Ned Hammad
Kurt Cobain
Publisher Title Transcript
Pulse! #98 About A Band Yes

On its path to pop enlightenment, former Sub Pop gem Nirvana jumps to a major label, the band's soul still intact. By Ned Hammad.

“The first seven years of my childhood were beautiful. I really enjoyed it,” says Kurt Cobain, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of Seattle-area punk/pop grunge-meisters, Nirvana. “And then, all of a sudden I started watching the news and realizing that the older kids were beating up on the younger kids and there's a lot of violence going on in the world and the television shows got more aggressive and more violent.” Cobain's comparisons of people to children and reality TV prove to be significant in light of his body of work. They are part of a subject close to his heart - the adolescent loss of innocence and gathering of experience - that has manifested itself as a thematic structure throughout much of his songwriting. “And then during high school it was like the icing on the cake. I just couldn't deal with the social situations, people, social cliques, stuff like that,” he says. “So I just started an aggressive band and started listening to punk rock and sowed my oats.”

It could be said, however tritely, that the essence of rock 'n' roll lies in that period of Cobain's growing and realization. His is a textbook case of American teenage angst and dissatisfaction - the kind of feelings that can lead a successful Aberdeen, Wash, high school senior to drop out a month before graduation, turning his back on a handful of college scholarships, and run away from home.

The attitude more than comes across on Nevermind (DGC), the band's second full-length record and its first for a major label. More controlled and focused in song structure than the band's spasmodic '89 debut, Bleach (Sub Pop), Nevermind can be likened to a well-executed right hook as opposed to a flailing, rabid beating. But the restraint shown here is just part of progression which the band (Cobain, along with bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, who joined the group in the fall of '90) has been steadily cultivating all along. The band's '89 Blew (Sub Pop) EP and Sliver/ Dive single (Tupelo) not to mention a steady flow of bootlegged studio outtakes and live cuts, show a marked continual movement towards pop melody and hooks.

“What we've turned into over two years [shows that] our appreciation for pop music has just gotten greater. During the time we were recording the Bleach album we were into more aggressive, meaner songs and now I like all of it - I haven't denied any of that - I just think we've put together a good mixture of both elements.”

The combination is most effective in the record’s lead track and first single/video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” According to the band press kit, the song rails at Cobain's peer group “for being spineless and not always standing up against racism, sexism and all those other ‘isms’ the counterculture has been whining about for years.” The songs vocal melody, laced with a desolate sadness during the verse, gets blown wide open by Cobain's wrathful wildcat growl, similar to that of Guess Who's Burton Cummings during the chorus.

“It's a typical teenage aggression song. It has revolutionary themes, but I don't really mean it in a militant [light]. The generation's apathy is getting out of hand. [I'm] pleading to the kids, ‘Wake up!’”

The message stands to reach considerably more kids this time around due to the large-scale promotion and distribution that DGC is financially capable of supplying.

“It's nicer being on DGC because we have the freedom to spend a bit more money. We can take our time now, and we're guaranteed to get our album in any store, which is the main gripe we had about [being] independent,” says Cobain. “The fact that people couldn't find our record in stores really bothered us.”

But the really amazing thing about Nirvana's major market jump is the lack of corporate tampering in evidence - no moussed-up-to-there hair-dos; no Holly Knight-penned sure-fire hits; and no big-named, overblown producers trying to make them the next Whitesnake. “The majors know this t[he importance of staying true to a fan base] - y'know, it's like if it works, don't fix it. So we're not getting pressure whatsoever from the majors - from DGC - to change our style in any way. We're wearing exactly the same clothes that we were wearing two years ago. I haven't bought any new clothes.”

In fact, Nevermind's coproducer, Butch Vig, has a long-standing association with both Nirvana and Sub Pop. “He's so easy to get along with,” says Cobain. “It's just a perfect relationship because we still do whatever we want to do. But Butch has a few suggestions, and a lot of times they’re great suggestions. He's just a really good coworker.”

