LIVE NIRVANA INTERVIEW ARCHIVE December 30–31, 1991 - San Francisco, CA, US

Steffan Chirazi
Kurt Cobain
Krist Novoselic
Dave Grohl
Publisher Title Transcript
Kerrang! Smells Like… Bullshit Yes
RIP Nirvana: The Year Of Living Famously Yes
Rock Hard Nirvana: Punks Oder Spinner? TBC (Deutsch)

'Nevermind' has been at Number One on the Kerrang! Album Chart for a month, Stateside it's the same plus Double Platinum, and worldwide the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is on ultra heavy rotation. So are NIRVANA, like, the Biggest Rock Band In The World at the moment? Or are they just a bunch of 'fuck-the-system guys' confused by their sudden success and by all the music biz bullshit it has brought raining down on them? STEFFAN CHIRAZI scratches the surface and finds a bit of both…

Arenas can kill… but they can't kill Nirvana. On New Year's Eve I saw them ploughing up 17,000 people with the same power and verve displayed the last time I saw them, in 1989, with Tad in front of 400. This is an extremely rare sight, a three-piece who lose nothing in Arenaville. I will treasure the memory. The floor heaves and bobs to '…Teen Spirit' whilst 'Floyd the Barber'-era 'Bleach' material induces a collective buzz. Nirvana could've played the whole gig with the house-lights on and it would have been just as exciting…

When I tell Kurt Cobain after the show how well they carry across, he seems pleasantly surprised. I then ask him if he likes cats, out of the blue, because he seems like the type.

"Yeah… I love 'em. You do too, right?"

So it is that we discuss cats for five minutes before Leialoha takes some more pictures and they go home. The reason I asked Cobain about cats is because I wanted to know, in my heart, that this guy is a good guy, a shy fellow and not a total asshole. Based on yesterday's first meeting I had been in grave doubt.

"We say things, get into lengthy discussions with journalists about all sorts of issues, and then the story comes out and they haven't printed a word of it."

Kurt Cobain is confused by Nirvana's recent effect upon the world. He is also bored by the inconsistencies of the press, bored by the way Nirvana's considerable opinions are edited out after interviews.

This explains why for 90-odd minutes Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl spoke only to each other whilst photos were taken. They didn't seem to trust me one iota. I ask what gets them? Is it how people write that Nirvana are a miserable bunch who don't give a shit?

"Yeah, sure, that sort of thing," confirms Cobain.

So it all comes down to a blunt mistrust of the press?

"Definitely; you're putting yourself at the mercy of the writer and more often than not you're betrayed anyway. There are good bands and bad bands, there are good writers and bad writers…"

Cobain: "There's more bad writers than bad bands…"

Novoselic: "Everybody's a writer: y'know, I was looking through the 'Personals' of the LA Weekly, where it says, 'Single white female, straight, into this, I'm a writer…'. Every third or fourth one is a writer. Sssshhhh, writers are a dime a dozen."

Cobain tells me that they've often done interviews for eight hours a day. I suggest that they must sometimes sit down and wonder what the f**k is happening to them, as a band and as people…

Kurt: "The only time I think that is when I read back an interview we've done and I go beet-red in the face with disgust or embarrassment - because I'm amazed at some of the things we say sometimes."

What has really embarrassed you?

"Y'know, a lot of people don't get my sense of humour," sighs Grohl.

"Especially the English!" blurts Kurt, no doubt aware of my origins.

Grohl: "Not only the English, some American journalists, and the way it gets transcribed is… wrong."

Cobain: "It'd be easier if they'd put in brackets, 'in a jokey tone of voice'."

Grohl: "There was this one interview I did where they asked me, 'How would you describe your music?', and I replied (in a bullshitter's tone), 'I'd describe it as male'. The way it read definitely makes it look like we're a 'male band'.

Now I wanna laugh. Wouldn't anybody who listened to your music know where you come from?

"Sure, I guess… but I dunno. Reading back some of the things, we've said, it's almost healthy never to pick up some of those f**kin' interviews because you look back at yourself and get all self-conscious."

"I think the most embarrassing thing we've talked about in interviews," says Cobain, "is drugs and alcohol in a way where it comes across as though we're heavily into those things. Whenever they come up in interviews and we're just honest about them. But it's as if we're promoting their use, which we don't"

Why not tell people what you believe in instead?

"We do. We really try," protests Kurt. "You'd be amazed how many times we've sat down with a journalist for hours and been completely prolific, articulate, describing what's on our minds - the things they choose to print are incredible! It blows me away."

Alright then, what are some of those issues on your minds that never seem to make it into print?

Cobain: "Sexism is the top of all 'isms,' as far as I'm concerned, because man dominates and controls everything… the corporate man, that is."

