Ready For the Next Round: NIRVANA
from OOR magazine, September 1993
Guilty for good of the world-wide musical coup d'etat that
was called grunge, Kurt, Chris and Dave have in the meantime
seen all corners of the American dream (fame, money, damage,
shame and stomach-ache) And now there is an unruly new album
ready: 'In Utero', recorded in only two weeks.
We definetely DON'T want to win new fans with this CD.
Hope that works out. Now to Seattle.
The view over Elliot Bay from the hotel is rather nice.
("Breathtaking" is what a brochure would say.) Completely
un-American on top of that, because if you - like me - are
used to the hectic cities of the East Coast, this is a Swiss
mountain lake in comparison. No stink, no bustle, no filth,
no sirens, and no honking, although in the distance a big
white ferry-boat - or is it a cruise ship? - goes by, and
seems to have to test its horn every minute.
For a moment I fancy myself being on vacation in the city that became
famous because of its port and its trade center, its steel industry,
fishery, Boeing plants and (of vital interest to the European) good
coffee. Nothing more. But 2 years ago something changed. By a
benevolent freak of nature, Seattle became an epicenter, a magic word and
a place of pilgrimage. In that order. Since then, no guitar-riff could
be strummed here without turning to gold.
A knock on the door. "Housekeeping! Room service! Can we make the beds,
please?" My idyll is shattered. The beds were made a long time ago, and
did I ask for room service?
Then, from the hall, comes giggling and a bumping noise. Thumping on the
door of another room. Giggling again. A look around the corner of the
doorway into the long passage makes it clear: further down there are 3
figures, one of them strikingly tall, running away laughing out loud.
They're here. And they obviously haven't changed a bit. Luckily.
Everyone knows the fairy tale that came true, the one of Nirvana: a
rebellious little noise-band becoming superstars. Why? Because they have
iron-strong, catchy, robust pop songs, and rode (in a wheelbarrow - the
same one Sonic Youth habitually uses to transport their guitars) into the
right place - the office of record-company boss David Geffen - at the
right time. The right time was 1991, and they had the right sound
(hard) and the right attitude (recalcitrant).
But after a short while, the fairy tale was not much about music
anymore. Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, the talented enigma of the group,
turned out to know exactly what the key to international publicity was:
anything but normal behavior. Because of that, the tall tales about
Nirvana piled up. Sometimes this was helped by Cobain, sometimes not -
but the press quickly latched onto stories of his drug-addiction, his
destructive nature, and his unhappy youth; his marriage to also-heroin-
addicted Courtney Love; allegations of her heroin use during pregnancy; the
arrest of Cobain for posession of illegal weaponry ("or", the gutter press
giggled, "was it due to ill-treatment of Courtney?"); and his supposed
tirades directed at the English people, which, as later became clear, were
only directed at the British PRESS.
Only in July 1993 did the storm settle down a bit. Nirvana's appearance
at New York's New Music Seminar, at which a foretaste of the upcoming CD 'In
Utero' was given, garnered positive reviews. Cobain, bassist Chris
Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl had survived (just like former
Exploited guitarist 'Big' John Duncan, added for this appearance
as an extra guitarist, who now has been replaced by Pat Smear from the
legendary LA punk band The Germs). Something sane could now be reported -
about music this time.
Dave Grohl is the first one ready. Time is of the essence: 'project promote
In Utero' is only a couple of days old, and a few members of the European
press were allowed to come over for the first stories, but it has to be
done quickly. Luckily one of my decisions was undisputable: I would
ignore all sensational stories.
Meanwhile, as Novoselic and a pale-as-a-corpse, tired-looking and
fish-bone-skinny Cobain shamble successively into the room, Grohl and I
agree on In Utero: it's a capricious, obstinate album. Of course, songs
like 'Serve The Servants' (with lyrics like "Teenage angst had paid off
well/Now I'm bored and old", the cynical opening lines of the album), the
sublime 'Rape Me', the ballad 'Dumb', thick with throbbing cellos, and the
slurred recital of 'Pennyroyal Tea' could all fit on the 'Nevermind' album
because of their beauty. But opposed to that, there's a portion of
cussedness which could make the audience gained with 'Nevermind'
nauseous. The three heads nod in agreement. Outside a horn is audible.
GROHL: "We think 'In Utero' will get 3 types of reactions. For the
listener-by-accident, spoiled by 'Nevermind', this album sounds like our
commercial suicide; probably he/she will ignore it, and consider us one hit
wonders. The sceptics will rate it a pretentious album: 'Nirvana makes some
noise and think they are good at it.' "Big deal." The fans, finally,
will instinctively like it. They will rate the album at its true value: a
spontaneously realized, no-nonsense album, without the post-production
VAN DER BERG: "For the first time you guys had to make an album knowing
half the world would be waiting for with high expectations. Could you
handle that pressure?"
COBAIN: "Sure, easily. Just because the image of the group had been
hyped up to outrageous proportions, we had the idea it didn't matter
what we recorded: it would sell anyway. Lou Reed once made an album called
'Metal Machine Music' and lost all his credibility with it. We could have
done something like that. But our musical aims are somewhat bigger; we
like to have a good feeling about an album."
