Kurt Cobain: The Rolling Stone Interview
by David Fricke, January 1994
part one of two
Shirtless, disheveled, Kurt Cobain pauses on the backstage stairway leading to Nirvanaís dressing room at the Aragon Ballroom, in Chicago, offers a visitor a sip of his apres-gig tea and says in a drop-deadpan voice, "Iím really glad you could make it for the shiitiest show on the tour."
He's right. Tonight's concert- Nirvana's second of two nights at the Aragon, only a week into the band's first US tour in two years- is a real stinker. The venue's cavernous sound turns even corrosive torpedoes like "Breed" and "Territorial Pissings" into riff pudding, and Cobain is bedeviled all night by guitar- and vocal-monitor problems. There are moments of prickly brilliance: Cobainís sandpaper howl chorus of "Heart-Shaped Box," a short, stunning "Sliver" with torrid power strumming by guest touring guitarist Pat Smear (ex-Germs). But there is no "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and when the house lights go up, so does a loud chorus of boos.
According to the Cobain press myth- "pissy, complaining, freaked out schizophrenic," as he quite accurately puts it- the 26-year-old singer and guitarist should have fired the soundman, canceled this interview and gone back to his hotel room to sulk. Instead, he spends his wind-down time backstage, doting on his daughter, 1-year-old Frances Bean Cobain, a petite blond beauty who barrels around the room with a smile for everyone in her path. Later, back at the hotel, armed with nothing stronger than a pack of cigarettes and two minibar bottles of Evian water, Cobain is in a thoughtful, discursive mood, taking great pains to explain that success doesnít really suck- not as much as it used to, anyway- and that life is pretty good. And getting better.
"It was so fast and explosive," he says in a sleepy, gravely voice of his first crisis of confidence following the ballistic success of Nevermind
. "I didnít know how to deal with it. If there was a Rock Star 101 course, I would have liked to take it. It might have helped me.
"I still see stuff, descriptions of rock stars in some magazine- ĎSting, the environmental mental guy,í and ĎKurt Cobain, the whiny, complaining, neurotic, bitchy guy who hates everything, hates rock stardom, hates his life.í And Iíve never been happier in my life. Especially within the last week, because the shows have been going so well- except for tonight. Iím a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am."
Cobain took some long, hard detours to get there over the past year. The making of In Utero
, Nirvanaís long awaited studio follow-up to Nevermind
, was fraught with last-minute title and track changes as well as a public scrap between the band, its record label, DGC, and producer Steve Albini over the albumís commercial potential- or lack thereof. Cobainís marriage to punk-noir singer Courtney Love of the band Hole- dream fodder for rock gossip since the couple exchanged vows in February 1992- made headlines again last June when Cobain was arrested by Seattle police for allegedly assaulting Love during a domestic fracas. Police found three guns in the house, but no charges were filed, and the case was dismissed.
Last year, Cobain also made a clean breast of his long-rumored heroin addiction, claiming heíd used the drug- at least in part- to opiate severe, chronic stomach pain. Or as he puts it in this interview, "to medicate myself." Heís now off the junk, and thanks to new medication and a better diet, his digestive track, he says, is on the road to recovery.
But the roots of his angst, public and personal, go much deeper. Born near the logging town of Aberdeen Wash., Cobain is- like Nirvanaís bassist, Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and a high percentage of the bandís young fans- the product of a broken home, the son of an auto mechanic and a secretary who divorced when he was eight. Cobain had early aspirations as a commercial artist and won a number of high-school art contests; he now designs much of Nirvanaís artwork. (He made the plastic-fetus collage on the back cover of In Utero
, which got the record banned by Kmart and Wal-Mart.) But after graduation, Cobain passed on a art-school scholarship and took up the teen-age-bum life, working as a roadie for the local band the Melvins (when he was working at all) and applying himself to songwriting.
"I never wanted to sing," Cobain insists now. "I just wanted to play rhythm guitar- hide in the back and just play. But during those high-school years when I was playing guitar in my bedroom, I at least had the intuition that I had to write my own songs."
For a long time, after Nirvana catapulted from junior Sub Pop label signees to grunge supergods- they won the Best Band and Best Album trophies in Rolling Stoneís 1994 Critics Poll- Cobain could not decide whether his talent was a blessing or a curse. He finally came to realize itís a bit of both. He is bugged that people think of him more as an icon than a songwriter yet feels that In Utero
marks the finish line of the Nirvana sound crystallized in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Cobain remains deeply mistrustful of the music business but says he has done a complete U-turn on his attitude toward Nirvanaís mass punk-wanna-be flock.
