On April 1, 1998, record producer Jack Endino and I were sitting in Hanzsek Audio as Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic played tapes from the band's last recording session in January 1994 at Robert Lang Studios in Shoreline.
Most numbers were jams Novoselic and Nirvana's drummer, Dave Grohl, recorded before lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain showed up. Cobain only sang on one song, a haunting number the tracking sheets called "Kurt's Song #1." In 2002, the song was officially released on the "best of" compilation "Nirvana," retitled "You Know You're Right." But our mission in 1998 was different. We were beginning work on a then-unnamed Nirvana box set.
Three years after its original release date in the fall of 2001, the box set, "With The Lights Out," is finally being released today.
"Until this year, I didn't believe it would ever happen," Endino said to me as we looked back on what had turned out to be a six-year process. "Even as recently as last August, when we were working on it, I was like, 'Well, I'll believe it when I see it.' "
My first article about Nirvana was a review of their 1989 debut album "Bleach," when I was a senior editor of the now defunct music paper The Rocket. In 1997, I gave a copy of an article I'd done on Nirvana's recording sessions for Goldmine magazine to Novoselic, and he told me they were going to start work on a box set. I later asked if I could be involved, and he agreed.
Endino was contacted by Novoselic at the same time. "I told him, 'A lot of stuff has passed through my hands you probably have forgotten about. Let me make a tape of things you might want to consider,' " Endino said.
In the early stages, our work proceeded in a similarly informal fashion. Our basic plan was to choose the songs and specific versions of songs that best told Nirvana's story, and present them on listening tapes (later CDs) for everyone involved in the project. My Goldmine article had covered every Nirvana recording session, and we used that as a starting point to determine exactly what had been recorded.
Sub Pop archives
Endino's long association with Nirvana's first label, Sub Pop, meant he had access to some unreleased songs from that era, such as a raucous cover of Leadbelly's "Ain't It A Shame," with Cobain on guitar and vocals, Novoselic on bass, and the Screaming Trees' Mark Pickerel on drums (which is included on the set).
He also had in his basement tapes from his last session with the band, in October 1992, when they recorded demos for their upcoming album "In Utero" at Seattle's Word of Mouth studio. "It was obvious they weren't too interested," Endino recalls. "They were like, 'We'll come back and do the vocals later.' I got the feeling that maybe Cobain didn't have any lyrics yet or nobody wanted to be bothered."
Nor could anyone be bothered to pick up the tapes. Endino took them home when Word of Mouth closed, later turning them over to Novoselic. Now, an early version of "Rape Me" and excerpts of a jam from that session are included on the box.
After sifting through the Sub Pop material, songs from radio sessions, and rehearsal jams from band members' collections, I went to Los Angeles in February and March 2001 to listen to songs in Geffen's vaults (after Sub Pop, Nirvana had signed with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen). Along with the master tapes from the sessions for "Nevermind" and "In Utero," I found a box of cassettes, one of which featured a February 1994 rehearsal with the band's new cellist. The version of "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam" from that session, which is on the box, is especially poignant when you consider the rehearsal took place two months before Cobain's death.
Legal skirmishes between Courtney Love, Cobain's widow who now oversees his estate, and Novoselic and Grohl put the box on hold in 2001. Those issues were resolved in 2002, but serious work didn't begin on the box until just last summer. Even then, there were still new discoveries to be made; it turned out the master tape of the "Ain't It A Shame" session contained another Leadbelly song, "They Hung Him on a Cross," we didn't even know had been recorded. It duly ended up on the box.
The set was now going to contain a DVD as well. I was asked by the DVD's director, Lance Bangs, for suggestions on where to track down interesting footage. I remembered seeing a video of Grohl's first show with Nirvana (Olympia, October 1990) in an Experience Music Project exhibit, so I contacted Jacob McMurray, formerly a senior curator at EMP, now holding the same title at the Science Fiction Museum.
McMurray purchased many of the Nirvana items now in EMP's archives, and being familiar with the collection myself, I had already made suggestions for artwork to be used in the set's booklet, such as the poster for the 1991 show at Seattle's OK Hotel where Nirvana debuted the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
EMP had a flier for that October '90 show as well as the footage, but we had to clear use of latter with the man who shot it, Jon Snyder. Snyder, now living in Spokane, had been an Evergreen student and had filmed many local bands at the time. He sold his collection of tapes to EMP in 2002. "I knew I could not keep them climate-controlled and preserved indefinitely myself and that EMP could," he explains.
Snyder had read about the Nirvana box set, but was still surprised when he was contacted about his own footage being used. Now, 14 years after filming it, Snyder's clip of "Love Buzz" will have its first official release on the box.
Somewhere along the way, I also found time to write the timeline for the set's booklet, and was finally given a title: "project consultant." There are some things I'm sorry didn't make the final cut. The videos Snyder shot at Evergreen with one of the band's earlier drummers, Chad Channing, in March 1990 for example. And there's a version of "Hairspray Queen" with Channing on drums recorded during the "Bleach" album sessions (the officially released version of the song features yet another drummer, Dale Crover). An alternate mix of "Lounge Act" from "Nevermind" by producer Butch Vig is incredibly powerful.
But overall, it's great to know that after all these years, our work has resulted in another new Nirvana release for the fans to enjoy. And as a Nirvana fan myself, it was a great way to spend the past six years.
© Gillian G. Gaar, 2004. Transcribed by Alex Roberts w/ permission