LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE January 23–25, 1992 - Sydney, AU
- Jessica Adams
- Kurt Cobain
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Nirvana in Australia. Same as everywhere else - total exhaustion, flagging health, pressure, sheer chaos. As the sales machine drags them from back-bar grungeville into the cauldron of hyper-success, are Nirvana becoming soul-sellin' unit-shippin' ass-kissin'…
The wildest, most gloriously insubstantial rumour at tonight's Nirvana party in North Sydney is that Kurt Cobain is a cough medicine addict. "That's why he's not here," says a fellow journalist, rolling her eyes and reaching for a sausage roll. "They can't fly the right brand of American cough medicine for him."
Kurt Cobain and… foul-tasting raspberry syrup?
"Oh sure," says a photographer within earshot of drummer Dave Grohl. "He's also having his stomach pumped for five litres of sperm."
This is something of an Australian music industry joke. Whenever an international male megastar tours, within hours stories are circulating about them collapsing/being rushed to hospital/having their stomachs pumped for vats of semen. The same rumour has, in recent years, been spread about George Michael, Boy George and both members of Bros and now they're saying that Nirvana's frontman isn't at the party because he's lusting after cough medicine?
"Actually," says the publicist helpfully, "he's just sick."
Meanwhile, Dave Grohl - all teeth and hair - is chatting about his motorbike. It's a Nighthog 550 and he loves it deeply and misses it even more. Bass player Chris Novoselic - a sensitive and hairy giant - is reaching over shoulders for the barbecue crisps. He's like the Wookie from Star Wars. All he needs is Harrison Ford giving him navigational co-ordinates. He's telling a group of starstruck record company employees that he can't believe how much beer Australians consume. He doesn't know it yet, but in 24 hours he'll be playing at a music festival - The Big Day Out - where 51,000 cans will be devoured by 9,500 people. Is he looking forward to the gig?
"Oh sure, sure," he grins, shovelling in more crisps while his beard gets in the way.
"Well, it's a pity Kurt isn't here," the record company photographer is saying.
And then it's… autograph time! It's possible to catch sight of Dave's teeth flashing in between bits of paper, Nirvana CD inserts, biros and posters. He is friendly and obliging - just like the FLOWER SNIFFIN' KITTY PETTIN' BABY KISSIN' CORPORATE ROCK WHORE of the band's legendary T-shirts.
"Hey, they're makin' us work for this!" he shrugs, waving his cigarette in the air so it doesn't set a 'Nevermind' poster alight. Last in the baby kissin' kitty pettin' list of duties is the acceptance of an enormous wall plaque. The man in the suit from BMG Records tells those assembled that 'Nevermind' has just "shipped 8.5 million units". (This is a little, 'colourful'. World sales of 'Nevermind' actually stand at a still pretty staggering 5.5 million, with 3.5 million copies sold in America alone.) Cue screams of delight from the BMG minions who have been stuck behind computers all day and are now absolutely trolleyed. Despite all this, Dave insists that Kurt is still so broke he's homeless.
"Chris lives half an hour away from me in Tacoma and Kurt doesn't actually live anywhere. He kinda lives out of his car at the moment."
Dave and Chris are whisked away for dinner at a suitable restaurant and the punters trail out. "Betcha Kurt doesn't make the gig either," says a friend disappearing into the BMG lifts.
THE RUMOURS ARE STILL RIFE the following day, at The Big Day Out Festival. Although, apparently, the cough medicine rumour has run itself out. Now it's a sore throat.
"Kurt has tonsillitis and can't make it," says a publicist from a rival record company, walking around a slalom of vomit near the coke stand. Despite the pressure of The Violent Femmes, hot Aboriginal dance act Yothu Yindi, numerous Australian independent bands of high note and plenty of Fosters, nobody really cares about anything else but the state of Cobain's tonsils.
The Big Day Out is being held at the Sydney Showgrounds, normally the haunt of farmers. Every Easter they drive in from the Bush in dusty trucks, with pigs in the back and pickled onions in the front. Today, Nirvana will be playing in the Hordern Pavilion, where in a few months time small children will be buying Cadbury's Dairy Milk show bags and Simpsons dolls.
By evening - and it's still light and it's still hot - the beer is running out. Teenage girls daringly pull off their shirts, revealing grubby bra straps, and pull brand new FLOWER SNIFFIN' KITTY PETTIN' BABY KISSIN' CORPORATE WHORE T-shirts on. A few fans have the harder-to-find version that goes FUDGE PACKIN' CRACK SMOKIN' SATAN WORSHIPPIN' MOTHERFUCKERS. The MD of Acme Merchandising, who own the rights to Nirvana T-shirts in Australia, breathlessly reveals that the shirts are outselling Guns N' Roses and Metallica.
