LIVE NIRVANA SESSIONS HISTORY MOJO #126 - May 2004. By Gillian G. Gaar
NIRVANA: The Lost Tapes
On January 30, 1994 NIRVANA entered the studio for the last time. Ten years after Kurt's death, Gillian G. Gaar unearths the story behind that final session.
ON SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2002, NIRVANA'S YOU KNOW YOU'RE RIGHT was leaked on the internet. The song had been at the centre of a legal battle between Courtney Love, who inherited control of her husband Kurt Cobain's estate, and his bandmates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, for nearly a year and a half. As the last track completed by the band prior to Cobain's death in April 1994, it had taken on a particular significance, the appearance of brief on-line sound clips in May 2002 serving only to further heighten curiosity.
From August onwards, the media had hinted that the Nirvana Lawsuit was about to be settled and would be followed by the release of a compilation featuring the disputed track—as in fact happened when Nirvana (to all intents and purposes, the band's greatest hits) was released in the last week of October 2002. Speculation had also been rife concerning the release of further Nirvana material from the vaults. To date, however, You Know You're Right remains the only song to have been released from what turned out to be Nirvana's final visit to the studio, just over six years after their first professional recording session on January 23, 1988, in Seattle. At the initial outing, the band—Cobain, Novoselic and Melvins' Dale Crover sitting in on the drums—had burned with purpose, recording and mixing 10 songs in six hours, under the watchful eye of producer Jack Endino. In contrast, the January '94 session alternated between endless jamming and experimental noodling as the band attempted "to move forward and stay creative in the hopes of making it through a difficult period", according to their guitar tech Earnie Bailey.
AUTUMN OF 1993 FOUND NIRVANA DOING SOMETHING THEY HADN'T DONE IN two years—a US concert tour. Prior to the trek, which began on October 18 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona, the band had only played five shows that year; the other major endevour being the recording of their third album, In Utero (Grohl took advantage of the down time to join his old band Scream on a short reunion tour in July). Despite their absence, Nirvana's popularity remained undimmed, In Utero topping both the UK and US charts on release in September, and their tour easily selling out.
For one thing, they were no longer a trio, adding Pat Smear on guitar to lessen Cobain's lead singer/lead guitarist duties. Cellist Lori Goldston, of Seattle's Black Cat orchestra, was also on board, and proved to be an integral part of the band's MTV Unplugged appearance, taped on November 18, in which nearly half the set was comprised of covers ("It seemed like a good opportunity to do something different," Grohl explains). Goldston also recalls discussions about new songs. "I got the sense they would be noticeably different [from their previous work] in some way," she says. "But the idea of using oboes was the only concrete recurring theme on that subject. Kurt wanted to have an oboe on Unplugged too, which I thought was great. That's an instrument you hear even less in pop music than a cello!"
If the band's oboe fascination failed to materialise on the Unplugged performance, in interviews Cobain spoke repeatedly of his desire to try something new musically, telling Frontline magazine: "I don't know how long we can continue as Nirvana without a radical shift in direction." Part of his frustration, he explained to journalist David Fricke, was due to Nirvana having mastered their trademark "formula" to the point "that it's literally becoming boring for us. It's like, OK, I have this riff. I'll play it quiet, without a distortion box, while I'm singing the verse. And now let's turn on the distortion box and hit the drums harder." Yet even as Cobain told Fricke he had no new material on hand ("I have absolutely nothing left. I'm starting from scratch for the first time"), the band were already working on a song that would adhere closely to that same "boring" formula. And Cobain was suggesting the group think about recording soon.
"I remember being on tour and Kurt talking about wanting to go into a studio and record some stuff," says Grohl. "He wanted to record at Studio X [in Seattle]. But I had just found out there was a studio two blocks away from my house. One of our crew actually told me about it. 'You know, there's this guy, Bob Lang, who's built a studio that's entirely underground.' What? 'And it's the size of a gymnasium.' Holy shit! So I said, 'Hey, what about this place that's so close to my house?' I wanted to suggest something a little more localised."