Novoselic: "This guy said last night, 'There's a lot of pussy walking around here.' It was like, 'wow, gimme a break, guy…'.

"There's different facets of it, but these are our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends… they're people."

Cobain: "And as far as I'm concerned, superior!"

Do the people at Geffen understand Nirvana?

Cobain: "Geffen? Oh sure, the people we work with are totally aware.

"A lot of those people think on the same terms as we do. They're great. We have a really great relationship with all the people we work with."

He's grinning like a Cheshire cat, and not for the first time I wonder if my leg is leaving its socket. We return to the issue of media.

"I've always been afraid of claiming that we're a band cursed in interviews…" he trails off in dismay.

By 'curse' do you mean 'misinterpretation'?

"Especially misinterpreted, or misquoted. The last interview we had in - the NME, I think - if you could've heard… I'd actually like to ask that woman to give me a tape of what we said that night. We sat there for three hours talking about all sorts of things in-depth with her - and she chose to use an old quote form another interview attacking Guns N' Roses! We went out of our way to not say anything about Guns N' Roses."

I ask them about a quote which had Nirvana claiming they 'aren't like 99 per cent of other rock bands'. This looked incredibly pompous in print.

Cobain: "Well, that's fine, y'know. We don't feel we are part of that world, and to attack another band is pointless. It only happened once and this woman…"

Novoselic interrupts: "'Mainstream'. We said, 'We're unlike 99 per cent of mainstream rock bands'. Taking that word out right there blows the whole quote."

Cobain: "I think it's pretty obvious we're not. We have a lot of those rock 'n' roll qualities… but the rest of that interview we'd talked about rape and support groups, rape crisis centres, and this woman twisted the words around to where it sounded like I was attacking other rock bands who write songs about rape, and then claiming that we so righteously can write a better one! It's ridiculous!"

Nirvana may very well be unlike 99 per cent of other mainstream bands as far as they're concerned, but many of the two million who've bought 'Nevermind' have them sharing wall space with Van Halen and Marky Mark. Nirvana are the new gurus for many young teenies. Is this an obscene notion to them?

Cobain: "I think it's fine because we may have sold tow million records but Poison, a piece-of-shit band as far as I'm concerned, sold seven or 12 million probably - I dunno how many but they sold a lot more…"

Novoselic: "They've got some great values: all these busty women…"

Cobain: "Feeding garbage sown people's throats, so I don't feel guilty in that respect at all."

Grohl: "I think the idolisation of rock stars as a whole is pretty disgusting. It's gross to think that someone would idolise us but I'd rather have someone idolise Kurt and Chris than… Whoever." There again, everybody needs something to believe in: for some it's the church, for others, it's musicians…

Grohl: "That's true but it shouldn't be idolisation. I think Ian MacKaye…" (of Minor Threat and now Fugazi, the underground champions) "…is a great guy - a good friend and a nice guy but I don't look at him as some 'veggie guru' or something, he's just a nice guy. I'd rather think that people look up to us instead of idolise us."

So what the hell do Nirvana feel people want them to be? The next Sex Pistols? Or a bunch of sombre f**k-the-system guys?

Novoselic: "I haven't got any vibe that anybody wants us to be anything."

Cobain: "Well, they want us to be something…" He pauses before sniggering: What are we?"

Grohl: "I think there's a lot of people who don't want us to be a lot of things. They don't want us to come out and spew 'rock-talk' all night between songs… 'Howya doin', Cleveland?'.

"I'm not sure people can get a good hit of what sort of people we are just listening to records. If they come out and watch us play maybe they'll have a better idea. There's probably some kids out there who think we're some posturing Metal trio… probably expect a drum solo or something."

Chris Novoselic, a mellow free-thinking 'pothead philosopher' type if I ever met one, quietly cuts in with a thought:

"Y'know what'd be really neat? If MTV or someone had a programme where they had these people who are, like, really big in music and had a debate team. 'On the left we have Henry Rollins and Ian McKaye and on the right we have Sammy Hagar and Eric Clapton'.

"Then they start debating issues, see who gets smothered and then people who are mainstream, who would vote for the right, can see their people and then kids who are into Fugazi could see their people…"

Cobain: "But to get the general public to watch that show they'd have to offer cash prizes and have women with big breasts walking around…"

Novoselic: "…Or they'd show a 1973 avocado-green Pontiac Le Mans!"

They're right too, because MTV isn't about anything except something to do when your Nintendo's broken.

Dave Grohl grimaces at the thought: "One time, when I was in my previous band Scream, the singer had a sister who knew all theses rock people, and we're from Washington DC. One of the sister's friends was in the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Vinnie had his own limo to get to the show but the band could fend for themselves or whatever.

