MOJO #134 - January 2005. By Gillian G. Gaar

Mondo Nirvana

Fecal Matter session, December 1985

Kurt Cobain recorded this tape at the Seattle home of his aunt Mari Earl when he was 18 years old, handling guitar and vocals, with the Melvins’ Dale Crover on drums and bass. Early versions of Spank Thru and Downer were recorded on Earl’s 4-track TEAC deck, along with Sound of Dentage, Bambi Slaughter, Laminated Effect, Buffy’s Pregnant, Class of ’86, Blathers Log, Instramental and other unnamed numbers. Cobain dubbed copies onto cassette, drawing a large pile of excrement on the J-card.

“They would put down the music tracks first, then Kurt would put the headphones on and all you could hear was his voice screaming through the house!” Earl told the author in 1996. “It was pretty wild. My husband and I, we’d just look at each other and smile and go, ‘You think we should close the window so the neighbors don’t hear? So they don’t think we’re beating him or something?’”

The music veers wildly between heavy metal riffing and punk, and, though derivative, was interesting enough to capture Krist Novoselic’s interest, and the band that would become Nirvana began taking shape. 

KAOS radio session, Evergreen State College, 17 April 1987

By January 1987, Cobain and Novoselic were practicing with Aaron Burckhard, who they’d met at Melvins practices at Crover’s Aberdeen house. “I didn’t know they were musicians,” Burckhard says. “I just met them there and they said they were looking for a drummer. And I was a drummer. So we rounded up some drums and started practicing. I thought Kurt’s songs were great. But I never thought there would be a market for ‘em or that anybody would ever like them.”

By March, the nascent band was playing shows, and an April gig at the closing night of Olympia’s GESCCO Hall led to their only live radio session, on KAOS, the student-run station at Olympia’s Evergreen State College. Two members of another band on the bill (Danger Mouse), John Goodmanson and Donna Dresch, had back-to-back shows on KAOS, and offered the band then called Skid Row the chance to make an appearance.

Skid Row would perform ten songs: Love Buzz, Floyd the Barber, Downer, Mexican Seafood, White Lace and Strange, Spank Thru, Anorexorcist, Hairspray Queen, Pen Cap Chew, and Help Me, I'm Hungry. It’s the only known live performance of White Lace and Strange, by long-forgotten ’60s band Thunder and Roses. “We didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of songs in our repertoire, so we’d throw in a few covers,” Novoselic explains. “And we thought we’d do something obscure.” The set also included the never-recorded Anorexorcist, which the band would drop within a year, and Help Me, I’m Hungry which wasn’t performed again until the 1989 European tour.

“They didn’t seem nervous at all,” remembers Goodmanson. “Krist was always a sweetheart. Kurt was pretty quiet. The drummer was this metal dude; he had a funny mustache. He was way more macho than anybody else.” “It was a good break for us to do that show,” says Novoselic, and indeed, a tape of the broadcast quickly helped the band land gigs at other venues.

Dale Demo session, Reciprocal Recording, 23 January 1988

Skid Row petered out by the summer of ’87, and when Cobain and Novoselic began playing together a few months later, they brought in Crover to help record this demo at Seattle’s Reciprocal Recording. Producer Jack Endino had taken Cobain’s call setting up the session, mishearing his name as “Kurt Kovain.”

“They showed up right after noon,” says Endino. “We ran through the songs instrumentally, then Kurt said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do the vocals now,’ and just went through them, one take. I started at the top of the reel and pressed record: ‘Sing it.’ ‘Okay, next.’ They were probably done recording by 3:30, 4 o’clock, the mixes done by 5:30, and they were out the door by six.”

The ten songs were: If You Must, Downer, Floyd the Barber, Paper Cuts, Spank Thru, Hairspray Queen, Aero Zeppelin, Beeswax, Mexican Seafood, and Pen Cap Chew (the latter song having a fade ending, as the tape was running out). “They were very into being Melvins-like at that time, so it’s very punk-metal,” says Endino. “Good riffs. Good drumming. Good vocals. Great screaming! Excellent screams.”

