- John Robb
- Kurt Cobain
- Krist Novoselic
Natural descendants of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana are a high energy explosion resulting in a trail of smashed gear and beat anthems. John Robb slugs it out with them in New York.
Crash! the drums are flying everywhere, ker! uuunch! the guitar goes through the roof, the bass is virtually cracked in two. The four piece live whirlwind that is Nirvana is trashing the tiny New York venue to a handful of freaked punters. It's an incredible live performance and typical of the sort of incendiary set that the band is producing as they criss cross The States as the latest hope for the best record label in the world today, Sub Pop.
The success of Mudhoney has seen the Seattle based label get taken seriously as prime time contenders. And the latest hopefuls in the vinyl Midas story are Tad and Nirvana.
The pair are touring the UK next week in a hefty double bill that fattens up to a mighty trio at the occasional dates where they play with Mudhoney.
Nirvana are the natural descendants of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr.
Their debut album, 'Bleach', which scorched the tail end of the summer, collected some salivating press commentary and fixed a few vinyl junkies' habits for the interim. And now they're on tour with a helluva chance of making up some spectacular ground.
For, while Dinosaurs J. Mascis' legendary lazyitis could blot the lank-haired guitar fiend from the landscape and Mudhoney's splendid thrashiness is in danger of cul de sacking their mainstream putsch, Nirvana have the teen beat at their feet. Their overt pop ethic is married to mad dog guitar antics; a rowdy burn-out that's featured on the band's new four-track 12-inch, 'Blew', released in the UK on the Tupelo label.
The records are awesome but its live that the four piece are making their name. They literally explode onstage. Their enthusiastic energy burns, resulting in a trail of smashed gear and highly charged beat anthems.
Offstage, the small town muthas are quiet and affable, Kobain prefers lying hunched up in the corner of the too hot New York East village apartment. He's burned out by the road and the incredible heat of late summer New York City. The band are in town to play a show for the New Music Seminar, the last show on a long tour.
And what a show it is.
Across the river in Hoboken at a tiny venue called Maxwells right next to the coffee factory (hence the name), the four piece band are giving it everything. There are about ten people in the audience as they explode across the stage. Its an awesome racket. Heavy duty guitars. Quiet bits, loud bits, noise and killer chorus. Its The Pixies if they were true small town psychotics. The live destruct and the band's full bodied sound is enhanced by the heroic, hair-throwing antics of the band's fourth member, Jason Everman.
Kurt has a voice that cuts right through the noise and takes the tiny venue. At the end of their set they trash their gear, shove their guitars through the teetering roof and kick over Chad Channing's drumkit.
Its an awesome demolition job. Nirvana are quite possibly the best rock n roll band in the world right now and its a real tragedy that the music scene seems to stale and scared to allow the band to ever get through to the mainstream where their inherent grasp of the classic pop tune could do some real damage at the record stores.
Before the gig Kurdt and bassist Chris Novoselic chat about the band's backwater roots. Roots that their reaction to has scored their music with its explosive energy. Its the sound of frustration and the sound of escape.
Nirvana did their teenage thang in the wilds of smalltown USA in the Washington state backwater town of Aberdeen. Kurdt Kobain, the band's songwriter, vocalist and guitar player, scratches the mouldy bumfluff on his pixie skull and picks up the tale.
"Chris and me are from Aberdeen, which is a really dead logging town on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest town was Olympia, about 50 miles away, which is where we've moved to."
Chris, the bass beanpole, cuts in. "It's a logging town—they want to cut all the trees down that are left in the state, you know. You could say that they are at loggerheads with the environmentalists…"
Touring has provided Nirvana with a welcome escape from the smalltown hell. Kurdt is animated with road fever.
"I'm seeing America for, like, free and only having to work for two hours a day. It's weird though, I'm not homesick yet.
"If we hadn't done this band thing, we would have been doing what everyone else does back home, which is chopping down trees, drinking, having sex and drinking, talking about sex and drinking some more… It seems to rain all the time. It can be a really depressing place to live…"
A lifestyle not totally at odds with the band's slogan, "Fudge Packing, Crack Smoking, Satan Worshipping, Mother Fuckers", which is scrawled across their t-shirts.
This small town suffocation inspired the first bunch of songs Kobain ever came up with and still fires the mood.
"The early songs were really angry," explains Kobain. "But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings."
"When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all."
Kurdt's still not totally comfortable with his new upbeat mood though.
Sometimes I try to make things harder for myself, just to try to make myself a bit more angry. I try out a few subconscious things I suppose, like conflicts with other people. Most of the lyrics on the 'Bleach' album are about life in Aberdeen."
Kurdt had been writing songs in his bedroom for years until finally deciding to lay down some demos with the help of Novoselic, a first generation Yugoslav. The drummer on these sessions was Dale Crover, who's also stixman for the only other band in town, The Melvins, a seminal outfit on the development of Nirvana, Kobain even roadied for the outfit.
The demo was laid down in a studio belonging to Jack Endino, an old chum of the dudes at Sub Pop Records and a guitar player with the crucial Skin Yard outfit.
One phone call later and Sub Pop were marvelling at the "beautiful yet horrifying voice" of the kid that looked like a garage attendant: Kurdt Kobain.
The final connection with the rest of the world must have been a relief.
"We'd been revolving around in bands for years," explains Kurdt. "I'd been writing songs since I was about 13. I'd never heard of Sub Pop before, although I suppose we didn't exist in a total backwater, we had the Melvins in our town and we used to go and listen to them rehearse all the time."
The resulting debut single was a classic 7-inch; the Sounds single of the week seesaw-riff, garage punk cover of the Screaming Blues' late '60s slice of psychodrama, 'Love Buzz'. The future looked promising and was fulfilled by the 'Bleach' album, a 12-inch platter which saw Nirvana taking the opportunity to cover several bases at once.
From the lighter pop dynamics of 'About A Girl', an uptempo poppist grove—and an indication of the band's future development?—through to the heavier post-Killing Joke grind of the intense 'Paper Cuts', the album thrives on gristly hooks onto which Kobain grapples his scarred, world weary howl, a thousand years of life trapped in his young larynx.
Nirvana's live action is a dangerous burn out. At one of the gigs in New York, Novoselic, in a rush of Balkan blood, threw himself into the ground, seconds later the whole band hit auto destruct and emulated The Who's early '60s guitar antics.
Bit of a Townsend vibe going on here, Chris?
"Yeah, it's a nice feeling, it's something that needs to be done at least twice a week. It seems to becoming more common at our gigs. The more people screaming at you the more you are into smashing everything up. It's definitely not a contrived thing. We don't smash the gear up on purpose, we're not trying to impress or anything."
Scrawny bar-chord operatives, Nirvana are the small town kids let loose in the middle-aged music biz grind. Their onstage, guerrilla insurrections and scuzzed pop punk anthems are just about heroic enough to push through the Nirvana-as-Sub-Pop's-trump card prediction made by some old fool a couple months back.
© John Robb, 1989