LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE ??, 1991 - ??, ??, US

Interviewer(s)
Katherine Turman
Interviewee(s)
Kurt Cobain
Krist Novoselic
Dave Grohl
Publisher Title Transcript
Hits Time For A Cup Of Joe And A Doughnut With Nirvana Yes
Rip Smells Like... NIRVANA Yes

Never has an album been so aptly titled as "Nevermind." Nirvana's first major-label outing on DGC is chock-full of punky, garagey energy, yet the purveyors of these fine sounds — singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl — are totally casually, low-key dudes. Like, hey, but yer record's a hit. "Yeah? Aw, nevermind." And therein lies their appeal — in such thrashy, devil-may-care grooves of tunes like the first single/video, "Teen Spirit," and "On A Plain."

On the other hand, they do care about certain things. Like making good music. Being good, peaceful citizens. (Of course, smashing their own instruments doesn't count.) And they're intelligent, too. So the album title is contradictory, as they are. They rail against the apathy of their generation both musically and lyrically, while remaining blasé to the typical rock star trappings. Hippies? Maybe. Stoners? Possibly. Godhead? Nevermind.

That's right, Seattle's done it again. Actually, Cobain and Novoselic hail from Aberdeen, Washington, population 17,000, and it appears they're destined to be the burg's most prominent citizens. The band formed in '87 and have had several different drummers since as well as another guitar player. They've left the safety of their native Northwest several times to tour Europe, the States and Canada, garnering a giant underground following for their manic stage-diving, mosh of a live show. If the buzz was loud for Nirvana's Sub Pop releases "Bleach" and the live "Blew," for "Nevermind," it's now reached a deafening roar, which will hopefully drown out the lame line of questioning by HITS' own metal mensa Katherine Turman "Ator 3."

What did you do before this band?

Chris Novoselic: I always had these he-man, heavy jobs, like stacking railroad ties. I was a firefighter in the woods and an industrial painter. I'd paint factories, but I got tired of that. I was just bopping around. As a painter, you go where the work is. I was going to be a bridge painter, but I quit, 'cause the band was doing so good. I got disillusioned with the whole 9-to-5 thing.

How'd you first meet Kurt?

Chris: He hung around my brother, and my brother told him I listened to punk-rock. So Kurt came around, and he was a cool guy, and he gave me a tape that he and Dale from the Melvins made of these songs that Kurt wrote. I listened to it and got really excited, like, "Whoa, this is really cool man... Hey, let's start a band." I borrowed a bass and an amp, we found a drummer and in two weeks, we had a bunch of songs.

What were your first shows like?

Chris: We drove up to Olympia from Aberdeen in this Volkswagen Beetle. We took the back seat out and just stuffed everything in there, including Kurt and a gallon of wine. Then we startedplaying in Tacoma, then in Seattle. We've always just done more and more. Things kept getting bigger and better. Maybe that's what keeps us going.

Are you surprised at the rave reviews you're getting?

Chris: Yeah, I am, to tell you the truth. I think the quality's there, though. I hope it doesn't get too blown out of proportion, 'cause we're just a band. We play bad shows every once in awhile and we have our hang-ups. Our record is getting called perfect. That's bad.

What do your folks think of the band?

Chris: Mom saw us when we opened for Soundgarden outside this park. She said, "Oh, it was really nice, it was good. Why did you have to wear those ripped-up jeans, though?" Then she said, "There was this guy wearing ripped pants and you could see his butt because he wasn't wearing any underwear!"

Kurt, what does "Teen Spirit" smell like?

Kurt Cobain: I haven't smelled it. It's more like a military revolutionary fantasy for our generation. It's contradictory and kinda sarcastic at the same time, as well as being serious. I write a lot of contradictions for every line that's serious.

Where'd the idea come from for "Territorial Pissings"?

Kurt: It's just an homage to the female gender. Not sexually, just as people — respecting them, and hoping someday they'll get the recognition and power they deserve. Actually, there's only one line in there that pertains to women. It's the line, "I've never met a wise man, if so, he's a woman."

How many major labels courted you?

Kurt: About ten. We just wanted 100% artistic freedom — the choice to edit anything they do, and we got that.

Nirvana obviously has punk influences. What was the first concert you ever went to?

Kurt: I think it was Sammy Hagar in 79 or '80. But I was aware of punk in like, '78-79, through reading Creem magazine, but I was only like 12 at the time. I was too young to find that kind of music, especially living in Aberdeen, but I always felt that I wanted to get into it, but I didn't until, like, '83. I finally found some people who had some punk rock when I met the Melvins, who made me a few compilation tapes. The first punk-rock song I heard was "Damage I" by Black Flag.

