Roy Trakin
Kurt Cobain
Publisher Title Transcript In Utero: Cobain Speaks Yes

Nirvana's album Nevermind was out about two weeks on Oct. 9, 1991, when I conducted the following phone interview with Kurt Cobain. As we spoke, word came through that the video for the group's single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," had just been added to what MTV then called its "Buzz Bin." Cobain was on the road with the band in Columbus, OH, though he admitted he had no idea where he was. The record was just starting to take off, and Cobain was still new at the media game, disarming, yet still a little wary of the increased attention beginning to come his way. We talked on a wide variety of subjects, including his own seeming death wish and fascination with birth, as indicated by the underwater baby on the cover of the album. At one point, I suggest that Kurt "turns the gun on himself" in many of the songs. Listening back to the conversation is pretty eerie, given that within less than three years, Cobain would be dead. It's been 10 years since Kurt allegedly shot himself in the room above the garage of his suburban Seattle mansion, but his personality and music remain riveting to a new generation.

Did you have a gig last night?

No, we didn't.

Where are you?

In Ohio. Cincinnati. No, I'm not in Cincinnati. You know what? I really don't care where I'm at. I can never remember. I don't pay attention. I don't read the itinerary. I make a point of not saying, "Hello, Bangkok."

Are the shows at all like the gymnasium scene in "Smells Like Teen Spirit"?

You meet plenty of unique people on the road. There are a lot of exciting things going on and every day is a different experience. Columbus. We're in Columbus, Ohio. 

Have you guys done a lot of touring across the country?

We've been on three major U.S. tours and three European tours.

So you're pretty used to life on the road?

Oh definitely.

Can you feel this record starting to happen now or are you pretty insulated?

I try to keep myself as insulated as possible, but the other night, I was talking to a friend on the phone and gazing on MTV and saw a Metallica video and, after that, ours came on. So that made me realize that maybe we're a bit more popular than I realized.

The video just got put in "Buzz Bin."

Oh, no. 

It's pretty hilarious. Seems like there's some real mixed feelings between you and your audience.

There's no mixed feelings between us and the audience. We love and respect our audience; there's a real bonding between us and our audience.

You seem to have an irony about being worshiped or put on a pedestal by your fans.

It's definitely a danger. I'm realizing it more and more as the days go by. I never expected to have to sign autographs as much as I've done lately. I don't understand it at all. I never wanted any autographs by any idol or rock & roll figure. I never even wanted an autograph by Evel Knievel, who was a personal hero of mine. I wanted to be a stuntman the first seven years of my life. I'd put pillows on the ground and jump off my roof. I was a little baby Iggy Pop.

How did you get the idea for the cover of Nevermind?

Dave [Grohl] and I were sitting around watching a documentary on babies being born under water. I'd like to meet that kid like 20 years later, to see if we scarred him for life.

You did manage to keep the penis on there.

We're proud of the penis.

They made Tin Machine take the penises off the statues on the cover of their record.

I hope it's OK to show a baby's genitals. We were prepared to put a sticker on the baby's penis if it was a problem that said, "If you are offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile." Everyone should be naked, all the time.

"Teen Spirit" seems to be a song about the apathy of your generation, and a condemnation of sexism and racism. How do you feel about your peers? Are you trying to revive the ideals of the '60s or find an equivalent for them in '90s?

I have no intentions to bring back any old ideas or to rehash anything really… That was an interview I did at 10 in the morning, hungover. That bio is a curse.

What kind of statement were you making with the song?

When I wrote the song, I had no idea what I was writing about. The majority of the lyrics are just pieces of poetry I had written that I threw together.

It's very stream of consciousness.

I'm sure there are a lot of people my age that are doing great things. It's more of a personal idea, mainly just me dealing with my own apathy rather than attacking my generation and accusing them of being apathetic.

You point the gun at yourself throughout the record. You're pretty self-deprecating.

Yeah, I don't know. I just think everyone should be hard on themselves instead of claiming to have all the right answers. And to be totally conclusive on their ideals and how they think. I mean, no one has the answers, so everyone should question themselves before they question anyone else.

So, you're not putting yourself in the position of being spokesperson or role model?

