- Robyn Doreian, alias Daniel Black
- Kurt Cobain
||The Spirit of Rock 'N' Roll lives
Well come on, they're pop stars now! During their November tour this interview was conducted and we felt there were a few facts you'd appreciate. Interview: Daniel Black S.I.N.
Nirvana were in London - "chasing punk rockers with purple mohawks and throwing rotten fruit at the Queen's guards at Buckingham Palace" - where they are currently the hottest new band in town. The latest LP, 'Nevermind', was being hailed as the best album of 1991, both Melody Maker and NME have acclaimed 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' as single of the week, which charted like a bastard.
Frontman Kurt Cobain is enjoying the attention but beginning to feel the strain. Success is based on repetition - playing the same songs each night, answering the same questions for more journalists, travelling the same motorways for another show in another town as part of a long, gruelling European tour. Routine is vital as Nirvana strive for success and expect everything around them to run efficiently, but too much routine breeds boredom. Cobain understands this perfectly and tried to shake things up with a spontaneous disaster or two, just to keep people on their toes. "Last night," he confides, before we begin the interview, "I took ecstasy and stayed up until seven in the morning… and the night before I was drinking until six."
But you're enjoying yourself?
"Yeah, I always enjoy being in England. Besides the pollution and the food, everything is fine. I like it."
Why did you leave Sub Pop?
"There is really no explanation other than they were having a hard time distributing our record and getting it into the stores, because every time we went on tour, we found that people couldn't find our record anywhere!
"So we decided that Sub Pop wouldn't be right for us. But to get off Sub Pop, we had to go to a major, because we were under contract to Sub Pop and another independent label wouldn't have been able to buy us out of the contract."
So what was it about Geffen that made you decide they were ideal for you?
"Um, everyone there is alert and competent. Everything is systematically written out and professional. They have their shit together."
Do they demand a lot more of you?
"No, not really. We do twice as many interviews now, which is something we always wanted to do. I don't enjoy doing 12 interviews a day, but sometimes you have to make a sacrifice to achieve what you want."
Have they ever suggested that you iron your shirt before a photo session?
"No - just wash my face and clean under my fingernails!"
This is accompanied by a leering grin that would make Jack Nicholson seem almost saintly.
When you smash your guitars at the end of a show is that inspired by Pete Townsend?
"Well, when I started breaking guitars, I never actually realised that The Who did that stuff. I've never been a Who fan in the first place, which leads me to believe it's just a natural white boy guitar feeling to do that. I think that anyone who plays heavy, hard rock 'n' roll music wants to trash their guitar gear once in a while."
Have you ever vomited on stage?
"Yeah, I have," he laughs. "I can't quite remember when it was - obviously if you vomit, you must be under the influence of something, so those nights aren't very clear!"
And how did the audience react?
"Oh, they loved it!"
Certainly Nirvana audiences seem to be fanatics, encouraging the band to ever more outrageous excesses. And as the success increases, so does the size of the audiences.
"It depends on the size of the venue," quips Kurt. "I think we've been pretty much selling out the clubs since we first started playing - back then we were only playing clubs that held 50 or 100 people, but we've always had an audience, so that's real nice. But, yeah, we are definitely playing to more people now…"
Teaming up with bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Kurt formed Nirvana in Seattle, rather than go to art school. "I was about to go," he admits, "and then the reality hit me, so I decided to run away and start a band. I've always just liked music - I didn't wake up one day and have this revelation and say, 'Hey, I want to start a band!'
"It started with me picking up my uncle's acoustic guitar and playing it, then realising I could actually play it! The first time I picked up the guitar, I played a Cars song to a friend's girlfriend!"
And how did you meet Chris and Dave?
"Every time someone asks me that question," he sighs, "I can't think of a clever little story to tell. There is nothing exciting about it whatsoever, so I'll just tell you the straight facts. We were just friends who lived in the same town together and we were bored, so we started a band!"
Were you inspired by other groups?
"Yeah, the Butthole Surfers…"
"There was nothing else but the Butthole Surfers at the time, but during the year I started the band, I had been listening to The Wipers, Tales Of Terror and AC/DC…"
These influences can be detected in the band's output: their first album 'Bleach', was a loud, raw, riff-driven monster that hailed Nirvana's arrival as successors to Husker Du's brand of high-energy rock with guttural vocals and thought provoking lyrics.
Although Cobain claims to be rather shy - "I'm a really insecure person, so doing interviews and talking about myself boosts up my ego. Hopefully I'll become a really stable person after a couple of years of this!" - he also admits that the band's off-tour activities include "getting drunk and antagonising the police. That's a lot of fun!"
Have you ever been arrested?
"Yeah, I've been in jail a couple of times."
"Vandalism, burglary, car theft. They caught me in school because I tried to plant a bomb in the greenhouse." Why did you want to blow up a greenhouse?
"Well, because there were no people around. I didn't want to hurt anybody - I just wanted to set it off.
"But crime is ridiculous and stupid," he continues. "It's retarded. I wouldn't advise it to anyone. Neither would I advise taking drugs or being in a rock band. But I would advise listening to AC/DC!"
