- Ann Scanlon
- Kurt Cobain
- Krist Novoselic
- Dave Grohl
||Heaven Can Wait
Once the darlings of indie USA, NIRVANA are now on a major label, and if their new album, 'Nevermind', is anything to go by, their future seems assured. ANN SCANLON tried to get some sense out of the band who turn hatred into bliss.
Of all the bands on Sub-Pop, none burnt with the brilliance of Nirvana. Their 1989 debut LP, "Bleach", revealed a riffaholic pop band as heavy as Slayer, as melodic as The Monkees, and now, signed to Geffen, they have just released their second LP, "Nevermind", which is already a serious contender for album of the year. If singer Kurdt Kobain had the pleasure of watching his own band play, he would probably describe Nirvana as "the most beautiful, intense, visceral band on the face of this planet" - and no one would bother to argue.
Unfortunately, as with all bands who are ruled by their instinct rather than their intellect, there are several drawbacks - as their press officer observed "There are two kinds of Nirvana interview," he said "There's the one where they're drunk and leaping on a table and talking shit. And then there's that one."
"That one" - which had just taken place in Nirvana's tour bus en route to the Reading Festival - isn't so very different from the first one, only this time it's early in the morning and Nirvana are hungover and slumped across a table but still managing to talk shit.
Interviewing Nirvana recalls those early features on Dinosaur Jr - um, you know, lots of pauses, averted gazes and meaningless spiels like "Our music is a medicine ball heaped upon the audience for their own therapy."
With Dinosaur, though, you didn't have to put up with a lame-brained drummer like Dave Grohl, the latest in a six-long line of Nirvana sticksmen. A pain in search of an arse, Dave's interview "technique" consists of a series of elaborate stories which aren't far-fetched enough to be unbelievable, yet are too tedious to make for an obvious game of Let's Bait The Journalist.
You need Dave The Drummer about as much as you needed the oaf who opened the door of the band's Hammersmith hotel a couple of hours earlier, asked you who you were looking for, commanded you to "Wait there!" and then shouted into the tiny breakfast room "Is there anyone here from Nirvana? Yes? Well, I've got a groupie or something out here to see you!"
Are there really enough "groupies" or "somethings" out there desperate or curious enough to be making a 9am pilgrimage to some dog of a hotel that makes London's rock'n'roll Averarde (that's rock'n'roll as in those bands who'll never even make it to the Columbia) look like Hollywood's Sunset Marquis?
Kurdt Kobain offers his apologies and mumbles "This whole business is full of shit." It's the least you might hope for from a man who has expressed a "real hatred for the average American macho male."
Like most of the bands who've ever really meant anything, Nirvana know all there is to know about hatred. And having grown up in a place like Aberdeen (a redneck hellhole midway between Portland and Seattle), their hatred found an easy target in the hundreds of average American macho males who surrounded them.
They formed Nirvana as a reaction to what wasn't going on around them and then relocated to Seattle. But this didn't lessen their hatred, it merely sharpened their focus.
"Leaving a small town kind of opened our eyes to lots of things," says the band's seriously tall bassist Chris Novoselic who has just been debearded after the girls from Hole expressed their physical disgust for facial hair. "Aberdeen was a very isolated town."
"But there are Aberdeens everywhere," stresses Kurdt. "All over America."
"All over the world really," continues Chris. "Just isolated places where there's like a collective unconsciousness. People arts just milling around and don't really know what's going on in the world or about life or anything."
Off-stage, Kurdt Kobain looks like an angel, onstage, he acts like nihilist - diving into the crowd, destroying his guitar arid hurling himself at the drum kit.
Courtney Love says that he reminds her of one of those tacky paintings that you see in bed-sits and Woolworths the world over. The one of the little boy with huge eyes and a single tear trickling down his face; sweet and innocent on the surface but with something far more sinister lurking beneath. Kobain once expressed the desire to debase every rock'n'roll form that's ever existed and the "the collective unconsciousness" (of Aberdeens everywhere) are providing much of his raw material.
"Bleach" was filled with smalltown psychos like "Floyd The Barber", "Mr Moustache" and (perhaps most memorably) "Negative Creep", with its monstrous riffs and crazed chorus of "Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more/Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more". Was "Negative Creep" a heavy duty look at child abuse?
"It's nothing to do with child abuse," moans Chris, sounding genuinely horrified.
"It could be," offers Kurdt, who actually wrote it. "Yes. No. Maybe so."
"It's just ranting and raving, that's all it is," counters Chris.
"It's just somebody sounding miserable, it's not about child abuse. 'Luka' is about child abuse."
"Well child abuse is a good try," says Kurdt. "That's kinda cool. I'm glad people ask questions like that because usually no one has any questions about the songs. They don't have any idea of what the subject's about."
It's not really surprising that no one bothers to ask what the songs are about. Try to get Nirvana to give you some clues about "Smells Like Teen Spirit", their new single and the song that contains the title phrase "Nevermind", and the best Kurdt can offer is "It's about breath smells and underarm deodorant."
Then again, Nirvana and producer Butch Vig (Killdozer, Smashing Pumpkins) are probably perverse enough for that to be the case.
"I usually just take the J Mascis Fifth Amendment and say nothing," shrugs Kurdt. "I personally don't care what my favourite bands' music is about or what their personal interests are. It usually just affects me musically. I mean, they could be speaking in tongues and it wouldn't matter to me as long as it sounds good."
