LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE September ??, 1993 - Seattle, WA, US
- Simon Braund
- Dave Grohl
With more than ten million sales under their thrift store belts three f**kin' losers from Nowheresville are set to be the greatest rock'n'roll band of the '90s. Rhythm joins David Grohl on a journey into the murky depths of music biz madness. Your guide: Simon Braund.
It's the MTV Awards apres-gig party: the tie-loosening booze-up that follows the annual grind. of smugness. fastidious indifference, faux-bonhomie and fulsome homage to the great God Of Unit-Shifting. Predictably, Pearl Jam have won everything (while more predictably pretending that they don't care) and with the facade of 'one big happy family united by music' over and done with for another year, Rock's rigid caste system reasserts itself: genuine celebs are ushered out of their limos and into the rarefied atmosphere of 'The Green Room', there to savour the various rewards of stardom. Not the least of which must be the luxury of isolation from the crush of vulgar paying punters ($250 a head, allegedly) swarming outside the bubble.
One man, though, who could quite easily be on the inside - but who isn't - is Nirvana's Dave Grohl, who can be seen mingling cheerfully with the great unwashed.
Why is this? Who is this man who willingly passes up the fruits of celebrity when they are so conspicuously laid before him? Well, probably the sort of man who says things in an interview with The Face like; "Everyone kept telling us: 'you guys really ruffled the sheets of the music industry.' I found it hard to believe 'cause, you know, how could three f**king losers from Nowheresville make a dent in rock'n'roll?" Moreover, the sort of man who, when confronted with his own question several months later, replies: "Yeah, I don't know: You tell me."
I wasn't actually at the MTV Awards party - as a paying guest or otherwise - but even speaking to Grohl over the phone, it's easy to imagine him flitting quite happily between the real world (if any strata of an MTV party can be described as such) and the brazenly unreal world of multi-million selling albums, uninterrupted MTV airplay, media infatuation, drink, drugs, rock, roll and air-sharing with Sharon Stone and Cindy Crawford at post-award ceremony shindigs. He is charmingly perplexed by Nirvana's massive success rather than studiously unconcerned about it or suicidally angst-ridden-by its contradictions. If you're looking for bleak musings on a theme of 'fame is hell', forget it - or talk to Kurt Cobain. At twenty-four and co-defendant to the charges of making a dent in rock'n'roll, bricking its windscreen and weeing on its upholstery, and not merely 'ruffling the sheets of the music industry', but ripping them off the bed and running them up the flagpole, Dave Grohl is having a whale of a time.
And why not? As the least notorious member of Nirvana, he is afforded the most freedom to enjoy the aftermath of a ten-million-selling album, without coercion into the continued contemplation of his own tortured navel. Kurt Cobain, when interrogated about the unprecedented appeal of Nevermind, is expected to assume a spontaneous foetal position and vomit his soul into the proffered microphone, Dave Grohl, on the other hand, can say things like: "The record came out and people heard about it. Then the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video came out and people saw what we were doing; we were f**king shit-up and having fun. And I think that's pretty much what every kid in the world wants: to be able to feel like they're f**king something up and getting away with it." And while success for Kurt Cobain has seemingly dealt an unfair helping of Fear and Loathing In Seattle (his original title for In Utero was I Hate Myself And I Want To Die) and an unrelenting assault on his private life, Grohl recounts their meteoric rise with ingenuous glee.
