- Patrick Chng
- Kurt Cobain
||Thank Heaven For Nirvana
In the age of massive corporate rock and mindless consumerism, Nirvana represent and uphold the soul of rock 'n' roll high and mighty. The band with the teen spirit and refreshing individuality is getting a whole new generation excited about the music again. Those who fear that rock is getting too safe in the '90s, thank heaven for Nirvana.
KURT COBAIN (there are many variations like Curt/ Kurdt or Kobain/Kohbeine, etc.) was still pissed off that the band won't be playing in Singapore. He knew that BigO and BMG Singapore had wanted to organise a gig but his Asian tour manager didn't do anything about it. "Chris Dalston. Put his name in your mag. Chris Dalston!" He swore to get to the bottom of this.
We entered his hotel room and the first thing he did was to offer us drinks. He flipped through the photocopied BigO issue which featured the Sub-Pop label (BigO #52, March 1990) and exclaimed: "You mentioned The Melvins! That's cool. If not for The Melvins, we wouldn't be here. They started the grunge scene. They're a really incredible band!"
I pointed to the write-up on Nirvana which read, "Sadly, another band who is not going to make it to the charts. This is the stuff which cults are made of." I said: "We were wrong! We'd never expected it (mass acceptance)."
Cobain let out a rare laugh. "Me either!"
We sat on the bed and he took off his shades. I could tell he was tired. To his credit, Cobain was still sharp and very forthcoming with his answers.
Our conversation inevitably turned to the Seattle grunge scene and the Sub-Pop label.
"The guys who set up Sub-Pop basically wanted to promote the music but it grew too big. The accounting was screwed up and we didn't get paid for a long time. The distribution was inadequate too. We had kids coming up to us saying they couldn't find our records anywhere. That's when we decided that we should leave Sub-Pop.
"We wanted to get out of the contract but we had signed a seven-record deal. For another label to sign us up would mean that that label would have to pay Sub-Pop some money to get us out. Another independent label would not be able to afford that so we decided to go with a major."
There were a number of major labels which showed an interest in Nirvana after the long-awaited release of Bleach in 1989. However, DGC (David Geffen Company) won them over.
"One way to judge a label is to walk into their office and see how they work, shake their hands and then you look around and see what kind of posters they have on their walls and try to figure out what kind of persons they are. That's basically how we judge these labels.
"DGC (David Geffen Company) was obviously more underground than any of the other labels. They knew everything about punk rock and they have about five or six employees who have work on other independent labels previously."
What's the current state of the Seattle grunge scene? Is it thriving?
"No, it's not thriving anymore. I haven't been to Seattle for a long time now because of the touring. And we actually grew up about 60 miles away from Seattle but the past year, there hasn't been a band which started out, which really caught my attention at all.
"All the Seattle bands like Tad, Mudhoney, Soundgarden are leaving Seattle to tour and they are getting signed up by the majors too."
With the majors "stealing" bands from the independent companies, what is the future for these small labels?
"You could say 'stealing' and it's not exactly good for the small labels. But there are a number of independent labels in the States which are doing great.
"For bands starting out, they would need the independent labels to put out their first album or singles to build up a fan base. I mean you can get signed to a major for your first record, you can be really good, grungy like us, but the band would not seemed real. It just doesn't look right."
Since Elvis Presley in the '50s, each generation of rockers has taken rebellion to an extreme more decadent than the previous one. In the '90s, how extreme is the rebellion?
"Compared to the '50s, it's extreme. But it seems to revert back every few years. It seems to go back and forth between the corporate ogres swallowing up the music industry and keeping it safe and commercial. And then somehow, an independent band would infiltrate that and shake things up a little bit.
"And at that time it makes everyone feel like there might be a new awakening on the horizon but then all of a sudden, the corporate ogre comes bashing and rapes these bands and it turns back to the '50s again.
It happens all the time. I mean, The Ramones had a movie at the height of their success. Sire Records put a lot of promotion into them. They had the world in their pocket, and still the general public didn't swallow it.
"It's all a matter of timing and social conditioning. It takes a long time for people to develop an open mind. It takes generations and it takes a lot of education to solidify it."
It looks like Nirvana's success has a lot to do with timing. As Cobain pointed out: "We came at a time when the music was getting a bit too safe. I think the kids are tired of listening to Vanilla Ice.
"I just think the '90s has a new generation of kids and teenagers who are more aware and they're generally more intelligent than the last generation of kids about 10 years ago when punk rock had all the right in the world to become really popular because The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones had a big push behind. There's a lot of attention and promotion and it still didn't work because socially the public wasn't ready for it."
Then again, a lot of people caught onto punk rock more because it was a hip thing and a fashion trend rather than because they were really into it.
Cobain thought for a moment and agreed: "Yeah, that's probably true too."
As the group becomes more successful, there will be likely be poseurs who would jump onto the bandwagon and claim to be grungy, cool and rebellious like them.