'Nevermind' is a progression, of sorts, from 'Bleach', though Cobain isn't convinced that any improvement is due to spending large amounts of Geffen's money in the studio. "I really don't think it matters," he insists. "I think we could have done the album in a lot less time than we did, because we had so much time - we actually slacked off and got lazy about it. More money doesn't necessarily make for a better record."
Do you like the cleaner sound this time?
"I don't like anything that's clean, so I'm not sure I like it better!"
The song 'Lithium' has a humorous edge, but was it inspired by someone you knew?
"No, not at all. It was just a story I made up about a lonely guy who lost his girlfriend in an accident. She died, so he went insane and found religion. He's sitting in his house, brewing about how he lost his girlfriend and he can't wait to die too to finally meet her again up in the heavens."
Musically there are bits that remind me of Stiff Little Fingers - does that mean much to you?
"Nothing, apart from the fact that I respect and like the band. I've only ever heard a couple of their songs… I'm not really familiar with them at all. Of course, I've known about them for years, but I've never really gotten round to listening to them, but it's definitely a band I'm interested in hearing some day. I know it's a really obvious punk band to be familiar with, but I've just never gotten around to buying their records - I've never had the opportunity."
What's you favourite track on the album?
"I think I like 'Territorial Pissings' the best - it's just an ode to women and my appreciation of them. Not just because I like to have relationships with them sexually," he adds hastily, "but as a whole, as people. I think they deserve a lot more credit than they get."
In what way?
"By males not being so obviously sexist and oppressive towards them."
Nirvana - and especially Cobain - are warped. Sometimes they can espouse completely contradictory statements simultaneously, sometimes they are joking, maybe sometimes they are simply lying. On nights off, Kurt claims, "we go to heavy metal disco clubs, where we like to watch 17 year old guys dance by themselves with no partner and play air guitar to Iron Maiden songs on the disco floor."
This is hilarious in a way, but also too cruel, too obvious, to be really worthy of Nirvana's barbed attack. Equally surprising, though, is his answer when asked of his opinion on clean cut, straight-edged bands who don't get high and vomit on their audiences: "I think all the power to you brothers. We're all members of the planet Earth. Do and preach whatever you want - and I'm going to do whatever I want - and hopefully we won't have a fist fight over it."
Maybe it's the lack of sleep, or maybe Cobain is just mad. Certainly the furious energy that he unleashes on stage must build up inside him during the day, when magazine interviews must seem a very tame alternative to sex, drugs and violence.
So the full tilt grunge of 'Nevermind' proves, Nirvana have retained the dirty, aggressive melodicism that made people first fall in love with them, while using Geffen's muscle to get across to a whole new audience too. Kurt has little time for those fans who whine that the band have lost something in the transition, that they might, in fact, have 'sold out' by signing to a major.
"If that's their only reason," he spits, "that we went to a major, they can kiss my butt: And I'll wash it for them before they kiss it…"
© Daniel Black, 1992
The spirit of Rock 'N' Roll lives, in the shape of a blissed-out Seattle grunge trio called Nirvana. Robyn Doreian speaks with guitarist, vocalist and major turtle fan, Kurt Cobain, about smashing guitars, vomiting and oh-yeah - their new LP, Nevermind.
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain claims to be suffering from near chronic fatigue! He apologises for his unscheduled condition and goes on to explain that during his time in London, which is where he's calling Hot Metal from, he has encountered problems just getting out of bed.
"The night before last I took Ecstasy and stayed up until severn in the morning, and last night I drank until six," he explains, sounding exhausted even talking about it. "I always enjoy being here in England - besides the pollution and food, everything else is fine. We've been to the waxworks and Tower Records and all the cliched things you can think of. We went and saw where the Queen lives, and threw rotten fruit at a guard and chased around punk rockers with purple mohawks - y'know, the ones you see on those postcards. And we've also been going to these heavy metal disco dance clubs. We like to watch 17-year-old guys dance by themselves with no partner, and play air guitar to Iron Maiden songs on the disco floor with those disco lights crashing around the walls. It's pretty amusing…"
In between Kurt, Chris and Dave's European-styled vacation, the primary reason for their visit to the UK was to play this year's Reading Festival, which by all accounts went rather well. Kurt confesses to missing a few notes, but then again what would a Nirvana show be then if they ran through their entire set note-perfect? An off night, I suspect!
Kurt, being a true showman, really knows how to entertain an audience. He has, for instance, hazy memories of vomiting on stage. II can't remember exactly when it was because obviously, if you vomit, you must be under the influence of something. Those nights aren't very clear."
How did the audience react to your reflex abdominal action?
"Oh, they loved it!"
I comment to the effect that I am proud of the way Nirvana maintain the wild, true, intended spirit of rock 'n' roll - but there is also another side of the coin. In recent years a thing they call "straight-edge" has reared its puritan head in the form of bands which advocate non-drinking, celibacy, etc. What do you make of all this Kurt?
"I think all the power to you, brothers! Eat all the fruit and throw away the rind! We're all members of planet Earth. Do and preach whatever you want, and I'm going to do whatever I want, and hopefully we won't have to fight over it, or play chequers…"
There is also, as I have been privileged to witness, Nirvana's spontaneous guitar smashing finale to consider. I ask Kurt whether this particular facet of the Nirvana live experience was inspired by '80s six-stringed demolisher extraordinaire, Pete Townsend.
