Signin’ on the dotted line and other tales of terror

Backlash - March 1991.

Kurt Cobain interview

By Dawn Anderson.


I bummed a dollar from Kurdt Kobain a couple years ago, and, in return, he made me promise to put his band on the cover of Backlash.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I don’t usually work that way, but Nirvana deserved it, with or without the bribe. They’d been one of my fave bands ever since I heard their incredible first demo (I hear it’s a bootleg now), the one that got them "discovered" by SubPop. But sometimes it takes me a while (a long while, if you must know) to live up to my promises. First of all, Backlash had already done a feature on the band before they were really known as anybody but friends of the Melvins and I wanted to let enough time pass to warrant another story. Then when I was finally ready to put ‘em on the cover, I found out the Rocket was planning to put ‘em on their cover and my revulsion at the idea of duplicating the other ‘zines is so extreme, I’m always pulling cover stories at the last minute in order to avoid it (and that’s the reason for Slam Suzanne, since so many of you asked.)

And now so much has happened since that initial interview over two years ago that I wasn’t even sure the guys would want to talk to me anymore. Nobody was surprised that they "got signed" – by Geffen’s DGC, no less, the same label that recently jumped the Posies. Nirvana is a grunge band even normal people like. To most ears they’re the epitome of the lead-buttom SubPop sound, but their brilliant "Sliver" single and some of the songs on their ’89 Bleach LP reveal their ability to write hooks that’ll jerk your head around. Many of Nirvana’s songs are based on a sturdy melody which they then proceed to pummel into the ground. Kurdt says there will be plenty more songs with a melodic bent on their next album; this is the direction they’ve been headed in for a while.

They won’t "go metal". They hate it ("I like heavy metal as a concept," corrects Kurdt.)

After Bleach came the Blew EP on Tupelo/SubPop, the aforementioned "Sliver"/"Dive" single, a split single with the Fluid (a live cover of Vaselines’ "Molly’s Lips") and contribution to the recent KISS and Velvet Underground tribute albums. Oh yeah, before all that was the first single, "Love Buzz", but you can’t find it for under $40 anymore.

It’s official that Nirvana has fled the SubPop stable and if all goes well on DGC, their records will receive the big money push from now on. In the meantime, they’re as broke as ever. They’re about to embark on a "mini tour" of the Northern U.S. and Canada and are wondering how they’ll get their van fixed first. When their new album comes out later this year, they’ll tour with Jane’s Addiction, presumably under more comfortable circumstances, and the hope to do a lot of headlining dates as well.

Turns out they were more than willing to speak to us and I’m glad my last interview, at least for this magazine, was with one of the Northwest’s best bands. I’ll slip over the part about puking up Twinkies (it wasn’t that interesting) and get right down to the meat of my conversation with vocalist/guitarist Kurdt Kobain, bassist Chris Noveselic and their latest drummer, Dave Grohl.

So how did you hook up with DGC?

K: They called us up and took us out to dinner. I think they maybe got a clue from when we toured with Sonic Youth. We have the same manager as they do.

C: I guess MCA was the first to take an interest and then word got out all over Hollywood.

So there was a lot of competition for you?

C: We averted it. We had so many labels to choose from and some of the choices were like, no way!

K: But we still made them take us out to dinner.

So what it that made you go with DGC?

C: Well, they broke a lot of bands. DGC just seemed hip, you know, whereas if you go to a label like Capitol they’re pretty much dinosaurs. You’ve got these old Southern men working the radio promotion... They have no idea where we’re coming from at all. And DCC seemed like...

K: They have an alternative, young staff. They have some credentials in the underground. Of course, it’s like Russian Roulette anyhow; you never know if you’ve made the right choice. We still don’t know if we made the right choice. We have no idea if they’re gonna promote us or not. We know they’re not gonna make us dress up in monkey suits...

So what’s the next step? Where and with who will you be recording?

K: In March. We’re going back to Madison to do it with Butch [Vig] and somebody else, maybe the guy who does Crazy Horse. But Butch will be the main producer. There will be a few songs that we’ll pick out to be more commercial and we’ll use other producers for those. I don’t think it will really matter what producer we use. Most contemporary production sounds generic anyway.

Someone told me you were gonna use the guy who did the last couple REM records.

K: Yea, Scott Litt. We were talking with him. We’re talking with a few different people.

I also heard you were going to do some stuff at the Music Source.

K: We already did. It didn’t turn out very well. That place is good for making Nordstrom commercials...

C: And Kenny G. We were gonna put out an EP, but that’s not gonna happen. And Craig, our soundman, wanted a shot at doing the record and we thought we’d give him a chance, but it worked out kinda screwy. But it was free, we didn’t pay for it.

How did SubPop react to you leaving them?

C: They cashed in!

K: I think we just passed them up. We were talking to Susan Silver and said, ‘You know, we got this 30 page giant contract from SubPop, what should we do?" And she said, "I think you should get a lawyer. I’m going down to LA tomorrow; maybe you should go down, too." So she flew down and we drove down and she introduced us to people and we got a lawyer. That was our big education. We were really ignorant of a lot of things before we got that lawyer and then we got a manager and the whole shebang, and we just sort of passed them up. So we flew the coop. It’s too bad, really.

So basically you just wanted to be on a bigger label?

K: We wanted to be promoted! We weren’t being promoted very well. I challenge anybody to find a Bleach ad.

C: Six or seven months after the record came out, we said, "Let’s start promoting it, O.K.? And they said, "No, you’ve gotta get something new out." Plus, SubPop was maybe gonna sign with a major…

K: And we had no say about what major they went with.

