Earnie Bailey interview

This is an interview done in late 2002 by NFC with Earnie Bailey who was Nirvana's main guitar technician from 1991 to 1994.

After Nirvana ended, he spent three years touring with Dave Grohl's band the Foo Fighters and has worked with many other artists in his long career. Today, he is enjoying life with his wife and daughter, working on designing his own line of guitars.

Earnie has previously been providing detailed information to two comprehensive guitar guides on the web (by Brian Haberman and Chris Lawrence); "Early on after Kurt's passing, many manufacturers and retailers began trying to make profits on what [equipment] they claimed the band used. I decided to provide accurate information to all their fans to put an abrupt end to all the deceptive marketing. The tools used by artists provide us with insight to their creative process, and in Kurt's case, reveals more complexity than he often chose to disclose."

In early 2000 I approached Earnie with an interview proposal. After communicating regularly for a couple of years, the interview was finalized and completed in August 2002. Enjoy!

Earnie Bailey with his
70's Travis Bean guitar.

The Internet Nirvana Fan Club [NFC]: Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? (including your work in the music business, and current activities).

Earnie Bailey [EB]: I began working on guitars and amplifiers in the summer of 1977. My various guitar repair clients over the past 25 years have included: Nirvana, Foo Fighters, BTO, Cheap Trick, The Breeders, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Adam Sandler, Mudhoney, TAD, Eddie Vedder, The Jesus Lizard, Supergrass, and quite a few others that you may not have heard of. Currently I'm working on designs for a line of guitars that I should have in production within the next year or two. Apart from that, my turn-ons include gardening, collecting clown shoes, and sunsets.

NFC: You've worked with guitars for more than 25 years. What is it about this instrument that you find so fascinating? Can you describe how your interest in the guitar started and why it has been such a huge part of your life for all these years?

EB: I was a teenager during the 1970's, living out in the wheat fields of Eastern Washington state, about a million miles away from wherever Devo, Bowie, or AC/DC were seemingly having a far better life than I was. After seeing my first concert, Earth Wind & Fire in 1975, I was convinced that the electric guitar was my only hope at ever getting to see the world. That experience, combined with the actual sound of it, and how the guitar had this subculture of players who spoke it's language, managed to set the hook pretty deep for me.

NFC: Which guitars are your personal favorites? (doesn't have to be ones Nirvana used)

EB: I have a few 1970's Travis Bean guitars that I still favor, as well as a couple Telecasters and Gibson Explorers.

NFC: How did you get involved with Nirvana, and for how long did you work with them?

EB: In 1987 I moved to Seattle and took a job managing an espresso bar in the University district. The music scene was relatively small at the time, but there were a handful of really great local bands, my favorites being Mudhoney and the Screaming Trees.

I went to see a band called Catbutt at the COCA club [In Seattle] in August of 1989. Nirvana was on the bill, and my only real memory of them was that they had this bass player who was very tall, and that I laughed my rump off at his occasional ramblings.

About this time I hired this fellow named Rob Kader to work on the espresso bar. From the time his shift began to the time it ended, he would talk about this group Nirvana that he and his high school buddy Jason Everman worshipped. Rob and I started to hang out quite a bit, and I began going to the shows with him. Rob would head straight for the pit, and I would spend more time by the soundboard, while watching Rob repeatedly jump off the stage.

Rob Kader (far left) and Kurt Cobain at a Nirvana show in Portland, 1990

Most of the local punk groups back then were playing on pretty low budget gear that would break down often during shows, and I would sometimes fix a guitar, pedal, or amp between songs. After the shows I would typically offer to fix gear for free if bands felt like running up to my apartment and picking it up the next day. The espresso bar job paid pretty well, but I missed working on gear, so I started fixing gear for free for the bands I liked. Word about that spread pretty fast as most of the groups had little money. I would beef things up using military grade switches and connectors, and the gear held up really well, so that combined with the free labor became very popular with the bands. In return, I began getting into shows for free, and rarely having to buy drinks once inside.

Nirvana began touring very heavily, and their Northwest shows became much less frequent. After Nevermind came out, I ran into Kurt at a Sub Pop showcase show that Dylan was playing at the Vogue, and I remember telling him about some lefty guitars that were floating around town. A few days later I ran into Krist and commented that it looked like they had been demolishing a lot more gear lately. He said that he had stuff all over town waiting to get fixed, and that he was getting the runaround on most of it. I was very surprised that the shops weren't treating Nirvana with very much respect, so I offered to round up all the gear and fix it myself in a single day. I wound up doing that, and was offered a job with them on the following day, and continued to work on their gear up until the last week of Kurt's life. A year after that, much of the Nirvana road crew got back together working with the Foo Fighters, and I spent three years touring heavily with them, before the call of family life has seen me barefoot and in the kitchen ever since.

