LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE August 20, 1991 - Cork, IE
- Keith Cameron
- Kurt Cobain
- Krist Novoselic
|New Musical Express||Nirvana Be In My Gang?||Yes|
|New Musical Express||I Don't Believe In Closing Off Options||Yes|
We're talking sublime here. NIRVANA are the greatest band to emerge from the American post-hardcore meltdown since Sonic Youth, they sound nothing like Husker Du and, with 'Nevermind', have the best rock LP of the year. KEITH CAMERON meets the armchair anarchists who thrive on teen spirit. Blissed out: ED SIRRS
Striding into the lobby of Cork's Grand Parade Hotel, Chris Novoselic ruffles his unruly mane, strokes his beard and announces: "I've just been on the phone to Boris Yeltsin. He asked me to come over and help him sort things out, and I said sure, but he'd have to wait 'til after Reading. Sorry!" Simultaneously thinking global and local, Nirvana's bass-playing giant is on line extemporal form. His band are in Ireland limbering up for the Reading Festival freak-out with a couple of club dates supporting mentors and major label-mates Sonic Youth, while in the other real world the tribes of Eastern Europe are celebrating the collapse of the totalitarian yoke by beating the shit out of each other. The surreality of life in a rock'n'roll band is not lost on Chris, an expat Yugoslav. He's about to release his second album; they're mobilising the local militia. Later that day, as we drive from Cork to Dublin, and his Nirvana colleagues Kurdt Kobain and Dave Grohl respectively sleep and play with a yo-yo, Novoselic alternates between chuckling at the obligatory This Is Spinal Tap video and sadly bemoaning the inevitability of the carnage in the land of his birth.
"Being aware of all this shit going on, it can be pretty heartbreaking. You have to be realistic - people are so stupid. During the Gulf War, I was so freaked out and angry that it was so wrong, such a fuckin' lie. I bored everyone cos that's all I'd talk about - it was a pressure-release valve. So I think the best thing for me to do is go through life the best I can. I'm gonna get a vasectomy cos that way I'm not responsible for anyone but myself."
The dictionary defines "Nirvana" as: "the ultimate state of spiritual enlightenment and bliss attained by extinction of all desires and individual existence". Kurdt Kobain recently applied a sticker to his guitar that reads: "Vandalism: Beautiful As A Rock In A Cop's Face".
Somewhere in between these two statements lies the key as to why Nirvana are the greatest band to emerge from the American post-hardcore melting pot since Sonic Youth started spiking our drinks all those years ago.
The former is a pretty accurate description of the personal chemical combustion one experiences at a full-on Nirvana live show. The latter hints at latent starpower, a smart/dumb polemical know-how that seems informed by their roots in the bland, isolated Pacific North-West.
Musically, Nirvana spring from the same pool as their ex-Sub Pop colleagues Mudhoney - a raw mix of '60s garage pop and '70s punk and metal - but they infuse it with an unsettling intensity that's far removed from the Mud boys' tongue-in-cheek riffling of the history books. That they also write brilliant pop songs is the icing on the cake and the tale's twist for, as Nirvana prepare to unleash their major-label debut LP later this month, they are poised to buck the system and, uh, shift units.
Or something like that. The trouble is that these three scruffy young men are perplexed at their position and find it a struggle to offer many insights to the source of their muse. Anyone who's ever seen Kurdt onstage will concur that hot fires burn barely below the surface, but in person he is on some permanent audition for the part of the dormouse in Alice In Wonderland.
"Erm," he mumbles. "I'm a narcoleptic, so I have a hard time being motivated at any time."
Ask Kurdt to explain a song and he gets considerably more animated, but only in order to avoid giving an explanation. An inquiry concerning the band's next single, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', elicits the following rap.
"It's about hey, brother, especially sister, throw away the fruit and eat all the rind… No longer is it taboo for the tattooed to take their generational solidarity and shove it up the ass of The Byrds and Herman's Hermits - loving disgraces we call parents… posing as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system, to slowly start its rot from the inside. It's an inside job, it starts with the custodians and the cheerleaders."
Let's try again. Why's the album called 'Nevermind'?
"Because most people would just as soon say, 'Nevermind' than take a can of spray-paint, or start a band," says Kurdt. "People just don't do things very often any more. I'm kinda disturbed by it. It'd be just as easy to spray-paint 'Kill George Bush' over and over. Whether that would have an impact on anything or not, it doesn't matter, it's still fun to do. Which is one of the lines in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit': 'It's more fun to lose than to pretend'."