"I donít have as many judgments about them as I used to," Cobain says, almost apologetically. "Iíve come to terms about why theyíre there and why weíre here. It doesnít bother me anymore to see this Neanderthal with a mustache, out of his mind, drunk, singing along to ĎSliver.í That blows my mind now.
"Iíve been relieved of so much pressure in the last year and a half," Cobain says with discernible relief in his voice. "Iím still kind of mesmerized by it." He ticks off the reasons for his content: "Pulling this record off. My family. My child. Meeting William Burroughs and doing a record with him.
"Just little things that no one would recognize or care about," he continues. "And it has a lot to do with this band. If it wasnít for this band, those things never would have happened. Iím really thankful, and every month I come to more optimistic conclusions."
"I just hope," Cobain adds, grinning, "I donít become so blissful I become boring, I think Iíll always be neurotic enough to do something weird."
Along with everything else that went wrong onstage tonight, you left without playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Why?
That would have been the icing on the cake [smiles grimly
]. That would have made everything twice as worse. I donít even remember the guitar solo on "Teen Spirit." It would take me five minutes to sit in the catering room and learn the solo. But Iím no interested in that kind of stuff. I donít know if thatís so lazy that I donít care anymore or what. I still like playing "Teen Spirit," but itís almost an embarrassment to play it.
In what way? Does the enormity of its success still bug you?
Yeah. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is, people have seen it on MTV a million times. Itís been pounded into their brains. But I still think there are so many other songs that Iíve written that are as good, if not better, that that song, like "Drain You." Thatís defiantly as good as "Teen Spirit." I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as "Teen Spirit," I wouldnít like it as much.
But I can barely, especially on a bad night like tonight, get through "Teen Spirit." I literally want to throw my guitar down and walk away. I canít pretend to have a good time playing it.
But you must have had a good time writing it.
Weíd been practicing for about three months. We were waiting to sign to DGC, and Dave and I were living in Olympia, and Krist was living in Tacoma. We were driving up to Tacoma every night for practice, trying to write songs. I was trying to write the ultimate pop song, I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it [smiles
]. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band- or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
"Teen Spirit" was such a cliched riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or "Louie, Louie." When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, "That is so ridiculous." I made the band play it for an hour and a half.
Where did the line "Here we are now, entertian us" come from?
That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice. A lot of times, when youíre standing around with people in a room, itís really boring and uncomfortable. So it was "Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here."
How did it feel to watch something youíd written in fun, in homage to one of your favorite bands, become the grunge national anthem, not to mention the defining moment in youth marketing?
Actually, we did have our own thing for a while. For a few years in Seattle, it was the Summer of Love, and it was so great. To be able to jump out on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room and then brought back with no harm done to me- it was a celbration of something that no one could put their finger on.
But once it got into the mainstream, it was over. Iím just tired of being embarrased by it. Iím beyond that.
This is the first U.S. tour that youíve done since the fall of í91, just before "Nevermind" exploded. Why did you stay off the road for so long?
I needed time to collect my thoughts and readjust. It hit me so hard, and I was under the impression that I didnít really need to go on tour, because I was making a whole bunch of money. Millions of dollars. Eight million to ten million records sold- that sounded like a lot of money to me. So I thought I would sit back and enjoy it.
I donít want to use this as an excuse, and itís come up so many times, but my stomach ailment has been one of the biggest barriers that stopped us from touring. I was dealing with it for a long time. But after a person experiences chronic pain for five years, but the time that fifth year ends, youíre literally insane. I couldnít cope with anything. I was a schizophrenic as a wet cat thatís been beaten.
How much of that physical pain do you think you channeled into your songwriting?
Thatís a scary question, because obviously if a person is having some kind of turmoil in their lives, itís usually reflected in the music, and sometimes itís pretty beneficial. I think it probably helped. But I would give up everything to have good health. I wanted to do this interview after weíd been on tour for a while, and so far, this has been the most enjoyable tour Iíve ever had. Honestly.
It has nothing to do with the larger venues or people kissing our asses more. Itís just that my stomach isnít bothering me anymore. Iím eating. I ate a huge pizza last night. It was so nice to be able to do that. And it just raises my spirits. But then again, I was always afraid that if I lost my stomach problem, I wouldnít be as creative. Who knows? [Pauses
] I donít have any new songs right now.