Chris: I was into the Scorpions and Ozzy two years before anyone else was. I actually got into progressive rock for, like, nine months. I listened to ELP and Yes records and stuff — I think that was just to do something different.

You guys seem pretty casual for a group about to become huge.

Kurt: We've already gone past our expectations. The band was just an excuse to get together, drink and play music. We never really expected to leave Aberdeen. That was the only goal we ever really had.

Nirvana has struck a chord. It may be out of tune, but it's universal. It is loud, sweaty and rings to the furthest reaches of the room.

And that room is packed with beer-swilling, pot-smoking teenagers who go to school only for shop class, wear plaid shirts, have black-light Zep posters in their lockers and lean against chain-link fences, smoking cigarettes at nutrition. But also in that room are fat record execs, weasely critics and people from all walks of life, all equally entranced by the heavy, hypnotic, beautiful, garage-punk anarchy that is Nirvana and their album, Nevermind. They all get it.

It's been a while since a major-label debut has aurally stimulated so many diverse ears. And so quickly. For their part, the Seattle-based trio find it kinda funny. Like they do a lot of things.

"It's becoming a bit exaggerated," says soft-spoken lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain of the band's buzz. "I'm looking forward to some backlash, at least in criticism, because there's so much anticipation, so much encouragement by our friends and label, that I'm afraid."

"People have called our record perfect," adds bassist Chris Novoselic. "That's bad."

Nirvana was born in 1987, when Cobain and Novoselic met through Cobain's older brother. They lived in Aberdeen, a Washington city with about 18,000 inhabitants, many of whom wear "logger-type attire—big, flared, high-water pants; suspenders; and Pendletons," according to Novoselic. (It's not a fashion statement; it's a logging community.) Though Nirvana's record-company biography claims they enjoy collaborating on burl clocks and other such woodsy enterprises, the bandmembers, like their music, are a mass of contradictions bound together with a laid-back, careless, yet thoughtful, politically correct vibe. There's a purity here, an innocence, a translation of raw emotion into music seemingly unhampered by record-label stipulations or concerns about airplay and image. Those seeds were sown on two of the band's Sub Pop releases, 1987's Bleach and the live EP, Blew.

Though the music is the beginning and the end for Nirvana, music for music's sake still doesn't preclude serious thought. Sort of. "Kurt and I get down and have these philosophical discussions about society and people's behavior. We're like laymen philosophers. Pothead philosophers," explains Novoselic. "We dissect people's trips. I think it comes pretty natural to us."

And people have strange trips, if Nirvana's songs speak the truth. Nirvana is kind of like a skewed garage version of Twin Peaks—one not cast by Hollywood. "Polly," for example, is written from the point of view of a sadomasochist. "If I say ‘I’ in a song, it doesn't necessarily mean Kurt," clarifies the lyricist. "It's definitely an anti-rape song, but I threw a few twists in. Actually, the story is about a rapist and a girl who is picked up by the rapist. The girl is a sadomasochist, so she played along with him while he was trying to rape her, and eventually escaped because of that."

Kurt's got a literary bent, and jokes that he likes "anything that starts with a B. I think I like Burroughs best, and I'm into Bukowski and Beckett." He's a fan of William Burroughs' dense style, and admires the "cut-up" writing technique he pioneered in the '40s, calling it revolutionary.

Is anything Nirvana does revolutionary?

He's quick with a response. "Absolutely not! That's not a goal."

What is?

"Just to keep writing good songs. Anything else that comes with it is secondary."

Typical of Nirvana's musical approach, Cobain, 24, plowed headlong into rock 'n' roll. He started out as a punk fan, learning about its heyday via the old Creem magazine. "When Nirvana formed, I had been playing for about four years, by myself in my room. I was writing my version of what I thought punk rock was, because I hadn't heard it yet," he recalls. "When I first started, like in seventh grade, I was heavily into Led Zeppelin. It eventually turned into what I thought was my own style, but it turned out to be punk rock."

Though Nirvana's 12-song spew is certainly as punk in attitude as a major-label release has gotten lately, it's inevitable that MTV, commercialism and the like will affect Nirvana. It's possible Cobain may become, gasp!, a role model. Would he make a good one? "Oh, definitely not. Musically maybe, but not as a person. No one deserves that title. I think what most people can get out of our lyrics is that I'm just as frustrated and confused as anyone else, so it helps break down the rock-star barriers."

Perhaps Novoselic would be a better one to emulate? Nah. "I've been targeted as the hippie of the band," says the 6'7", 26-year-old bassist. "I'm vegetarian, have Eastern-type decor in the house," and he "does stuff like going down to the quarry not wearing anything." He's also, apparently, a fan of righteous buds. "An acre of hemp can make more paper than an acre of trees," he says, waxing rapturous. "Pot for fuel, food and fiber. You can run a diesel engine off hemp-seed fiber. It burns a lot cleaner. Even the word marijuana—in the '30s, when they were outlawing it, the Feds came up with the word marijuana, 'cause it's such an evil, foreign, Spanish-sounding word, whereas before it was always called hemp here."