More important than the session was what happened next. “I convinced them to leave the 8-track master, so I could make a mix of it for myself,” says Endino, who also passed a copy on to Jonathan Poneman, co-owner of Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. The result: Nirvana’s first recording contract.

Songs from the session have regularly appeared over the years: Floyd and Paper Cuts on Bleach (Downer later added to the CD), Hairspray Queen, Aero Zeppelin, Beeswax and Mexican Seafood on Incesticide, and If You Must and Pen Cap Chew now on With the Lights Out.

Love Buzz single sessions, 11, 30 June and 16 July 1988, Reciprocal Recording

After hearing the Dale Demo, Poneman offered the band a chance to record a single for Sub Pop. By June, they were back at Reciprocal, with a new drummer, Chad Channing, and a permanent name, Nirvana.

The session began with Blandest, then considered as a B-side; “It never really was a completed song, but we recorded it anyway,” says Channing. Next came first takes of Love Buzz and Big Cheese, followed by early versions of Mr. Moustache, an instrumental version of Sifting using a wah-wah pedal (Endino: “It was also used on Love Buzz, but on no other Nirvana songs, ever!”), and Blew.

The songs survive thanks to cassette reference copies the band made, as the original versions were recorded over. “The band didn’t want to spend another $50 on a reel of tape,” Endino explains. “They were like ‘These takes suck, let’s record over them.’ We did that routinely. I fitted new tracks over unwanted old takes right in the middle of the reels if necessary.” So at the next session, a new version of Spank Thru (with Endino on backing vocals) was recorded over Blandest, later appearing on Sub Pop 200. A second take of Big Cheese was then recorded over the first take of Love Buzz. The band also recorded a second take of Love Buzz, and a new version of Floyd, but quickly decided the latter wasn’t worth saving, as they recorded an instrumental take of Love Buzz over it (1:26 of Floyd remains on the master reels).

At the final session, Cobain recorded a new vocal for take 2 of Love Buzz. The single version, released that November as the first offering in the subscriber-only Sub Pop Singles Club, featured a brief sound collage intro, and another sound collage during the instrumental break. “Kurt had it on a cassette,” Endino explains. “But I didn’t have any more tracks, so while I was rolling the mix, we had the cassette going through the mixing board as a virtual ninth track. It was a one-off deal; when we remixed the song for the album, he didn’t have the cassette with him.”

Bleach album sessions, 24, 29-31 December 1988 and 14, 24 January 1989, Reciprocal Recording

After nightly practices in anticipation of recording their debut album, Nirvana began the Bleach sessions tuning down to what they thought was the key of D, but was actually C, recording presumably ultra-heavy versions of Mr. Moustache, Scoff, and Sifting; unfortunately, these versions were later recorded over by the same songs in a slightly different order (Scoff, Mr. Moustache, and Sifting). After trying a new version of Hairspray Queen, the band went on to record About a Girl, Blew, Swap Meet, and Negative Creep. Using the tape from the Love Buzz session, the band then recorded School over the first take of Big Cheese, and Big Long Now over the first take of Mr. Moustache.

“Recording was a pretty straight-ahead process,” says Novoselic. “Just replicate the live sound, get it sounding good. Kurt always nailed his vocals. He didn’t ever have to do any trickery. He just did it straight-ahead. He was also a very unconventional guitar player; dissonant, yet melodic too. Some guitar solos would just be crazy. But the vocal melodies were the clincher. It just seemed to work.”

Many of the lyrics weren’t finalized until right before recording; Channing recalls Cobain writing lyrics to Swap Meet while the band drove to the studio. “And Swap Meet was originally spelled ‘Meat,’” Endino says. “Why it became ‘Meet’ on the record I don’t know, because it would’ve been much funnier if it was ‘Meat.’” At the final session, Love Buzz and the Dale Demo versions of Floyd and Paper Cuts were remixed for the album (and a harmony vocal added to Paper Cuts).

