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Howl: An Interview With Kurt Cobain
by John Savage
July 1993
part two of two
Why did the drugs happen? Where they just around?
I had done heroin for about a year, off and on. I've had this stomach condition for like five years. There were times, especially during touring, when I just felt like a drug addict - even though I wasn't - because I was starving [an outgrowth of this condition--Editor] and couldn't find out what was wrong with me. I tried everything I could think of. Change diet, pills, everything... exercised, stopped drinking, stopped smoking, and nothing worked. I just decided that if I'm going to feel like a junkie every day fucking morning and be vomiting every day then I may as well take a substance that kills that pain. I can't say that's the main reason why I did it, but that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot more to do with it than most people think.

Did you find out what that stomach problem was?

Do you still get it?
Every once in a while. But for some reason it's just gone away. I think it's a psychosomatic thing. My mom had it for a few years when she was in her early twenties, and eventually it went away. She was in the hospital all the time because of it.

Are you feeling a bit better now?
Yeah. Especially in the last year, since I've been married and had a child, my mental and physical states have improved almost 100 percent. I'm really excited about touring again. I haven't felt this optimistic since right before my parents divorce.

Did you find it disheartening that you'd started this band and you were playing these great songs when suddenly, all this weird stuff started happening in the media?
Oh yeah, it affected me to the point of wanting to break up the band all the time.

Was it mainly the Vanity Fair article?
That started it. There were probably 50 more articles based on that story. I'd never paid attention to the mainstream press or media before, so I wasn't aware of people being attacked and crucified on that level. I can't help but feel that we've been scapegoated, in a way. I have a lot of animosity towards journalists and the press in general. Because it's happening to me, of course, I'm probably exaggerating it, but I can't think of another example of a current band that's had more negative articles written about them.

So what do you think it is?
A lot of it is just simple sexism. Courtney is my wife, and a lot of people could not accept the fact that I'm in love, and that I could be happy. Because she's such a powerful person, and such a threatening person, every sexist within the industry just joined forces and decided to string us up.

Let's talk about In Utero. It sounds claustrophobic to me.
I think so, yeah. The main reason we recorded the new album, In Utero, with Steve Albini is he is able to get a sound that sounds like the band is in a room no bigger than the one we're in now. In Utero doesn't sound like it's been recorded in a hall, or that it's trying to sound larger than life. It's very in-your-face and real.
Technically, I've learned that the way to achieve that is to use a lot of microphones. I've known that for years, ever since I started recording, because microphones are so directional that if you want an ambient sound you need to use a lot of tracks. Or you need to use an omnidirectional microphone, farther away from the instruments, so you can pick up the reverberation from the walls.

How many mikes did you use for In Utero?
I have no idea, but a lot. We had big old German microphones taped to the floor and the ceiling and the walls, all over the place. I've been trying to get producers to do this ever since we've been recording. I don't know anything about recording, but it just seems so obvious to me that is what you need to do. I tried to get Butch Vig to do it, I tried to get Jack Endino to do it, and everyone's response was, "That isn't how you record". Steve Albini proved to me on these songs, although I don't know exactly how he did it; I just knew that it had to be that way. He had to have used a bunch of microphones. It's as simple as that. Which is why live recordings of punk shows sound so good. You really get a feel of what was going on.

Did you re-record any of the tracks?
No. We remixed a couple because the vocals weren't loud enough. Steve is a good recording engineer, but terrible at mixing, as far as I'm concerned. To me, mixing is like doing a crossword puzzle or something. It's like math, or something really technical. It drains you; you really have to concentrate on it. There are so many variations in the tones of each instrument that it can take days to mix a song if you really want to get anal about it. I'm all for just recording and however it comes out on tape, that's how it should come out. But for some songs it just doesn't work.