"Yeah and it's happening already! There are some bands that I absolutely despise and I'm not afraid to name them. They are The Nymphs, Alice In Chains and especially Pearl Jam. They are just career-minded bands out to make big bucks and we've been unfairly lumped together with them. But ultimately it's the music and the kids will know what's crap."
But doesn't this run against Smells Like Teen Spirit, their hit single about kids not having opinions about anything? Or is it more of an observation than a derogatory statement?
"I'm not pointing the finger at the kids, it'll make me look like a father figure. It's not meant to say who's right and who's wrong. There's a line that goes, 'it's fun to lose and to pretend, which is about trying even though you know you're gonna lose. Because the fun part is the trying part and when you lose, you can pretend."
Music critics generally label Nirvana as "rebels." Is Cobain comfortable with the tag?
"Well, I do not take offence to it. I think it's cool but we have our commercial side too. Some of our songs are really accessible, so accessible even grandmothers can listen and enjoy. On one hand, we have the really loud and noisy stuff, and then we also have the melodic stuff."
Cobain picks up a recent issue of BigO as an example. "Look at this mag. It's a commercial product. It's glossy and has an attractive cover to lure the customer. But look inside (flips through several pages), hidden between are good stuff that the reader might chanced upon and be curious about. You've got to balance up. We've sold lots of records and made some money but there's nothing wrong in that. We need the money to carry on the crusade, don't want to sound pretentious, but it's a crusade to me."
What if critics cry "sell out?" "We deserved it. Bands like Sonic Youth deserve to make it big and earn some money. They are definitely a better band than Poison."
In the press conference the day before, Cobain mentioned that Axl Rose not turning up for a gig or making the fans wait for two hours just because "he's got diarrhoea or something" is plain rock star attitude. How would he draw the line between responsibility and rebellion?
"When you're a popular figure, you owe a certain responsibility to your fans. I think Guns N' Roses are promoting wrong values like sexism and the way they do drugs. I mean, what are they rebelling against? I don't think this is rebellion. Rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N' Roses."
It is a known fact that Cobain is a firm and vocal advocate of women's rights. At the recent Headbangers' Ball in the United States, Cobain attended the Ball in a dress.
"I think there is too much sexism in the world. About 90 per cent of the women I know have been raped one way or another. It's crazy. I find women to be very compassionate human beings. Polly is a song about a girl who was raped.
"You know, I listen to rap and it's got a nice beat and rhythm and all that, but when I listen to the words, they really put me off because some of them are bloody sexist."
Cobain is also known for disliking to talk to the press. I pressed for his reasons.
"I don't like the press generally, especially the English press. The weeklies are the worst. They put you on the cover and feature you but they've really got nothing new to say. So they cook up stories of us bashing our hotel rooms and stuff like that.
"I mean, we do break things at parties when we are drunk like some other bands do when they're drunk. But there's no violence. It's amongst friends and we did it for fun. The press just blow things out of proportion. I prefer talking to fanzines 'cause they know the music. They know what they are talking about."
Well then, which media broke Nirvana? Is it MTV? "Definitely. I've met a few guys in MTV who really care about the music. They are really into our music and other underground bands and are trying to break these bands too."
And does he like making videos?
"Yeah. I like making videos. I love to act, but I wouldn't want to make a clichéd video. I came up with the idea for the Smells Like Teen Spirit video but the director had different ideas and what emerged wasn't what I had in mind.
"I had to go in to the editing room in the last days of postproduction to salvage whatever I could, like inserting certain scenes which the director had left out, to salvage it and make it tolerable. It was our mistake to go in with a commercial director. But I really like our next video, Come As You Are."
What about Nevermind's producer Butch Vig?
"He's great. I heard the Killdozer's album produced by Butch Vig and thought it was really well-produced. Really heavy-duty production."
Vig also produced The Young Fresh Fellows.
"Yeah, that's right. I've heard of them though I haven't really sat down and listen to their music. I love the sound on Nevermind. But for the next album, I would like to work with Steve Albini but I've heard he's not easy to get along with."
Where do you see Nirvana heading after this success? "Down! All the way down." And judging by his grin, I know it makes no difference to Kurt Cobain.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OTHER EX-MEMBERS OF NIRVANA?
Kurt Cobain says: "Jason Everman actually didn't play on Bleach. He was a good friend who contributed money to pay for the recording of Bleach. In return, we credited him as a guitarist and put him in the picture in the album.
"Nirvana has always been a three-piece band even on Bleach. Chad Channing just wanted to leave although I'm not sure why. But we're still friends even though we don't keep in contact very frequent these days. When Chad left, we looked for a drummer and found Dave Grohl whom I think is the best drummer I could ever find. He was playing in a hardcore band called Scream and he's simply the best, the most incredible drummer I've ever seen!"
© Patrick Chng, 1992