GROHL: "The pressure is on the record company, not us. THEY have to sell
the album. We just went into the studio and recorded what we liked to see
recorded. No one meddled with that. Then we mixed everything, gave the
master tape to Geffen and said "this is it". It's up to them to make
the link to the mainstream. I just think this time it will be harder to do
that, because if you work with Steve Albini - he has some pretty obstinate
production standards - you KNOW you won't get a radio-friendly sound."
VDB: "Everything sounds a bit dirtier than 'Nevermind'."
GROHL: "That makes sense; we did almost no post-editing on the songs. We
recorded everything in 1 take, and did as little overdubbing as possible.
'Nevermind' was polished; every mistake was taken out of it. With 'In
Utero' we meant to produce an honest group album again. Musically there
is much more to be taken out of it. Take the track 'Milk it' for example:
it has a very remarkable dynamic. There is some cracks and creaks in it,
the bass screws up regularly... Those sorts of little things give the
COBAIN: "When we went into the studio, only half of the compositions
were ready. The rest originated from messing around in the studio. This way
we applied a pressure that was far more defining than the one that was
applied from outside: we restricted ourselves to a deadline - two weeks -
and a recording budget. I like to work that way. I also waited with the
lyrics to the last moment. I know me; if I make something long before, I
keep working on it and start to doubt. Or else I'll decide it's not
good anymore and throw it away. For the new album I fixed everything in
my mind on the very day."
VDB: "Does 'In Utero', in spite of that, reflect what's happened to you
guys the last two years?"
GROHL: "Some things. But that will be something personal for each of
us. Of course we had never experienced anything like this [fame] before, so
when it happened it was quite a shock. In the beginnig you try to put
the whole circus away from yourself; later on you can't do much more than
make the best of it. But you can really freak out sometimes. At a given
time you notice that things are completely out of proportion, and you ask
yourself what it all has to do with music any more. People sueing each
other, people sueing YOU, because apparently you stole something from
them, incomprehensible business maneuvers, commercial tricks... and of
course it's all about money."
NOVOSELIC: "You enter a kind of identity-crisis. You are a punk band with
punk ideology, when suddenly you get into the mainstream. Are you different
then all of a sudden? Or is it not just the popularity, but the fact
that you work along with it and in that way, adapt yourself to a broader
GROHL: "You get doubts. What name to call yourself. And what to call
your music. Suddenly all kinds of labels appeared: alternative music,
grunge. But some moment you will think to yourself: "fuck", in the end,
isn't it all music?"
VDB: "Hey, you are the cause of it yourselves!"
GROHL [laughing]: "Yeah, that's our tragic downfall, I think. But lately,
we are returning from all of it a bit. A while ago, our record company
asked us if we wanted to do a concert at a convention for record
distributors. They wanted us to play there for the chance of our CD
getting a more prominent spot in the stores when it was released. At
first we thought: okay, why not? But a while later on, we thought deeper
about it, and came to the conclusion it was, of course, all pure
ass-kissing, and that we never would have done those kind of things
previously. We stopped it and said we thought it was a stupid idea. It
was amusing to sense an immediate slight panic; a kind of fear that that
new CD, in all its non-productiveness and incommerciality, won't sell.
We think it will sell really well or it won't sell at all. Because
everyone knows a new Nirvana album is coming up, and everyone also knows
it won't be like 'Nevermind'. It's a fact 'In Utero' won't bring in new
fans out of the mainstream audience. I myself wouldn't like it if we
were to become even more popular than we are now."
VDB: "The lyrics on 'In Utero' are, so far as not too cryptic, fairly bitter
and introverted. Does that reflect the harvest of being dragged along in
the uncontrollable un-wieldiness of superstardom?"
COBAIN: "I can be very clear about themes and concepts: they are
non-existent. I can tell you something about a few songs; the rest is
"stupid poetry". Romping with words and associations. A while ago, a
journalist pointed out to me there are a lot of MEDICAL terms in the new
lyrics. He had a point. Many songs are indirectly about disease, bad health
and the feeling of being trapped and being kept in check."
VDB: "So there may be a bit of a feeling of being trapped - which must
have bothered you - after all?"
COBAIN: "I don't know. I myself tend to think those medical associations
have to do with a stomach condition that I had for years which only recently
disappeared. It's heritage; my mother had the same thing when she was my
age. It lasted for 5 years and then it was suddenly gone. I've read a
lot of medical manuals and had discussions with people who have chronic
stomach-aches, because I wanted to know what I had. In the long run it
all became a bit obsessive, and probably led to the textual basis for the
VDB: "Which of the songs don't contain the 'stupid poetry'?"
COBAIN: " 'Rape Me' is my taking a stand against rape. It's the oldest
track on the album. I wrote it a week after rounding off the recordings of
'Nevermind' and it speaks for itself. 'Tourettes' refers to the
people who suffer from the disease of the same name. You know that?
