band founded by him and Darby Crash in '77. After The Germs ended, Pat worked with a number of bands and artists such as Nina Hagen.

He joined Nirvana in 1993 to help Kurt Cobain concentrate more on his vocals at live shows, and take away some of the pressure of his guitar playing. Pat would play more than 50 shows with Nirvana including the legendary "Unplugged" performance, and the very last show in Munich on March 1, 1994. After Nirvana ended he joined Dave Grohl to play guitar for the Foo Fighters from 1995 to 1997.

This interview mostly focuses on Pat's days with Nirvana but also brings up other aspects of his impressive music career.
Pat Smear magazine cover
Pat Smear on the cover
of the magazine BAM

The Internet Nirvana Fan Club [NFC]: Pat, could you please tell us a little about yourself?

Pat Smear: Born and raised in L.A., 5 older sisters, started my first band "The Germs" my senior year of high school in 1977.

Here is a more detailed biography of Pat Smear.

The Germs Born Georg Ruthenberg on August 5th, 1959, he was (as stated above) raised in Western Los Angeles, California. He has a German immigrant father and an African-American mother. His first band The Germs were formed after Pat met Darby Crash in the late 70's, and they would soon become "L.A.'s punk gods". Their first record GI (produced by Joan Jett) was released in 1979 and is defined by many as somewhat of a masterpiece in punk music. "The Germs kicked up a hellacious racket that strayed from fast/loud punk into art damage and garage grunge. On-stage, their gigs bordered on performance art, with Crash in full Iggy frenzy, diving into the crowd, adorning himself with whatever foodstuffs the audience provided, wearing less-and-less clothing, all done while the band cranked out noisy spasms of simple, but effective, rock noise." (quote: All Music Guide). The Germs came to an end following the tragic death of Darby Crash in 1980. He was just 22.

Over the following years, Pat would play with a number of respected artists, such as Nina Hagen, and he made two solo albums of his own; So You Fell In Love With A Musician and Ruthensmear (both out on SST records). He also did some acting, appearing in TV shows such as CHiPs and movies including Blade Runner and Breakin'

Pat Smear As mentioned before he wound up joining Nirvana in the autumn of 1993 to play as a rhythm guitarist.

He toured with Nirvana for about 6 months to promote the In Utero album, starting with Saturday Night Live in September 1993 up until the last show on March 1st, 1994. Later on he joined The Foo Fighters and toured with them for a few years, as well as recording the album The Colour And The Shape. He left the band following a pre-show performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in Sept. '97.

Pat Smear returned to the TV screen, appearing in the video for No Doubt's breakthrough single "Don't Speak". In the 80's he had appeared in the Prince classic "Raspberry Beret". In addition, he had a regular segment on the MTV show House of Style hosted by Cindy Crawford in the mid 90's.

One of the latest projects he's been involved with was producing the debut album by the band Harlow (of VH-1's Bands on the Run show).

NFC: What are some of your favorite guitarists and greatest inspirations?

Brian May Pat Smear: I knew I wanted to play guitar when I was 12 and got Alice Cooper's Love It To Death. Not just because of the playing (especially Michael Bruce's rhythm guitar playing), but also because of that photo on the back of Glen Buxton's white SG custom. Bowie released Ziggy Stardust soon after and had the coolest guitarist ever, Mick Ronson, who's equally great at rhythm and lead.

And then Yes' Fragile came out, featuring Steve Howe, who I think is the best guitarist ever. That opening riff of "Roundabout" was the first thing I learned to play. A couple of years later Queen released their first album that showcased Brian May who instantly became (and still is) my favorite guitarist.

Joan Jett of the Runaways, Steven Huffstetter of the Quick, Brian James of The Damned and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols were the guitarists who inspired me to actually learn to play well enough to start a band. My parents forced piano lessons on me when I was a kid and it was really easy for me to play by ear so I just did the same thing with the guitar, learning the parts from my favorite albums.

NFC: Favorite guitars?

Pat Smear: Hagstrom! I never had my own guitar in The Germs but for some reason I decided to finally buy one for our farewell show. It was a red Hagstrom HIIN that set me back $125.00 and I've played it in every band I've been in. I've been collecting Hags ever since.

My second favorite brand is Gibson, especially the SG Custom and the Barney Kessel Custom. I also love Japanese copies and counterfeits from the 70's & other off brand stuff.

NFC: Speaking of guitars; how did you feel about Kurt smashing instruments to end most Nirvana shows?

Pat Smear: At first I was horrified. But it was showbiz ... certainly not as horrifying as Darby Crash smashing bottles on his head and slicing his chest up at every show. And then I learned about his guitar tech, Earnie Bailey, who was a genius at putting them back together in ways that made them even cooler than they started out.

The guitar smashing thing is pretty contagious though -- I did it myself sometimes. Fender would send us fresh guitars on tour and you'd have like 3 brand new guitars that were all identical. I almost needed to scar them up just to tell them apart. But overall I think guitar smashing is as amazing and shocking as it was when I first saw it done by Marc Bolan at a T-Rex show in '73. Who cares, it's just a piece of wood. Smash away!