"The bass-player and the guitar-player ended up having to go to the show in the van we toured in, and there was a Bad Brains tape or something on. The bass-player, a full poofy Metal guy, aid, 'This really brings me back to my roots!"

Novoselic: "Yeah, brings you back to your roots which are growing out a little black from your bleached hair!"

There are a few chuckles before Kurt continues:

"A whole lotta people, especially in the underground, think there's this huge two million dollar hype-machine involved with our band because we're on MTV all the time, because there are posters in every record shop.

"But we've realised that the reason this is happening is because of the people, and people in the music industry, from radio stations and the programmers down to the people who work in the record stores and the people at MTV, are seriously into our band. They like us as a band, they're all supporting us.

"There's no pay-off. There's no big money going into our promotion at all. DGC didn't even bother with it because it took off all on its own."

Novoselic: "DGC shipped 50,000 copies off the bat - not many really."

Would you not agree that MTV has changed the attitude of new bands who once thought of just playing but now visualise the riches available?

Cobain: "I don't think you can blame MTV or the radio stations, that sort of impression is the band's fault. MTV and radio try to play whatever they can..."

Well, MTV wouldn't play Tad's video because he's basically considered too ugly for them.

Cobain: "If that's the actual excuse, then that's terrible. I have mixed opinions on MTV because it seems like they want to play more subversive things but that the general public won't take it.

"They have these really cool ads and commercials with a lot of really weird artistic visuals. I think they're pretty cool really myself. And the MTV News often exposes a whole lotta shit that goes on.

"There's a lot of people at MTV who are struggling and fighting the business-side of it. That's the way it is with all the labels we've spoken to - I found at least a handful of employees who were into underground music and trying to fight the corporation. At least they're doing their part and posing as the enemy…"

© Steffan Chirazi, 1992

And then the rest of the world discovered that there is life in the underground. Nirvana were a Seattle band on Sub Pop who couldn't get arrested when their Bleach album and EPs came out three-odd years ago. Now they’re doing innumerable interviews every day, selling millions of albums, and are the unwitting heroes of MTV youth around the world. Nevermind is a great album, no doubt. And, yes, you should get a copy if you don't already have one. But, News at Eleven, Nevermind is not a brand-spanking new sound: it just seems that way to the masses who don't care about, or have never had access to, underground music.

“The problem is that most kids don't even know to go to their local Mom and Pop record store,” says guitarist/vocalist Kurt Cobain. “They just go to their local major record store and buy what they can. If you're in Kansas or somewhere. that’s all y’have.”

“And that's another problem, that most of the independent labels’ distribution isn't very good,” sighs drummer Dave Grohl.

There also doesn't seem to be much browsing in record stores here. People just go in, buy what they’ve seen on TV or hears on the radio, and walk out. Even the tape-trading networks are stretched pretty thin in comparison with, say, Europe, where a band like No Means No has managed to get the recognition they deserve, while here hardly anyone knows them.

“The underground is promoted way better in Europe.” Cobain agrees. “It's more confined and easier to get communication. Here kids can grow up to their early 20s without knowing there's independent music—and they might really be into music too.”

Now that we've come around to such issues as the underground music scene, we're getting along fine, and I see that Nirvana are good people. That isn’t how the interview began though. In the first 90 minutes of photos and time spent together hardly a word passed between us. Trusting writers isn’t something that comes easily to Nirvana, and to them I was just another one who was going to somehow betray them in print. I, in turn, thought they were being rude, bratty jerks.

“We don't have much patience with journalists who don't bother to look into the archives of our history,” Kurt grins. “It takes just a few minutes to figure it out.”

“When they start asking you about your arts and crafts school—” Grohl begins.

“You know they haven't looked into it too thoroughly,” Kurt finishes.

“They've read the bio, listened to ‘Teen Spirit,’” Grohl says.

“When writers put their ‘perspective,’ their literary intentions, above what the band's really about: when they impress their opinions of what you really are,” sighs big bassist Chris Novoselic.

“Or they have this pathetic, third-rate evaluation of our personalities, coming to their conclusions within an hour,” continues a mildly disgusted Kurt. “That isn't very fair. If they have the power or the credentials to do such a thing, then they should be psychiatrists, not journalists.”

“The last thing you want in the world is your psychiatric evaluation published!” exclaims Grohl.

So why are Nirvana uncomfortable with the position they're in? It seems that they're nervous about the fact that everyone suddenly thinks they're great.

“The comments don't bother us,” says Kurt, slowly, thoughtfully. “They're flattering, but I think it’s a bit exaggerated. There are plenty of other great bands. There are a lot of bands that are better than us, and I'm kinda guilty that we're getting so much attention and other bands aren't getting any.”

So where does it end up? Self-destruction? Nasty drug habits? Will everything lead to Nirvana packing it in because they don’t want to know about all the bullshit trappings and might not be able, or want, to deal with them?

