LTW boss John Robb did the first ever interview with Nirvana before speaking to them again after being flown to New York to interview the band in 1990 and saw them play to 15 people in New York City (interview here) In 1992 he caught up with them again as they tried to deal with super stardom…
JESUS H. CHRIST! This is turning into some sort of modern-day fable. Out there, an uncompromised riffola outfit from an arse end of the US, burst out and sell seven million albums: three scruffs with cool attitude and a burning six string spirit rubbing shoulders with the sad and pathetic, slouching centre stage and selling more albums than the pantomime of Guns N’ Roses (‘Rebels’? come on!), or the Disneyland fantasy of Michael Jackson.
The oddest thing about Nirvana is that they are so damned normal. They’ve not moulded themselves to any of this star schlock. If you were to form a band following the rule book, you wouldn’t put together a Nirvana: a gangling bass player, a weasly frontman who suffers from narcolepsy and a drummer who is one of god’s scruffy animals. Somehow, somewhere along the line they managed to click with the ‘mall rats’; they had that certain something, that finally, after about twenty years, crossed ‘punk rock’ to the masses, or as long predicted in these quarters, finally took cranked Rock ‘n’ Roll action over into the mainstream. Chris Nosovelic is not sure why. He’s sat backstage in Madrid on the band’s European jaunt that precedes the Reading festival.
“Probably because we had really catchy songs, a lot of melody, kinda different for metal – it wasn’t cock rock. Or maybe the time has finally come for the underground to finally bubble up to the top and on into the mainstream.”
Nirvana are huge everywhere. They are even number one in oddball corners of the rock empire like Norway. To say it’s down to ‘good tunes’ just isn’t enough, after all Husker Du were doing much the same thing ten years ago: y’know, cranking the Beatles chords up through a guitar maelstrom and selling what at the time was considered a remarkable 350,000.
Nah, Nirvana are touching on far more nerves than that. Maybe it’s Kurt’s voice (which I noted in the first ever Nirvana interview on this side of the pond!) was a howl that ripped the listener’s heart apart, the scream of every f**ked off kid in the small town, the bottled up repressed emotions of every smart head, every left-out nerd and every non-conformist on the planet. A primal scream of sheer flesh ripping intensity, balanced with a melodic pop sound that hinted back to Lennon’s uniquely powerful howl of hurt, betrayal and elation back in the Beatles (apparently Lennon is one of Kobain’s heroes, you can draw your own conclusions).
Or maybe it was the band’s much chewed upon ‘feminity’; it’s about time that the macho posturing of metal was turned over, the decayed empire of LA poodle glam is the final conclusion of macho men wearing make-up and hating ‘faggots’.
“We’re not ashamed of letting the feminine side of our characters show, we’re not into that macho cock-rock posturing,” explains Chris, a man who is often seen mashing his bass into the crowd live, an act which on the face of it, is as macho display as any. Destroying the penile thrust of their axes? Or maybe just the kool thrill of destruction.
These white niggers with attitude were sparked by the tail end of punk rock, reacting to the images and the ideas of The Clash and the Pistols but never really getting a grip on the music. They, like thousands of Yank musicians, in the early ’80s played faster, harder and meaner, becoming the new underground: Hardcore. The scene now only beginning to bear any fruition in mainstream terms, Nirvana being younger than their contemporaries (still in their twenties) were, just for scratching around while the baton was passed down from Black Flag to Husker Du to Sonic Youth.
Kobain was piling the songs up in his bedroom for years until pulling in Nosovelic and a long lost drummer called Del Crover (borrowed from the seminal Melvins, the band that the teen Kobain would follow around). A demo was laid down at producer Jack Endino’s studio. Endino as well as playing guitar with Skin Yard was buddies with Sub Pop. A tape and one phone call later and the Sub Pop head honchos Bruce and Jonathan marvelling at the ‘beautiful, yet horrifying voice’ made the coolest signing in the States of the last ten years.
“We’d been revolving around bands for years,” explained Kurt at the time. “I’d been writing songs since I was about thirteen. I’d never heard of Subpop before, but we had The Melvins in our town and we used to go and watch them rehearse all the time.”