Nirvana's sure to be topping all sorts of charts, but Novoselic is pretty jazzed by the fact that they were on High Times' "Pot 100," along with folks like Mudhoney and Metallica. If Cobain and Novoselic are the pothead philosophers, the newest member, drummer Dave Grohl, is the outgoing, wacky one of the unholy trinity. A veteran of the Seattle-based band Scream, he's found the, well, chemistry, he likes in Nirvana. "Three-pieces are really cool," he enthuses. "It's really simple. It leaves a lot of room for each of us to be as loud and obnoxious as possible. There's no lead breaks or drum solos or any of that shit."

At 22, he's the youngest member, but Grohl is as grounded as the others when it comes to the band and the music business. "Anyone who thinks they can be in a rock 'n' roll band forever is full of shit. It's time to get their head straight and realize there is life after the Scorpions. I'm only 22, and I'm still planning on going back to school and possibly getting a life someday."

This is not a life?

"This is not a life; this is the life, man. People envy me," he says, laughing wickedly. "Nah," he continues, returning to what passes for normalcy. "It's really fun, but whatever."

It's a sure bet he won't be returning to his old job. "Tower Records was hell on Earth. I might as well have just blown my head off and gone straight to hell," he rails. "They're really bad to their employees. Really bad. It's pretty much, ‘Well, I have this haircut; where can I get a job?’ So everyone goes to Tower. We did an in-store there, and I told people I used to work there. They go, ‘It sucked, didn't it?’"

There's always school. "I would like to go back and learn something. I dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to tour with a band, Scream. It's been so long since I sat down and actually learned anything. I'm more of a shit-talker. I'd rather run my mouth than read a book."

Like his bandmates, Grohl was initiated into punk somewhat circuitously, through a family visit to a cousin in Evanston, Illinois. "My cousin, Tracy, was two or three years older than me. We arrived, and my aunt Sherry says, ‘Tracy, they're here. Come downstairs.’ I hear this ‘chink, chink, chink,’ coming down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs I see she has chains on and bondage pants and combat boots. I was like, ‘Oh, she's punk.’ I was totally converted. I owe it all to Tracy; Tracy Bradford."

That sort of haphazard, back-door, mellow approach to life serves the band well. Nirvana is democratic, with decisions "usually made, ‘Okay, let's do this,’ in under 15 minutes." The album's title, Nevermind, and the cover, a naked baby boy floating underwater toward a hook with money on it, were fairly easy decisions for Nirvana. But don't ask whose baby is floating so serenely across their album. They don't know. "The whole thing started with Kurt and I watching TV. We saw a special on women giving birth underwater, and there were these images of babies floating by the camera, squirming by, and it was hilarious."

Kicked-back, yep; humorous, totally; but Nirvana does give more than a passing thought to important issues. "No one, especially people our age, wants to address important issues," Cobain says, explaining the disc's title. "They'd rather say, ‘Never mind, forget it.’" The song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" addresses that subject, as does, in a way, "Territorial Pissings," which Cobain sees as "an homage to the female gender—not sexually, just as people hoping they'll someday get the recognition they deserve. They're obviously less violent and more compassionate, and they understand passion. In fact, I'm recording an album with my ex-girlfriend, who's in a band called Bikini Kill. In different ways I get more out of this kind of collaboration than I do out of this band. I'm all for all-girl bands. The female revolution is on the way." Putting their money where their mouths are, Nirvana played a pro-choice benefit in Los Angeles, which sold out instantly.

So it's time for the inevitable question. What is nirvana to Nirvana? Is it heaven? For his part, Cobain believes in "total peace after death. I think heaven would have to be total peace. I think probably the closest thing on Earth we can find to life after death is a hit of nitrous oxide. I was working as a janitor a few years ago, and we cleaned dentists' offices. We'd clean the offices really fast, and then turn off the lights and sit down with the nitrous and have an experience." He may have lost a few brain cells, but in the music biz, he ain't alone. "You can almost hear them popping away," he relates, "like pouring a bowl of Rice Krispies."

Nirvana might actually be the little unexplainable, everyday things that we so often miss—like why certain music can take you to a different place, a place of freedom and bliss. For Grohl, a brief nirvanic experience occurred on their recent club tour, which was done with a van and trailer. "It's the first van I've ever been in that had automatic window-roller-downer things," he says, semi-amazed. "It's pretty crazy, rolling down an electric window and hearing your song on the radio. Life doesn't get much better."

Now, that's Nirvana.

© Katherine Turman, 1992