In July of 1993, Kurt Cobain gave a dramatically candid interview to respected British rock journalist Jon Savage. Freely discussed were such controversial topics as Courtney Love, homosexuality, heroin and Cobain’s relationship with his Nirvana bandmates.
THE INTERVIEW you are about to read transpired late on the evening of Thursday, July 22, 1993, arranged as part of Nirvana’s U.K. press campaign for the then soon-to-be released In Utero (DGC). In contrast to their almost total silence in the American media, Nirvana had five U.K. interviews and photo shoots slotted into their brief stay in New York, culminating with a showcase concert at Roseland on the evening of the 23rd. This would have been an unusually grueling schedule for even the most unflappable of groups. But then, hardly anything associated with Nirvana was usual.
The affable, straight-ahead presence of Chris (now Krist) Novoselic and Dave Grohl notwithstanding, the atmosphere surrounding Nirvana at the time was strongly reminiscent of the feeling that accompanied the Sex Pistols in 1977. Here, too, was a group-the hottest group of the moment-who were about more than just music, and who were refusing to play the game. Judging from the hysteria that greeted their return after a year of silence, Nirvana acted as a kind of psychic lightning rod: a focus for everyone’s fears, hopes, loves and hates. Few knew where they were coming from, nobody knew what they would do.
Much of this pressure rested on Kurt Cobain, who-just to keep things interesting-was at once charming, arrogant, vague and unpredictable. Getting him to sit down for the interview was hard. I managed to pin him down backstage after an extraordinary Melvins show we both attended. “Do I have to do this now?” he asked me. “Yes,” I replied simply and that was that. We subsequently adjourned to my room at the New York Palace hotel, where once he relaxed, Cobain was intelligent, cogent and as candid as he could be, given his situation.
The interview seemed to provide Cobain with an oasis of calm in the middle of the madness. I warmed to him, and wanted to believe what he said. My ultimate feeling-confirmed by the Roseland show the next night-was that here was a person and a group poised on a knife-edge between considerable, positive power and self-destruction. Here is a record of that pivotal moment.
Guitar World: Tell me about your background.
Kurt Cobain: I was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1967, and I lived between and Montesano, which was 20 miles away. I moved back and forth between relatives’ houses throughout my whole childhood.
JS: Did your parents split up when you were young?
Cobain: Yeah, when I was seven.
JS: Do you remember anything about it?
Cobain: I remember feeling ashamed, for some reason. I was ashamed of my parents. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school anymore, because I desperately wanted to have the classic, you know, typical family. Mother, father. I wanted that security, so I resented my parents for quite a few years because of that.
JS: Have you made up with them now?
Cobain: Well, I’ve always kept a relationship with my mom, because she’s always been the more affectionate one. But I hadn’t talked to my father for about 10 years until last year, when he sought me backstage at a show we played at Seattle. I was happy to see him because I always wanted him to know that I didn’t hate him anymore. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage our relationship because I didn’t have anything to say to him. My father is incapable of showing much affection, or even of carrying on a conversation. I didn’t want to have a relationship just because he was my blood relative. It would bore me.
So the last time that I saw him, I expressed that to him and made it really clear that I didn’t want anything to do with him anymore. But it has a relief on both our parts, you know? Because for some years he felt that I really hated his guts.
JS: You can’t duck it.
Cobain: That’s what I’ve done all my life, though. I’ve always quit jobs without telling the employer that I was quitting; I just wouldn’t show up one day. I was the same in high school-I quit with only two months to go. I’ve always copped out of things, so to face up to my father-although he chose to seek me out-was a nice relief.
JS: Have you written about this stuff at all? The lyrics on ‘Serve The Servants’ sound autobiographical.
Cobain: Yeah, it’s the first time that I’ve ever really dealt with parental issues. I’ve hardly ever written anything that obviously personal.
JS: What was it like for you growing up?
Cobain: I was very isolated. I had a really good childhood, until the divorce. Then, all of a sudden, my whole world changed. I became antisocial. I started to understand the reality of my surroundings, which didn’t have a lot to offer. Aberdeen was such a small town, and of, or who were compatible with me, or liked to do the things I liked. I liked to do artistic things and listen to music.
JS: What did you listen to then?
Cobain: Whatever I could get a hold of. My aunts would give me Beatle records, so for the most part it was just the Beatles, and every once in a while, if I was lucky, I was able to buy a single.
JS: Did you like the Beatles?
Cobain: Oh, yeah. My mother always tried to keep a little bit of British culture in our family. We’d drink tea all the time! I never really knew about my ancestors until this year, when I learned that the name Cobain was Irish. My parents never bothered to find that stuff out. I found out by looking through phone books throughout America for the names that were similar to mine. I couldn’t find any Cobains at all, so I started calling Coburns. I found this one lady in San Francisco who had been researching our family history for years.
JS: So it was Coburn?