I really like the slow songs on In Utero.
They came out really good, and Steve Albini's recording technique really those songs well; you can really hear the ambience in those songs. It was perfect for them. But for All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box we needed more. My main complaint was that the vocals weren't loud enough. In every Albini mix I've ever heard, the vocals are always too quiet. That's just the way he liked things, and he's a real difficult person to persuade otherwise. I mean, he was trying to mix each tune within an hour, which is just not how the songs work. It was fine for a few songs, but not all of them. You should be able to do a few different mixes and pick the best.
I never thought I would enjoy talking about the technical side of recording. It never made any sense to me before. But now, I don't think it's a bad thing to talk about.

You appear to be in a really good position, since even if the album doesn't do well, you've made the record that you wanted to make.
Absolutely. Oh man, that's why I'm so excited about this record. I actually want to promote this record, not for the sake of selling records, but because I'm more proud of this record than anything I've ever done. We've finally achieved the sound that I've been hearing in my head forever.

You didn't on Nevermind?
Not at all. It's too slick. I don't listen to records like that at home. I can't listen to that record. I like a lot of the songs. I really like playing some of them live. In a commercial sense I think it's a really good record, I have to admit that, but that's in a Cheap Trick sort of way. But for my personal listening pleasure, you know, it's to slick.

How do you sing? Because you use a number of voices...
Most of the time I sing right from my stomach. Right from where the pain is.

That's where the pain and anger come from?
It's definitely there. Every time I've had an endoscope, they find a red irritation in my stomach. But it's psychosomatic, it's all from anger. And screaming. My body is damaged from music in two ways: not only has my stomach inflamed from irritation, but I have scoliosis. I had minor scoliosis in junior high, and since I've been playing guitar ever since, the weight of the guitar has made my back grow in this curvature. So when I stand, everything is sideways, it's weird.

You could get that sorted out.
I go to a chiropractor every once in a while. You can't really correct scoliosis because it's a growth in the spine. Your spine grows though your adolescent years in a curvature. Most people have a small curvature in their spine anyhow, though some people have it really bad and have to wear metal braces. It gives me a back pain all the time. That really add the pain to our music. It really does. I'm kind of grateful for it.

Do you feel now that there are contradictions between your ideals and your enormous success? Is that something that worries you?
I don't really know anymore. I think I was probably feeling a lot more contradictory a year-and-a-half ago, because I was blindly fighting and not even knowing what I was fighting for. And, to a point, I still am. Like I said, i don't really know how to deal with the media. A year ago, I said that there was absolutely no fucking way that I would ever speak in public again, and that I would go out of my way to never show my face again. But then I decided that I wasn't going to let a handful of evil journalists dictate my fucking life.
I'm just grateful that within the last year, I've come across a few people who happen to be journalists that I trust and like to talk to.

Maybe this could be a good time to address some of the rumours that have plagues you. When Nevermind hit, there were reports that you were a narcoleptic.
No, no... that was just a story I made up to explain why I slept so much. I used to find myself sleeping a lot before shows. A lot of times the backstage area is such a gross scene, I don't want to talk to anybody. So I just fall asleep. There are so many people that we know now, so many friends and stuff that I can ask them to leave. I don't want to act like Axl Rose and have my own bus or my own back room area.

Speaking of Axl, what is the story behind your altercation with him backstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards?
Well, apparently Axl was in a really bad mood. Something set him off, probably just minutes before our encounter with him. We were in the food tent and I was holding my daughter, Frances, and he came strutting by five of his huge bodyguards and a person with a movie camera. Courtney jokingly screamed out at him, "Axl, will you be the godfather of our child?". Everyone laughed. We had a few friends around us, and he just stopped dead in his tracks and started screaming all these abusive words at us. He told me to shit my bitch up, so I looked over at Courtney and said, "Shut up, bitch, heh!". Everybody started howling with laughter and Axl just kind of blushed and went away. Afterward, we heard that Duff [McKagan, GNR bassist] wanted to beat Kris up.

I thought it was great when Kris hit his head with the bass at the end of your performance that evening. You're all trying to be cool and smash up your instruments, and he really fucked it up - it's really good!
That's happened so many times.