Gradually you lose control over what you say, and in the end you yell
and curse at random; those are psychic outbursts that you can't help
having - but of course you can be a burden to your environment. In America
there are a striking number of patients. When I saw that, I recognized
many of the same things I see in myself. Especially things from 5 to 6
years ago: I was frustrated, angry and completely unreasonable. If I had
kept that up for the rest of my life, it would have become something
resembling that syndrome."
VDB: "A title like 'Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle'
probably also didn't appear out of the blue?"
COBAIN: "That one is about an actress who made a few movies quite a
while ago. She also was from Seattle. She was somewhat unstable, but
extremely opinionated and provocative. Time went by and the authorities
started to consider her a danger to the establishment. At least, they
made it appear that way. They declared her insane, put her in a
psychiatric institution and systematically maltreated her there. I read
the book recently, but never realized before that how gruesome the story
VDB: "Why did you dedicate a song to it?"
COBAIN: "Because I realize how and why such things can happen. How it
even can happen to ME, if you don't recognize certain mechanisms in
time. Luckily nowadays it's not that easy anymore to plan something like
that. That McCarthy period was so paranoid; every form of strange
behavior was recognized as a symptom of communism. I hope nobody will
experience something like Frances did. Did you know that people who
were in on that scheme still live care-free in Seattle? I can work
myself into a lather by thinking about that. If I had the means, I would
bomb their houses flat."
VDB: "You don't adopt many social or political positions in the lyrics.
But then you guys show up for benefit performances, like in April in
San Francisco, for the benefit of the victims of the rapes in Bosnia. Did you
play 'Rape Me' over there, too?"
COBAIN: "Once again, that is an ANTI-rape statement."
VDB: "You hardly hear that. The text is very concise."
COBAIN: "When I just finished the song, it was even worse: it was only
a repeatedly yelled 'rape me'. Later on, I added a few things. If I had to
make a new song about this subject now, I would be more nuanced. Now it has
become a sarcastic statement, and I suppose not everybody will pick that up.
I also hope that girls don't take it as an insult because of the cheerful
melody under it."
NOVOSELIC: "We did that benefit-performance because as INDIVIDUALS, not as
musicians, we have our feelings about the circumstances in Bosnia. Although
you don't find it in the music, it doesn't mean Nirvana is no political band.
We are VERY concerned with things happening everywhere. By the way, I am of
Croatian origin myself, so how could the events over there have NO effect on
me? If we have discussions between ourselves, it's almost always about
politics. That has never been different. We were raised in Reagan's
period; a very frustrating period. Via groups like M.D.C. I discovered
punk-rock then, and contextually that was always about politics. Unadapted
behavior, that was the heart of it. That's what infected us. And that's
still in us."
VDB: "How do you see the future of Nirvana? Continuation of the
craziness, putting up with the media digging in your private lives, or
rather a return to the margin, where, according to a lot of people,
GROHL: "For me, Nirvana doesn't have to become bigger. I'm afraid our music
won't have the same effect in stadiums with 60,000 people anyway. It's
deadly for the intimacy and the energy. I would have no problem with us
standing in clubs like Paradiso [ a pretty big disco in the Netherlands ].
And as for the lack of privacy, you get used to that.
As soon as Americans have a hunch that they can make money off you,
they will start digging. Or write books on you. At a given moment, you
KNOW all that sudden interest in your band has only got to do with one
thing: money. Especially with those manager types and 'sudden' friends.
But if you pay too much attention to it, and get concerned about it, you
will go nuts. Look at someone like Axl Rose. Although, he probably wanted
to be a rock star all his life, so now he is one, he plays his part okay.
He has a model for a wife, many cars, a couple of villa's..."
VDB: "And you don't?"
GROHL: "Of course, but nobody knows! No, we don't play along with that
sort of crap. Besides, where are you in ten years then? How's Axl Rose
in ten years? He's already a parody of himself."
COBAIN: "How you deal with the whole circus, you define for yourself. To
escape from it all I did heroin for quite some time [laughs]. But that
didn't help. Meanwhile I've had the time to get used to the nonsense.
And to learn how to deal with it and how to prevent certain things.
Although it still irritates me if once more a group of fans comes towards
me for an autograph. I appreciate the fact they like my music, but I
don't want them thinking I'm someone special. That's what I'm worried
about. But I will have to live with that; I won't discontinue the band
for something that trivial."
GROHL: "I still want to go back to school. The idea of being a rock star
for the rest of my life stifles me. I want to study, get married and have
children. I was with the group that was number one everywhere in the world,
so what more do you want? What's the next step? I understand there are
more extreme and funnier things to think of still, but there are simply
some life goals you set up for yourself. I started playing when I was 18,
in squats, everywhere in Europe. Then already I thought I'd made it:
'wow, Europe!'. I still love making music, but I accomplished what I wanted
to accomplish. Bigger isn't necessary. As long as I can play with
Chris and Kurt, I'm satisfied."
NOVOSELIC: "I never think about the future. And that's why I'd rather
not make predictions. I am not Nostradamus."
VDB: "The one who predicted the breakthrough of Nirvana, by the way."
NOVOSELIC: "Correct, yes. He called us 'Nirjana' or something. He was
a few letters off."