C: So this way, we picked the label we wanted to be on.

K: Another thing is, we’ve never known how many records we’ve sold on SubPop; we don’t know how many copies of Bleach we sold.

Everyone’s going to be asking you the sell-out question and you’re gonna get really sick of hearing it, but it has to be asked, Will DGC expect you to change your sound to be more commercial?

K: In our contract, we were dealing from a position of strength because there were other labels competing for us, so we get complete, 100 percent creative control. So we can do whatever we want. There’s no pressure.

C: It’s also a case of if something works, why fix it?

And no-one’s telling you you should start trying to look prettier?

K: Oh, no way!

D: The worst thing in the world is trying to make an ugly guy look pretty.

Photog: We just got a photo like that; it was five ugly, ugly guys wearing lipstick and it was bad news!

D: Like the singer for Great White — have you ever seen that guy? He looks like the Church Lady. And they’ve got this video that starts out with him playing piano and he’s got these short fat fingers with rings on everyone, and then it pans up to his face and he’s got this big nose and feathered hair… fuckin’ loser.

(To Dave) So where did they find you?

D: Well, I was in Scream…

K: He was in a band called Dain Bramage before Scream.

D: Then I was in Scream for four years. On the last tour Scream did last summer we were in Hollywood and the tour sucked; we weren’t making very much money and the bass player started getting back together with his girlfriend over the phone and we woke up one morning and he was gone, she had wired him money and he flew home, so we were stuck in Hollywood and couldn’t find another bass player. And then I talked to Buzz from the Melvins and he said, ‘I think Nirvana might call you because they need a drummer. They didn’t call, so I called them. And I’ve been playing with them ever since.

K: We’ve been wanting someone who could sing harmonies for a long time.

C: And he plays some damn fine drums.

K: Chad was more of a jazz drummer and he’d switch to a heavier thing with us, but still, he couldn’t do it natural.

What happened to Danny? Did he leave voluntarily? (Mudhoney’s Danny Peters briefly played drums for Nirvana.)

K: No...

D: We had a fist fight over who was gonna be drummer for Nirvana; he knocked me out and I hit him with a pole...

So that’s why he walks funny!

C: Dave’s style just suited us. Dan plays a small drum set, you know...

K: But Dan played on "Sliver" and helped us write it and I’m really glad he did, because I love that song. He was about to leave on tour with Mudhoney and TAD had just finished in the studio at Reciprocal, so the half-hour after they finished we went in there and used their equipment and recorded the song.

C: It was so spontaneous. The song kind of jelled together in three or four days, then we jumped right in there and recorded it.

What happened to Jason? (Jason Everman was the band’s second guitarist for awhile.)

K: Could you write in the story that he never played on Bleach? His name and picture are on the record.

C: We met him and he was real nice and he lent us the $600 for the record — we still owe him the money. And we wanted to get another guitar player to thicken our sound and stuff.

K: But it seemed like we just got more metal sounding.

C: Then we went on tour and we just couldn’t communicate with him anymore. He was just gone all the time.

K: He’d kind of get pissed off, because that was when we wen through a phase where we were smashing stuff up all the time and he didn’t like that.

I was going to ask if that was true. Did you break guitars on stage?

K: Oh, yeah, that was true.

C: We just had the guys from Coffin Break send us new ones. You know, Rob had a chance to stay at the Hilton, but he stayed in the dumpster behind CBGBs instead because of his punk rock ethics. And he walked around CBGBs with a sign that said "I slept in a dumpster because of my punk rock morals." No, actually, I like Rob.

Are you satisfied with everything you released?

K: Ummm…

D: I still listen to Bleach, even though I had nothing to do with it, I thought it was a great record.

K: Well, I didn’t really want that split single to be put out: I called up Jon at SubPop and asked him not to do it. It was just a throwaway. I like the song, the performance just wasn’t up to par. But part of the buy-out deal was that single. So we said, ‘OK, we’ll let you do the single,’ and they said ‘Good, because we already have the test pressings.’ You know the word "later" [etched in the inner grooves] on the single? They wrote "later." We had nothing to do with it

Will people still be able to see you in Seattle clubs?

C: Sure, we’ll still play the Off-Ramp and the North Shore Surf Club down here [in Olympia] and we still play parties all the time.

Are you ever going to make another $600 album?

K: Probably not.

During almost a decade as a rock writer, I’ve seen my tape recorder do some very strange things. But while transcribing this interview, which is quite possibly my last, it started acting really deranged, speeding up and slowing down, fading in and out, so the guys all sounded like they’d dropped acid and inhaled helium.

Weirdly, this began occurring just as I asked them to comment on the Gulf War. I thought I’d give them the chance since Chris was on a tirade about it during the drive from Tacoma to Kurdt’s house in Olympia—this seemed to have been set off when my photog had to stop and buy film at theTacoma Mall, which was crawling with idiots. "These people are breeding!" he kept saying.

C: You can start out by talking about the war, but you just get sidetracked and start talking about China and Panama, I mean it’s all related and it just shows that everything is all screwed up and ending the war would just be a Bandaid – just the whole world is screwed up, it’s just a big capitalistic money trip, people are just concerned about paying off their cars and going to the malls and people are all suspicious of each other and they’re all breeding like rabbits.

My recorder, by this time, was going beserk. I asked them one more question, something about whether the Seattle grunge scene was dying. "Things change, things evolve" was all I caught.