LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE April 18, 1990 - Cambridge, MA, US
- Bob Gulla
- Kurt Cobain
- Krist Novoselic
- Chad Channing
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In January of 1990, Kurt Cobain was a gentle, self-effacing 22-year-old who happened to write good music. Always clad in ripped jeans and thrift store sweaters, and graced by a stern, stubble-darkened face, Cobain seemed content - at least on the surface.
He had few problems other than finding the money for his next meal and finding the time to write more songs. His band at the time - which also included bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing - had cultivated a reasonably loyal indie-rock audience even then, before the notorious Seattle sound had taken root.
They had completed their debut, Bleach, back in 1990, and they enjoyed considerable college radio airplay with relentlessly cool hard-rock songs like "Love Buzz," "Floyd the Barber" and "Spank Thru."
But the attention didn't mean much to the band. Cobain merely saw it as enabling him to do what he loved to do: write. For indie rockers in the '80s and early '90s, you weren't supposed to be comfortable. You weren't supposed to have nice clothes. You welcomed suffering because you believed in yourself, your sacrifices and your art. Sleeping on floors and driving all night in a stinky van came along with the territory. In doing those things, Cobain knew he was on the right track.
After Bleach was released on the Seattle indie label Sub Pop, Nirvana signed to DGC. Now Cobain's songs would at last have the chance to reach a national audience. It would be the beginning of the end.
In the summer of 1991, Nevermind was released and almost immediately, the record's first single, the stunningly crafted "Smells Like Teen Spirit," made national impact. In September, on the band's subsequent tour, Cobain seemed mercurial and irrational; the pressure of performing to bigger crowds took a savage toll. There were more interviews, more ersatz well-wishers, more hangers-on, higher stakes.
All of a sudden, Cobain had been thrust into the glow of stardom, a blinding light that must have felt, to him, like an interrogation lamp. All his words gained magnification and all his opinions became gospel. In one of the strangest chart occurrences this decade, Nirvana - a hillbilly punk band from rural Washington - hit Billboard's No. 1 album slot and defined '90s rock music. Nirvana went on to become the most significant band of the decade, and the rest is history.
This unpublished interview with Cobain, Channing, from the winter of 1990, in conjunction with a gig in Cambridge, Mass., presents Cobain and the band in an almost naively positive light. Flush with the gratification of having just created the rough tracks for Nevermind, Cobain and company were fresh, fun, chatty, insightful, and - occasionally - prescient.
Interviewer: So, what's your objective as a band?
Cobain: To write really good music, to write the best music we possibly can. That comes before anything else; it comes before philosophy, image or playing live. It's always been the main point. Just songs. As a unit we've come a whole lot closer to getting where we wanna be as collaborators.
What about attitude, is that important?
Novoselic: Attitude? We're a pretty lighthearted bunch. Kurt, you write most of the lyrics …
Cobain: Yeah, but I don't know what they're about. It's more of a lazy thing, you know? We just don't bother cultivating an image. We're definitely opinionated… But we're too illiterate to back up what we have to say. We took too much acid and smoked too much pot to store much information in our brains. So if we were to get into an argument with someone about any topic, we would lose.
Did you guys grow up together?
Krist and I grew up in the same town; I guess you could say we "grew up." We spent our late teens together in Aberdeen, Wash., a really secluded place 100 miles from Seattle. Seattle's considered secluded, but Aberdeen's really isolated.
Whatever happened to Jason Everman, your original guitar player?
Cobain: He had an affair with Krist's father, so we thought it best to kick him out of the band. Yeah, the band got to be a soap opera, so we decided we needed to eradicate the source of all those problems.
I'll believe almost anything … but should I believe that?
Cobain: You don't have to believe it, but you can write it. Krist's father is actually this burly Yugoslavian guy who told Krist at one time that we should trade in our guitars for shovels. He's a fun-loving guy.
With Jason, [on the] last tour we drove back home from New York, like 50 hours, and didn't say a word to each other the whole way. The songs we were writing while he was in the band weren't satisfying. He was holding us back. He likes more heavy, slow grunge. Now he's in Soundgarden, and it couldn't have worked out better. It wasn't his fault; we just didn't realize how his tastes ran.
