Kurt Cobain tries to explain why Nirvana, third-hand guitars and all, is suddenly the hottest band in the country.
By Jeff Gilbert
"Weíre just musically and rhythmically retarded," asserts Kurt Cobain, guitarist, vocalist and chief songwriter for Nirvana. "We play so hard that we canít tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that."
Sounds reasonable enough, considering that Nevermind, the Seattle trioís major label debut, has become one of the hottest out-of-the-box albums in the country. Fueled by the contagious hit single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the spirited album turned gold a mere five weeks after its release, and leaped past both Guns Ní Roses Illusions just one month later. But their sudden, platinum-bound popularity probably has more to do with the bandís infectious, dirty riffs and wry lyrical hooks than with the roughly played, out-of-tune guitars, of which Cobain is so proud.
"We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath," continues the guitarist in his nasty smokerís hack. "And," he expectorates, "we vomit onstage better than anyone."
Nirvana began their career with 1989ís Bleach (Sub Pop), an intensely physical melange of untuned metal, drunk punk and Seventies pop, written from the perspective of a college drop-out. The albumís other notable distinction was that it was recorded in three days for $600. Nevermind, costing considerably more than six bills, is Nirvanaís major-label, power-punk/pop masterpiece awash in slashing, ragged guitar riffs, garbled lyrics and more teen spirit than you can shake a Kiss record at.
Guitar World: MTV thinks Nirvana is a metal band.
Kurt Cobain: Thatís fine; let them be fooled! I donít have anything against Headbangerís Ball, but itís strange to see our faces on MTV.
GW: Kirk Hammett is a huge Nirvana fan.
Cobain: Thatís real flattering. We met him recently and heís a real nice guy. We talked about the Sub Pop scene, heavy metal and guitars.
GW: Speaking of guitars, you seem to favor low-end models
Cobain: I donít favor them - I can afford them. [laughs] Iím left-handed, and itís not very easy to find reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars. But out of all the guitars in the whole world, the Fender Mustang is my favorite. Iíve only owned two of them.
GW: What is it about them that works for you?
Cobain: Theyíre cheap and totally inefficient, they sound like crap and are very small. They also donít stay in tune, and when you want to raise the string action on the fretboard, you have to loosen all the strings and completely remove the bridge. You have to turn these little screws with your fingers and hope that youíve estimated it right. If you screw up, you have to repeat the process over and over until you get right. Whoever invented that guitar was a dork.
GW: It was Leo Fender.
Cobain: I guess Iím calling Leo Fender, the dead guy, a dork. Now Iíll never get an endorsement. [laughs] Weíve been offered a Gibson endorsement, but I canít find a Gibson I like.
GW: Is the Mustang your only guitar.
Cobain: No, I own a í66 Jaguar. Thatís the guitar I polish and baby - I refuse to let anyone touch it when I jump into the crowd. [laughs] Lately, Iíve been using a Strat live, because I donít want to ruin my Mustang yet. I like to Japanese Strats because theyíre a bit cheaper, and the frets are smaller than the American versionís.
GW: The acoustic guitar you play on "Polly" sound flat.
Cobain: Thatís a 20-dollar junk shop Stella - I didnít bother changing the strings. [laughs] It barely stays in tune. In fact I have to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place.
GW: Considering how violently you play the guitar, I have to assume that you use pretty heavy-duty strings.
Cobain: Yeah. And I keep blowing up amplifiers, so I use whatever I can find at junk shops - junk is always best.
GW: What was the last amp you blew up?
Cobain: A Crown power amp that was intended for use as a PA, but which I used for a guitar head because I can never find an amp thatís powerful enough - and because I donít want to have to deal with hauling 10 Marshall heads. Iím lazy - I like to have it all in one package. For a preamp I have a Mesa/Boogie, and I turn all the mid-range up. And I use Radio Shack speakers.
GW: How reliable is this set-up? It doesnít seem like it would be that durable, especially in view of all the touring you do.
Cobain: It works out okay. The sound changes with every club we play in, but Iím never satisfied. I think the sound I get is mainly a result of the Roland EF-1 distortion box I use. I go through about five a tour.
GW: Ever get the urge to use a twang bar.
Cobain: No. Anybody who plays guitar knows that only Jimi Hendrix was able to use the standard tremolo and still keep it in tune. Those things are totally worthless. I do have one on a Japanese Strat, but I donít use it.
GW: Your first album, Bleach, was recorded for $600; how much did Nevermind run you?
Cobain: [laughs] I donít remember, Iíve got Alzheimerís. Please, donít ask us how much our video cost; thatís a hell of an embarrassment. We definitely could have used some film student, who wouldíve done just as good of a job.