"I think Bleach (Nirvana's sans-Grohl debut) sold seventy-five-thousand copies on Sub-Pop, Mudhoney were the big sellers on Sub-Pop at the time, and then we moved over to DGC. We recorded Nevermind and there was a buzz in the industry, everybody started wondering, what is this Nirvana thing? The record company was getting tapes and were thinking, Wow, this is it, this is really it! I remember Donita (Sparks), the guitar player and singer in L7, listening to the tape and telling me, 'You guys are going to be f'**king huge, this is perfect; it's really great rock and it's got really great melodies and it's driving and Kurt's voice is so great and, man, this really could be it!' I remember thinking: Yeah, right. We were happy to open up for Sonic Youth on tour for the next five years of our lives, and that's what we were expecting to happen. We thought, Oh it'll sell maybe a hundred-and-fifty thousand copies, and the record company thought the same. I think at first they pressed a hundred thousand copies, and those went in the first week. Then we were selling a hundred-and-fifty thousand copies a week and it got to a point where we just couldn't believe it anymore. People were telling us this stuff and it was just kind of funny, it was like winning some ridiculous contest that you never knew you'd entered and didn't care whether you won or lost. It was never our intention to become some huge rock phenomenon, and I think that that not being the goal sort of saved our ass; we just made this record and we put it out and we went on tour, we never ever imagined anything like this. When things slowed down and we came off tour; when we actually stopped and sat down, we couldn't believe it. We just thought, God, look what f* *kin' happened."
What had happened, of course, was that Nirvana had invented Grunge. Or if not invented it, then certainly hammered it into the cultural consciousness of the world with a force and swiftness that, given their place in the hierarchy, was almost impossible to comprehend. Nevermind left supposedly hot-ticket Seattle-ites like Soundgarden and Mudhoney eating dust in the starting-gate of obscurity - and Nirvana weren't even supposed to be in the race. They weren't even also-rans, they were faces in the crowd; spectators, chugging beer in the clubhouse while the serious contenders fought it out on the track. They were three f**kin' losers from Nowheresville, strung out at the arse-end of DGC's promotional policy without a hope - or a care - in the world.
"I don't know, I honestly don't know, other than it was a record that people could put on and for forty-five minutes could… work it out. Whatever they were pissed off about, they could scream along to it; if they were sad, maybe they could be uplifted…" Dave is struggling here. "Which sounds totally stupid, that's the corniest thing, but it did strike a chord in people. I don't know why and I don't know what that chord was - people used to ask us that, when things were getting really crazy, and I used to say, 'You're the f**kin' journalist, you figure it out.'" He recalls this last bit rather too impishly for my liking.
"It's like sitting on a surfboard," he says, resorting to reassuring rock'n'roll simile (and saving me from a burbling analysis of how his album came to be bought by roughly as many people as live in Australia). "Sitting on a surfboard and wondering what propels that board. Well, it's the wave. But what makes the wave? It's gravity and the Earth's rotation…" He trails off, indicating the futility of contemplating fate. "But as far as you know, you get on this board and it takes you into the shore." Neat. But is that really how it works' Surely, when you catch the kind of curl that Nirvana have been riding since Nevermind went ballistic in 1991, it's more likely to take you out to the deep water rather than back to any cosy beach - and, if you don't watch your step, end up crashing over your head to leave you swimming with the sharks. The public and media hysteria that has surrounded the band during the last three years must have put them under tremendous pressure to maintain their momentum with the follow-up to Nevermind. And yet Grohl - obviously still hot-dogging it up and heading for the dunes - is adamant that that was not the case.
"People ask us a lot if there was any underlying pressure, whether we felt we had to make the follow-up to Nevermind. There was never any concern with making an album that was better than Nevermind, we just wanted to do something that was different. Sure, if we had it would've sold like crazy and it would've put us in huge arenas and we would be some huge rock band, but we hate repeating ourselves, and I know the next record will be nothing like this one, and nothing like Nevermind, either. The thing that keeps us moving is experimentation: we like being very noisy sometimes and we like being very quiet; we like being melodic and we like being a sledgehammer. There was never any pressure on us at all," he states emphatically. "We went in and we did it surprisingly quick. Chris (Novoselic, the Nirvs' towering bass player) and I had the basic tracks done in the first two days. In less than three days we recorded fifteen songs, and all of them were first takes. We weren't into making things perfect, we didn't want things as clean and nice as possible. We just felt that the energy of a first take was so much more propelling than a second or third take. It's your first time in the studio playing a song and with the first take there's a lot of excitement and anxiety and weird feelings that come out."
It would be a mistake though to imagine that the creation of In Utero was entirely without its moments of stress and controversy.