NFC: What was it like to work with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain? How would you compare it with your experiences from working with other bands?

EB: I remember it being a really massive amount of work. Aside from all the gear that needed fixing, or making roadworthy, my wife and I had also just opened a café on Greenlake in Seattle. Then on top of that, suddenly the phone began ringing like mad with groups wanting gear worked on, so it was pretty exhaustive to say the least.

Krist and Kurt were fun to work with as they had fairly unusual taste in equipment, but knew little about it. I'm like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the offbeat stuff, and can build a guitar out of a bar of soap, so we made for a good match. The three were also unbelievably hilarious people, and Pat Smear's arrival didn't quiet things down a bit.

NFC: How would you characterize Cobain as a guitar player, and the guitars he used?

EB: I guess utilitarian in both respects. I would choose to lump Kurt into a category with artists like George Harrison, in that he was not a flashy guitarist, but one who better understood what notes belonged where.

His guitars were essentially workhorses that fit his needs, and style wise, his instruments suggest the 1960's California surf aesthetic.

NFC: Many people argue that Kurt Cobain's songs are very simple guitar wise, and perhaps not very rich on 'advanced' solos, etc. What is your opinion on that?

EB: Some people think of Eddie Van Halen when they imagine what a guitar should sound like, others think of Woody Guthrie, but few would compare the two in terms of virtuosity.

Kurt didn't perform show stopping feats of dexterity on the fretboard, although he still managed to sell a few records, so I'm guessing he wasn't alone in his opinion of what good music should sound like.

NFC: What were some of the preparations that went into a Nirvana concert, from your point of view?

EB: There were the basics; setting up, getting amp sounds, and restringing everything in sight. Most important was making sure everything was roadworthy well in advance, and building backup systems for the backline, for me was the best insurance that the show wouldn't stop until they were ready to end it. Some of the guitars and effect pedals were pretty low budget affairs, so those would typically need reworking to make them reliable for touring.

NFC: If you had to name some of your favorite Nirvana shows, what would they be and why?

EB: The Motorsports Garage [September 22, 1990], The Hub Ballroom [January 6, 1990], The Crocodile Café [October 4, 1992], São Paulo [January 16, 1993], and the first Roseland show [July 23, 1993]. There were a lot of great shows, my favorites were usually ones that held the most surprises, but others were due to the events within the days surrounding them.

Kurt Cobain in the process of destroying instruments at the 1993 São Paulo show

NFC: Speaking of the 1993 São Paulo show; apparently, they performed a lot of covers and played a lot of songs from Bleach and Incesticide. According to a review of the show, they even did a 10-minute instrumental with Dave playing bass, Krist playing guitar and Kurt playing drums. What happened? What can you tell us about this performance? After all, it's been labeled by many as one of Nirvana's worst shows.

EB: It was easily one of their worst shows -- so bad it was great. Over 90,000 people in a soccer stadium, and it was like playing a basement party gone horribly wrong.

In a formal act of protest, I tossed a cantaloupe out at Kurt while he was attempting to play something that sounded remotely like a song. He then proceeded to pick it up and mash it all over the front of his Fender Jaguar while playing it. It was really nasty, and I'm sure there are bits of that thing still in that guitar.

Krist threw his bass at Kurt and walked off at one point, and it took a while to get him back out to finish the show. Kurt was kind of a mess, and I don't think Krist could handle the idea of trying to roll through another song. When we finally got him to take another shot at it, he marched out and picked up the bass that had been tossed very hard about 30 feet across the stage, and without tuning it or swapping it out for a tuned one, he kicks right off into the next song. You can imagine how that sounded.

It just kept geting worse, and then they chose to take a stab at the secret set which they had roughly worked out. They all swapped instruments; Dave on Bass, Krist on guitar, and Kurt on drums, and now not only were they still bad, but it just didn't work in a massive stadium in Brazil. I could see it being like punk rock bordering on performance art, but in a tiny club like The Vogue in Seattle.

They ended the show by demolishing a lot of gear. That was all great, but we had another show in a few more days, and I had to have a huge amount of gear shipped overnight to get things working for Rio de Janeiro. We wound up paying like $300 apiece for a heap of speakers that would have cost us $75 each had we been in the US or Europe. Everything was loaded into the grand ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in Rio, and rebuilt over the next few days. It was a mess, and reminded me of investigators attempting to piece together an aircrash. I was fully prepared to see the entire lighting truss get pounded into a heap during the Rio show, but not even a single guitar string was broken that night.