Neither Hairspray Queen or Big Long Now made Bleach’s final cut. The album’s original, band-chosen running order was also substantially different: Floyd, Mr. Moustache, School, Scoff, and Sifting on side one (Endino: “We weren’t thinking in terms of CDs then”), Love Buzz, Swap Meet, Paper Cuts, Negative Creep, About A Girl, and Blew on side two (the UK release replaced Love Buzz with Big Cheese). Bleach was released June 1989.

Do You Love Me session, Evergreen State College, Spring 1989

Second guitarist Jason Everman’s only session with Nirvana resulted in a shambolic cover of Do You Love Me, released on the Kiss tribute album, Hard to Believe, and an early version of Dive, apparently originally slated for a split single with Alphabet Swill.

The session was produced by Greg Babior, an Evergreen student who’d shared bills with Nirvana in his own band, Lush; Babior needed to produce tracks for a class project, Nirvana welcomed the free studio time, The exact dates of the session are unknown, but the location was Evergreen’s Music Building, the band’s first time in a 24-track studio. “Though I can’t even imagine we used all 24 tracks,” says Babior. “There wasn’t any special overdubbing. Essentially, it was just the band, then Kurt would sing the vocals afterwards. Or Kurt and Krist, for the Kiss song.”

Fueled by a gallon of red wine, the band listened to a tape of Do You Love Me on the way to the studio; then, “We just went in and had fun,” says Novoselic. “They were really into the hard panning of their improv rants toward the end of the song,” says Babior. “They’re in different channels, left and right, so you can actually turn the balance on your stereo and hear them individually if you so desire!”

The track originally ended with the sound of the tape slowing down as the tape machine was shut off, replaced on the album by a quick fade. “The thing I picture is the people doing the mastering going, ‘Oh my God! What the hell is this at the end? This is so unprofessional, they’ve got the tape stopping!’ So they just faded it out,” says Babior.

As for Dive, “Kurt was busy writing the lyrics as we were listening to the playback,” Babior says. “It was interesting to watch him too, because he really worked himself up into a frenzy right before he sang.” When Babior gave his mix of Do You Love Me to Kurt, “He was like, ‘Oh yeah, thanks. The deadline for this is today.’ He hadn’t even told me when it needed to get done.” Perhaps fittingly, the song had only one known live performance.

The Jury sessions, Reciprocal Recording, 20, 28 August 1989

“We were all becoming big blues fans,” is Screaming Tree’s drummer Mark Pickerel’s memory of how he and the Trees’ lead singer, Mark Lanegan, help organize what became known as the Jury sessions, that also involved Cobain and Novoselic. “We were trying to create a modern day version of Cream or Led Zeppelin. The whole project was supposed to be blues-inspired.”

Lanegan and Cobain duly brought cassettes of their favourite Leadbelly songs to Nirvana’s practice space; “We started exclusively with Leadbelly, and we were going to branch out from there,” says Pickerel. But ironically, the sessions were somewhat stymied by the mutual respect Lanegan and Cobain had for each other. “They looked like junior high kids at a dance, a couple of wallflowers,” Pickerel says. “It was really frustrating. Neither one would take the initiative to make statements like, ‘I want to sing this song,’ or ‘I think you’d be great for the first verse, why don’t I come in for the chorus, and I’ll take the second verse.’”

Nonetheless, the session got off to a good start with Where Did You Sleep Last Night, with Lanegan on lead vocals. Then came an instrumental version of Grey Goose, followed by a bravura performance of Ain’t It A Shame with Cobain turning in a searing lead vocal. Cobain then performed a solo version of They Hung Him on a Cross, accompanying himself on guitar.

The group was dubbed the Jury at Pickerel’s suggestion; Cobain had favored the name Lithium, and Endino later jokingly referred to the group as “Screaming Nirvana” on the session’s paperwork. Where Did You Sleep… appeared on Lanegan’s solo album The Winding Sheet, but the other tracks remained in the vaults until With the Lights Out. “We certainly didn’t make a decision not to pursue it again, but everybody got really busy,” says Pickerel. “I really had high hopes for it; I wanted it to be a working band. But it just wasn’t meant to be I guess.”