Pat Smear is hands down one of the greatest rhythm guitar players to walk upon the stage. The art of rhythm guitar is one that seems to only be discussed in secret by musicians who have mastered flash and are getting on to the lesson of foundation and understanding it's complexity, and Pat is one of those players who just smile and nail it every time.

Should you ever meet him, you might be surprised that he is the kindest person alive and you may want to take notes on what he's wearing, as it's likely to be the style five years from now.

- Earnie Bailey (Nirvana/Foo Fighters guitar tech), October 2002.

NFC: Can you tell us more about your activities in the music world in between the end of The Germs and the joining of Nirvana?

Pat Smear: After Darby died in 1980 I retired from music but was back soon enough. I played in lots of local bands and probably never took my career seriously enough, but I was able to have one without selling out. I've never been signed to a major label, never had a record "advance" (so I've never owed 'The Man' anything) and I had never even been on [a full] tour until I hooked up with Nirvana.

I've been really lucky that I've only played in bands I loved. In order, as best I can remember, I played with: 45 Grave, The Adolescents, Twisted Roots, Nina Hagen Band, Vagina Dentata, Celebrity Skin, Tater Tots, RuthenSmear, The Death Folk and a few others that I'm sure I forgot.

NFC: What are some of the highlights or favorite moments in the time between The Germs and Nirvana?

Pat Smear: The '80's wasn't really my era. Most of the highlights and favorite moments would probably be personal ones, but my favorite band to play in was Vagina Dentata.

Nirvana NFC: What ran through your head when Kurt asked you to join Nirvana? Did you accept immediately?

Pat Smear: At first I thought it was my friend Carlos "Cake" Nunez playing a joke on me, but Courtney had called me a couple of days earlier and told me he [Kurt] was gonna call and ask me - so I was pretty prepared.

Of course I accepted immediately! They were my favorite band at the time (although I'd never seen them live) and "Cake" was already trying to track down Kurt's phone number for me because I'd read an interview where Kurt said that Nirvana was meant to be a four piece. And I knew there was a new album and tour coming up. Anyway, I later heard that Michael "Cali" DeWitt had suggested me and it all worked out just the way I'd hoped.

Note: Pat had become friends with Courtney Love after working with her in the movie Breakin'.

NFC: It's been said that you adjusted very well to Nirvana from day one, and fitted right in. What were the first couple of weeks like in this band?

Pat Smear: It was pretty intimidating. It took a while to get over the feeling that I didn't deserve it. But Kurt & Courtney invited me into their home and treated me like family and we sounded great at rehearsal, so I got comfortable real fast.

NFC: What are some of your personal favorite shows of the In Utero 1993/1994 tours?

Pat Smear: Sorry if this sounds like a cop out, but it was all so totally amazing that I can't separate it like that.

NFC: The elusive track "You Know You're Right" was played in Chicago on October 23, 1993. Do you remember if it was played at any other dates while you were in the band?

Pat Smear: I mostly remember that song as a soundcheck jam. I can't remember when or if we played it at any [other] shows. You'll have to refer to Dave and Krist.

NFC: How come you weren't present for the January 1994 session at Bob Lang's studios?

Pat Smear: We were on tour break (X-mas I think) and I was home in Los Angeles. I got a cassette afterwards and Kurt said that I could put my part on later. But we were back on tour and then things got wacky, well, you know the rest. Who knows, maybe he was just being nice so I wouldn't feel left out.

NFC: Do you know if any other songs were planned for this session apart from "You Know You're Right" ?

Pat Smear: I've got a tape with a few other songs from the same session. I haven't listened to it for years and I don't remember the songs, but I believe they were Krist & Dave songs without Kurt. I hope they use one for the B-side.

Note: Very shortly after this interview was done, a complete recording of the studio You Know You're Right surfaced on the Internet. Alas, this happened before the interview's completion. The song will be released officially as part of a Best-Of compilation that hits the US record stores on November 12, 2002.

NFC: What generally happened after a Nirvana show - from the band's perspective?

Pat Smear: Nothing special or too exciting. No groupies or debauchery ...

Kurt at the MTV Unplugged NFC: Can you describe the preparations for Nirvana's MTV Unplugged show? For example, how did you determine which songs to play? How was it decided to bring in The Meat Puppets?

Pat Smear: We'd rehearsed acoustically a few times before the tour started because we had an acoustic part in the set and we worked on several other songs because we knew Unplugged was coming up.

We tried to learn the Meat Puppets songs ourselves but Curt Kirkwood's playing style is so unique that we could never make them sound quite right. Krist or Kurt suggested that we just have 'em come up and do it themselves. Kurt obviously got a kick out of promoting the bands and musicians he liked (look what he did for me!) and was totally unselfish that way. We also did some rehearsals (with producer Scott Litt) in New York before taping. There were some other songs that didn't make it to the set but I don't remember what they were.