Whatever their chosen subject, Nirvana have always had as much to do with love as they have with hate. "About A Girl" from "Bleach" was one of the finest love songs of the Eighties, while their debut single, "Love Buzz" (the original work of Shocking Blue, the band that gave Bananarama "Venus"), was an instant classic. Likewise, "Nevermind" has at least two timeless love songs in "Come As You Are" and "Drain You". Like Dinosaur, Teenage Fanclub and, more recently, Midway. Still, the secret of Nirvana is in the melody.
"We grew up on power ballads," says Kurdt. "We grew up on AM radio and AM radio is nothing more than melodic bullshit - The Carpenters, Tony Orlando & Dawn, stuff like that."
"You just take the music however you want," continues Chris. "You think it has melody? I guess it has melody, that's what a decent song's supposed to have. You know what really was kinda bugging me? That industrial dance stuff that's done bad. If it's done good, it's cool - like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry - but there's a lot of bad stuff out there, with no melody to it and just some guy yelling through a megaphone. I dunno, I like The Vaselines."
The late, lamented Vaselines are one of the bands that Nirvana hold most dear. Not only does "Dyin' For It" provide their in-van CD entertainment, but "Molly's Lips" is a regular feature in their live set and singer Eugene's band, Captain America, are set to support Nirvana on their European tour. Other bands that Kurdt works up a genuine enthusiasm for are Beat Happening, The Wipers, Daniel Johnson, Jad Fair and Shonen Knife - an all girl trio from Japan whose cult status is such that the likes of L7 and Fright Wig (the now defunct grand Babes of the whole girls-with-guitars scene) did a covers LP of Shonen songs.
"We saw Shonen Knife and they were so cool," enthuses Kurdt. "I turned into a nine-year old girl at a Beatles concert. I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out - it was amazing. I've never been so thrilled in my whole life. They play pop music - pop, pop, pop music."
It was Nirvana's own inimitable vision of pop music that always had them pegged as the Sub-Pop band most likely to succeed, and they recently followed their mates Sonic Youth (who they supported on the West Coast tour last year and, as a prelude to Reading, in Cork and Dublin) on to Geffen. Kurdt, however, remains less than impressed by their new home.
"They have wonderful accountants, they have wonderful lawyers," he deadpans. "They have people who work there who don't even like music - what more can you ask for?"
At this point Dave The Drummer pipes up with a detailed story about the new major label style Nirvana. He reckons that, whenever a new member joins the band, they have to sign a yearly contract, and his own expires on September 22. It's probably untrue, but Kurdt, who has had to tolerate many drummers, offers a good enough reason to believe it.
"We're sick and tired of working with lame idiots," he says. "Not to say that Chad (Channing, who played on "Bleach") was a lame idiot or Danny or Dale or Dave or Ignatio, but we're in fear of working with lame idiots and we want to play it safe."
Whatever, signing to a major gave Nirvana access to a far more generous recording budget for "Nevermind" than the $600 they had to make "Bleach".
"We downed a lot of hypodermic cough syrup and Jack Daniel's and just lounged on the couch in the recreation area of the studio for days on end, just writing down a few lyrics here and there," reckons Kurdt. "If we hadn't met our time commitments at the end of our recording period, we would just have bought our songs from Gloria Estefan or Warrant or J Mascis. J's got a shit-load of songs floating around. He's always trying to palm them off on people too - 'Here, you wanna buy a song for a quarter?' That's a quarter of a million dollars - that's what we mean when we say a quarter - and we can afford that cos we're on a major label now.
"Oh, here's a quote," he adds with sudden enthusiasm. "If you can't do anything about your body odours, you eat breath mints and bathe in perfume, and if you can't write a good song you just hire professional songwriters and studio musicians."
It's difficult to tell from what they say, but has their attitude changed over the years?
"We're less stressed," offers Chris.
"More drugs, less stress," laughs Kurdt.
"Ever since I've been doing my mantra pyramid power lotus love meditations," continues Chris, "I've got a grip on my personality."
So you have "found God" like it says on "Lithium"?
"Well, I try to," says Chris. "It's kind of a transient thing. Sometimes you find God sitting in a hotel room reading a book - it's just an attitude, I guess. Nobody knows what happens to you when you die," he continues, and it's difficult to tell whether he hasn't suddenly become serious.
"A lot of people have an idea, and some people are pretty convinced about it, but I think that even the most crazy religious fanatic must feel certain doubt somewhere in their mind. Some people take it all so seriously, I can't believe it. Have you heard of Kazantzakis?"
He wrote "The Last Temptation Of Christ" and "Zorba The Greek".
"Yeah, 'Zorba', that's what I'm reading right now. I like him, he's cool."
To go back to what Chris was saying about people taking things seriously, does that sum up Nirvana's whole philosophy about the band - don't think about it, just do it?
"Well, yeah," says Chris, "I've always really liked music, ever since I was a kid. I was really in love with certain bands and they were like my bands. It was probably an identity thing too for me, so I'm really glad that I'm doing something that I totally want to. It means a lot to me, it's not just some kind of fashion thing."
"You better watch yourself Chris," warns Kurdt, "you're getting a bit too serious. You're gonna get fired, man."
"I smoked hash last night, man," returns Chris. "I always get philosophical after I've been smoking. I fancy myself as a pothead philosopher."
As for Kurdt, his personal view of Nirvana probably hasn't changed that much from when he was the only punk in Aberdeen seven years ago.
"We're just a bar band, that's all we are," insists Kurdt. "We get up and play in bars."
If you've ever witnessed Kurdt smashing up his guitar, mid-song, and carry on playing, you'll know there's never been a bar band to touch Nirvana.
© Ann Scanlon, 1991