Every album weíve done so far, weíve always had one to three songs left over from the sessions. And they usually have been pretty good ones that we really liked, so we always had something to rely on- a hit or something that was above average. So this next record is going to be really interesting, because I have absolutely nothing left. Iím starting from scratch for the first time. I donít know what weíre going to do.
One of the songs that you cut from "In Utero" at the last minute was "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die." How literally did you mean that?
As literal as a joke can be. Nothing more than a joke. And that had a bit to do with why we decided to take it off. We knew people wouldnít get it; theyíd take it too seriously. It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves. Iím thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. "He isnít satisfied with anything." And I thought it would be a funny title. I wanted it to be the title of the album for a long time. But I knew the majority of the people wouldnít understand it.
Have you ever been that consumed with pain or rage that you actually wanted to kill yourself?
For five years during the time I had my stomach problem, yeah. I wanted to kill myself every day. I came very close at times. Iím sorry to be so blunt about it. It was to the point where I was on tour, lying on the floor, vomiting air because I couldnít hold down water. And then I had to play a show in twenty minutes. I would sing and cough up blood.
This is no way to live a life. I loved to play music, but something was not right. So I decided to medicate myself.
Even in satire, though, a song like that can hit a nerve. There are plenty of kids out there who, for whatever reasons, really do feel suicidal.
That pretty much defines our band. Itís both those contradictions. Itís satirical, and itís serious at the same time.
What kind of mail do you get from your fans these days?
] I used to read the mail a lot, and I sued to be really involved with it. But Iíve been so busy with this record, the video, the tour, that I havenít even bothered to look at a single letter, and I feel really bad about it. I havenít even been able to come up with enough energy to put out our fanzine, which was one of the things we were going to do to confront all the bad press, just to be able to show a more realistic side of the band.
But itís really hard. I have to admit Iíve found myself doing the same things that a lot of other rock stars do or are forced to do. Which is not being able to respond to mail, not being able to keep up on current music, and Iím pretty much locked away a lot. The outside world is pretty foreign to me.
I feel very, very luck to be able to go out to a club. Just the other night, we had a night off in Kansas City, Mo., and Pat and I had no idea where we were or where to go. So we called up the local college radio station and asked them what was going on. And they didnít know! So we happened to call this bar, and the Treepeople from Seattle were playing.
And it turns out I met three really, really nice people there, totally cool kids that were in bands. I had a really good time with them, all night. I invited them back to the hotel. They stayed there. I ordered room service for them. I probably went overboard, trying to be accommodating. But it was really great to know that I can still do that, that I can still find friends.
And I didnít think that would be possible. A few years ago, we were in Detroit, playing at this club, and about ten people showed up. And next door, there was this bar, and Axl Rose came in with ten or fifteen bodyguards. It was this huge extravaganza; all these people were fawning over him. If heíd just walked in by himself, it would have been no big deal. But he wanted
that. You create attention to attract attention.
Where do you stand on Pearl Jam now? There were rumors that you and Eddie Vedder were supposed to be on that "Time" magazine cover together.
I donít want to get into that. One of the things Iíve learned is that slagging off people just doesnít do me any good. Itís too bad, because the whole problem with the feud between Pearl Jam and Nirvana had been going on for so long and has come so close to being fixed.
Itís never been entirely clear what this feud with Vedder was about.
There never was one. I slagged them off because I didnít like their band. I hadnít met Eddie at the time. It was my fault; I should have been slagging off the record company instead of them. They were marketed- not probably against their will- but without them realizing they were being pushed into the grunge bandwagon.
Donít you feel empathy with them? Theyíve been under the same intense follow-up-album pressure as you have.
Yeah, I do. Except Iím pretty sure that they didnít go out of their way to challenge their audience as much as we did with this record. Theyíre a safe rock band. Theyíre a pleasant rock band that everybody likes. [Laughs
] God, Iíve had much better quotes in my had about this.