“That's not necessarily going to make us self-destruct,” Cobain says. “To coin an old cliché, we'll still be a band until we stop writing good music. We've done a pretty good job of avoiding all the other crap that goes along with the music business. It's pretty easy; y’just look the other way.”

But it hasn't been that easy being the reluctant recipients of so much success so quickly. Quite simply, it came at them with the force of a steam train and didn’t stop once it hit them. There has been no respite, no time to relax and review a situation that now finds them being hailed as everyone's favorite, everyone's discovery. Dealing with that kind of pressure is bound to make you nervous, reclusive, shy and extremely uncomfortable.

Nirvana are real people with real feelings on real issues. In a world where everyone's afraid to stand up and talk about his/her beliefs, it's a breath of fresh air to hear Nirvana go off on sexism.

“Sexism is the top of all ‘isms,’ as far as I'm concerned,” Kurt says, “because man dominates and controls everything—corporate man, that is.”

Chris chimes in: “This guy says last night, ‘There's a lot of pussy walking around here,’ and it was like, wow, gimme a break, guy. There's different facets of it, but these are our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends—they're people.”

“And,” Kurt adds, “as far as I'm concerned, superior!”

Add to this a hearty dislike of homophobia and racism. New fans take note: These are good issues for you to think about. And while Nirvana isn't a political band as such, it is important that their views on such issues be known. If only one person adopts them because of the band’s MTV status, that’s truly a major achievement.

Another strange aspect of the Nirvana phenomenon is the fact that some of their original core audience turned on them simply because they're on Geffen. Maximum Rock N Roll, the most famous underground fanzine, ripped into the group, claiming they'd caught “rockstaritis.” How do they deal with that? Do they lose sleep over those dimwits?

“Those people are sick!” Kurt says. “There's definitely a frustration there, yeah, but those people are exactly why the underground music scene is so segregated. They have just as closed minds as the average redneck, as far as I'm concerned. They're wasting their time with their nitpicking and their raging anal ideals. They use their ideals as part of their lifestyle, to make themselves feel righteous, when they should open up a bit and support things, even if it is corporate-packaged rebellion.”

Time to alter the pace a bit and discuss Nirvana’s musical plans. Will instant fame and fortune change the attitude behind the songs?

“I dunno,” Cobain says. “I think the direction we’re going right now is in all extremes. Some of the new songs are wimpier than ever, and some are as heavy as ever. It's pretty divided. I don't know if things that are happening on the tour are gonna affect us, because we're pretty comfortable with what we're doing now. I don't feel as much guilt as | did before, and it has nothing to do with selling more records. I just have more faith in the average person, because at least they like our music sincerely. Just because there's a lot of hype behind us now doesn’t mean there's anything wrong with us.”

Guilt is indeed the word, because it certainly seems sometimes that Nirvana feel guilty about their success.

“Yeah, and | dunno why, really,” Cobain says. “I’m not sure, maybe it was shock. We expected to hopefully sell 200,000 records, and it sold a few more than that.”

So are the days of the thriving indie labels, like Sub Pop, over?

“Sub Pop's still thriving,” Kurt says, “but it's really hard for independent labels to survive, because most people who start up labels don’t know the first thing about accounting, and that’s the biggest downfall in business, not being able to account for things. The people who start these labels are music lovers who are just trying to help out their friends. They don't realize what's involved with the business, and it's really sad it has to happen that way.”

We talk a bit about Nirvana's appearances in arenas these days, and Cobain says he doesn't notice that great a difference in the crowds.

“Y'know, kids are kids; they like music. | don’t care if they have a mustache or spiked hair, it just seems that they're really sincere about the bands they like. They’re entitled to have quality music, and | hope things will get better in the next few years.”

I don't know what Nirvana “officially” are—I never did, and I don’t want to—but I know they are more important than just words. | hope the pressure doesn't kill them; that they can acclimatize and even enjoy it all a bit more in the months to come. To me, they're proving to the commercial world that reality cannot be ignored, that people who come from small towns like Aberdeen, Washington, and trailer-park homes have as much to say as anyone. They're also (hopefully) educating a few million fans and helping them realize that being socially aware doesn’t make you some kind of asshole, just an intelligent human being. And Kurt Cobain loves cats, which is always a sign of great things in a person.

A Message from Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl to you: “Most of these bands and records can be found in small Mom and Pop record stores: Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, the Melvins, Beat Happening, Fugazi, Mudhoney, Hole, Shonen Knife, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Teenage Fan Club—we could go on and on, but we don't have our record collections in front of us. And check out labels such as SST. Write away for their mail-order catalogs, because there's ten years of good stuff to hear.”

© Steffan Chirazi, 1992