"When I started breaking guitars I never actually realised that The Who did that kind of stuff," Kurt claims. "I was never a fan of The Who in the first place, which leads me to believe that it is just a natural, white-boy guitar feeling to do that. I think that anyone who plays heavy, hard, rock 'n' roll music wants to trash their gear once in a while."
Right on brother!!
On one of their previous jaunts to Europe the lads were lucky enough to witness history in the making with the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which seems to have left a marked impression on the vocalist.
"We were in a traffic jam for hours, and at first I didn't even realise what was going on. Then I saw a bunch of East Germans dressed in acid washed jeans and wearing brand new leather jackets and we found out that Led Zeppelin was number one, which we thought was really nice. It was like rock 'n' roll had just begun, y'know?"
If you didn't know by now, the blissed-out Seattle trio have recently produced a second album which is nothing short of grunge heaven - or Nirvana in their case! Nevermind, unlike their debut, Bleach (on the SubPop label), was recorded through Geffen Records. Why the change?
"There's really no other explanation except that SubPop were having a hard time distributing our record and getting it into stores. Every time we went on tour we found that people couldn't find our record anywhere, so we decided SubPop wasn't right for us. In order to get off SubPop we had to go to a major because we were under contract and another independent record label wouldn't have been able to afford to buy us out."
Is life any different on a major label?
"No, not really. We do twice as many interviews, which is something we always wanted to do. I don't enjoy doing twelve hours of them, but sometimes you do have to make sacrifices. Everyone at the label is alert and competent, everything is systematically written out and professional. They have their shit together."
Has Geffen ever suggested to you that maybe you might iron your shirt before a photo session?
"No, just wash my face and clean under my fingernails."
But Kurt, wouldn't that add up - to those of a cynical nature at least - to the old 'indie band selling out after signing to a major label' scenario?
"No, and if that's their only reason for saying we've sold out, the fact that we went to a major label, they can kiss my butt! And I'll wash it for them before they kiss it."
That's our Kurt, always putting others before himself…
Every track on Nevermind is completely mind-blowing, especially the opening track on side two, Territorial Pissings. In a rare lucid moment Cobain explains that the song "is just an ode to women, and my appreciation of them. Not just because I like to have relationships with them sexually, but because as a whole, as people, I think they deserve a lot more credit than they actually get. Men are so obviously sexist and oppressive towards them."
I was really excited when I read in the band's press bio how Kurt and Chris's creative partnership was cemented, a moving story of days at craft school in Seattle where Kurt asked Chris's advice on a macaroni mobile he was working on. Chris in turn suggested that he glue glitter on it, which was, apparently, the pivotal incident in Nirvana's formation. Nothing gets me quite as overjoyed as a good art background but unfortunately, like everything Kurt tells you, it is mostly a product of his overly-fertile imagination.
"Every time someone asks me how I met Chris I think of a clever little story to make up. There is nothing exciting about it whatsoever, so I'll tell you the straight facts. We were just friends who lived in the same town together and we were bored, so we started a band."
Just another of life's disappointments, readers…
The rest of Nirvana's year will be taken up with non-stop touring in the States and Europe with bands such as Hole, The Melvins and Bikini Kill. This doesn't leave a lot of time for much else.
"I used to have turtles," Kurt explains, a tinge of sadness in his voice. "But I'm on tour so much now that I can't keep them, I can't ask any of my friends to look after them so I gave them away. I've had 14 cats, three dogs, six rabbits, 24 rats, 11 turtles and a cockatoo bird in my life, and I've only been to the zoo a couple of times…
"When I'm home I like to do normal things like vandalise and terrorise my neighbourhood. We do anti-cop graffiti and all that kind of political stuff. Getting drunk and antagonising the police is also a lot of fun. We've been inspired by this band called The Crucifucks - they were terrors of their town also. Steve Shelley was the drummer for that band in the mid-'80s, but now he's with Sonic Youth. We've had a few discussions about The Crucifucks and radical bands like that."
Have you ever been arrested in your pursuit of petty crime?
"Yeah, I've been to jail a few times."
"Vandalism, burglary and car theft. They caught me in school because I tried to plant a bomb in the greenhouse. I didn't want to hurt anybody, I just wanted to set it off."
Do you get off on your relentless quest for law-breaking?
"No, crime is ridiculously stupid. It's retarded. I wouldn't advise it to anyone. Neither would I advise taking drugs or being in a rock band, but I would advise listening to AC/DC or being the Road Warrior. Mel Gibson is a hunk!"
The time has come to end my conversation with Kurt as he has hours of phone interviews ahead of him, during which he will relish in the opportunity to talk about himself constantly. "Yeah, I'm a really insecure person, so it boosts my ego," he confirms.
"Hopefully I'll become a stable person, after a few years of talking about myself."
We can only hope. But in the meantime Kurt, would you be so kind as to give me the name of your dealer? Whatever it is you're on - I want some!
© Robyn Doreian, 1992