"I think most of the pressure people have been writing about should actually have been pointed at our label. Everybody knew we were going to make an album exactly the way we wanted to and there was a little bit of," he chooses his words carefully, "panic at our label. Just mentioning the name Steve Albini sent f**kin' chills up their spines." He says, not choosing his words very carefully at all. Albini, of course, came to the band's attention via his producing of The Pixies and The Breeders, and would seem to be the perfect choice of helmsman for a Nirvana album. Unfortunately, consensus of opinion would suggest that he cocked it up a bit. His original mixes apparently sent Geffen's A&R department into collective tachycardia while prompting tight-lipped, public denunciations from ex-fan Cobain. Of course, ecstatically reported stories of a frantic repair job followed.
"The way Steve works is that he doesn't deal with the label and he doesn't deal with the management," comments Dave. "For the most part it was just: You guys come in here, you pay me X amount of dollars, I record you, I mix you, you leave here and that's it. He doesn't ask for points on the record because he thinks that's a sin and he usually doesn't deal with major labels. He just has a really strong punk ethic."
So, what went wrong?
"Oh nothing, the recording was great."
So, what was all the fuss about?
"Well, we went in and we re-mixed two songs. They were the songs that we felt needed mixing, instead of just throwing up a rough mix and putting it down, which was basically how we did everything else. The song 'Heart Shaped Box' and the song 'Apologies', both had a quiet breakdown and then a big build-up, and a lot of that got lost in the mix we did with Steve. We did those mixes over with Scott Litt (REM producer) and they turned out fine. Maybe to Steve, or Scott or someone with a studio ear they might sound different, but I don't think they were much of a departure from Steve Albini's mixes. The vocals are out a little more and the drums aren't as roomy, but mostly it's along the same lines."
During a short break in the conversation, while Dave inadvertently scares his fiancee half to death (no, I didn't ask how) and spends ten minutes laughing and apologising, I'm left to ponder Nirvana's 'post-Grunge' mortality and how they escaped what seemed inevitable crucifixion over In Utero - how dare they ruin the music press's fun by making another great record. The fact that one of their number hadn't gunned down the band's unofficial biographers or OD'd on smack should have already sealed their doom. Typically, though, Grohl is less philosophical. He likes In Utero better than Nevermind and revels in the fact that it was perpetrated with less regard for finesse than its predecessor.
"Working with Butch Vig on Nevermind there was a lot more attention paid to perfection, with this album there was none. think it has a lot more character, there's a lot more flaws. It was pretty much just go in and sing into a microphone, or go in and play the drums. It's what I said about experimentation, when we did Nevermind we had a month in the studio, but the basic tracks were done within the first three or four days. You know, we had three more weeks to f**k with it, and a lot of the time that can ruin a record. But that was an experience for all of us, to spend a lot of time on something like that. With In Utero it was: just go in and bash it out. That was our new experimentation: let's see how fast we can make a record, and that's what we did."
He is also slightly baffled by certain commentators' propensity to map the musical landscape in terms of pre-Grunge and post-Grunge, while labeling every noisy new guitar band that happens along as 'The New Nirvana'.
"It doesn't really seem to make much sense. The thing about our band was that we weren't trying to be anybody else; I think that was really important in the formula, we were doing whatever we wanted to do. Sure there were influences, there were a lot of bands who influenced us: The Pixies or The Vaselines or Jesus Lizard. When we wrote 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' we almost threw it away because we thought it sounded too much like The Pixies, we thought, God this is the biggest Pixies rip-off ever man. But people seemed to latch on to that more than anything else, so… I'm convinced that if The Pixies came out now with their first album and were on tour all over the place, people would be calling them the new Nirvana, when we were, supposedly, the new Pixies."
Grohl is, I was surprised to learn, the sixth person to have laid claim to the Nirvana drum stool, and I don't think there's much doubt that he is the perfect man for the job. "I think they needed someone who just played harder than anyone else and who didn't play a lot of fancy stuff. Plus they needed someone good-looking," he agrees. His ambivalence to the band's success and unimpeachably breezy attitude completes the contrapuntal nature of Nirvana superbly - Mr Angst, Mr Ponderous and Mr Exuberant; a triumvirate of opposite attractions.
