Titanic! The Nevermind Recording Sessions
It took seven weeks and countless arguments about producers, mixing and fakery. Butch Vig tells Peter Henderson the story behind Nirvana's breakthrough album.
Nirvana were a promising live act in early 1990, but Sub Pop boss Jonathan Poneman had bigger plans: "They're going to be bigger than The Beatles," he insisted to the producer he was trying to secure for their second album. Butch Vig had attracted Poneman's attention via his production work for punk labels Twin Tone, Touch And Go and Mammoth; his Sub Pop recordings included work with Tad and Smashing Pumpkins.
In any event, Poneman's proclamation was unnecessary. Vig had heard Bleach, Nirvana's debut album: "I loved some of the stuff on there, particularly About A Girl because it had such a pop element to it - it could have been a John Lennon song." Without hearing any demos of new material, Vig agreed to work with the band, joining them at Smart studios in Madison, Wisconsin in April 1990. By now, guitarist Jason Everman, who had helped bankroll Bleach but had not actually played on the album, had departed in November 1989, initially to join Soundgarden; hence the band was now a three-piece, with Kurt Cobain on guitar and vocals, Chris Novoselic on bass, and Chad Channing on drums. Where Bleach was recorded in around 30 hours, with a studio bill totalling $606.17, the intended Sub Pop follow-up seemed a luxuriously leisurely affair. Over eight days they recorded seven tracks. "The first thing I noticed was that Kurt's songwriting was a lot better," says Vig. "The songs were very focused. What impressed me most is how hooky they were; Kurt thought of them as pop songs." The seven tracks were Lithium, Dive, In Bloom, Imodium, Pay To Play, Sappy and Polly. Vig considered the sessions successful, bar some problems with the rhythm tracks: "They struggled recording some of them, which did cause tension between Kurt and Chad."
Channing's light, jazzy touch had always been a cause of friction; after seeing hardcore band Scream with friends The Melvins in San Francisco, Cobain and Novoselic saw a promising replacement in their drummer Dave Grohl. Invited to Seattle for an audition in the summer, Grohl arrived with his drums in a cardboard box, and after playing together for a couple of minutes, Chris and Kurt decided the dynamic, hard-hitting drummer was exactly what they needed. By now, tracks that had been recorded for commercial release on Sub Pop were circulating major record labels as a demo tape in search of a big money deal - and the majors were biting. On April 30, 1991, Geffen secured its victory with a $287,000 advance, and above-average royalty deal. The necessary buyout from Sub Pop was achieved with $75,000- the band contributed half the sum - plus a two per cent royalty on their next two albums.
Geffen, keen to use an established producer, decided that the entire album should be re-recorded, suggesting Scott Litt (R.E.M.), David Briggs (Neil Young) and Don Dixon as contenders. The band pushed for Vig, and at one point a compromise, with Dixon producing and Vig engineering, was broached. "I had just finished Gish with the Smashing Pumpkins and a lot of people liked it, but Geffen didn't really know me," Vig explains. "I knew Don Dixon and I thought it might work well, but Don couldn't do it for contractual or scheduling reasons. So at the eleventh hour, a week before we were going to start, they said, 'Can you do the record?'"
Before the sessions proper, Vig and the band spent around five days fine-tuning arrangements. Cobain wanted merely to run through the songs a few times as he was more interested in catching the moment than making sure the song was perfect. "We did some arranging in the rehearsal room," says Vig. "Teen Spirit was quite a lot longer, for instance. Most of the songs were fine the way they were. With some it was just a question of tightening things up if they were too long."
The rehearsal sessions were the first time that Vig had heard Grohl's drumming. Told by Kurt that the band had secured the drummer of their dreams, Vig could only agree: "Grohl is incredibly loud and rock solid. One of the best rock drummers I've ever worked with."
In May 1991, recording proper commenced at Sound City studios (previous clients included Tom Petty) in Van Nuys, California; total budget was $65,000. Its large recording area was a key point in its favour. "I'm a drummer so I'm very particular about drum sounds," Vig observes. "The studio had a great big tracking room, which would help us get a good live drum sound."