Blew EP sessions, The Music Source, September 1989

The songs recorded at this Seattle session indicated the band was pursuing a poppier direction. “There wasn’t anything like a Sifting or a Scoff, nothing brutal like School,” Channing agrees. “But I didn’t see them as being that much different. They were a little more pop, a little more along the lines of About A Girl, but the progression we made felt pretty natural.”

Prior to the first session, Novoselic tried to get the band’s worn equipment into better shape; Channing’s kick drum was held together with “reams and reams of duct tape,” producer Steve Fisk recalls. Still, the band had no trouble laying down five tracks on the first night, Stain, Been a Son, Token Eastern Song, Polly, and Even in His Youth.

Overdubs were added to Stain and Been a Son at a session the following week; two guitar solos on Stain (“And they’re both equal volume, like squabbling hens,” says Fisk), and a bass solo on Been a Son. “Which Krist never liked,” Fisk admits. “It probably would’ve been better having a guitar solo, but I was into the idea of trying to do something weird with it.” Cobain also doubled his vocals on the two tracks, adding “Rubber Soul, John Lennon kind of harmonies” to Been a Son. Both songs appeared on the Blew EP.

But the other songs remained unfinished; Fisk notes that the instrumental break in Even in His Youth was supposed to be filled by a guitar solo. “You can also hear that Kurt doesn’t do the big screams,” he adds. “He holds back.” Still, the session came to a memorable conclusion. “They really liked the studio’s monitors, because they were so huge sounding,” Fisk says. “And we had a very expensive digital reverb we were fooling with; I told them it was the kind of thing you would use if you were trying to make something sound like silly radio shit. And when Been a Son was done, Kurt and Krist asked, ‘Can we dance on the tables?’ They jumped on one table and I jumped on another, and as we listened to the song, we rocked.”

Sappy sessions, Reciprocal Recording, 2-3 January 1990

Perhaps Nirvana’s most extravagant session; two days spent on a single song (seven hours the first day, three the next). “Part of what took a long time was getting a drum sound,” says Endino. “Because they literally wanted a Steve Albini drum sound. They wanted a lot of room mics, and frankly the room at Reciprocal was a lousy room to put room mics in; it was very dead sounding. I did the best I could, and it actually sounds pretty Albini-esque, if I dare say so myself! They were pretty particular. Kurt had very specific ideas for how he wanted the drums to sound and how he wanted the vocals to sound.” The band’s first studio attempt at Sappy remains unreleased.

Video session, Evergreen State College, 20 March 1990

Yet another session involving the facilities at Evergreen, “the original concept was to do stuff in the studio, then go to Aberdeen and shoot a bunch of other stuff and turn it into some hour long thing they would sell to fans,” says the session’s director, Jon Snyder. “And Kurt knew that I worked in Evergreen’s television studio.”

The session made use of the studio’s Chroma Key curtain, which enabled film footage to be projected behind the band. “We did no editing, and we did no after effects,” says Snyder. “Instead, we figured out a way to have it all happen live. We were switching between cameras in the studio control booth, which makes it look like it’s been edited, and all the effects were running off tapes in another room so they could be combined in as we were shooting. And the sound was live engineered sound.”

The band recorded two versions of School (one incomplete), with backing footage drawn from Cobain’s collection of video tapes (featuring Shaun Cassidy, contestants from Star Search, and Christian body builders The Power Team, among other treasures). The band then recorded an early version of Lithium so the bass level could be adjusted, followed by a jam; Novoselic also put strips of masking tape on his trousers, as “the blue was close enough to the colour of the blue screen that his legs were starting to disappear,” Snyder explains. Two versions of Big Cheese came next, backing footage drawn from the silent film Haxan: Witchcraft of the Ages. The final number was Floyd, with backing footage featuring super-8 film of Cobain’s artwork. He jumped into Channing’s drums at the song’s conclusion, “as per usual,” says the drummer. “Which usually guaranteed we wouldn’t be coming back onstage for any encores.”