THEN ROBERT LANG RECORDING SERVICES OPENED IN suburban north Seattle (now the city of Shoreline) in August 1974, the space was jokingly dubbed 'Munchkin Studios' by its clients (including one Kenny Gorelick—later Kenny G, then a member of the Franklin High School Jazz Lab, one of the first groups to use the studio), due to its minuscule size. Lang appreciated the joke, but also took it as a personal challenge. "That's of course why, now, I've taken things to the other extreme," he says of the studio's extensive work-in-progress remodelling. The results are striking. From the outside, the renamed Robert Lang Studios resembles a well-fortified castle with arching brick doorways and what appears to be a small mansion perched on top. The studio space has literally been carved out of the hillside, necessitating the removal of 900 truckloads of sand. Behind the outside door, a narrow hallway leads to a cavernous studio room lined with wood, granite and marble, the ceiling stretching up 24 feet. When Grohl and Novoselic came down to take a look at what Krist would jokingly dub "Bob's Bunker" during a break in the US tour in December '93, they were suitably impressed. "They were really amazed to see all the work I've done," says Lang. "And it's a pretty comfortable environment. It's a couple blocks up from the water, so you open the door and you get this beautiful view of Puget Sound. They were really stoked about coming here."
Nirvana's management duly booked the studio for January 28–30, 1994, prior to the first leg of their European tour (the US leg having ended on January 8 in Seattle). "It was to just do something," says Novoselic of the session, explaining that the band had always used studio jams to fuel left-of-centre projects. "That's how we got all those other weird little songs that came out on split singles and compilations or whatever. It was just, Let's do something." Grohl agrees: "That session was kind of fly-by-night."
Dave and Krist arrived around 4pm on Friday, January 28, though they apparently didn't expect Kurt until the next day. "There was some word that hopefully Kurt would show up on Friday," says Lang. "But I don't think they were really stressed about it. And they believed if he wasn't coming Saturday, he'd definitely be there Sunday. I thought it was a little odd that Kurt wasn't there, but Krist and Dave just went about their business and kept focused on what they were doing."
What they were doing was killing time while Kurt remained AWOL "It was just Krist and I screwing around with funny things like Skid Mark," says Grohl. "And I recorded a couple of my songs. We just tried to make do with the time we had."
The initial recordings, mostly without vocals, were given explanatory shorthand titles. Dave w/Echoplex, for instance, came about when Bailey plugged a Theremin into an Echoplex tape machine to demonstrate the spluttering sounds he'd discovered. "Dave really liked it and jumped behind the drums to play along," says Bailey. "Part of playing the Echoplex involved abruptly changing the timing of the echo which was difficult to jam to. We didn't spend time to work out a concept and the best stuff may have happened before Adam hit the record button!"
Elsewhere, New Wave Groove (featuring guitar, bass, and drums) meanders along in two takes that run around seven minutes; a shorter, more focused version was also recorded. "We took a direct line off Krist's bass and probably miked a cabinet to get that funky bass sound," recalls Lang. New Beat/In Cars continues with the new wave motif, basically repeating a single catchy riff for the duration of the tune; one version has the bass playing the melody, another the guitar.
Chris w/Acoustic has Novoselic playing a lilting guitar melody in what Bailey describes as "somewhat of a Bo Diddley signature riff " as Grohl provides a snappy backbeat. "I remember thinking, What kind of vocals are they going to put to this thing?" is Lang's assessment of the tune. Dave/Acoustic + Voc is an early version of the Foo Fighters' February Stars (with different vocals), the song's mellow feel heightened by Novoselic's harmonium playing. "It's a strange, small table-top pump organ," explains Bailey on the subject of Krist's choice of instrument. "I think he picked it up in Croatia. It had a door on the back that you work with one hand while the other plays the keys. It really made the song in my opinion, and was my favourite of the entire session." A stray kitten that wandered into the studio added a set of opening meows.
Most of the Lang sessions consist of interesting sketches, but after two days there was little that was finished or particularly useable. Novoselic and Grohl continued spinning their wheels on Saturday, but Cobain failed to show despite repeated calls to his home. "By Sunday, I think it was starting to wear on Krist and Dave a little bit," Lang admits. "The vibe was like, God, is Kurt even going to show up? Their studio time is ticking away by the minute. And I was like, I've got two of 'em here, come on! I was keeping my forgers crossed and I know Adam was too."
Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Cobain arrived. "When Kurt got out of the car, it was like, God, he's really here, I don't believe it!" says Lang. "He came in and sat down immediately at the console. Dave had Adam roll some tape. Kurt listened, said, 'This sounds good. This is a cool vibe here.'"
Despite Cobain's initial satisfaction, an immediate problem arose when it became apparent Kurt hadn't brought his own equipment. "Krist and Dave had brought their own gear and we assumed Kurt would do the same," says Bailey. "It looked like we were going to call [the session] off, but I had a Univox guitar I'd reworked for Kurt out in the car and he'd brought a similar one for me to set up for him. He used the studio's Marshall 50 watt combo, which he hated, and my pedal board which luckily had a Boss distortion pedal on it. The pedal wasn't the same one he favoured, but we got close to to something he was OK with."
