- Tim Perlich
- Krist Novoselic
||Nirvana's Sonic Blast Gets Mainstream Marketing
Of the Sub Pop groups that brought Seattle's underground music scene into focus in the last few years, Nirvana seems poised to make the biggest splash into the rock music mainstream.
Soundgarden might be louder, Mudhoney might be grungier, but Nirvana has a knack for crafting songs with outrageously catchy hooks. It's in this harmony between smashing guitar noise and simple melodicism that the hopelessly shaggy threesome find their edge.
What makes the Nirvana sound so appealing, besides the fact that you can't get their tunes out of your head, is that it doesn't seem contrived. Everything they do appears to be unconsciously slopped together, yet somehow every piece fits in place.
And like Michael Stipe, Mick Jagger and the Kingsmen's Lynn Easton, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain knows the value of indecipherable lyrics. You may not be able to understand what he's saying, but it sounds true and that's ultimately what counts.
The current record, Nevermind, improves on their riff-heavy debut album, Bleach, by developing more complete song ideas. Whereas in the past, a cool chord combination and some distortion was enough, now Nirvana industriously builds verses, bridges and choruses complete with unexpected turns and trapdoors.
“We wanted to make a pop record, and it came together that way,” offers bassist Chris Novoselic, reclining in a swank Los Angeles office of Geffen Records. “Our last album was a pop, pop, pop music album, too, but Nevermind is not a total pop record because there are a lot of riff-rocking songs, too.
“I think it all balanced out nicely. If your music is loud all the way through it gets kind of boring, you know, like having a conversation with someone who repeats themselves over and over again. “
A key factor in the remarkable development from Nirvana's first album to Nevermind was that somewhere in the interim they wrangled themselves a healthy supply of working capital from Geffen label subsidiary DGC. After DGC happily wrote off more than $10,000 for the recording of Sonic Youth's Goo album alone, they should have been able to make Nirvana and enticing pitch.
“We didn't go for the big money offers because the more money a record label gives you, the tighter the grip they have on what you're doing. That $750,000 figure that was rumoured was bullshit - we didn't even get a quarter of that. The minute anybody gets signed, all people talk about is money, money, money.
“The main reason we chose DGC was that they have good people. They'll give you a cup of coffee anytime - if you're in the gutter, they'll give you a bottle of wine. We talked to so many people at labels who were phony or didn't know what was going on. They all told us how great they would be for us and how they were going to ‘go all the way’ with us. One guy said ‘I'm not going to jerk you guys off,’ which I thought was kind of strange.”
Even if Nirvana were only dealt $175,000 to play with, it's still quite a step up from the $600 of Sub Pop's money they frittered away in the four days it took them to record their Bleach masterwork in 1989. Thanks to the low budget production savvy of Wisconsin studio wiz Butch Vig (Killdozer), who was hired for the Nevermind album, they probably had enough money to spare to buy Cobain those leather chaps he's been hankering for.
“On this new album, we really took our time,” whines Novoselic almost remorsefully. “We'd stagger into the studio at around 2 p.m. and leave at 8 each night. I guess we blew a lot of money in blocking two-week periods at a time so we wouldn't have to keep tearing down our equipment after each session.
Altogether we spent about a month working about 6 hours a day at this old place called Sound City in Los Angeles. I think Rick Springfield and Fleetwood Mac recorded there. You could almost feel the coke being snorted.”
The recording process was an uncommonly drawn-out process for a group that functions best spontaneously, but Nevermind still captures a lot of the anything-can-happen sense of danger that surrounds and Nirvana live performance.
Once on stage, the usually complacent Cobain takes on a bug-eyed stare. He has batted axes down to splinters more often than many guitarists change their strings. The last time Nirvana was in town, Cobain finished the show at Lee's by falling over a table and hurling a beer bottle at the back wall over drummer Chad Channing's head.
The crowd gamely followed suit with a shower of bottles tossed stage-ward, one conking Novoselic squarely on the bridge of his nose and another oddly sticking neck-deep into the Lee’s plaster wall.
Since that last time Nirvana has seen a number of drummers pass through, including the Melvins' Dale Crover (who incidentally helped Cobain start his first group, Fecal Matter, in 1984) and, temporarily, Mudhoney's Dan Peters. As it turned out, Peters was so enamored of the Nirvana sound that he seriously considered becoming a permanent member.
“The whole thing with Dan was that he wanted to be in our group but we didn't want to break up Mudhoney. Dan's so important to what Mudhoney ae doing that if he joined our group, that would have been the end of Mudhoney. We wouldn't want that to happen, because Mudhoney are one of our favourite groups.
“Around that time we saw Scream playing San Francisco and met their drummer Dave Grohl. Scream's bass player flew the coop in Los Angeles and they were all left there broke and stuff. Dave wanted to get out of that whole situation. He knew we were into doing somersaults and looking for a drummer, so he called us up. Dave knew how to balance on a ball so he fit right in. It was like, ‘Sorry Dan, we've got another drummer.’”
Even with a somewhat unstable line-up, Nirvana appears to have made the jump to the majors fairly smoothly, without any obvious sign of the personality crisis that Sonic Youth suffered and still carry with them. It could be that Nirvana is just less aware of how easily whatever artistic control they have can slip away from them. At this point, Cobain's name change from his former spelling of “Kurdt Kobain” is fairly inconsequential in itself, but it could be indicative of further image revisions ahead.
“We are all in a constant personality crisis,” snaps Novoselic. “People should be concerned about the music and not what posturing the band has done. Everybody is so analytical. We want people to enjoy your music, but they shouldn't get wrapped up in all these moves we're making. We don't even give a fuck about it ourselves - we're just along for the ride.”
© Tim Perlich, 1991