The band's intention was that the album's sound should faithfully replicate their live show; hence Vig recorded them as a live three-piece, adding guitars and redoing the vocals later on. This presented a technical problem: an ambient mic, needed to record a 'live' drum sound at a distance, would also pick up the other instruments. "The drums were in the centre of the room with Kurt off to one side and Chris off to the other. So we could use an ambient mic in the kick [bass] drum, we built this 'drum tunnel', made of bass drum cases glued together, which came out about eight feet into the room. It worked really well."
The band's new rhythm section meshed perfectly, completing the backing tracks in five or six days. The band would typically start around two in the afternoon. If recording proved stressful, they'd leapfrog their mental blocks by roaring through old songs by Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. After the day's work, vigorous relaxation was normally on the cards. "Dave was really enthusiastic the whole time," says Vig. "Chris liked to goof around more and drink Jack Daniel's. He got into trouble on a few occasions. One night he had drunk a lot of Jack Daniel's and they went to some show via Laurel Canyon and got stopped because he was swerving around with the van. He ended up in jail and Kurt and Dave ended up walking home seven miles. When I came in the next day there was no sign of them. His management bailed him out 16 hours later,"
Vig found Cobain harder to read. "Kurt was very moody. I knew that from the Smart studio sessions. He was very difficult to figure out because he could be in an elated mood, ready to play, then half an hour later he'd just sit in a corner and not say anything to anybody. Sometimes it would bring the session to a halt. He would be totally uncommunicative."
The method of recording the guitars triggered disagreements. Kurt wanted to keep to the punk ethic and play only one take while Vig favoured layering the guitars with different sounds. "For the most part, when I asked him to do stuff he'd eventually do it," says Vig. "But sometimes he would say, 'I'm not going to play that any more.'
"Kurt played a left-handed Mosrite a lot. He had a Mesa Boogie amp, and we rented a Fender Bassman, a Vox AC3O and a Marshall stack which we didn't really use.
"I found out right away that Kurt didn't like to sing a lot. I would record him warming up and if I was lucky I would get three more takes out of him. He likes to slur the words and sometimes it took me several passes to figure out what he was singing. But that's part of what made his singing special. He gave those words some magic, in that you don't always know what he was saying. I would then pick one as the best and then take certain bits from the other tracks. That was it. He was that good."
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Butch Vig: "The first time I heard Teen Spirit it stunned me. I hadn't seen them play with Dave before- it was in this big room and it was really loud."
Kurt himself explained the song as the band's attempt to match the Pixies, describing the central guitar riff as "really stupid", a cross between Louie Louie and Boston's More Than A Feeling. Yet for all the guitar's muscle, it was the progression in the vocal melody that gave the song much of its dynamic force; this progression was worked up in rehearsal: "Kurt said before playing it, 'I don't know where I should go with this vocal melody'," Vig explains. "He was strumming an acoustic guitar and played me two melodies. I said, I like it when you drop down low because there is more of a dichotomy of notes in the verse."
Hence the "here we are now, entertain us" melody (the lyric taken from Kurt's habitual opening line at parties) became defined as the song's hook, and a classic was born: "They launched into it as a band and it just roared. I got up and started pacing round the room. It was so incredibly powerful and I had them play it as much as I could get away with. We knew it was great - it's like an anti-anthem - and a week after recording it I suggested that it should be the lead-off track, that it should set the tone for this record."
One of the first tracks to be recorded, Teen Spirit was fuelled by an argument between Cobain and Grohl - "for some reason Kurt really got on Dave's case and pissed him off" - following which Grohl "totally flailed" and drove the band on to a definitive take. Kurt needed considerable persuasion to layer the guitar sound, but the vocal was captured with comparative ease. "We were lucky with the vocal - I kept the warm-up and he did three other takes. Then I spent a lot of time doing a comp[osite] version; each verse has a different feel to it but it also needed a certain continuity to it. The 'hello, hello' and the choruses are double-tracked. Kurt's voice sounds great double-tracked."
The title came from a night when Kurt and Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna went out drinking and spray-painting revolutionary slogans around Olympia, Washington State. After returning to Kurt's apartment they continued talking about teen revolution, and Hanna wrote the words 'Kurt smells like teen spirit' on his apartment wall. Kurt took it as a compliment, not finding out until after the album's release that Teen Spirit was a deodorant.