NFC: Can you remember any other funny stories from your days with Nirvana that you would like to share?

EB: I think the best ones are better kept in the vault, but here's one that's pretty good:

At the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards Kurt had this well publicized encounter with Axl Rose [of Guns N' Roses]. After Nirvana played "Lithium", Kurt went below the stage, where Axl and Elton John's two pianos were mounted on a hydraulic lift awaiting their duet. Kurt spit up some pretty nasty stuff upon the keys of what he thought was Axl's piano, but when the pianos arose for the duet's intro to "November Rain", Elton was seated at the piano who's keys Kurt had spat upon. I'm not sure which was funnier, Kurt's horror at what he had done, or the sight of Elton John hammering away on that piano.

Slash (Guns N' Roses) and Elton John at the 1992 VMA's

10 years later; Axl Rose at the 2002 VMA's

NFC: As a guitar tech, wasn't it frustrating for you that Kurt would often smash his guitars on stage? I know a lot of the guitars he smashed were expendable but still, it must be tough seeing something you are so passionate about being demolished.

EB: To be honest, being a fix it person, it looked like way too much fun from my perspective. As well, most of the stuff he would tear into, were assembly line things that you have to ask yourself how much they really mattered considering the impact of the performance. Sometimes the destruction set, like the one Argentina, could be really incredible and also get outright bizarre at times.

NFC: I assume you have listened to the unreleased song "You Know You're Right", recorded in late January 1994. What do you think about the song and, if you were present at the recording, what do you remember about it ?

EB: We spent two or three days at Bob Lang's studio including setting up for that recording. The first day of recording, Kurt didn't show. Krist and Dave recorded several songs they had been working out, as well as Dave and I playing on an odd track where he played drums while I played an old theramin device through an echoplex tape echo machine.

The studio itself was an amazing place, as it was built into the ground below a house in a residential neighborhood. Much more than a basement studio, this place went down very deep below the ground, and Bob Lang's stories of how it came to be were equally, if not more bizarre. Kurt was very quiet and reserved during much of the recording. We all took a break and went out for pizza several blocks away, and Kurt's mood changed to upbeat for a while, then it was back down soon after we returned to the studio. "You Know You're Right" was a great recording, and I'll be excited to see it's eventual release. Dave [Grohl] had several songs [recorded] during that session that I'm hoping he will release someday as well.

NFC: Are there any other unreleased Nirvana songs that you have listened to and/or could share information about?

EB: Not really. There were some demos we recorded in South America [In Rio de Janeiro on January 22, 1993] for "In Utero", that had some unique guitar sounds, that I would like to see get released. Other than that I've not listened to very much of Nirvana's music since the day it ended.

NFC: As for the Rio demos; I believe "Gallons" was recorded here, but were any other songs done? What do you remember about the session? [Note: A few hours (literally) after asking Earnie this question, a recording of the Rio demo was surfaced on the Internet. Read the August 16 story in the news section for more info.]

EB: Not much, other than soundman Craig Montgomery, who recorded the sessions, remarking that the guitars sounded really great. Many years later, probably in 1996, Dave had a copy of it that he too was going on about how good the guitar sounds were on it, and asked if I remembered how it was done. Either Dave or myself wound up leaving that cassette in the tape deck of a rental car we dumped at LAX airport, while leaving on a Foo Fighters tour, which is kind of funny, considering whoever got the job of cleaning out that car most likely tossed it into the trash bin, not knowing what it was.

NFC: Do you know how the band (Kurt in particular) felt about bootlegs and fans recording their shows?

EB: I think every artist has in memory several shows they wish they could have forgotten, which have been kept alive by bootleg recordings or video. Nirvana's having creative control over the quality of their product was always a big issue, and one that is completely lost in how bootlegs are packaged and sold. Fortunately, now with the ability to download and preview music, many die hard fans of any group can sample what they are getting before shelling out too much money on poorly recorded performances.

NFC: What is your opinion of the chart-topping music today - such as 'boy bands' and Britney Spears-like pop acts?

EB: I think anyone visiting your site already knows enough about the pop culture pendulum, and to know that the entertainment world holds something for everyone. There are always great new groups to be discovered, and sometimes you have to dig a little harder, but I've always had far more fun finding those groups it seems no one has ever heard of.

NFC: As a person who is still very active in the music business, how much do you value the Internet? Do you personally use it regularly?

EB: eBay is useful for finding things that used to take a lot of phone calls to track down, and I also use it often as a resource for finding more information about whatever I might be building or rebuilding at the moment.

Thanks a bunch to Earnie for doing this interview!