Absolutely not. I'm just as confused as anyone else, if not more. 

The band has really developed since Bleach. What went on between the first and second records? You added Dave Grohl on drums, for one.

Dave is a fantastic drummer. There's no denying that and he can sing back-up vocals, which has really helped us out in our live sound, and on record, too. He's a very fluent drummer; it's just way better.

Any other reasons for the band's tremendous artistic growth? 

There were songs on Nevermind written at the time of Bleach that just didn't make it on the album. So there really isn't as much of an obvious change or growth as everyone thinks. We've always been fans of pop music, always loved it. It just so happened that those are the songs we chose to put on the Bleach album. It would've been more diverse, but we just didn't feel it was appropriate. 

Do you mind being included in the Seattle Sub Pop grunge scene?

I've always been proud to be associated with the Seattle scene. There are a lot of great bands and really great people. There's a time for change, always. You can't keep doing the same thing because you become too repetitive and your music becomes generic. Don't mind [being lumped in with the Seattle bands] as long as we don't get lumped in with the new commercial alternative bands that are coming out, like Jesus Jones and stuff like that. I would much rather be associated with Sub Pop. 

You've shown it's possible to make a successful transition from an indie to a major label.

Yeah, it's very possible if you have the right contract, A&R person and manager. Anyone can do it their way, just like Frank Sinatra.

Several of the songs are about procreation and having babies. Does the birth process hold a particular fascination for you? You're not married, right?

No, I'm not married. I never thought about it like that. I really haven't. I guess everything we do is subconscious. Everything I do is subconscious; I have no idea what reality is. I 'm not even aware of it. I try to avoid it as much as I can. I don't pay attention to anything that goes on. Besides my dreams…

Are dreams a source of inspiration for you?

I suspect they are, but I can't remember most of my dreams.

Do you regret missing out on the '60s, when rock had a real ability to move people?

I don't feel like I missed out on the '60s. I went through the hardcore '80s underground movement and I think that was was more of a vital time than the '60s were.

Your idealism is tempered with hard realities. You don't pull the wool over our eyes. 

Well you're seeing it better than I could.

"Polly" is a song about rape.

It's an anti-rape song. There's really not much more I can say about it. What can I say? It's a story about a rapist who captures a sadomasochist and this woman Polly is having sex as a way to develop a relationship. He rapes her at first, they have a relationship and they fall in love, and then she eventually kills him and runs away.

Not too pleasant.

I just thought that a standard song about rape would be boring and trite.

You come from Aberdeen, Washington?

Uh, huh. About 70 miles outside of Seattle, a small logging community.

Like Twin Peaks?

Oh yeah, definitely. It is Twin Peaks.

There is definitely a David Lynch strain in the music, which touches on the darker side of the soul, thoughts you might not want to articulate. Is this a form of therapy for you?

Oh yeah, definitely. Just playing music or listening to music in general can help relieve a lot of frustrations. 

Do you have any out-of-body experiences?

Constantly. Every time we play. I'm either so drunk or nervous or bored that I have no choice but to relieve myself by building up all my endorphins and pretending like I'm on a big drug. A lot of times I don't even really want to be there.

What is your drug of choice?

Music, relationships…

"Lithium" seems to compare religion to a drug.

Oh sure, religion is a fine sedative for the masses. It's not necessarily about religion; it's about depression and turning to religion as a last resort.

It's all just a way to keep your mind off dying, right? Or buffer yourself against reality.

Most people don't deal with reality; it's just so worthless. People think of life as being so sacred, like it's their only chance and they have to do something with their life and make an impact on everyone because the threat of dying is just so vital. As far as I'm concerned it's just a little pitstop for the afterlife. It's just a little test to see how you can handle reality. 

Were you raised in a religious household?

No I wasn't. I've always avoided religion. I don't see any use for it. I wasn't born anything. I was born white trash. Working-class, blue collar family.

Were you always in your own world as a child?

Yeah, I was borderline autistic. I was a hyperactive child. I got in trouble in school, constantly being kicked out. I was supposed to go to art school. I had won a couple of scholarships, but it was just too much for me to handle. I knew I didn't want to do art. I wanted to do music, so I ran away from home. I quit high school the last month, ran away. And became a punk-rocker for a few months, living on the streets.