Equipment setbacks aside, the band warmed up with a 20-minute jam, part of which saw Cobain resurrect the riff from the unrecorded Verse Chorus Verse, an occasional feature of their 1990 live sets and later considered for Nevermind but discarded (and not to be confused with the officially released song called Verse Chorus Verse, previously known as Sappy, which appeared on the 1993 No Alternative compilation).
Following the jam, the band set about recording the song that had been played just once before, at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom on October 23, 1993. During the Lang session it was simply referred to as Kurt's Tune # 1. "We'd been doing it at soundchecks," says Novoselic. "We were kind of putting it together. Then in the studio we honed it down to one three-and-a-half, four-minute opus."
Though Grohl recalls the arrangement being "iffy" before the band began working on it, listening back to the tapes now, even on the first take the basics have been pretty well hashed out; subsequent takes only refined the material, as happened when the group discussed the song's dynamics prior to the second take.
"Let's start it with something quieter, like cymbals," suggests Grohl. "Yeah, let's just do some kind of rhythm on the hi-hat or something, and the cymbals, so that it's really quiet, and then just come in," says Cobain, eschewing his dislike of the typical Nirvana soft/loud formula. In response, Grohl promptly delivers a loud drum roll. "Yeah," says Cobain, "and I'll try to cue when I will be singing," which he then demonstrates, playing guitar while singing the vocal melody. After another run-through, Cobain declares: "I think that's perfect. Exactly like that." The third run-through is the first to feature the distinctive chiming sound at the song's beginning, achieved by Cobain playing the strings on his guitar neck right above the nut. For his part, Lang was thrilled at watching the number come together.
"It was like, This is the song, this is what they're here for," he says. "This is the grand finale of all the jams I've heard for the last couple days. And a lot of this, too, is the influence of Adam Kasper being the person that he was. He was very aware of everything that was going on but never was jumpy or too quick to say something was wrong. There was a chemistry involved there; they worked really well together."
When the backing tracks had been worked out to the group's satisfaction, everyone adjourned to a local eatery, Pizza Mia, where Cobain regaled Lang with the story of the band's encounter with Eddie Van Halen on December 30, when the inebriated guitarist appeared backstage and insisted he jam on-stage with the band ("It was hilarious," laughs Lang). After a stop at a grocery store to buy cigarettes, during which Cobain congratulated Lang on his set-up, the group returned to the studio, their renewed energy evident in the playful and playfully titled jam After Dinner, a punchy three-and-a-half-minute rocker that has Cobain turning on his distortion pedal halfway through. Cobain also commented that his back hurt him, leading him to lie on the floor, where he said he found the cool, hard marble soothing.
When it came time for Cobain to record his vocals, special preparations were made. "Adam and I hooked up some speakers and put them out of phase, 'cos Kurt didn't like to wear headphones," explains Lang. Cobain nailed his vocal in one take, and added two vocal overdubs.
Six additional numbers were then recorded, but both Novoselic and Grohl say Cobain wasn't on them; presumably he left, after signing the studio's door and drawing a cat figure next to his signature (perhaps inspired by the kitten that had appeared on Grohl's song, who'd wandered into the studio on Sunday as well). Grohl had been stockpiling songs for a number of years, and had managed to get his song Marigold on the B-side of Heart-Shaped Box. At Lang's he recorded Exhausted, written in '92, along with two more recent compositions, Big Me and Butterflies. All are complete songs, and near-identical to the versions that would end up on the first Foo Fighters demo, aside from being in different keys (only Butterflies remains unreleased).
The remaining numbers recorded that evening are more like the passing-the-time tunes the sessions had started out with. Novoselic's heavyhanded, lumbering waltz French Abortion which has no vocals, was recorded twice, one take running nearly nine minutes, a shorter one embellished by harmonium and mandolin. Skid Mark is a minute and a half pop joke, the entire lyric being the title shouted intermittently by Grohl. Finally, the self-explanatory Thrash Tune: a brief burst of noise that wouldn't be out of place on Grohl's recent Probot project. Overall the group was pleased with what they'd accomplished, particularly in regards to Kurt's Tune.
"They told me this was the quickest and fastest recording they'd ever done," says Lang. "And they wanted to come back and finish up after the European tour. I got a call from Gold Mountain [the band's management] afterwards, and they booked another week that was going to lead into two weeks, I believe sometime in April. They were on my books to work on more material, on demos and what was leading to be their next new record."
At the end of the session, Novoselic took the 2-inch masters home with him, where they stayed in his basement for the next four years.