Do you enjoy touring?
Cobain: I wasn't anticipating going on tour, but I'm having a good time. You have to psyche yourself up. The drives are pretty long, sometimes 12 or 13 hours, like the bookers threw a dart at the map to determine where we'd play. But we sleep in, don't show up to sound-check if we don't want to. This is what we chose to do, and we always considered rock & roll to be kind of lax. Heck, we may as well not burn ourselves out on it. We're just here to have fun, write songs and play. We're not trying to climb our way to the top and be popular. We're totally comfortable with the level we're on now. It'd be nice to get a little higher so we could pay the rent for sure every month. I mean, we just want people to like our music. We don't want a big multi-million dollar promotional deal to bring us into every high school across the country, to make us into multi-million-dollar paper dolls.
If someone came up to you and said, "If you work harder we'll make you rich men," how would you react to that?
Cobain: We'd have to have a say in everything. We would have to pick our own producer and do the record the way we want. Like Butch Vig. He was right on. My idea of an excellent producer is someone who can take an idea from someone's head and find the best way to put it on tape without their interference. The same with promotion as well. You need someone who's gonna put forth the image that you feel comfortable with. We've gotten a few offers from major labels. They'd call Sub Pop, our label, and ask to talk to us about making us an offer, and Sub Pop told them to fuck off. We don't care about it at all.
What happens when all the great indie bands get swallowed up by all the major labels?
Cobain: Chalk one up for capitalism. Let's get our top hats and tails and have a cigar. Alternative music is no longer alternative once it's in the mainstream.
Novoselic: Something weird's gonna come along, some wave, like bands are gonna wear long-flowing robes, play xylophones and chant, and it's gonna be hugely popular, and rock & roll will disappear completely … Some kind of industrial kazoo music. Rock has come full circle, and it needs to redefine itself or die.
Cobain: Every band since the mid-'80s has surfaced in a revival act. It's a sure sign that rock is slowly dying. There's nothing like wallowing in the past when everything in the future looks bleak. It happens in every art form. When they're afraid of what's in front of them they always look back. They'll reach a plateau and they'll think everything's been done, but in reality, they're just not thinking hard enough. They're just stalled. If everybody gives up though, that's when things start to die.
Are you ever afraid that there won't be enough of an audience to listen to alternative music? Your music?
Kurt Cobain: Now that could be circling … I don't know who our fans are. Most are like us, it seems, a mixture of white trash and punks who at least appreciate the arts, who may not be … I hope it's not the typical thrash scene metal-head kid who has no clue what we're trying to get at … We actually had some jocks at a few of our recent shows, and they liked it a lot. That's scary.
Krist Novoselic: Tonight we're gonna be a zany band, a zany funk-rap-metal band. I'm gonna walk onstage with a Hawaiian shirt, one of those baseball caps that can hold two beer cans and straws that go straight into my mouth. It's gonna be zany. We're gonna do "Louie, Louie," "Gloria…"
Cobain: I don't know. I consider rock & roll like mathematics. There's only so much you can do after a while until someone comes up with an entirely new approach. I mean, we're working with a 4/4 time beat, the standard rock tempo, and there are only so many notes on a guitar.
You read all these articles about how bands hate to be branded. Do you feel the same way?
Cobain: I haven't read too many articles that have tried to do that to us. I see that Soundgarden gets compared to Led Zeppelin so much, it's like, why bother? It's too bad. Someone referred to us in an article once as "Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares." I thought that was pretty funny - way off, but still pretty funny.
(The waitress delivers food. The band was given $40 to eat at a mid-price Cambridge restaurant. Channing got a calzone.)
Cobain: What is that? A pizza all folded up?
Chad Channing: It's baked dough with a bunch of stuff in it.
Novoselic: C'mon, Kurt, eat.
Cobain: I'm not even hungry. I'm really not, not before a show. I'll just pack it up.
So what does money mean to you guys?