NFC: How did it feel playing the Unplugged show? Was it just another day at work, or did you feel - at the time - that you were part of something truly special?

Pat Smear: Playing with Nirvana was never just another day at work for me. Every day I knew I was part of something special. The other guys were probably already used to it, but for me it was all new and exciting. "I can't believe we get to play again!". I said that almost every night.

NFC: You said in a different interview that the last show in Munich (Germany) on March 1, 1994 was 'totally amazing'. What do you remember about the show?

Pat Smear: Kurt and I were suffering from bronchitis and his voice became noticably more trashed with every song. When we sang together we sounded like cats fighting. His voice was sooooo gone, but instead of trying to conserve he seemed to delight in pushing it to the "I won't be able to sing for days" limit. After a while it was a bit much.

Note: In a recent interview with the Australian fanzine ASYLUM, Pat Smear commented that they did indeed play a complete set on this day. However, it was cut short of a song or two because Kurt lost his voice as noted above. Special thanks to Ben for this tidbit.

NFC: There's been much talk about the sessions at Cobain's residence in March 1994 with you, Kurt and Eric [Erlandson, then of Hole]. What can you tell us about this?

Pat Smear: There was some jamming and some 4-tracks made. Kurt played drums and sang, Eric played bass and I played guitar.

NFC: What kind of songs were recorded other than "Dough, Ray and Me"?

Pat Smear: None that I remember.

NFC: There are plans of releasing a Nirvana Best-Of compilation later this year. How do you feel about this project?

Pat Smear: I'm really excited about the "Best Of" album. All bands should have one.

NFC: Do you know if Kurt (and the rest of the band for that matter) had planned on making another Nirvana record before it all ended? If so, had any songs been targeted for it?

Pat Smear: It was mostly all about touring at that point. Compared to what was left, we'd barely started ... more Europe dates, Japan and the Far East, South America, Lollapalooza etc. The only thing that I knew about the next record was that Kurt was writing for it and he'd mentioned some ideas about it's direction.

He sometimes asked me to help him write while we were touring Europe, but it was really intimidating for me and it was impossible for us to get acoustic guitars for our rooms. I told him how good Dave's tapes were (early Foo Fighters songs) and that he should write with him, but I don't know if he ever had the chance to ask him. How good would that have been?!

Pat Smear announcing his departure from the Foo Fighters at the MTV Video Music Awards 1997 pre-show.

NFC: During the final few months of Kurt's life, how was the general "vibe" in the band? Critics will argue that Kurt "hated" his band mates and that Nirvana had essentially broken up. How would you characterize Kurt's relationship with especially Krist and Dave in his last few months?

Pat Smear: All bands go through the same bullshit. I've seen it over and over and I try not to take it too seriously. I'd assumed we were just on a temporary break and that we'd finish up Europe and move on to Lollapalooza ... even when I heard it was cancelled, I didn't believe it.

NFC: How would you describe Kurt's role in the band? Was he the supreme leader who made all the decisions or did it feel more like a group where everyone had a say in the band's matters?

Pat Smear: It was both. It was a rare and amazing time where everyone involved were at their peak ... the band and the crew, Geffen Records, Gold Mountain Management. It seemed like an undefeatable combination.

NFC: What's your favorite or fondest memory of Kurt?

Pat Smear: He cracked me up.

NFC: How did you feel about joining the Foo Fighters?

Pat Smear: It was the perfect thing at the perfect time.

Foo Fighters

NFC: Do you use The Internet regularly? Have you visited some of the many Nirvana and/or Foo Fighters websites?

Pat Smear: No, I'm brand new at this but I'm learning. The computer isn't as amazing as my expectations but it's really cool.

NFC: What is your opinion of Napster (and it's counterparts) and the whole file-sharing of music on the Net?

Pat Smear: I don't know the details but I think that music should be free like when I was a teen and KMET would play new albums all the way through and I'd tape them. If I really liked it I'd buy it when I could. It's like they're afraid that if we hear the songs first, they can't trick us into buying them. They should make better records and they could stop worrying so much.

NFC: What was it like working with Harlow?

Pat Smear: It was a great experience. I did all the behind the camera stuff ... totally different but just as fun. It's one of the best records I've made, and I didn't even play on it ... maybe that's the secret!

NFC: What was the last record you bought?

Pat Smear: The last record I bought was the new "Yes" box set. The last "new" record I bought was Alien Ant Farm.

NFC: I hear you have a book coming out composed of short stories? Can you tell us more?

Pat Smear: It's called "If These Guitars Could Talk" and will match pictures of my guitars with the people and stories behind them.

Note: Pat has been selling several of his classic guitars through the auction website eBay. One of them was the Fender Stratocaster guitar that he played throughout most of Nirvana's 1993/94 In Utero tour, including the classic "Live and Loud" performance for MTV, aired in 1993.

A huge thanks to Pat Smear for doing this interview and also thanks to Earnie Bailey for his help.

Recent photo of Pat Smear
Photo courtesy of Pat Smear.