KURT COBAIN OF COURSE NEVER RETURNED TO Robert Lang Studios. That Wednesday (February 2), Nirvana left for the first leg of their European tour, arriving in Paris the following day. After an appearance on the French TV show Nulle Part Ailleurs on February 4, the band flew to Lisbon, Portugal, on February 5; the tour proper began on February 6 at the Pavilhao Dramatico and was scheduled to end on March 3, in Offenbach, Germany, encompassing a total of 17 shows (originally 18; a Paris show set for February 15 was cancelled). But a few days into the tour, Cobain began talking about quitting, and as the tour progressed he sank deeper into depression.
Nonetheless, he hung on until March 1 and played Munich's Terminal 1. It was to be Nirvana's final bow. The most remarkable aspect of the show is how unremarkable it was. Despite his apparently agitated state of mind, and a sore throat, Cobain turned in a performance equal to any of the others on the tour. The 23-song set began with an off-the-cuff version of The Cars' My Best Friend's Girl, Novoselic singing a few lines from Moving In Stereo at the end before the band tears into the standard opener, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. Unusually, there was no Teen Spirit. Even more oddly, Novoselic jokingly alluded to the band's demise: "We're not playing the Munich Enormodome tonight. 'Cos our careers are on the wane. We're on the way out. Grunge is dead. Nirvana's over… Our next record's going to be a hip hop record!" After Heart-Shaped Box, Nirvana left the stage for good.
GROHL AND NOVOSELIC REGULARLY RETURNED TO "Bob's Bunker" over the next few years. Both appear on Against The '70s> recorded at Lang's for Mike Watt's album Ball-Hog 0r Tugboat? (Grohl also appears on the track Big Train). More ambitiously, Grohl booked October 17–23, 1994 to record songs he'd been demoing for years. Most of the 15 completed tracks ended up on the Foo Fighters' debut; Lang received a platinum award for his work. Grohl also recorded a cover of Tubeway Army's Down In The Park at Lang's in '96, as well as the score for the indie film Touch. Meanwhile, Novoselic recorded a 15-song demo with his first post-Nirvana band, Sweet 75, at the studio the same year.
Finally, in 1998, the tapes from Nirvana's Lang session were exhumed from Novoselic's basement when work began on the much-mooted Nirvana box set that was intended to represent the band's entire output. The Lang tapes now reside in a secure vault. The set's 2001 release was cancelled in the wake of Courtney Love's lawsuit, filed in May of that year, but at the time there was still hope the suit could be quickly settled, and in anticipation, Kurt's Tune—renamed You Know You're Right—was mixed on July 14 and 15 at Conway Studios in Hollywood. Prior to its release Novoselic told David Fricke that few changes were made to the mix other than "a little bit of compression" and "maybe a little bit of reverb"; otherwise, it sounded much like it did when recorded seven years earlier. Then negotiations fell apart, and the song remained in legal limbo. Enter the internet….
On May 7, 2002, a post on the livenirvana.com discussion board claimed the song was about to be released on-line. On May 10, three short clips appeared, quickly joined by a fourth (presenting a total of 47 seconds of the song), and a promise that the full track would be posted soon, a plan halted by legalities. In the finger-pointing that followed, some accused Grohl of inadvertently leaking the song by having copied it onto a CD of Probot tracks, a charge he staunchly denied. Other speculation put the leak down to a theft from Conway Studios.
It was no great surprise when the complete track mysteriously surfaced the following September. This time, there was no shoving the genie back into the bottle. Radio stations across North America, then around the world, began playing the track in defiance of cease-and-desist letters, and the end result was inevitable. By the month's end, a settlement of the lawsuit was announced, and a video for You Know You're Right was hastily assembled. The Nirvana compilation followed, hitting the Top 5 in the US and the UK shortly after its release. The box set remains on hold.
Bob Lang remembers exactly where he was when he first heard You Know You're Right after its official release. "I was in the car driving up Richmond Beach Road," he says. "I turned on the radio and heard the DJ say 'Here's the new one from Nirvana!' And I was like, God, I don't believe it! It's finally out there! It sent chills up and down my spine. I felt I was validated after 20-plus years of massive construction on my property. I poured my blood, sweat and tears into my studio and when Nirvana wanted to record here I was honoured to be part of that creative process."
While Lang had no idea at the time that that process would be cut brutally short, the session at his studio boils down to more than just one song. It stands as a testament to a band who, despite the whirlwind that engulfed them, attempted to find solace in the one single force that had held them together—music itself.
© Gillian G. Gaar, 2004. Transcribed by Alex Roberts w/ permission.