Vig: "In Bloom has that amazing chorus - an amazing hook. The arrangement is the same as on the demo, except none of us was very happy with the drums."
Worked up as a fully-fledged song by the time of the Smart recordings, In Bloom's heavy guitar rush counterpointed a lyric that addressed fans who'd jumped on the Nirvana bandwagon, hence the lyric, "He likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means." The final version benefitted from a simplification of the original over-complicated drum part, and a guitar trick borrowed from Brum's finest for a heavy, doomy sound: "They found out that Black Sabbath tuned their guitars down, so we tuned the guitars down to D or maybe even C sharp. Once again, it was a very quick take, second maybe. Dave did the backing vocals, having to sing about a step higher than he could sing and his voice would break and we'd all be laughing hysterically. We worked a lot on Kurt's voice: we tried a lot of mics and ended up using a Neumann microphone that brought out the flaws in his voice that I was so enamoured with, the raspiness and growliness."
Come As You Are
Kurt Cobain's message to his disenfranchised audience was simple: he would accept them as they were, and he offered them no threat. His lyrics were more or less complete by the time Vig first heard the song, recorded in a rehearsal on an old boom box. Vig: "The backing track was very quick. We actually triple-tracked the bass: a regular bass, then Chris played an octave bass, then he tuned the bass strangely and ran it through a DBX sub-harmonic effect. We were trying to make the bass sound like a 12-string."
Kurt's distinctive guitar sound derived from an old Small Clone guitar effects pedal. Once again Vig layered the guitars, asking Cobain to crank up his Mosrite through a Fender Bassman amp for the distorted sections: "Kurt wasn't into it at all. He kept saying, 'It's fake,' but he got into it after a while.
"The vocal was a first take. He sang it brilliantly all the way through, then I asked him to do another. I didn't plan to double-track him but the second take was great and the phrasing was so similar. He said, 'We don't want to do that.' I said, Let's live with it and see if we get used to it." Kurt did.
Vig: "The song starts with a really scratchy guitar. That's where Kurt plugged straight into the mixing desk, a really punk thing."
Breed was one of the seven songs recorded for the Smart tapes, on which it was named Imodium, after the anti-diarrhoea drug. The final arrangement was almost identical to the earlier version, although Grohl's drumming added substantially more poke. For this song, Sound City's Neve mixing desk came in for some sonic abuse: "For the bass distortion we turned the amp up really loud and in the mix we also overloaded the board. We didn't use any pedals, just overloaded the channels. We went for a Ramones-type panning. Guitar hard right, drums hard left. The solo was played through a Tube Screamer [distortion pedal]. A lot of Kurt's solos had a simple melodic sensibility and he would record them very quickly"
Breed's lyric matches the punk aesthetic. Kurt says "I don't care" a few times, then "I don't mind" and then "I'm afraid", finishing with "I don't mind if I don't have a mind".
Vig: "Lithium was a problem. It was a really long day" Lithium is prescribed to regulate mood swings for bipolar or manic depressives; Cobain used the title as a religious analogy, probably inspired by his stay with his friend Jesse Reed, whose parents were born-again Christians.
Lithium proved relatively difficult to record, partly because Cobain insisted on an even tempo, keeping the same pace for the raucous choruses and the more thoughtful, guitar-led section. Grohl therefore recorded the drums to a click track, with the bass and guitars added later. The quieter guitar parts were also done separately. "Kurt's a great rhythm player," Vig points out. "After we got the sound, he'd only need one or two takes. Doing vocals he would sing so hard and passionately that he would not be able to speak for about 10 minutes afterwards. Some days that would be all I would get out of him. He would sing three or four takes of one song and wouldn't be able to talk."
Vig: "Polly was the last thing we did at Smart and it was recorded really raw, late at night. Not too much thought went into it. Kurt just wanted to record the track at that moment. He played the song and sang it at the same time, just acoustic guitar and voice."