Kurdt, it turns out, is quite the armchair anarchist. He's been arrested three times for unspecified acts of vandalism and considers such acts of subversion wholly admirable.
"Sure. I mean, I wouldn't want to assassinate anyone. Not just anyone. I wouldn't tell anyone not to, either. Christ, the United States are worse than anywhere I can think of, besides a completely communist country. They just passed a law where to come into the US and play music you have to prove you've 'achieved greatness'!"
"They're really smart, the government, those fascists," says Chris. "They don't want any punk bands to come over to rant to the kids, when they could be listening to Paula Abdul talk about broken hearts."
Nirvana clearly hope their attempt to kybosh MTV will offer America's disaffected youth a more valid concept of rebellion than the establishment-tolerated Guns N' Roses.
"Yeah," says Kurdt. "Maybe we can expose ourselves to a few gullible 15-year-olds and steer them in a better direction. I'm sure once Guns N' Roses got as big as they did, the government checked up on it and realised they didn't have the brains to be a threat to anyone."
Chris digs this one. "I mean, what does Axl Rose have to say to anyone? What's his platform? There's nothing! He just talks shit. He just… he throws bottles!"
"Actually," says Kurdt, "MTV really does try and be as subversive as it can. They're constantly exposing all the rights that are being taken away from Americans. But no one gives a fuck. They just warm see that damn Warrant video!"
Of course, cool words or not, Nirvana are just a fly on the pachyderm's back. George Bush is not about to be asphyxiated by the smell of their teen spirit, far less Warrant or Axl Rose. But once you accept that rock'n'roll doesn't really matter in any great political sense, then Nirvana are seriously important. Watching the kids in Cork and Dublin, all gaping mouths and shaking heads, it's obvious that this is a band that will inspire a generation to pick up guitars - and who knows, maybe the odd marker pen too.
But the guitars would do. Nirvana think being Nirvana is enough.
"What are we gonna do?" demands Chris. "Work in a gas station and pay off a car? Is that what life's about? Slack off! Take it easy, man, know what I mean? All you really have to do is eat. Whatever comes in between, just always have a good attitude, brother."
So is this the message from Nirvana? Get your priorities right?
"I asked my little four-year-old sister," smiles Kurdt, "'What's the biggest problem in the whole world, Brianne?' And she said, 'People need to concentrate more.' It was so awesome! She's gonna grow up to be something really great… and it won't be the president."
Yeah, that smells like teen spirit for sure.
© Keith Cameron, 1991
Back in August 1991, NIRVANA were just the latest in a long line of US rock hopefuls. Newly signed to Geffen, 'Nevermind' was about to take the world charts by storm and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' had yet to become the 'Stairway To Heaven' of it's generation. In a previously unpublished interview from this time, KEITH CAMERON looks back at the pre-storm calm...
What's with all this "NIRVANA INC" credit card business - so you've become a punk rock corporation?
Chris: "Actually we're pretty well broke, we piddled it all away on the album."
Kurt: "Thirty three per cent tax bracket, 15 per cent to our manager ten per cent to our lawyer, ten per cent to our accountant. We paid off Sub Pop quite a bit of money."
Chris: "We hired a manager and he took everything from there. He just happened to be Sonic Youth's manager, and Sonic Youth just happened to be signed to DGC. But we like DGC "Of all those f---ed-up major labels, they were the least f---ed-up. Now the f---in' Stone Roses are gonna be on the label and they're getting a ton of money, those guys really took Geffen to the cleaners.
"But you know, people were talking about us like that, thousands of millions. We didn't even get a quarter of what they're gonna get. A tenth of that. A f---in' tenth."
Was the split from Sub Pop amicable in the end?
Chris: "Uh yeah, we get along with each other now."
Kurt: "Bullshit, we hate their guts! The only communication we have with Sub Pop are our letter bombs and crank phone calls. We break into Sub Pop every other month and piss all over their Blood Circus CDs! Bruce and his henchmen come down to Olympia and jump me in the alleys! (Laughs.)