An impressive finale, and you end up looking really stupid, but that's great too.
It was so expected, you know? Should we just walk off stage, or should we break our equipment again? We went through so many emotions that day, because up until just minutes before we played, we weren't sure we were going to go on. We wanted to play Rape Me, and MTV wouldn't let us. They were going to replace us if we didn't play Teen Spirit. We compromised and ended up playing Lithium. I spat on Axl's keyboard when we were sitting on the stage. It was either that or beat him up. We're down on this platform that brought us up hydraulically, you know? I saw this piano there, and I just had to take this opportunity and spit big goobers all over his keyboards. I hope he didn't get it off in time.

Tell me, I have to ask what happened with the gun thing. Was that bullshit?
Oh yeah. Total bullshit. That's another thing that has made me want to just give up. I never choked my wife, but every report, even Rolling Stone, said that I did. Courtney was wearing a choker. I ripped it off her, and it turned out in the police report that I choked her. We weren't even fighting. We weren't even arguing, we were playing music too loud, and the neighbours complained and called the police to us. It was the first time they'd ever complained, and we've been practicing in the house for a long time.

That's the way they expect you to behave, because you're a controversial rock star.
The police were really nice about it, though. To tell the truth, I couldn't believe it. See, there's a new law, which was passed that month in Seattle, that says that when there's a domestic violence call, they have to take one party or the other to jail. So the only argument Courtney and I got into was who was going to go to jail for a few hours. And they asked us, out of the blue, "Are there any guns in the house?". I said no because I didn't want them to know there were two guns and the house. I have an M-16 and two handguns. They're put away, there are no bullets in them, they're put in the closet, and they took them away. I can get them back now. I haven't bothered to get them back yet, but it was all just a ridiculous little situation. It was nothing. And it's been blown up out of proportion. It's just like I feel like people don't believe me. Like I'm a pathological liar. I'm constantly defending myself. People still haven't evolved enough to question anything that's printed. I'm really bad at that, too. I still believe a lot of things that I read.

But you must behave badly sometimes?
Sure. Courtney and I fight. We argue a lot. But I've never choked my wife. It's an awful fucking thing to be printed, to be thought of you. You know, we haven't had any problems, any bad re posts, any negative articles written about us in a long time. We thought we were finally over it - that our curse had worn itself out.

It must also be because people have perceived you as a threat.
I think Courtney is more of a threat than I am.

What have been the worst temptations engendered by your success?
Nothing I can think of, except Lollapalooza. They offered us a guarantee of like six million dollars, and that's way more money than... We're going to break even on this tour because we play theaters, and the productions is so expensive at this level. But other than that, I've never thought of the Guns N' Roses, Metallica and U2 offers as any kind of legitimate offer, They were just never a reality for me.

So what are the plans for In Utero? How much are you touring to promote it?
We'll tour for about six weeks in the States, starting in October. Then I don't want to commit anything until we see how I feel physically after that. Maybe we'll go to Europe. I'm sure we'll be over in Europe to support this record within a year, but I'm not sure when. I don't want to set a whole year's worth of touring up.

There seems to be a tension, in that you defined yourself as being influenced by punk, and part of punk was that it wasn't cool to be successful. Did you feel that tension, and has it cause you problems?
That's not how I perceived early punk. I thought that the Sex Pistols wanted to rule the world, and I was rooting for them. But then American punk rock in the mid-Eighties became totally stagnant and elitist.It was a big turn-off for me. I didn't like it at all. But at the same time, I had been thinking that way for so long that it was really hard for me to come to terms with success. But I don't care about it now. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to put out a shitty record on purpose. That would be ridiculous. But I would probably have done that a year-and-a-half ago - I would have gonna out of my way to make sure that the album was even noisier than it is. I know we're not going to have the fringe millions who enjoy music, who aren't into our band for any other reasons than as a tool to fuck. But we did this record the way we wanted to. I'm glad about that.

It worried me a bit that you might get into that trap, cause it's not interesting.
That defeats the whole reason for making music. I've been validated beyond anything.
But I would gladly go back to the point of selling out the Vogue in Seattle, which holds about three hundred people. I'll gladly go back to playing in front of 20 people - if I'm still enjoying it.
( part one | part two )

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