It just kind of pisses me off to know that we work really hard to make an entire albumís worth of songs that are as good as we can make them. Iím gonna stoke my ego by saying weíre better than a lot of bands out there. What Iíve realized is that you only need a couple of catchy songs on an album, and the rest can be bullshit Bad Company rip-offs, and it doesnít matter. If I was smart, I would have saved most of the songs off Nevermind
and spread them out over a 15-year period. But I canít do that. All the albums I ever liked were albums that delivered a great song, one after another: Aerosmithís Rocks
, the Sex Pistolsí Never mind the BullocksÖ
, Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black
, by AC/DC.
Youíve also gone on record as being a big Beatles fan.
Oh, yeah. John Lennon was defiantly my favorite Beatle, hands down. I donít know who wrote what parts of what Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney embarrasses me. Lennon was obviously disturbed [laughs
]. So I could relate to that.
And from the books Iíve read- and Iím so skeptical of anything I read, especially in rock books- I just felt really sorry for him. To be locked up in that apartment. Although he was totally in love with Yoko, and his child, his life was a prison. He was imprisoned. Itís not fair. Thatís the crux of the problem that Iíve had with becoming a celebrity- the way people deal with celebrities. It needs to be changed, it really does.
No matter how hard you try, it only comes out like your bitching about it. I can understand how a person can feel that way and almost become obsessed with it. But itís so hard to convince people to mellow out. Just take it easy, have a little bit of respect. We all shit [laughs
"In Utero" may be the most anticipated, talked-about and argued-over album of 1993. Didnít you feel at any point during all the title changes and the press hoopla stirred up by Steve Albini that the whole thing was just getting stupid? After all, it is just an album.
Yeah. But Iím used to it [laughs
]. While making the record, that wasnít happening. It was made really fast. All the basic tracks were done within a week. And I did 80 percent of the vocals in one day, in about seven hours. I just happened to be on a roll. It was a good day for me, and I just kept on going.
So what was the problem?
It wasnít the songs. It was the production. It took a very, very long time for us to realize what the problem was. We couldnít figure it out. We had no idea why we didnít feel the same energy that we did from Nevermind
. We finally came to the conclusion that the vocals werenít loud enough, and the bass was totally inaudible. We couldnít hear any notes that Krist was playing at all.
I think there are a few songs on In Utero
that could have been cleaned up a little more. Definitely "Pennyroyal Tea." That was not recorded right. There is something wrong with that. That should have been recorded like Nevermind
, because I know thatís a strong song, a hit single. Weíre toying with the idea of re-recording it or remixing it.
You hit and miss. Itís a really weird thing about this record. Iíve never been more confused in my life, but at the same time Iíve never been more satisfied with what weíve done.
Letís talk about your songwriting. Your best songs- "Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," "Rape Me," "Pennyroyal Tea"- all open up with the verse in a low, moody style. Then the chorus comes in at full volume and nails you. So which comes first, the verse or the killer chorus?
[Long pause, then he smiles
] I donít know. I really donít know. I guess I start with the verse and then go into the chorus. But Iím getting so tired of that formula. And it is formula. And thereís not much you can do with it. Weíve mastered that- for our band. Weíre all growing pretty tired of it.
It is a dynamic style. But Iím only using two of the dynamics. There are a lot more I could be using, Krist, Dave and I have been working on this formula- this thing of going from quiet to loud- for so long that itís literally becoming boring for us. Itís like, "OK, I have this riff. Iíll play it quiet, without a distortion box, while Iím singing the verse. And now letís turn on the distortion box and hit the drums harder."
I want to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure. Itís a really hard thing to do, and I donít know if weíre capable of it- as musicians.
Songs like "Dumb" and "All Apologies" do suggest that youíre looking for a way to get to people without resorting to the big-bang guitar effect.
Absolutely, I wish we could have written a few more songs like those on all the other albums. Even to put "About A Girl" on Bleach
was a risk. I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old 60ís stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground- like the kind of thing you get in highschool. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.
We have failed in showing the lighter, more dynamic side of our band. The big guitar sound is what the kids want to hear. We like playing that stuff, but I donít know how much longer I can scream at the top of my lungs every night, for an entire year on tour. Sometimes I wish I had taken the Bob Dylan route and sang songs where my voice would not go out on me every night, so I could have a career if I wanted.
So what does this mean for the future of Nirvana?
Itís impossible for me to look into the future and say Iím going to be able to play Nirvana songs in 10 years. Thereís no way. I donít want to have to resort to doing the Eric Clapton thing. Not to put him down or whatsoever; I have immense respect for him. But I donít want to have to change my songs to fit my age [laughs
( part one | part two )