LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE February 13, 1992 - Singapore, SG
- Sujesh Pavithran
- Kurt Cobain
- Krist Novoselic
- Dave Grohl
Rock music's hottest property at the moment is Nirvana. You may not have heard of the band yet, but its second album "Nevermind" recently peaked at the top of the charts, displacing Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and chalking up a sales figure of 1.5mil copies.
The Seattle-based trio's music blends the raw aggression of punk rock with melodic sensibilities. Right now, Nirvana is bigger than U2, more talked about than Guns 'n' Roses, and as outrageous as any self-respecting rock band anywhere else in the world - these lads have reportedly indulged in the usual quantum of excesses, from wreaking havoc on stage to physically abusing journalists.
SUJESH PAVITHRAN nervously aware of this reputation met the trio in Singapore last week (the band was between tours of Australia and Japan) and emerged unscathed from an hour-long exclusive.
YOU'RE sitting in the coffeehouse of Singapore's Concorde Hotel with three hungry Americans who are giving the waitress the strangest orders she's ever taken. Tuna cornbread sandwich (at which the puzzled lass enquires if wholemeal will do), chocolate mousse cake (she looks momentarily relieved), mee siam (pronounced "sah-yem" and leaving her in total confusion), yoghurt with chocolate milk (she drops her scribbling pad in anxiety) and... "call me frank," smiles one of the trio, which she, in a flash of inspiration, accurately interprets as a hotdog.
Orders taken, she scrambles hurriedly away to relate this to the chef; she is blissfully unaware other customers' identities.
"We had hardly heard of Singapore and had no idea we had a following here ... I kept signing autographs at the airport until my arm grew tired," says one, a thin, extremely pale and intense-looking chap with massive black shade permanently fixed across his eyes He looks like he'll either explode into frenzied activity or fall into a psychedelic stupor any moment.
This is Kurt Cobain, guitarist, singer and songwriter, who, with bassist Chris Novoselic, formed Nirvana in 1987. When he talks, those shades seem to drill into you like searchlights, harsh and inscrutable, daring you to ask him a sensitive question and spark the fireworks.
Carefully, you dip your toe in the water, wording your questions so as not to offend, like ... err, you guys, seem to come across as a band that takes great pleasure in parodying the rock star lifestyle thing ...?
"Yeah, we've definitely made fun of what rock stars are supposed to do, in retrospect, it's so ridiculous. We've got drunk and destroyed backstage areas after concerts just to have fun, just like any other band," Cobain scowls.
"We don't do such things consciously, when these things happen we're just doing what the average rock star is supposed to do ... we just don't subscribe to the average rock star lifestyle!"
Novoselic, a towering two metre tall, and drummer Dave Grohl, the band's effervescent funnyman, nod their heads absently. Clearly, Grohl would rather be seeing the island's sights, but Novoselic is fascinated by the camera and getting a closer look at it - he took up photography six months ago.
Cobain and Novoselic come from Aberdeen, Washington. When they met, both were art students in a college near Seattle. Grohl only joined the band a year and a half ago, its fifth and most-likely-to-stay drummer.
"The other drummers were just bad drummers," Cobain explains.
Nirvana graduated from the underground punk circuit to bigger venues; then, a recording deal with the Seattle-based independent Sub Pop label followed. The year 1989 saw the release of Nirvana's debut effort, "Bleach."
A year later, the band received a substantial offer from DGC Records and its passport to the big time.
So what difference has success made to you? One moment, you guys were hardly known, a year later, you're hopping across the globe.
"Actually, we had been touring Europe and America long before we became well-known all over the world," Cobain corrects, "so things are exactly the same now as they were then."
But when Nirvana entered the studios for "Nevermind," it was different, he admits: "Well, DGC is a bigger label and we had a bigger budget and more time in the studio. We took about a month, as opposed to our first album which we did in a week.
"Our idea was to get in there, record the album and get out as fast as possible. We work relatively fast."
As the food arrives and Cobain digs in, he generously allows that the label's reaction to "Nevermind" was unexpected.