While most of the Smart songs were re-recorded at Geffen's insistence, it was agreed that this poignant, disturbing song had "such a vibe we didn't want to mess with it. Kurt had a five string acoustic. It was really beat up and he never tuned it. Everything had to tune to it - a real pain in the ass. Later he went back and did some harmonies on it and Dave added some cymbals. I didn't realise what it was about at the time, but it sure was creepy"
The stark, unadorned Smart sound was particularly appropriate given the subject matter. Sung in the first person from the rapist's point of view it was based on a true story of a 14-year-old girl returning from a punk show in Tacoma, Washington, in June '87, who was kidnapped, raped and tortured. She escaped when her attacker, Gerald Friend, stopped at a gas station. Friend was subsequently jailed. The story's disturbing resonances were reinforced after Nevermind's release, when a woman was raped as her two attackers sang the song. Kurt responded in the Incesticide liner notes, referring to them as "Two wastes of sperm and eggs."
Vig: "That's Chris singing at the front. I think I suggested we should put something kind of odd in there. So he went in and sung a little bit of The Youngbloods' Get Together. Kurt asked him to sing it 'joyously terrible'. The guitar was DI'd [directly injected] straight into the board, like many punk bands of the '70s and early '80s."
The most straight ahead punk song on the album, this subsequently became their end-of-set equipment smashing song. The lyrics are a series of random lines loosely aimed at Cobain's hatred of macho posturing; he also returns to his feelings of (literal) alienation: "I wanted to be from another planet real bad."
Vig: "This took time. We originally had some different parts in the middle." Drain You is essentially a conventional love song with the unconventional subject of two babies lying in a hospital bed; the title refers to how each will drain the other of infection.
Vig: "Instead of concocting a guitar solo, every time Kurt did a vocal pass he would run to the side of the room at that part of the song and pick something up - squeaky ducks, percussion things or an aerosol. It became an abstract part for 17 bars. We just left them all in on the mix."
Vig: "We struggled a bit on this one. Five or six takes. We changed a few of the fills. Kurt plays this through the AC3O and then added some Bassman guitars when the guitar picks up. I love the melodic hook on this. A very quick vocal."
The song's title comes from the band's belief that it sounded like a 'lounge song'; something a bar band would play. The lyric looks at how relationships can inhibit artistic aspirations. At the end of the song the tape is slowed down, so that the last chord grinds to a halt.
Vig: "We already knew this as Pay To Play from Smart. The line he says on the end, 'God is gay', which we thought was extremely funny, caused a fair amount of controversy when it came out among the right-wingers, who held it up as an example of why music should be censored."
The arrangement is similar to the Smart version, although the band's delivery is far more powerful. The main riff dates back to the self-penned four track demo that Kurt gave to Novoselic before starting the band (called Fecal Matter, it featured Kurt, Greg Hokanson on drums and The Melvins' drummer Dale Crover on bass.)
"Kurt changed the lyrics when he went in to sing it," says Vig. "That surprised me, I thought the original lyrics were good."
On A Plain
Vig: "A great pop song. A really new one. It took a few takes to get it."
The song was written just before the Sound City sessions started, hence Kurt's lyric, "One more special message to go and then I'm done and I can go home." The harmony vocals on one of the most melodic songs of the album were Dave Grohl's. "Kurt just wanted him in a couple of spots," says Vig. "We argued, Kurt wanted them out, but I suggested leaving them in until the end, when the song fades you'll really hear them. We did another mix with the Kurt's and Dave's 'ooh' backing vocals continuing after the end but Kurt thought it was too poppy. Kurt wrote the lyrics right before he sang them. The line 'Don't quote me on that' was an in-joke that week. Everyone would say: 'But don't quote me on that.'"
Something In The Way
Vig: "This was written just a week before recording and was by far the most difficult track to record. We spent most of a day trying to record it as a band, working out different drum parts. Kurt came into the control room and said, 'I can't get into this at all.' I said, 'How do you hear it then?' and he sat down on the couch and was hardly mumbling the vocal, playing the guitar so quietly. So I said, 'Everybody shut up,' turned the fans and everything off and brought a couple of mics into the control room. He kind of laid on the couch and I gave him an acoustic mic and a vocal mic and he recorded it in the control room. Then he put the harmonies on and we went back and did the bass, which Chris found very hard. We then recorded the drums in studio B. It almost killed Dave to play so quietly.