"We talk to them when ever we see them. The only thing Bruce and Jon set out to do in the first place was to help some of their friends put out some records. Then it gets really big all of a sudden, everyone started getting scared of the major label threat. We wanted to be off Sub Pop for about a year. And if we were to go onto any other label besides a major we wouldn't have been able to be bought out from Sub Pop. We wanted to have our record available in stores, basically, that was our main gripe. They weren't paying us, their accounting was a bit screwed up, but mainly it was because kids were coming up to us during shows, saying, 'We can't find your record anywhere.' Y'know, Bruce and Jon are running their label better than I could ever do, so I really have no reason to complain"
Chris: "Yeah but that's not your job to run a label. We gave them music and it's their job to provide."
Kurt: "Yeah, and they promoted it well."
Chris: "No they didn't. They were just lucky. Anyhow, we're working with someone else now. That's 'with', not 'for'."
Would you regard yourselves as particularly motivated to succeed in this crazy business?
Chris: "Oh yeah, we're yuppie rockers, upwardly mobile. "
Kurt: "I'm a narcoleptic, so I have a hard time being motivated at any time."
Chris: "We were motivated enough to get a manager. He's motivated for us. We don't give a f---, we just practice and go on tour."
Kurt: "And it's not because we're so anally anti-career-oriented, it's just that we don't have the patience to deal with all the managerial problems and the business part of the band. I don't care enough about it to deal with it. I used to forget things all the time when people would call up and try to book a show, I just didn't give a f---. There was awful communication between the band. 'Oops, I forgot…'"
The punk fundamentalists are already sharpening the knives for when your new album comes out - regardless of what it's like. As something of a punk fundamentalist yourself what do you think of it?
Kurt: "I think it's a fine mixture of radio friendly accessible crap and still reminding you of what our 'Bleach' album sounds like and what we sound like live. It's still heavy. The songwriting is a bit different but it's been two years since 'Bleach' so it's an obvious progression. In every interview we've had over the last two years we've been practically warning everyone that we're writing more pop songs, so I don't think it'll be a surprise to anyone when they hear it."
You presumably don't regard 'pop song' as a term of disgrace, then?
Kurt: "A disgrace? Oh, absolutely not. All my favourite songs are pop songs. The Butthole Surfers have pop songs. Pop just means simple, and that's what punk rock has been forever until it turned into hardcore."
Chris: "Like the Sex Pistols record, those are all pop songs. It's a great record. The Clash were a pop band."
Kurt: "I think the best Clash album is 'Combat Rock', I f---ing love that record! It's definitely better than 'Sandinista' "
And The Clash finally got to Number One this year with 'Should I Stay or Should I Go?'!
Chris: "How'd that happen?"
They used it on a Levi's commercial.
Kurt: "There you go! The Clash sold out ten years after they broke up! Well, The Ramones are on Budweiser commercials in the States, so…"
So why don't you do one?
Kurt: "Let's see. We'd only do either Dr. Bronner's soap or Depends diapers."
Chris: "We were bucking for a Pepsi endorsement but MC Hammer pipped us. Cmon man, ask us about the songs on our great new record!"
Righto. Tell us all about 'Territorial Pissings'.
Kurt: "I really don't have an explanation for that song. A lot of the time I write a song and when someone asks me about it I'll make up an explanation on the spot because a lot of times I write the Iyrics in the studio and I have no idea what I'm talking about half the time."
Cheers. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'?
Kurt: "Well it's about, hey brother, especially sister, throw away the fruit and eat all the rind…"
Chris: "Wow, I can see that, too."
Kurt: "No longer is it taboo for the tattooed to take their generational solidarity and shove it up the ass of the Byrds and Herman's Hermits-loving disgraces we call parents…"
Chris: "That's beautiful, that's really cool."
Kurt: "Posing as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system, to slowly start its rot from the inside. It's an inside job, it starts with the custodians and the cheerleaders."
Chris: "That's a good one. That's what that song's about too."
Kurt: "Or not." (Smirks.)
Let's try again. Why's the album called 'Nevermind'?
Kurt: "Because most people would just as soon forget or say 'never mind' than take a can of spray paint or start a band, make up excuses for not starting a band. I dunno. People just don't do things very often any more. I'm kinda disturbed about it."
Chris: "In LA there's graffiti all over the place and it's just dumb scribbles. It's territorial pissings, that's what it is, guys just writing on walls."
Kurt: "It's an excuse to feed their ego. It'd be just as easy to spray paint 'Kill George Bush' over and over again. Whether that would have an impact on anything or not it doesn't matter, it's still fun to do it. Which is one of the lines in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' - 'It's fun to lose than to pretend'."
Isn't Nirvana an excuse for not doing anything else?