"We were surprised at DGC's reaction, although we were very sure of what we had done. We had total freedom to do as we pleased on the album."
The album has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and wherever else it has been released. Ranging from thrashy punk-rock to melodic acoustic rock, it tackles a variety of subjects including teen angst, religion, relationships, social injustices and rape.
Politics, however, was and is still strictly off-limits to Cobain, who writes the band's lyrics - the very mention of the word gets him into a white rage.
"We're politically aware as individuals, but we don't like to force our opinions down people's throats. Political bands haven't been very effective, you can't expect a rock 'n' roll band to have a lot of impact politically.
"First and foremost, we're all entertainers. The politically confrontational attitude may be fine for other bands, but it's not for us because it seems to overpower the music."
And that's not the only subject that turns the normally reclusive Cobain into a fiery orator - do not ever mention the Grammies (for which the band was recently nominated)!
"I don't give a sh*t about it! We're not in the least bit honoured to be associated with it. The Grammies are just another part of the promotion machinery, I've always thought it was a load of sh*t!"
It must be the food that's keeping him good-tempered, you think; one wouldn't like to catch him on a bad day. Having established this, you broach another volatile subject.
How do you react to the success of "Nevermind," which many rock critics think significantly surpasses Guns 'n' Roses' recent albums in terms of redefining the boundaries of rock music? (Nirvana has professed distaste for GnR and other chart-topping rock bands.)
"We never expected to be able to sell the album - and now that it's sold over a million copies, the feeling is great. We don't ever keep track of the charts, so all we know of our album's or singles' progress in the Billboards (charts) is when someone tells us.
"It's flattering to know that so many people like our music."
And then Cobain warms up, fired no doubt by the chocolate cake, most of which he has put away.
"If you think of the competition we're up against, I don't feel sorry for the other bands. Look at Poison - they've sold 20 million records and they suck and they just can't write a song!"
And what about the band's reputation for causing mayhem on stage, and playing on even when guitars drift out of tune? (Oops ... you get ready to flee here, but Cobain smiles briefly, a rare event.)
"We're pretty unprofessional on stage," he admits.
"We don't have a lot of roadies to keep our instruments in tune all the time, so we just keep playing. But I've never been very keen on people who go overboard on the professional thing ... if the song feels right, we just play on."
And as for wrecking instruments on stage, Cobain has just signed an endorsement deal with Fender. This means he gets to buy inexpensive Japanese-made Stratocasters - his preferred make of guitar - at even cheaper prices.
One foresees more guitars being ripped apart during Nirvana's current four-city tour of Japan and, later, America.
(For the record, Novoselic uses Ibannez and Gibson basses, Grohl pounds a set of Tama skins.)
Wherever it is that the band performs, the adrenalin keeps pumping fast, from gigs like the Reading Festival in England where the audience numbered around 40,000 to less than a thousand in Belgium's Ghent.
"Every place has its own identity, but people are the same everywhere. They just want to see the band, they get excited and then we get excited! It's a good feeling." Although the trio format has not, restricted his songwriting, Cobain plans to expand the band.
"We've managed to pull it off as a trio, but in future, we would like to experiment with more layers of guitar sounds. We'll be looking out for a new guitar player." And Nirvana fans need not expect a new album too soon, even if Cobain already has about five songs written.
"We're going to take our time, there's no date set for the album's release. We've got to make sure the product is good."
The hour's about up, and Alex (just Alex), the band's touring manager, politely hovers around... the guys have radio and television interviews to do, more fans to meet.
Cobain gets a doggie-bag for the uneaten food, photographs are taken (Novoselic is still eyeing the camera), there are amicable handshakes all round (the guys relax-when you mention you're a bit of guitar player yourself), and then they're gone.
For some moments after, you wonder if what had transpired during the past hour had simply been a figment of your imagination or you had actually been in the company of the soon-to-be biggest and most unglamorous rock band in the world.
Your photographs and illegible notes will confirm the latter... but just for the moment, you can't help feeling that if rock's new Messiahs have arrived, they certainly don't give two hoots about their status.
© Sujesh Pavithran, 1992