And then they're on. And all thoughts of cough medicine disappear. Nobody's deodorant has lasted out the day, and there are 19,000 armpits in this cow barn. But nobody's going to leave, even though the doors are wide open. They come onstage, without any props or preamble, but with perhaps the tallest bass player in the world. As they launch into 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' the bass is mixed well up, and it's this thread that the bobbing heads follow as Kurt rasps: "I feel stupid and contagious, a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido". He screams "a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial" like a demented mantra. Already the bouncers are moving in on stagedivers. Later that evening 15 people will check into casualty at nearby St Vincent's Hospital.
'Come As You Are' opens with that bassline that always reminds people of Killing Joke, and this is Chris' song as much as 'Breed' belongs to Dave. 'Lithium' is the song that belongs to the fans, though, and they sing every word so clearly, so loudly (and with American accents, even) that you can barely make out Kurt at all.
It's the same with 'Polly'. Kurt hunches his shoulders and talks through the lyrics like some method actor. And still you can hardly hear him at the front. The audience knows every word and wants to sing it - even though it's a first person rape narrative. Kurt's deadpan lyrics sound even more chilling when thousands of people are chanting them.
But the vocals keep getting louder and louder and, by the end of the set, it's generally agreed that Kurt Cobain has been the loudest man on the day.
"The trouble is," says a local mixer, "these American bands come over and bring all their mates to the sound. That friend of theirs, the girl doing the lights, she just asked me what a bloody spot was!"
Lights? Irrelevant, really. During 'Drain You' (the best song tonight) Kurt's face is so matted with sweaty hair that you can't even see his eyes. And Chris looms so large in the dark that even the 12-year-olds at the back can see him.
The set touches on the 'Bleach' album, as well as tracks off 'Hormoaning', the Australian tour edition CD which includes 'D-7', 'Turnaround', 'Son Of A Gun' and 'Molly's Lips' from Nirvana's October 1990 Peel session. 'Turnaround' is an old Devo song and 'Molly's Lips' and 'Son Of A Gun' were written by The Vaselines' Eugene Kelly, now in Captain America.
By now people are pulling their sopping T-shirts over their heads like monks' cowls. One unbelievable song follows another. 'Something In The Way' is achingly beautiful and for once the crowd shuts up. By the end, though, Kurt and Dave are dragging the drum kit off the riser while the audience cheers and Kurt attacks what's left of the kit with loose cymbal stands.
THE NEXT DAY, KURT'S ILLNESS ("IT'S his stomach" is the new record company line) is so serious Nirvana have cancelled upcoming gigs in Perth and Sydney. The local FM station, JJJ Radio, are even broadcasting regular Kurt Cobain illness bulletins.
At the centre of all this hoopla is a shortish man who looks like a Viking who's been stuck on a boat for five days without a decent razor. More pressure in your coffee, Kurt?
"Pressure?" he squints. "Oh, I suppose there is… but I'm so far beyond worrying about those things… because we've been on tour for seven months. I can only just try to… get by… day by day. We're all pretty… fatigued."
Kurt's a well-known narcoleptic - an illness that makes you fall asleep all the time - and the Pinteresque pauses in his speech make conversation difficult.
"I think," he croaks, "the most exciting thing you might see us do at a live performance at the moment… is watch us collapse."
Are you a Spinal Tap fan?
Were you aware that Spinal Tap were claiming their last Seattle gig had a huge influence on Nirvana?
"Well, that's a pretty egotistical thing to say. Actually, I'm really excited about them re-forming. They played their last performance in Seattle some years ago and some friends of mine found the skull they had as a prop. Now they have it in their room."
You don't use stage props at all?
"No, but we intend to. We're going to have a 20-foot hypnotic wheel - you know, like psychiatrists use. And we're going to have a projection of the first video game they ever had - that primitive version of Atari. We're going to have that projected onstage. That one where a little dot moves back and forth on a screen. That was a big game in America. We also had that frog game where three cars hit him. I think that was on Atari as well.
"But at the moment there's really nothing theatrical that we could think of, besides using dancers and something like that. Maybe we could throw in a brass section or something like that. But basically we just get onstage and wave at everybody and start playing."
Does the amount of bullshit you have to deal with increase in proportion to your success?
"What is 'bullshit'? I don't understand 'bullshit'. That's a pretty broad term."
"Well, there has never been a collective conspiracy between us and our label. We didn't pay MTV to promote hell out of us. It just happened. It was very organic, although it happened really fast. It's really not our fault. I'm sorry. We really didn't try very hard."