You changed the spelling of your name from the first album, where you called yourself Kurdt Kobain.

They asked me at Geffen how I wanted to spell my name and I said I don't really care. My birth certificate says, Kurt Cobain. The reason I changed my name in the first place was to avoid bill collectors. I expect collectors to come up onstage one day and hand me my bills. 

You've said you're a fan of Rod McKuen.

He's the most vile poet on earth; that was a joke.

What were your earliest musical influences?

I absolutely loved music when I was a kid; The Beatles and the Monkees were my favorite. I listened to music 24 hours a day.

How about Iggy and the Stooges? Velvets? Lou Reed?

Oh yeah, definitely. Some of my favorite music.

Did you have an affinity for punk?

I sensed that before I had an opportunity to even hear any punk rock. I had a subscription to Creem magazine. I thought at age 12 that that's exactly what I wanted to do and it took years after that to finally have an opportunity to hear that stuff 'cause I lived in a really small town. When I was old enough to drive up to Seattle with my friends, I finally got to have a taste of what punk rock was. At that time, I had been playing guitar for a few years and what I had been playing in my bedroom was really similar to punk rock. 

Do you write poetry?

Have for years. I write typical poems. I just write. I don't try to make sense out of it. I don't keep a journal.

How do you tap into your subconscious?

If I knew, I would write a book about it.

It seems like you're in the tradition of the romantic poets who died young and gave their life to ecstatic experiences. Do you relate to artists like Jim Morrison or Joy Division's Ian Curtis? Do you want to live to a ripe old age and be able to play the blues while you're sitting on a chair one day?

(Laughs) That's really selfish to live to 90 years old unless you have something to offer like maybe William Burroughs. I definitely don't want to be that old. I feel more bonded with the Jim Morrison type of living on the edge, rock & roll poet, in a conservative way.

Do you feel like you belong to a community now?

It's still really foreign to me. I've hardly ever learned how to communicate with people or to really socialize in any way. Most of my childhood and all the way up until after I was out of high school, I had no idea how to relate to people or even talk to them, so I'm still learning. I'm at the stage of like a 12-year-old now.

Doesn't being a rock star play tricks with your head?

Absolutely. I don't know what to think of it. Going from no attention to a whole bunch of attention immediately is pretty overwhelming.

Did you have a happy childhood? Were you encouraged artistically?

Yeah, I was. I definitely was. Up until the time where it would be better for me to look for a job. My mother encouraged me a lot to be artistic; it was written in a contract at an early age that I would be an artist. But I didn't really ever want to do that. I wanted to do music, and so when I denied that it was hard for my family to accept because they're not necessarily fans of music. It was really unrealistic for their son to become a musician.

How political are you? Nevermind seems very anti-capitalist, very critical of the American obsession with materialism.

I don't think I'm any more political than the average person. The average 24-year-old white boy who's into punk rock. Everything that I complain about is nothing new; it's definitely not in any way revolutionary. It's totally exhausted to claim to be part of a political agenda. I barely have time to read anymore, it's impossible to read on the bus 'cause we're bouncing all the time. It's hard to follow. Can't write either.

How different is the mainstream record business from being on Sub Pop?

We've had more control being on Geffen than we did on Sub Pop. Everything is very precise and laid out. I'm totally confident with what they do. They meet demands. They get things done when they're supposed to. They have more than enough money to invest in whatever we want to do. We designed our album cover. We chose the songs and how they would be recorded. If I didn't want to do this interview, I could just call up my manager and say I don't want to do it.

Any long-range goals? Do you have a desire to reach the masses?

I just wanted to be in a rock band. We've already gone past every goal we've ever had. I just hope that we have the sense to realize that if we start writing bad songs, then we should quit. 

What was it like recording with Butch Vig?

The album took three weeks. We recorded it in two weeks, mixed it in one week. We've worked with him before. We attempted to record an album with him a year and a half ago in Madison, WI, and we were so pleased with the results. Butch knows how to put a lot of low end in the recording without making it too distorted. He's really good at that. He's the king of low end.

© Roy Trakin, 2004