The debut album, Bleach, and the subsequent burn out shows (watched by about fifty people when I saw ’em in New York three years back) were fattened out by the affable Jason Evermen, who was slung out and went on to play bass for Soundgarden before becoming surplus to their requirements and disappearing into the horizon.
In the early days Nirvana toured the States with Tad. The fatman band in many ways were the trio’s mentors, shielding the boyish Nirvana behind an awesome fleshy mass. Nirvana were the support band, but history has taken over since then. The pressure on Nirvana must now be immense, expectations for the follow up album must be staggering. Nosovelic just seems bemused. To him Nirvana are still the small hard-touring band trapped in some weird vortex. Being big stars is not on the agenda.
“You can choose to ignore it, or you can deal with it all. We can blank out certain parts, but six or seven million albums? That’s amazing isn’t it? I still can’t quite fathom it.”
No one in the world expected this amount of success. The pre-release tape was floating around just before last year’s Reading Festival, everyone knew it was hot, and talk was of it selling as many as Sonic Youth worldwide! Once on vinyl it caught everyone on the hop, the British record company only pressed three or thousand and the whole lot disappeared in a day. Within three weeks they were number one in America. This had never happened before, even with Geffen’s massive machinery behind the record. Nirvana had struck a nerve, as if a mass conspiracy had decided to chart them all at once. Within hours the term ‘post Nirvana’ became a music biz staple and the A&R departments went out searching for the ‘new Nirvana’. Hysteria not spotted on the guitar scene for years. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Nymphs (ha!) followed in their wake, but no groups burned with the same sort of convictions as the Nevermind trio.
“Maybe some bands have come along after us and done well, but I don’t think that our impact has been that amazing. Hardly any left of centre stuff has broken through. There’s no stuff like Big Black or Butthole Surfers coming through and charting, it just seems to be stuff like Ugly Kid Joe,” sneers Chris, aware of the watering down process inherent in the music biz.
Nosolovic sees the next album that Nirvana are planning to record in August as a test for the mainstream, just to see how much things have really changed out there.
“Yeah, the follow up is the test, in terms of doing something different. We want to experiment a lot, we’re going to use quite a few different producers. To us Nevermind was like our rites of passage, a big studio big record, and it sold and in some ways appeased the mainstream. The new album is like the litmus test to see what our new fans are really like and if it’s too hard for everyone and we get dropped like a hot potato then that’s tough.”
Post tour, the work will start on the new record.
“We’re kicking around some new songs now, and we will probably go over to Kurt’s to finish them off. They are sounding pretty wild so far, the pendulum has swung back towards Bleach. We want to keep it interesting and we’ll probably try and release it pretty soon. We can’t really play any of the new stuff on tour because someone will probably just go ahead and bootleg it and the whole album will be out before we manage to release it.
“We want to take a bit of a break and knock around with the new material, give the guitars a bit of a beating. We may get all the songs together a week before and record them like we did with Bleach. We put that together with rehearsals above my mother’s beauty shop.”
Who’s producing the new record?
“We don’t really know yet, we haven’t decided. It could be several different producers for different tracks.”
Are Geffen laying on any pressure? Is there a mood of knocking out another seven million-selling album?
“That’s the beauty of being in our position,” laughs Chris. “When you’ve got seven million sales you can pretty much do what you want. If they create a bad situation we can turn around and say ‘Hey, leave us alone’. People expect another Nevermind, but that was such a phenomenon, that’s not going to happen, we’ve had our fill.”
Nirvana are already turning their back on the stadium circuit. They have no interest in the dynamics of the stadium situation, still tied too deeply into their punk rock roots to really feel the need to trawl the baseball stadiums.
“We want to keep playing places like The Astoria, we feel more comfortable in places like that. It’s more natural for us to play there.”
Nirvana are packing a pretty hectic tour schedule, the August/September writing sessions are followed pretty much by an intense tour that takes them through to the end of November, even personal matters taking second place.
