One of the last interviews Kurt Cobain did
I never got to meet Kurt Cobain, but I did have the opportunity to interview him, through a series of trans-Atlantic phone calls and faxes. In the months before his death, Kurt had been designing a guitar with the Fender company (what came to be known as the ĎJag-Stangí guitar Ė a custom built Fender Jaguar, Fender Mustang hybrid). Kurt enjoyed his dealings with the company and had consequently agreed that he would, at some point, grant an interview for Fenderís Frontline magazine. When I first contacted him to do that piece Ė in February 1994 Ė Nirvana was in Europe on what would be their final tour. Kurt was, somewhat understandably, less than eager to submit to interviews at the time, but it was made clear to him that the idea of the piece was not to prod him about any of the sensational rumors that were circulating about the band but to just let him speak frankly about his music. He graciously consented.
After having heard much about Cobainís reputation as a smack-addled cipher, egocentric brat and/or prickly press hater, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that he was a warm, forthcoming, insightful and very funny interviewee. When our communications came to an end, I considered it a privilege to have made his acquaintance and wanted to make sure that the Cobain I had spoken with came through clearly in my piece. Unfortunately, before that piece had ever been written, Kurt had over-dosed on champagne and Rohypnol while the band was in Rome. This was, at first, described as an accident but eventually it was revealed that it had been a calculated suicide attempt.
A month later, Cobain, having escaped from a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles, made his way back to Seattle. On April 5, 1994, he barricaded himself in a room above his garage, put a shotgun to his head, and ended his life. After Cobainís death, the Frontline piece was re-edited, and what ran were excerpts from the following interview, along with a short memorial. Here is the full transcript of what was almost certainly one of Cobainís final interviews.
Interviewer: Nirvana has become a "Big Rock Story," but the music still seems to be the most important part of that story. Your music offers the simple, powerful rock ní roll thrill that so many other bands seem to have a hard time delivering. How proud are you of Nirvanaís work?
Kurt: Itís interesting, because while thereís a certain gratification in having any number of people buy your records and come to see you play, none of that holds a candle to simply hearing a song that Iíve written played by a band. Iím not talking about radio or MTV. I just really like playing these songs with a good drummer and bass player. Next to my wife and daughter, thereís nothing that brings me more pleasure.
Iím extremely proud of what weíve accomplished together. Having said that, however, I donít know how long we can continue as Nirvana without a radical shift in direction. I have lots of ideas and musical ambitions that have nothing to do with this mass conception of "grunge" that has been force-fed to the record-buying public for the past few years. Whether I will be able to do everything I want to do as part of Nirvana remains to be seen. To be fair, I also know that both Krist and Dave have musical ideas that may not work within the context of Nirvana. Weíre all tired of being labeled. You canít imagine how stifling it is.
Interviewer: Youíve made it clear that youíre not particularly comfortable being a "Rock Star," but one of the things that tracks like ĎHeart-Shaped Boxí and ĎPennyroyal Teaí on In Utero make clear is that youíre certainly a gifted song writer. You may have a tough time sometimes, but has the written process continued to be pleasurable and satisfying for you?
Kurt: I think that it becomes less pleasurable when I think of it in terms of being my "job." Writing is the one part that is not a job, itís expression. Photo shoots, interviewsÖ thatís the real job part.
Interviewer: Youíre a very passionate performer. Do you find yourself re-experiencing the tenderness and rage in your songs when you perform them?
Kurt: Thatís tough because the real core of any tenderness or rage is tapped the very second that a song is written. In a sense, Iím only re-creating the purity of that particular emotion every time I play that particular song. While it gets easier to summon those emotions with experience, itís sort of dishonesty in that you can never recapture the emotion of a song completely each time you play it. Real "performing" implies a sort of acting that Iíve always tried to avoid.
Interviewer: It must be a very odd feeling for Nirvana to be performing in sports arenas these days. How do you get along with the crowds your attracting now?
Kurt: Much better than I used to. When we first got successful, I was extremely judgmental of the people in the audience. I held them up to a sort of punk-rock ethos. It upset me that we were attracting and entertaining the very people that a lot of my music was a reaction against. Iíve since become much better for accepting people for who they are. Regardless of who they are before they came to the show, I get a few hours to try and subvert the way they view the world. Itís not that Iím trying to dictate, itís just that I am afforded a certain platform on which I can express my views. At the very least, I always get the last word.
Interviewer: Thereís also a great deal of craft in your songs, but you also seem to enjoy the thrill of simply cranking up an electric guitar. Is playing guitar a pleasure for you, or do you battle with the instrument?
Kurt: The battle is the pleasure. Iím the anti-guitar hero Ė I can barely play the thing myself. Iím the first to admit that Iím no virtuoso. I can't play like Segovia. The flip side of that is that Segovia could probably never have played like me.
Interviewer: With Pat Smear playing guitar in the touring line-up, has your approach to the instrument changed much? Is it easier to enjoy playing live with an extra pair of guitar-hands helping you out?
Kurt: Pat has worked out great from day one. In addition to being one of the my closest friends, Pat has found a niche in our music that compliments what was already there, without forcing any major changes. While I donít see myself ever becoming Mick Jagger, having Pat on stage has freed me to spend more time concentrating on my connection with the audience. Iíve become more of a showman Ė well maybe thatís going a little too far. Letís just say that having Pat to hold down the rhythm allows me to concentrate on the performance as a whole. I think itís improved our live show 100%.
Interviewer: On In Utero, and in concert, you play some of the most powerful "anti-solos" ever hacked out of a guitar. What comes to mind for you when itís time for the guitar to cut loose?
Kurt: Less than you could ever imagine.
Interviewer: Krist and Dave do a great job of helping to bring your songs to life. How do you describe the role of each player, including yourself, in the Nirvana sound?
Kurt: While I can do a lot by switching the channels on my amp, itís Dave who really brings the physicality to the dynamics in our songs. Krist is great at keeping everything going along at some kind of even keel. Iím just the folk singer in the middle.
Interviewer: Aside from interviews, what are the biggest drags for you these days?
Kurt: Being apart from my family for months at a time. Having people feed me fine French meals when all I want is macaroni and cheese. Being seen as unapproachable when I used to be called shy. Did I mention interviews?
Interviewer: Nevermind changed your life in a big way, but having Courtney and Frances around must help you to keep things in perspective. How much do you enjoy being a family man?
Kurt: Itís more important than anything else in the whole world. Playing music is what I do Ė my family is what I am. When everyoneís forgotten about Nirvana and Iím on some revival tour opening for the Temptations and the Four Tops, Frances Bean will still be my daughter and Courtney will still be my wife. That means more than anything else to me.
Thanks to Eric Hogan for this interview.