Cobain: Actually it was Cobain, but the Coburns screwed it up when they came over. They came from Country Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland, we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. It was the weirdest feeling and-I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this-I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was bout two years ago, I’ve had some sense that I was from Ireland.
Cobain: Oh yeah, it affected me to the point of wanting to break up the band all the time.
JS: Was it mainly the Vanity Fair article?[the September 1992 issue of Vanity Fair insinuated that Cobain’s wife Courtney Love, was on heroin during her pregnancy with their daughter Frances.]
Cobain: That started it. There were probably 50 more articles based on the 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 a scapegoat, 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.
JS: Why do you think that is?
Cobain: A lot of it just simple sexism. Courtney is my wife, and 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, very sexist within the industry just joined forces and decided to string us up.
JS: Let’s talk about In Utero. It sounds claustrophobic to me.
Cobain: I think so, yeah. The main reason we recorded the new album In Utero, with [producer] 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 was 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 ambient sound you need to lose 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.
JS: How many mikes did you use in In Utero?
Cobain: I have no idea, but a lot. We had a 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 started recording. I don’t know anything about recording, but it just seems so obvious to me that that is what you need to do. I tried to get [Nevermind producer] Butch Vig to do it, I tried to get [Sub Pop producer] 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 done 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 is going on.
JS: Did you re-record any of the tracks?
Cobain: 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 just for recording and however it comes out on a tape, that’s how it should come out. But for some songs it just doesn’t work.
JS: I really like the slow songs on In Utero.
Cobain: They came out really good, and Steve Albini’s recording technique really served 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 likes 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 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.
JS: 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.
Cobain: 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.
JS: You didn’t on Nevermind.
Cobain: 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 kind of way. But for my personal listening pleasure, you know, it’s just too slick.
JS: How do you sing? Because you use a number of voices . . .
Cobain: Most of the time I sing right from my stomach. Right from where my stomach pain is.
JS: That’s where the pain and anger comes from?
Cobain: It’s definitely there. Every time I’ve had an andoscope, 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 the 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.
JS: You could go sorted out.
Cobain: I go to a chiropractor every once and a while. You can’t really correct scoliosis, because it’s a growth in the spine. Your spine grows through out your adolescent years in a curvature. Most people have a small curvature in their spine anyhow, though some people have to wear metal braces. It gives me a back pain all the time. That really adds to the pain in our music. It really does. I’m kinda grateful for it.
JS: Do you feel now that there are contradictions between your ideals and your enormous success? Is that something that worries you?
Cobain: 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 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 I like to talk to.
JS: Maybe this would be a good time to address some of the rumors that have plagued you. When Nevermind hit, there were reports that you were a narcoleptic.
Cobain: 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’t ask them to leave. I don’t want to act like Axl Rose and have my own bus or my own back room area.
JS: Speaking of Axl, what is the story behind your altercation with him backstage at the 1992 MTV Music Awards?
Cobain: 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 with five of his huge bodyguards and a person with a movie camera. Courtney jokingly screamed 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 these abusive words at us. He told me I should shut my bitch up, so I looked at Courtney and said, “Shut up, bitch, heh!” Everyone started howling with laughter and Axl just kind of blushed and went away. Afterward, we heard that Duff [McKagan GNR bassist] wanted to beat Chris up.
JS: I thought it was great when Chris hit his head with the guitar at the end of your performance that evening. You’re all trying to be cool and smashing your instruments, and he really fucked it up-it’s really good!
Cobain: That’s happened so many times.
JS: An impressive finale, and you end up looking really stupid, but that’s great too.
Cobain: 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 keyboards 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 his 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.
JS: Tell me, I have to ask what happened with the gun thing. Was all that Bullshit? [On June 4, 1993, police arrived at the Cobain home after being summoned to break up a domestic dispute. Love told police they had been arguing over guns in the house.]
Cobain: Oh yeah. Total bullshit. That’s another thing that just made me want to 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 on 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 neighbors complained and called the police on us. It was the first time that they had ever complained, and we’ve been practicing in the house for a long time.
JS: That’s the way they expect you to behave, because you’re a controversial rock star.
Cobain: The police were really nice about it, though. I couldn’t believe it. See there’s this new law, which was passed that month in Seattle, that says when there’s a domestic violence call, they have to take one party or the other to jail. So the only argument Courntney 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 that there were guns in the house. I have an M-16 and two handguns. They’re put away, there are no bullets in them, they’re up 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 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 don’t believe lots of things that I read.
JS: But you must behave badly sometimes.
Cobain: 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 any problems, any bad reports, any negative articles written about us in a long time. We thought we were finally over it-that our curse had worn itself out.
JS: It must also be because people have perceived you as a threat.
Cobain: I think Courtney is more of a threat than I am.
JS: What have been the worst temptations engendered by your success?
Cobain: 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’re playing theaters, and the production is so expensive at this level. But other than that, I’ve never though of the Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and U2 offers as any kind of legitimate offer. They just never were a reality to me.
JS: So what are the plans for In Utero? How much are you touring to promote it?