Cobain: We care about paying our rent. You know how it goes. Almost everything we make goes right back into the band. If we didn't abuse our equipment so much, we could probably save a little. I only pay $170 a month, but I shouldn't be saying this 'cause then even more people will want to move to Seattle. We're not gonna work this summer so we can spend more time at home, write some more songs. The last tour we did in Europe was so bad. We're not going over there again unless we get some guarantees. We worked every night for seven weeks and haven't seen a dime. Plus, we starved; we were only given a budget for one meal a day …
Do you guys do much reading on the road?
Cobain: I get tired of reading real descriptive prose, so I've lately taken to reading everything Charles Bukowski has written. My girlfriend's trying to get me to read Jim Thompson.
Novoselic: My wife and his girlfriend are best friends. They work together in the cafeteria at Boeing. That's good money, man.
What are you guys listening to?
Cobain: Anything that isn't grunge. We listen to Tad, we love all the Sub Pop stuff. Mudhoney's my favorite band. The Fluid, Beat Happening, Young Marble Giants, the Pixies, Leadbelly, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, some bluegrass, Middle Eastern stuff …
Are you getting tired of the population boom in Seattle?
Cobain: You know what I wanna see? I wanna see a full-on depression. Just hardship, man. Despair. You know why? People need to get their feet back on the ground. They're so distracted by material things.
Novoselic: They're like: "I can make my car payment, I can make my TV payment, I can afford a nice place to live. In fact, I just redecorated my living room, and I'm paying that off, so things must be alright. I'm pretty happy, and that's all I care about." But it's junk, just junk. So if we ever got down to a depression it'll help people find out what real problems are, and that they need to look out for each other instead of stabbing each other in the back to get ahead.
I knew you had an attitude … It just took a while to surface.
Cobain: We shouldn't really be spewing off stuff like that. It's kind of nihilistic; people will start to hate us.
What's the best thing about being on the road?
Cobain: Record-buying … Second-hand record stores, to find obscure children's records and old blues records. I really don't go for the CD revolution either. There's something I like about records. I really can't explain it. I know it sounds stupid, but music to me is kind of sacred. You're supposed to take care of it. If you scratch it up, then heck, you'll have to go out and buy another record. You've ruined something, and if you really like the band, you'll have to go buy it again. I still don't own a CD machine, but some people have given me a few free CDs and now I have to at least deal with it. They do sell well. It's kind of hopeless.
Novoselic: You can't do nothing about nothing. [Laughs]
Channing: Nothing can be done, so I don't even think about trying. I don't think about the problems of the world. There's no reversing them, so I don't bother trying.
So what do you turn your thoughts to?
Channing: Fun. That's all I do. I'm just a Joe. Whatever makes anybody happy … It's not my business what anyone else wants to do.
Cobain: That's a better attitude than Krist and I have. We watch the news and get pissed off about it and start spewing on something for days. I usually get intimidated by people who pressure their opinions on me. If I go into a truck stop, I'm gonna get laughed at, or get called "queer," "hippie," or instantly stereotyped. Me, I'm just too sensitive about that kind of stuff to just shake it off. It bothers me too much. Not enough to stay in the house all the time. When I was a kid I thought everything was so great. I was so excited to grow up. But in sixth grade I realized, "Wow, my whole life really sucks. Everyone I know is an asshole."
At least you have your music now. What do the new songs sound like?
Cobain: A few songs sound like the old stuff off of Bleach. Some new songs are so mellow that we're probably gonna lose half our audience. Well, maybe. Hopefully, if they're music lovers they'll like it; if it's good it's good, right? But there are a couple of acoustic songs, like Leonard Cohen - simple, quiet, manic-depressive songs. They're definitely not commercial. Some of the heavy songs are more raw than the last record. It'll be a mixed bag of songs. I'm real happy about it. We've got to get a meeting together with the record company, get them on the ball, get a little bit better promotion.
What will you do after rock & roll?
Cobain: Hopefully have enough money to buy a house in the woods. If not, you'd better lock me up, 'cause you never know what'll happen.
© Bob Gulla, 1999
© Bob Gulla, 1990