Kurt: "We do plenty, as a band. And when we're not a band. I'm constantly vandalising. I think it's probably safe for me to say that publicly in an English paper, but I can't go into detail about it."
Chris: "He's made the local papers."
Kurt: "Many times. Many times I've been arrested."
So small scale subversion is something you admire?
Kurt: "Sure. I mean, I wouldn't want to assassinate anyone. Not just anyone. I wouldn't tell anyone not to, either."
Chris: "People deserve to see that kind of shit. Especially in the United States, people's heads are so far up their ass, and they're so set, you need to be shook a little bit."
Kurt: "It's just something to pass time, actually, just a little fun. Plus, they have nothing else to do in a small town, the cops."
Why not move to a city?
Kurt: "Well, because in a smaller place it might actually have an impact on people. In larger cities it's too common. Christ, the United States are worse than any place I can think of besides a completely communist country. They just passed a law where for anyone to come into the US and play music you have to be part of the musicians' union and you also have to prove you've 'achieved greatness'. Who knows what 'achieved greatness' means?! That means you've made so many thousands of dollars or you're in the charts or you can prove to them that you won't be taking away American jobs."
Chris: 'The mainstream just gets fed garbage and it's like a vicious circle, they do demographic surveys and see what people want. People want shit so they give 'em shit. People only ever hear shit so they never pick up on any new ideas. They're really smart, the government, those l fascists. They're not dumb. They don't want any l punk bands to come over and rant and rave to the kids when they could be listening to Paula Abdul talk about broken hearts."
Isn't it telling how MTV presents a band like Guns N' Roses as an acceptable level of rebellion?
Kurt: "Definitely. I'm sure once Guns N' Roses got as big as they did the government checked up on them and realised they don't really have the brains to be a threat to anyone."
Chris: "Yeah! I mean, what does Axl Rose have to say to anyone? What is his platform, what's his core, where does he come from? There's nothing! He just talks shit, he just… he throws bottles!"
Kurt: "Actually. to tell you the truth, I learned that problem with the visas on MTV, believe it or not, on the news. Because MTV really does try to be as subversive as they can, as subversive as they're allowed, especially the news. They're constantly exposing all the rights that are being taken away from Americans. But no-one gives a f---. They just wanna see that damn Warrant video!"
Would you consider Nirvana on MTV a victory of sorts?
Kurt: "To get onto MTV would be a victory in that it wouldn't really matter to me, other than the fact that our band has been on MTV and maybe we can expose ourselves to a few gullible 15-year old kids and maybe steer them in a better direction than they're going. It's never been a desire of ours to be on MTV, we've always been totally anti-MTV. But now that we have the opportunity we may as well go for it. It has nothing to do with us wanting to be successful or more popular, we just want more kids to have the opportunity to hear us and decide for themselves.
"Why couldn't Black Flag have been Number One? If the music industry really does have as much control as everybody in the underground claims, like pay-offs, payola, Mafia ties, then there's no reason why they couldn't make or break any band, no matter how crappy they are or how abrasive they are. It would be just as easy to take some stale bitch like (names poppy, souly female singer who, for legal reasons, must sadly remain nameless), who can't sing, who doesn't sing on he records, or take Black Flag and promote them the same way.
"I'd say 80 per cent of the public aren't music lovers in the first place, so why even try to please them, anyhow? They can't even tell the difference between a good song, they can't tell the difference between a song that's already been written or a song that's been sampled, or anything.
"So why can't Black Flag or Sonic Youth be Number One? Because major labels don't have that much control over making and breaking! It may happen with all these so-called alternative bands being signed. I don't know, it's going so slowly right now - Jesus Jones are considered alternative, All the bands that were supposedly punk rock in the first place all had their major hits when they had really accessible songs, when they finally wrote real accessible songs. Blondie were successful because of 'Heart of Glass'."
Are you saying this is a negative phenomenon?
Kurt: "I don't think it's negative if the band uses a couple of radio-friendly songs to lure in the audience, and yet still stay the same or mix it up with exactly what they were doing before."
Chris: "Plus, 'Heart Of Glass' is a good song. 'Brass in Pocket' is a good song."
Kurt: "I totally agree."
So is that what Nirvana are trying to do?
Kurt: "I don't think that's what we're trying to do that's just what is happening. If we were on the K label we would have still put out this record, if we could have come up with enough money to pay for the recording. We never sat down and said, 'Let's write a few radio-friendly pop songs and then still play some songs that sound like 'Bleach' so we can keep our audience and maybe get on MTV…'"
Chris: "If you did something that contrived it'd show. And there's nothing worse than being ranked on by people you respect."