Is it true you signed to Geffen for $250,000?
"Yeah, closer to $200,000."
Did you feel that 'Nevermind' was an incredibly special record while you were making it?
"No. No, not really. It didn't seem that much different than the 'Bleach' album at the time that we were recording. We just went into the studio everyday and tried our best."
The vocals are incredible. What did you do to get them?
"I usually sit in the room with the lights out and close my eyes and scream."
Has the late-'70s British punk scene been much of an influence?
"Oh, definitely. The Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, any '77 punk rock band was totally influential to our music. But it was almost impossible to get exposed to English punk. We only had one radio station, a soft AM rock station. I remember being about 14 and having a subscription to Creem magazine and I would read about the Sex Pistols, but I never got to hear anything. I finally got hold of a copy of 'Sandinista!' (by The Clash) at the library, but 'Sandinista' was not a very good introduction to punk rock."
What about when you were thinking of forming a band?
"I decided to create my own punk rock with my electric guitar. Finally I met this guy called Buzz Osborne, who's in The Melvins, and he made a compilation tape for me. I was instantly converted. That was the day I shaved my head and bought combat boots. We grew up in the hardcore generation of the early '80s and were subjected to a lot of… I suppose I should say bullshit underground music. And hardcore, which I've never really liked. So at the time when everybody was pretending to be punk rockers we were listening to anti-hardcore bands like the Butthole Surfers."
It's amazing you haven't tired of punk.
"Yeah, but there are still people who like Jimi Hendrix, so…"
Have Geffen been talking to you about that tricky follow-up album?
"No. I don't expect to ever have a conversation about it," replies Kurt, and coughs.
Should we maybe broach the delicate subject of cough syrup? Nah. Kurt stops coughing and continues…
"We'll start recording when we feel like it, and put it out when we feel like it. I hope to have the next album out in September. It's gonna be a tight squeeze. Our touring schedule is getting in the way of being able to finish the songs we've been writing."
Any 'on the road' songs?
"No, not at all. We've probably written about one or two songs on the road. It's almost impossible."
Touring can be a horrible business sometimes, can't it?
"Oh, definitely. The United States is the worst. On average it's a ten hour drive a day. We've always been in this very small compact van, very clammy, with seven people and all the equipment. For the tour in Europe we had a stereo, a real luxury."
Whose idea was the naked baby boy on the cover of 'Nevermind'?
"That was my idea."
Was he really under water?
"Yes he was."
That cover seems to sum up your current situation - people dangling money at you.
"I suppose it does, but it takes a long time - many months - to recoup the amount of money you've put into the album. We really haven't earned much money yet. We basically just live off credit at the moment."
What are you going to do with the cash when it comes in?
"We'd like to buy a house. And live in it. To actually have a place to live. Yeah. I'd like to put money into the bands that I like and help promote them. I'd like to, uh, toss a few bills to some independent bands."
What's your view of the post-Nirvana hysteria?
"Well, they're signing everyone. They're stealing every independent band there is right now. They're signing the most subversive, abrasive bands you can think of."
Operator: Go ahead please, you're connected — go ahead…
Jessica Adams: Thanks — bye! Kurt?
Kurt Cobain: Yes.
JA: Yeah, how are you? Good morning.
KC: Good morning to you.
JA: I wanted to ask you first, I’ve just been reading a story on Spinal Tap — are you a Spinal Tap fan at all?
KC: At all? Yeah, sure, it’s a great movie.
JA: They're claiming to have driven through Seattle about five years ago on a tour and er, heavily influenced most of the Sub Pop bands. [laughs] I don't know if you’d go along with that?
KC: Well that's a pretty egotistical thing to say…
JA: Yeah, it is isn’t it? I guess they're a pretty egotistical band. [laughs] They're reforming, did you know that?
KC: Yeah, I did.
JA: It should be good.
KC: I'm pretty excited about that. They played their last performance in Seattle a few years ago, some friends of mine found the skull that they had as a prop in an old warehouse and now they have it in their room.
JA: That's great [laughs] — it would have been great to get that little Stonehenge there as well.
KC: Yeah, very nice!
JA: Do Nirvana use stage props?
KC: No we don't, but we intend to. On the next American tour we're going to have a twenty foot movie doll, hypnotic wheel, you know what kind I'm talking about? Psychiatrists would use them.
KC: And we're also going to have a projection, a very large projection behind the drums of a pong game playing — you know what that is?
JA: A what game…?
KC: Pong, it was the first home video-game which was kinda just a little dot going back-and-forth on a screen and you had two paddles opposite each other that would bat the ball back-and-forth.
