Berlin Is Just A State Of Mind

The Rocket - December 1989.

Early Nirvana interview

By Nils Bernstein.


"It's kinda gross, really." Chris Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana, is describing The Invasion Of The Brainwashed / Stonewashed East Germans from a hotel in Hamburg. In Europe supporting their debut LP on Sub Pop, Bleach, Nirvana arrived in Berlin with co-headliners Tad in the midst of what appeared to be the beginnings of national unification. "All these little cars."

But has Nirvana witnessed history-in-the-making?

"We didn't even know what was going on until a little before we got to the border and there were all these little cars crammed full of people offering us fruit," Novoselic continues. "I heard one man cried at the sight of bananas," adds singer Kurdt Kobain.

Detractors will say what they will about Sub Pop and, by association, Nirvana, but they've got to be doing something right. On the strength of one acid-warped, oops-there-went-a-pop-song, hard rock masterpiece of an album (plus a little help from the Sub Pop hype machine), they've landed themselves, packing 1000-capacity venues, with an album in the UK Indie Top Ten, and their name mentioned so regularly in the British music press that at this point we're simply supposed to know who they're talking about.

Nirvana came together a few years ago in classic garage-band fashion, when Kobain and Novoselic, living in Aberdeen, made a demo tape with Dale (drummer for the Melvins) at Reciprocal Studios, not realizing it was the place to record. Producer Jack Endino turned a copy of the tape over to Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop, who immediately contacted the band to negotiate a deal for a single.

The resultant single was released in early 1988 and included a devastating (though sitar-less) cover of Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz" as well as a great, anthemic original called "Big Cheese." Despite no headlining shows in Seattle and virtually no local media coverage, the single's limited edition of 1000 sold out as fast as any Sub Pop release up to that point. Today the single is quite collectable, valued at around $30.

Nirvana, now with third (and final) drummer Chad Channing, by this time had solidified into a certifiable "power trio." Throughout 1988 the band increased their growing following with a number of deadly live shows, featuring Channing's manic blur, Novoselic's menacing six-foot-plus presence, and the hearty wails of Kobain, whose passionate vocal style, in the words of one Melody Maker writer, "has been known to reduce grown men and women to tears."

The long-awaited Bleach album was recorded for an unheard-of $600 and released in early 1989. Considered by some critics to be one of only a handful of Sub Pop releases of any lasting value, Bleach (the first 1000 of which were issued on white vinyl and now fetch up to $25) was hailed by most and worshipped by many. As noisy as any Sub Pop record, Bleach also contains a strong sense of melody and careful song construction which have done much to dispel much of the cynicism surrounding the Sub Pop label.

A second guitarist, Jason Everman, was added after the recording of the album but before its release. His appearance on both the sleeve and credits of Bleach led people to believe that he played on the album. In fact, he was added solely for touring purposes and put on the album simply to integrate him more fully into the band. His split over "artistic differences" was a "very mutual decision," says Kobain. "He just wasn't into exactly the right type of music, especially for the direction that we're going now."

As for the band's new direction, Kobain says, "We're writing a lot more pop songs, like "About A Girl" - some people might think of that as "changing" into something, but it's something we've always been aware of and are just now starting to express. The stuff we're listening to now are I guess what are called "cutie bands" in England - Beat Happening, Pixies, Shonen Knife, Young Marble Giants - right now my favorite band is the Vaselines.

"My biggest influence was punk rock for sure," he continues. "I was weaned on hard rock like Led Zeppelin, Skin Diver, Aerosmith, and especially the Beatles when I was younger. I'd been kind of developing this style of intense, hard, "grungy," punk-rock-meets-hard-rock for a couple of years before we started this band, and then it really developed when we got together and stared writing the songs.

A limited edition, 4-song 12-inch EP was recently issued in England on the Tupelo label (which also issued Bleach overseas, substituting "Big Cheese" for "Love Buzz"). Featuring "Blew" and "Love Buzz" from the album, it also includes two new songs recorded with Steve Fisk. "Stain" and "Been A Son" hint at the direction Nirvana is heading with their next record, slated for release next spring.

Coming from Aberdeen and all, Nirvana have too often - especially in the British press - fallen victim to overeager critics romanticizing their "humble origins" and their "triumph" over them. Stuff like, "hailing from the redneck backwoods of Aberdeen, Washington, Nirvana unleash a desperate wail born of a lifetime of small-town frustration," etc., etc. While Kobain concedes that there's a little truth in that somewhere, it's an impression they're working hard to overcome.

"I feel like we've been tagged as illiterate redneck cousin-fucking kids that have no idea what's going on at all. That's completely untrue."