"Kurt also suggested bringing in cellist Kirk Canning, who was Dee Plakass's [from L7] husband. We had a problem with intonation because everything on the track had to be tuned to Kurt's guitar. "This is my favourite on the record. It has an unbelievable sound to it. It's the most intense song on the record and the most understated."
Although reluctant to discuss the his songs' meanings, Kurt would later explain that Something In The Way related to his brief experience of living under the North Aberdeen Bridge over the Wishkah river in late 1985.
Vig: "Lithium took quite a while. It was a long day and Kurt became very frustrated, and after we finally got a take, they launched into Endless Nameless and Kurt fucking went ballistic. He was screaming so hard I swore to God he had blown his vocal cords out and in the middle of it he smashed his guitar up. It was the only left-handed Mosrite he had but he was so pissed off that he didn't care. He went back in and screamed some more. We spent the next day going round LA trying to track down another left-handed Mosrite."
After the mix, Vig was told the song would be added at mastering stage, but the mastering engineer, thinking he'd reached the end, stopped the tape. Hence around 50,000 copies omitted the track, which on later pressings was placed 10 minutes three seconds after Something In The Way.
Time pressures meant that Vig was forced to go straight from recording into mixing. The results were rough, and the drums in particular failed to capture the natural beef of Dave's playing. "I wasn't totally happy with the mixes," Vig recalls. "Kurt would come in and say, 'Take all the high end off the snare.' They wanted them to sound sludgy. I was trying to make them sound focused but also to give them what they wanted. I thought they could be better - the management and the record company definitely thought so.
"[Geffen A&R] Gary Gersh sent us a list of remix engineers, 10 or 15 names." The list included Scott Litt and Ed Stasium; Cobain settled on Andy Wallace, who'd mixed Slayer's Seasons In The Abyss. The remixes took two weeks; samples were added to the kick and the snare drum and effects added on voice and guitars. The band initially approved the results, but later they would condemn the sound as being more Motley Crüe than punk. Vig defends Wallace's input: "A lot of the stuff Andy used was real subtle. He'd add a stereo ambience to the vocals and delays and make sure there was really good separation between the instruments. The record sounds so loud. It worked out great."
Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 with a 50,000 pressing. After the success of the MTV-rotated Smells Like Teen Spirit, the album finally hit Number 1 on January 11, 1992, going on to sell over 12 million copies. Despite the furore surrounding the band, Vig says that the album's appeal comes firstly from the songs: "The songs are so hooky. They have such a beautiful melodic sensibility to them and Kurt's voice has a persona that draws you in. Kurt was very knowledgeable about art and books. He was very liberal and had a passion, almost a hatred, for gay bashers, racists etc, because he also felt like an outsider. He felt a kinship to the downtrodden, people who were abused. I miss him."
After the album's release, Vig lost touch with his charges. "I went to see them play at a club in Chicago two weeks after the record came out and there was this unbelievable buzz in the air. It was like electricity. We knew we had made this special record and the kids were totally into it. The show was sold out and there were hundreds of people in the streets who couldn't get in. I went down and saw the band and Kurt ran up to me and gave me this big bear hug. We knew something was going to happen.
"We hadn't realised when we started the record, but a lot of hardcore fans and industry people were very interested. I thought it would be great to sell 500,000 records. Gary Gersh said Kurt had what it takes to transcend other artists. He certainly was a really special human being.
"I think Nevermind did change the music business to an extent. It killed the whole metal/hair band scene in the US and every label wanted to sign a Nirvana clone. Fortunately or unfortunately there is only one Nirvana. I think we realise now they had something that nobody else had. It changed my life. I went from working as an obscure engineer/producer to having every single label call me up. It opened up a lot of doors, but I've also come to realise that I'll probably never work on an album that has that kind of critical and commercial success again. I'm really lucky and also proud to have worked on it. Like any great music, it becomes intertwined with a certain time period in your life. It touched a lot of people in a lot of ways."
© Peter Henderson, '98. Transcribed by Alex Roberts w/ permission