He's also the most physically energetic drummer I've ever seen and has never heard of Vinnie Colaiuta.
"I swear to God, I know nothing about drummers," he assures me, anxious that I might disbelieve him. "If you were to mention some hardcore drummer I might know who they were, but I don't know anything about drums. I don't read music, I never really had lessons - I took two jazz lessons one time and realised I was better off not knowing what I was doing. I try to keep it like that, as long as I can beat 'em up pretty badly. It feels good to play hard. I'd rather hit something with two hands than one; I'd rather hit two toms at the same time than just one; I'd rather see the drums shaking after I've hit them rather than just sitting there like a… a couch! It feels really good when you beat the shit out of them, it feels good inside. It's like when you're having sex and you're just doing it for the sake of it. I mean, how lame. But when you're having sex and you're so into a that you're about to blow up at any minute, that's kind of what it feels like with drums… That was stupid," he laughs, sheepishly. "But you can feel it in your stomach, when everything is going great and you know that's what it's all about. The only thing I pay attention to is not being too busy and hitting little six-inch splash cymbals, I'm not into that. I'd rather have something that's going to blow your hair back when you hit it."
I ask Dave what his reaction would be if he were ever asked to play at an event like, say, the recent Zildjian Day In London. "Would I have to play in front of people?" He replies, worried. Yes. On your own.
"I wouldn't want to play in front of people without my band. If my band could play I'd do it. It wouldn't be any fun just doing it myself, that would be kind of boring, I think people would get a headache and leave. I mean, anyone could do what I do, I'm totally convinced that anyone could play what I play. It's no big deal, it's not that difficult."
He's probably not just being modest. But I accuse him of it anyway.
"Well I mean it's kind of true," he protests wildly. "Because the thing that I do, a lot of it is bonehead stuff. you know? It's like caveman drums, anybody could do it… As long as they drank enough coffee. I'd do it if I could do it with my band, my two buddies. Actually, three buddies: we have a new guitar player."
"Yeah, his name is Pat Smear, he was in an LA punk band called The Germs (who at one time featured Belinda Carlisle on drums, fact fans - Ed.) He's so great, he's really, really good. We have a guitar player who knows how to play now."
Do you want me to print that?
"Yeah, Kurt'll love it. It's funny, nobody can really play the way Kurt plays. He taught himself and he has this sloppy, weird style where some fingers kind of drag behind other fingers. The way he plays is like someone injected codeine into one of his hands and it's not really working. It's great and I love it to death, and he'll be the first one to tell you that he doesn't know how to play guitar, so he won't be mad hearing it come out of my mouth."
I spoke to Dave on the eve of their first American tour in two years, was he looking forward to it, or had the lay-off generated a few fresh terrors?
"It's going to be great! I got a new drum tech who doesn't know how to tune drums. I got him because I've known him since I was three. In the past week I've been showing him how to set things up. I had to go to a music store today to learn how to tune drums."
I know this is true because it was the second reason for Dave postponing the interview. The first was an urgent tuxedo fitting for his forthcoming wedding.
"Yeah, I just got back!" he enthuses, sounding like he's just returned from a trip to the pyramids. "I went in to the guy and said, 'I was wondering if you could show me how to tune drums?' And he did! And it was really simple, now I have to tell my drum tech. But yeah, I'm totally excited to go, I'm looking forward to it. At least we don't have to play all the songs off Nevermind now for the rest of our lives. That was such a relief when we recorded In Utero, know�ing that we didn't have to play that f**kin' Teen Spirit song every night."
So you're utterly sick of that song, then?
"Well, when we first started playing it at practices, you were moved, you know? You were in bliss and it was one of those songs that we didn't want to practice too much because we thought the more we played it, the more it would lose. It's like a Native American having his picture taken and thinking it's stealing his soul. It's kind of like that, kind of spiritual. So yes… I'm sick of that song."
© Simon Braund, 1993