Some footage from the session has appeared in Nirvana TV retrospectives; Snyder also edited versions of School and Lithium which appeared on Evergreen’s student cable access program 1200 Seconds.

Smart Studios sessions, 2-6 April 1990

Butch Vig had previously recorded Sub Pop bands TAD and the Fluid when Poneman called him about working on what was planned to be Nirvana’s second album for Sub Pop at Vig’s Madison, Wisconsin studio. “He said they could be as big as the Beatles,” Vig recalls. Vig wasn’t overly impressed by Bleach, but thought About A Girl was “fucking brilliant. Kurt had an amazing voice.”

The band began work on April 2. “Krist was very charming and pretty energetic and talkative and he was saying, ‘We want it to sound really heavy,’” says Vig. “That was basically all he said, they just wanted the record to sound heavy.” Work proceeded quickly, with the band recording Immodium (later renamed Breed), Dive, In Bloom, Pay to Play (later renamed Stay Away), Sappy, Lithium, the Velvet Underground’s Here She Comes Now, and Polly over the next five days.

“There were very few overdubs,” says Vig. “I got Kurt to double-track some of the guitars, though he wasn’t into it, and he dropped in a couple little lead things. And he would sing so hard, I was lucky to get him to do another take; he was hoarse the whole time he was there. The other guys did some overdubs, but the band was pretty much tracked live.” Vig also placed plywood under Channing’s drums to enhance the room’s live feel.

Vig recalls In Bloom as the track he focused on the most, “because it sounded like a single and it had an anthemic feel to it.” In contrast to the Fisk session, the new version of Polly was acoustic. “That’s how Kurt heard it in his head,” says Vig. “He used this really shitty acoustic guitar 5-string that had a sort of a plucky ukulele sound, which I thought was kind of cool.” The recording of Here She Comes Now was notable for Channing as he’d never heard the song before, “and I still have no idea what it sounds like!” he says.

Cobain was making it increasingly clear he was unhappy with his drummer. “Several times Kurt actually got over on the drums and tried to show Chad what to do,” Vig says. “There was some definite tension. And I also noticed how moody Kurt could be. We’d be working on a song, and a half hour later he would just shut down, for no apparent reason. I’d ask Krist, ‘Is Kurt okay?’ And Krist would go, ‘He’s okay, he just gets really moody sometimes.’”

Four of the songs were re-recorded for Nevermind (and Polly was simply remixed for the album), but the others were officially released; Dive as the B-side of Sliver, Pay to Play on DGC Rarities Volume 1, and Here She Comes Now on the Velvet Underground tribute Heaven and Hell Volume 1. A video of In Bloom appeared on Sub Pop Video Network 1, featuring footage from the band’s spring ’90 tour, including a sequence of the band miming “in some guy's photo studio in New York City,” says Channing. “No real direction was given except to act like we were playing the song right there.”

Sliver single sessions, Reciprocal Recording, 11, 24 July 1990

At the band’s last studio session for Sub Pop, they’d replaced Channing on drums with — temporarily, it turned out — Dan Peters. “It was brief!” Peters readily admits of his time with the band that included a one hour recording session for the Sliver single.

Basic tracks were laid down on 11 July while TAD was on their dinner break. “Tad Doyle didn’t believe it was only going to take an hour,” says Endino. “He was sure he’d come back and they’d still be fucking around on his time. But no, they were very very fast. I figured they could do it quickly, but you never know.” “We just went in and banged it out,” says Peters, who used the drums of TAD’s Steve Wied. “There was a bit of finessing here and there on my part, drumwise, but it was pretty straight ahead.” Peters wasn’t at the second session, when Cobain cut his final vocal and worked on the mix, which took 10 hours; “We spent a lot of time experimenting with reverbs and experimenting with gated room mics and just doing lot of strange stuff during the mix,” Endino explains.

Sliver was released in September, the same month Peters played his only show with Nirvana, 22 September at Seattle’s Motor Sports International Garage. His replacement, Dave Grohl, was watching in the audience.

© Gillian G. Gaar, 2004. Transcribed by Alex Roberts w/ permission