JA: Was that a big game in Aberdeen?
KC: Well it was a big game everywhere in America, you might have it here too 'cause it was the first home version of a video game, before Atari — I mean, it was an Atari actually, a sort of Atari, yeah, that's what it was. The first game that came out on Atari was Pong.
JA: [Laughs] It sounds so primitive!
KC: Yeah, it’s very primitive.
JA: We had another one here that was about a frog that lasted for about three years, I can’t remember, they probably had it in America also. Just a very basic frog game.
KC: Yeah, where you tried to go across the street, cars would hit him, that was called Frogger — that was on Atari also.
JA: Yeah [laughs].What else are we going to get when we see Nirvana? Everybody here is incredibly excited about it but a little bit unsure as well.
KC: Why is that?
JA: I think because we've heard so many different things — “well, they're not into too much hype,” and “they're not going to put on a big performance,” “it’s not very theatrical…”
KC: Well, ummm… There’s really nothing theatrical that we could do, that we could think of. I mean, I don't understand what you mean besides using props and dancers or something like that…
KC: We could throw in a brass section to liven things up but, no, we basically just come out on stage, wave to everyone and start playing.
JA: It should be good, actually, but I can understand from your angle there would be a lot of pressure on you at the moment, a lot of expectation right round the world. Is that the case?
KC: I suppose there is but I'm so far beyond worrying about those things because we've been on tour for, like, seven months that I can only just try to get by day-by-day. We're all pretty fatigued.
KC: So I think that probably the most exciting thing that someone might see at a live performance is watching us collapse in front of their eyes.
JA: [Laughs] Go cross-eyed and fall over…
JA: Somebody said once and I thought it was a good quote; “The proportion of bullshit increases in proportion to the success rate of a band. Bullshit, coming from the outside world.” Is that something you would agree with having lived through the last few months?
KC: Well that's a pretty broad term…
JA: Maybe it should be confined a bit. Have you…
KC: Bullshit. What IS ‘bullshit’?
JA: [Laughs] OK, Australian, so let's translate…Hype, kind of, people who…Maybe fake people, I don't know — hype basically.
KC: I don't really understand hype at this point. There really is no, there's never any…collective conspiracy involved with us, or between us and our label. We didn't pay off MTV to promote the hell out of us — it just happened. It's been very organic even though it happened really fast. It's really not our fault, we can’t end it — I'm sorry! But…
JA: [Laughs] It's OK we don't blame you.
KC: We really didn't try very hard.
JA: I heard that you were actually signed to Geffen for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is that correct?
KC: Yeah, something around that amount. Maybe two hundred.
JA: It's interesting also that they seem not to have realized, early on, what they actually had — is that something that struck you? Were you confident in the album and were surprised at Geffen underplaying it like that?
KC: Well that was our intention to underplay it, we just wanted to put out a record and please the people who had heard it already. Geffen was always aware of how… at least of our potential and I'm sure that there's always been a lot of excitement among the people who work there. They just felt there was really no need to really put a lot of hype behind it — just let it go by itself.
JA: It's an incredibly special record to listen to and I wondered if you also had a special feeling when you were in the studio — did you have a buzz? Did you think this was going to be something really great? Did it occur to you when you were doing it?
JA: [Laughs] You sorta…You had no idea that this was going to be something different?
KC: Well, no, not really. I mean, it didn't seem that much different than the “Bleach” album other than that we were recording every day. We went into the studio every day and tried our best.
JA: Some of the vocal performances on that record are incredible. How do you get that in the studio? Did they leave you to go off to your own devices and go crazy or… How do you get that performance?
KC: I usually did them in the vocal room by myself with the lights out and close my eyes and scream.
JA: [Laughs] I love it, it’s incredible. It reminds me a lot of… that are just like some British punk from about ten years ago — I was wondering if English punk music was something that the band listened to or that you listened to?
KC: Oh, definitely.
JA: What kind of bands were the most important?
KC: Oh, Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks — any ’77 punk rock band… from mid-to-late Seventies… was totally influential on my music — it’s still our favorite form of music. Punk. Even though we grew up in the Hardcore generation of the early Eighties and were subjected to a lot of — I guess I should say “bullshit” underground music like Hardcore, something I’ve never really liked, the Straight Edge Hardcore scene. So we, at the time, while pretending to be punk rockers at our youthful age, we were listening to anti-Hardcore bands like Flipper and the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid. We weren’t necessarily into all these real heavy political ideals.
JA: It would have been funny I think, from what I can gather Aberdeen is quite a small town, kind of a small country-type town?