“Kurt’s baby is due at the end of September but we’ve got to tour and even something like that is not being allowed to get in the way.”
Maybe another factor in Nirvana’s success is the amazing work rate of the group, nailing the States in criss-cross tours, sweating it out in the back of a van toiling the Yankee toilet circuit (and from personal experience I’m telling you, readers, there are some real dungeons out there.)
Nosovelic seems laid back, casual about the success of the group, giving off the air that this is the same band thrashing ideas out above his mother’s shop a couple of years back. He seems in command of the situation, but what of Kurt? The flakier of the two, the man with the real pressure on him, the man with all the rumours following him around from the bizarre to the trad. Even last month there were stories filtering through from the last few dates of ‘smack addition’ etc. The rumours just won’t go away.
“All that stuff is just garbage, when you’re in the limelight this sort of stuff happens to everybody,” states Chris. “If people can’t get a good story they just make one up. Sometime the stories are amusing and sometimes they are a pain in the ass. Every week we get to hear a new one about how Kurt is dead!”
Has the whole circus changed your life then Chris?
“Oh yeah! Especially in the financial aspect! I’ve got a house, but I’m not that rich yet – a lot of the money seems to have gone on fees, taxes, and gear!”
Considering their gear-trashing, that must have cost them a fortune so far. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Nirvana show where they don’t mash their stuff, letting the adrenalin buzz take full control and explode in an frenzy. Chris is determined to make sure that the band’s bizarre assimilation into mainstream US culture will not effect his life. He seems keen to remain outside the star system that the spiritually bankrupt US is keen to perpetuate in an attempt to fill the void.
“You get used to people staring at you and all that whispering stuff, but I don’t want to live like a freak. This whole success thing won’t be around for ever, people see me on the streets and in the shops and sure, they chatter about it. Big deal! We’re taking the glamour out of rock ‘n’ roll, the idea of being a celebrity.”
Back in Aberdeen (Washington State lumber town where the band bust out from), the band, despite being fairly antagonistic towards the place, are still well received.
“People there seem to be pretty happy that we have made it. In the papers we haven’t been that kind to Aberdeen, but we were telling the truth. That place had a pretty rough kinda climate, but in general people seem to be pretty happy for us.”
Being huge in the ’90s seems to be a very different experience to being huge in the ’60s. A band like Nirvana, who have a very definite and very intelligent attitude, have something to input into the mainstream, whether instinctive or more thought out. Sure enough they’ve sold a mountain of vinyl, but pop music seems isolated nowadays; groups massive in the pop field just don’t seem to cross right over into the real world. It’s not like the Beatles short circuiting everyone’s lives (and Nevermind has out-sold a rack of the Beatles albums). Nosovelic feels that Nirvana maybe more symptomatic of the times than anything.
“There is a real climate of discontent in the US right now. Pop music is important, music gets people going, you can use it positively or negatively. Everyone is inclined towards a good melody, you’ve just got to use your fifteen minutes of fame. We say stuff about sexism, try and spark a dialogue.”
The underlying trend in Nirvana is an instinctive grasp of the changing times. Behind that snarling attack, those neat Beatloid melodies and that frustrated scream of a voice, there is a feeling that in all this confusion maybe there is an underlying trend towards a better future. Their music hints at this, maybe that’s why they have got so massive. How is the cynical media taking to this novelty intelligent approach from a white heat rock ‘n’ roll band?
“We’ve been treated really well, we’ve not really been slagged off, though our image of a group with a cinderella image has stuck, you know, the ‘small town band that’s made it really big’. That’s combined with this image of having a bit of ethic talking. We just want to talk about sexism and get some awareness out there, but we know how difficult it is to do that.”
Nirvana are the other side of the so-called ‘Generation X’ coin, the swamped in trash and apathy generation that Dinosaur Jr. mirror pretty neatly, they represent the confusion and grasping for some sort of idea of what the ’90s are about. Kobain writes great rollercoaster pop songs chocked full of witty lyrics that probe and question even the band’s very point of existence.
Let’s face it, Nirvana are the first true stars of the ’90s.