Vig and the band actually recorded and album's worth of material together for Sub Pop (much of which was rerecorded for Nevermind) close to two years ago. But those early recordings sat in the can for several months while the band waited for Sub Pop to finalize a major-label distribution deal. The wait proved disastrous, though, as one bootleg after another of the new material surfaced.

“That's what happens when you make tapes for friends,” says Cobain. “Some sleazeball will get a hold of it eventually. I don't mind live things at all. But there are a few things that I had recorded just on a boombox or on a two-track recorder in my house just fucking around. They couldn't even be considered demos. And they've come out on bootlegs which is kind of embarrassing because they weren't finished songs and they didn't sound very good. So I really hate that stuff.”

And then, when the Sub Pop distribution deal fell through, the band decided to turn to the majors. Impressed with Sonic Youth's transition from minor to major markets, Cobain and company sought out DGC and promptly set the appropriate legal wheels into motion. Meanwhile, in the midst of all this business, the band replaced former drummer Chad Channing, first with the Melvins' Dale Crover, who filled in on tour (and played on “Paper Cuts” and “Floyd The Barber” from Bleach) And then Mudhoney's Danny Peters, before finally deciding on current skin-basher Dave Grohl.

“It was working out well [with Danny Peters] but we'd seen Dave play with the band Scream… and we - Chris and I - both vowed if we ever had the chance to get Dave in the band we'll do it no matter what. And it just turned out that Dave quit Scream… so we had to go for it and get Dave, who's an amazing drummer.”

Though Cobain still writes all of the lyrics, as well as the lion's share of the music, songs like “Stay Away” showcase the band as an organic unit. “We definitely collaborate,” says Cobain. “We are all working together - we think pretty much along the same lines, so there's never any conflict. The only thing we really are worrying about now all the songs themselves instead of just the feeling or the aggression that comes out of it.

“I've always listened to The Beatles. I think R.E.M. write a lot of really good songs. I like to listen to songs that are simple. I always have. That's the way I write things, so it's memorable, so it sticks in your mind. The only thing I'm aware of is that you have to repeat things over and over.”

This catchy simplicity can only aid the band's bid for a wider acceptance. Songs like “On A Plain” and the mid-tempoed “Something In The Way” and “Come As You Are” would seem to fit nicely into the strict format of contemporary rock radio. “It definitely sounds a bit more commercial - some of the songs do,” Cobain says. “That doesn't mean we're going to stay exactly the same way as we are now. Our third album might be like the Butthole Surfers or it might be like folk music. I don't know - it just depends on what we feel like at the time next year. They're more radio friendly but as far as our attitude just spewing off and saying whatever we want now, we just feel more freedom.”

Indeed, the punk-ridden “Territorial pissings,” inspired by author Valerie Solanas’ book The Scum Manifesto, is nothing if not subversive. “The song's kind of about a female revolution. She [Solanas] was a militant feminist who, in my opinion, had some incredible ideas. Everybody called her insane because the ideas are pretty violent. [The book] pretty much says women should rule the Earth, and I agree with it.”

Another standout is the meditative, though thoroughly chilling acoustic ballad “Polly.” “Polly is kind of an old song; it's about three years old,” Cobain explains. “It's just a story about rape.” Yet there is more psychological depth here than he lets on. The speaker in “Polly” reveals a strange sympathy for his victim in sharp contrast with the cruelty of his actions: “Polly wants a cracker / Maybe she would like some food / She asked me to untie her / A chase would be nice for a few.”

Having just completed a European tour supporting Sonic Youth and headlining its own American tour through October, Nirvana seems poised to reach the audience it has craved thus far. But when asked what his flannel-flying, ratty-haired power trio has in store beyond that point, Cobain is cynical.

“We are guaranteed to albums [by DGC] and then after that they can drop us at any time. I imagine we'll get dropped eventually, and after that it doesn't matter. We'll start another band. I'd like to go back into the independent world someday and just be a hermit; I'm not really sure if I like the idea of this limelight - fame - that's going on right now. I don't like talking about myself everyday, 24 hours a day. It gets on my nerves after a while.” Once a punk always a punk.

© Ned Hammad, 1991