Kurt: "But at the same time, if we felt like doing a disco album their reaction wouldn't stop us from doing that."
Well, all the great pop bands make disco records eventually. Don't you think that at this stage a lot of people are unaware - or maybe in the case of your fans unwilling to accept - that Nirvana are basically a pop band?
Kurt: "If we're anything, we're nothing more than a plagiaristic professional bar band. We could copy anything, practically, besides white boy metal funk - we're not that good musicians, thank God! But probably the only thing that makes us seem unique is that we're able to play really soft songs and really heavy songs and mix it up in between. It's been done before, but not very often. I dunno, I'm too picky, I hear constant rip-offs and influences. I could make a compilation tape of little parts of our songs that are the parts of other songs, and you wouldn't believe some of them!"
What's the most important thing for you about your band?
Kurt: "Our songs. It makes us happy. I mean, I could live with or without anything. I've built up enough defences to be able to handle anything. So if we were to break up tomorrow, I'd be really sad about it but, start another one, do something else. We've all got friends. We all have friends."
Do people take rock'n'roll too seriously?
Kurt: "Way too seriously. People have so many expectations of rock'n'roll. They expect it to be used as a tool to be political, and it should be nothing more than the background music."
You mean you've never placed that much importance upon it?
Kurt: "Oh, music completely changed my life. Punk rock made me so much more aware of things that I couldn't believe it. It finally reminded me that I've had an identity all along. It changed my f---ing life when I heard it. So it's a totally important thing. It's just that (laughs) people blow it out of all proportion."
Can you imagine what you'd have done if it had completely passed you by?
Kurt: "I'd be a bit more of a depressive person. I would have done something. I wouldn't have just ended up in a garage working on cars, I know that."
Chris: "The cool thing about music is there's many facets to it. You can listen to a Shonen Knife song about choco-bars…"
Kurt: "Or you can listen to a Fugazi song, and get just as much pleasure out of it."
Chris: "They're both equally as important. The escape and the message."
Where do you think Nirvana fit in that spectrum?
Kurt: "Pretty much in the middle, or to the left or to the right. Yes, no, maybe so! Probably Shonen Knife. I think we might be a good example of how you can be a f---ing idiot and still be aware of things."
Chris: "That's us. People are so stupid, everything's stupid, this is just a self-defence. When the Gulf War was going on, I was out of my mind. I was so freaked out and so angry that it was so wrong, it was such a f---in' lie. I bored everybody cos that's all I'd talk about. It was just like a pressure release valve.
"So I think the best thing for me is to go through life the best I can. I think I'm gonna get a vasectomy 'cos that way I'm not responsible for anyone but myself."
Kurt: "But you would probably be a good parent and your child might grow up to help things."
Chris: "Yeah, but there's a population problem. If I wanted to be a parent I'd probably adopt some Third World child and give him or her a decent chance instead of having my own little sperm ball walking around.
"It would be nice to see a child my wife and I created, it'd be kinda neat. But I wanna see the world in 50 years, there's gonna be a lot of f---in' people man. So have your wives and girlfriends douche with Dr Bronner's soap...
(Chris momentanly tails off into incomprehensible babbling.) "Whaddya gonna do, whaddya gonna do about anything? Play in a band! Write for a magazine!"
Erm, yeah. Or possibly something even more worthwhile?
Chris: "Yeah! Well, no!!! What are you gonna do, work in a gas station and pay off a car? Is that what life's about? Pay off a car? Pay off a blender and a food processor?? Slack off! Take it easy man, know what I mean? All you really have to do is eat, and drink and be merry. Whatever comes in between, just always have a good attitude, brother. When you're down in the gutter."
So this is the message from Nirvana - people need to get their priorities right?
Chris: "Right on!"
Kurt: "I asked my little four-year-old sister, 'What's the biggest problem in whole world, Brianne?' And she said, 'People need to concentrate more.' It was so awesome! She's gonna grow up to be something really great… and it won't be the president. (Laughs) I think denying the corporate ogre is kind of a waste of time, you should use them, rape them the way they rape you'.
Great, a world full of rapists.
Kurt: "At least you're fighting. I don't believe in closing off options to make your own world seem more important. (Long pause, then a smile) I think 'empathy' is a really nice word."
© Keith Cameron, 1995