Cobain: We’ll tour for about six weeks in the states, starting in October. Then I don’t want to commit to 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 then. I don’t want to set a whole year’s worth of touring up.
JS: There seems to be a tension, in that you defined 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 caused you problems?
Cobain: 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-’80s became totally stagnant and elitist. It was a big turn-off for me. I didn’t like that 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 gone out of my way to make sure that the new album was even noisier than it is. I know we’re not going to have a fringe millions who don’t enjoy our music, who aren’t into our band for any reason than as a tool to fuck. But we did this record the way we wanted to. I’m glad about that.
JS: It worried me a bit that you might get into the trap, because it’s not interesting.
Cobain: That defeats the whole reason for making music. I’ve been a validation 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.
Cobain: A little less so. There are more songs on this album that are thematic, that are actually about something rather than just pieces of poetry. Like, ‘Scentless Apprentice’ is about the book Perfume by Patrick Süskind. I don’t think that I’ve ever written a song based on a book before.
JS: Did you read much when you were a kid?
Cobain: I was probably about 14. Junior high. I never took it very seriously. I’ve never kept personal journals, either. I’ve never kept a diary, and I’ve tried to write stories in poetry; it’s always been abstract.
The plan for my life, ever since I can remember, was to be a commercial artist. My mother gave me a lot of support in being artistic-she really complimented my drawings and paintings. So I was always building up to that. By the time I was in ninth grade I was taking three commercial art classes and planning to go to art school. My art teacher would enter my paintings and stuff in contests. But ultimately, I wasn’t interested in that at all, really; it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew my limitations. However, I really enjoyed art and still like to paint.
I’ve always felt the same about writing, as well. I know I’m not educated enough to really write something that I would enjoy on the level that I would like to read.
JS: When did you first visit England?
JS: Did you enjoy it?
Cobain: Yeah. Especially the first time. We also went through the rest of Europe, but by the seventh week I was ready to die. We were touring with Tad. It was 11 people in a really small Volvo van, with all our equipment.
JS: You mean12, with Tad . . .
Cobain: Fifteen! Depending on whether his stomach was empty or not. He vomited a lot on that tour.
JS: When did you first realize that things were starting to break for the band?
Cobain: Probably while we were on tour in Europe in ’91. We’d finish the ‘Teen Spirit’ video and they started to play it while we were on tour. I got reports every once in a while from friends of mine, telling me that I was famous. So it didn’t affect me until probably three months after we’d been famous in America.
JS: Was there one moment when you walked into it and you suddenly realized?
Cobain: Yeah. When I got home. A friend of mine made a complication of all the news stories about our band that appeared on Mtv and local news programs and stuff. It was frightening. It scared me.
JS: How long did it scare you?
Cobain: For about a year and a half-up until the last eight months or so. Until my child was born, I would say. That’s when I finally decided to crawl out of my shell and accept it. There were times when I wanted to break up the band because the pressure was so intense, but, because I like this band, I felt like I had a responsibility not to.
JS: Was that around the time of your summer 1992 European tour?
Cobain: Yes. That was when the band started to really fail me emotionally. A lot of it to do with the fact that we were playing these outdoor festivals in the daytime. There’s nothing more boring than doing that. The audiences are massive and none of them care what band is on the stage. I was just getting over my drug addiction, or trying to battle that and it was just too much. For the rest of the year I kept going back and forth between wanting to quit and wanting to change our name. But because I still really enjoy playing with Chris and Dave, I couldn’t see us splitting up because of the pressures of success. It’s just pathetic, you know? To have to d something like that.
It’s weird. I don’t know if, when we play live, there is much of a conscious connection between Chris and Dave and I. I don’t usually even notice them; I’m in my own world. On the other hand, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether they are there or not, that I could hire studio musicians or something.
JS: I know it wouldn’t be the same. For me, the original band is you and Chris and Dave.
Cobain: I consider that the original band too, because it was the first time we had a competent drummer. And for some reason, I’ve needed a good, solid drummer. There are loads of bands I love that have terrible drummers, but a terrible drummer wasn’t right for this music. At least, it isn’t right for the music that we’ve written so far.
JS: You haven’t really been on the road for a year, not since the Nevermind tour.
Cobain: I’ve been recuperating.
JS: Why did drugs happen? Were they just around?
Cobain: 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 his condition] and couldn’t find out what was wrong with me. I tried everything I could think of. Change of diet, pills, everything. . . exercise, stopped drinking, stopped smoking and nothing worked. I just decided that if I’m going to feel like a junkie every fucking morning and be vomiting every day then I may as well take a substance that kills the pain. I can’t say that’s the main reason why I did it, but it has a lot to do with it. It has a lot more to do with it than most people think.
JS: Did you find out what the stomach thing was?
JS: Do you still get it?
Cobain: 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.
JS: Are you feeling a bit better now?
Cobain: 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.
© Jon Savage, Guitar World, 1997