JA: That's right. How do you get exposed to English punk in a town like that?
KC: It's almost impossible.
JA: [Laughs] Did your local radio station play it at all?
KC: Oh boy, absolutely not! I remember, well, there's only one radio station and it’s AM, it’s a soft rock station and they play Tony Orlando and stuff like that. I remember being about fourteen and wanting to hear some punk rock music because I had a subscription to Creem magazine and I would read about the Sex Pistols and I finally got a hold of “Sandinista” at the library — but “Sandinista” isn’t a good introduction to punk rock!
JA: No, you should have had “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” that would have been better.
KC: Anything besides “Sandinista”! I thought “Well, this is as punk rock as Elvis…”
JA: [Laughs] And you got it from the library, that's great!
KC: And so for the next year or so I decided to try to create my own punk rock just at home on my electric guitar. And then finally I met this guy named Buzz Osborne who's in the Melvins and he’d been going back-and-forth from Aberdeen to Seattle buying punk rock records, so he made a compilation tape for me. I was instantly converted — within a day I shaved my head, got some combat boots…
JA: [Laughs] That's great! It's amazing that it’s stayed with you — that you haven't tired of it, 'cause it’s fifteen years since ’77.
KC: Yeah, well there's still people who like Jimi Hendrix too.
JA: Tell me about the American reaction — I’ve never been to America, I have no idea what the music industry there is like. But, do they tend to catch on to things very, very quickly right around the country or has it taken you a very long time to break over there?
KC: On an independent level it takes a long time because it’s such a big country that communications are real trouble. But major labels have the power to get your record in any store, so it’s a lot easier once you're on a major label to expose yourself.
JA: Have Geffen been talking to you about the difficult second album yet?
KC: Have they been talking to us about it? No, I don't expect to ever have a conversation with them about it. We’ll start recording when we feel like it, put it out whenever we want — I’d like to put it out by September...
KC: …But our touring schedule is still getting in the way of being able to finish the songs that we're writing right now. It’ll be a very tight squeeze to get it in by September.
JA: Are we in for a lot of ‘on the road’ songs?
KC: No, not at all. We've probably written about one, or two, songs on the road — it’s almost impossible.
JA: Do you have a tour bus?
KC: I don't know what we're touring in…
JA: [Laughs] I was about to inquire about the comfort of bands because I feel sorry for them on the road. It must be a horrible business.
KC: Oh it is, definitely. If you're driving, especially in the States. United States tours are the worst because they're, on the average of at least ten hour drives a day to do each city and we've always been in a very small, compact van, cramming like seven people into a van with your equipment. So, it was pretty rough, but on our last tour in Europe we had a bit larger van with a stereo so, you know, that was pretty luxury.
JA: [Laughs] Sounds like luxury. Tell us about the cover photograph that Kirk Weddle took for you, was that the band’s concept or was that Kirk’s?
KC: No, that was my idea.
JA: That was your idea? It turned out really really well.
KC: Yeah, it did, it turned out a lot better than I expected it to, more than I envisioned it would.
JA: Was the baby really underwater?
KC: Yeah, he was.
JA: That's incredible! He looks so happy. I love that shot, it's great. And I suppose it kind of sums up where the band is now because there's people waving money at you I guess?
KC: Waving money at us?
JA: [Laughs] Well maybe not dangling it on a hook but… I guess a lot of money would be part of your world now where it wasn’t two years ago?
KC: I suppose it is but it takes a long time, it takes many months to recoup the amount of money that you put into the making of the album, so we really haven't seen very much money yet. We're expecting to within the next few months. But we basically just live off of credit.
JA: Yeah, way to go… Do you have any plans to do anything major with the money that's going to come, like do you have plans for your own studio and stuff?
KC: We’d like to… I think, we’d like to buy a house and live in a house, actually have a place to live — before we put money into a recording studio — but I’d like to invest my money into some bands that I like to help promote them whatever way I can. Might toss a few bills into labels to help them out, so they don't go under.
JA: Yeah, I guess it’s important in America because you're really fighting against such a huge corporate — I hear it’s amazing over there.
KC: They're buying anyone, they're stealing every independent band there is right now. They're signing the most abrasive, subversive bands you can think of.
JA: Great, I think all the abrasive Australian bands should get on a plane! [Laughs] Now, tell me how are we going for time? I'm not wearing a watch — are we running out of time?
KC: Yeah, actually we are, I'm meant to be doing another interview right now.
JA: Ah hell, I always do this — I'm sorry.
KC: That's no problem.
JA: Thanks for your time and I look forward to the gig on Saturday. See ya!
KC: Alright, take care.
© Jessica Adams, 1992