Nirvana: Crucified by Success?

In the second part of his exclusive NIRVANA interview, Everett True meets the band in Stockholm and finds Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl struggling to come to terms with the serious changes in their lives brought about by the massive popularity of the chart-busting Nevermind.

THE INTERVIEW with Nirvana takes place in a dressing room place in a dressing-room on the edge of a river in Stockholm. The day is cloudy, with occasional flashes of sunshine. People are drinking coke, and in Chris’ case, wine. Chris and Dave are sitting on one couch, Kurt on another. A bowl of chilli-roasted peanuts and some fruit nestles on the table. Someone’s smoking.

The band seems awkward in each other’s presence, slightly wary of one another. When Chris speaks, his eyes are looking anywhere but in Kurt’s direction. When Kurt speaks, he does so almost defensively, as if he feels a need to justify himself in front of Chris. When Dave speaks, you know we can feel the uneasiness, but he’s trying to ignore it.

Apart for a brief spot on Swedish TV earlier today, this is the first interview Nirvana have given as a band for a long while. This might account for the subdued atmosphere – although many people have pointed to Nirvana’s success as creating cracks, friction within the band. Certainly, Kurt seems warier than when I last met him – photographer Steve Gullick has to go through a ridiculous rigmarole of hoods and bleached hair and agreements later on before he’s allowed to take any shots.

The noise you can’t hear is support band Teenage Fanclub, soundchecking for tonight’s show. Nirvana’s concert is lacking in any real excitement or emotion, although the encore is inspired. It seems they still have some way to go before playing arenas becomes second nature to them. It’s obvious the band aren’t happy with this state of affairs, but equally obvious that they aren’t prepared to compromise their principles just to make people feel easier.

As you join us, Kurt is talking about Nirvana’s forthcoming album.

“We’re going into the studio as soon as we get back to Seattle,” says Kurt. “What I’d like to do is to go into Reciprocal with Jack Endino (the engineer on Bleach), and rent exactly the same equipment as was there when we recorded Bleach. We record the songs with Jack on an eight-track, record them somewhere else on a 24-track with Steve Albini, and then pick the best.”

So you’re aiming for a rawer sound on the next album?

“Definitely less produced,” says Chris.

“As long as it doesn’t sound like Nevermind,” adds Kurt.

Why? Are you fed up with it?

“No, I really like that album,” Kurt replies. “And it doesn’t matter what kind of production it has because the songs are good. But it would have been better rawer. It doesn’t sound very original.”

“We don’t want to find ourselves in Slayer’s situation,” Dave explains, “where the same people produced their last three records and they all sound identical. That’s stupid.”

When you talk about how different you want your next record to sound, isn’t there an element of wanting to challenge your audience about that statement? (The implication is that, because Nirvana have become fed up with their audience, They want to alienate them.) Kurt denies this.

“It’s not like that,” he says. “It’s more like challenging ourselves, making a record exactly as we want to. Whether our audience likes it or not doesn’t matter. We don’t want to be writing ‘In Bloom’ for the next five years.”

“Maybe the next record will be the one where we can judge how much impact we’ve actually made,” Chris wonders aloud.

“Yeah, but we know that at least 40 per cent of people who like us now aren’t going to like our next record if it has a lot of abrasive, inaccessible songs on it,” replies Kurt, scornfully. “If they do… man, that proves our theory that you can shove anything down the mainstream’s throat and they’ll eat it up.”

“But that’s what I always thought of our second record as being,” interrupts Dave. “Something way less produced, where we can push the sound even further and see if we can get a noisy LP on the charts.”

“But do you think that would happen?” Kurt asks him. “Let’s pretend we haven’t released ‘Endless Nameless’ yet, and it’s our first single off the next album…if people bought it, wouldn’t it just prove that they like us just cos it’s cool to?”

“No,” Chris replies. “That argument just doesn’t hold any water. They wouldn’t be that mindless.”

(NB: ‘Endless Nameless’ is the 10-minute long noise-fest grunge track which appeared on limited quantities of Nevermind, and on the B-side of ‘Come As You Are’.)

Do you think you’ll have another single as big as ‘Teen Spirit’?

“No,” states Kurt, firmly. “We haven’t written any songs as good, or as poor, as that. We might write one right before we finish recording the album, because ‘Teen Spirit’ was written just weeks before Nevermind, but we’re not going to try.”

Kurt disappears momentarily to find a cigarette. Someone (the promoter? a roadie?) pokes his head round the door, looking for Alex, Nirvana’s exuberant tour manager. The strains of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘The Concept’ drift in through a window, glorious in the early evening air. Dave cracks open another can.

EARLIER A bunch of us had gone for a stroll down by the river while Kurt and Courtney traversed the town looking for Nirvana bootlegs to liberate and then give to kids wearing official Nirvana tee-shirts. One seller became freaked out and started yelling at Courtney but there was no repeat of the ugliness in Ireland, where Kurt was reportedly punched by a bouncer after going to stop an altercation between security and a fan. It’s apparent that there are two distinct camps in Nirvana: the newly-wed couple… and everyone else. Still, that’s no reason to start believing all the malicious stories that have plagued Nirvana, and, more particularly, Kurt Cobain, since the band’s rapid rise to the top. Drugs? What the fuck does it have to do with you, punk?

Chris stretches his legs, and sighs. This is gonna be a long interview. Kurt comes back, and we continue.

When I saw your static performance in Oslo two days ago, I kept thinking back to what Kurt told me last year: “We’re not going to be proud of the fact there are a bunch of Guns N’ Roses kids who are into our music. We don’t feel comfortable progressing, playing larger venues.”

“We can’t,” Chris agrees. “We’ve always treated people with that mentality with a little bit of contempt and cynicism, and to have them screaming for us… Why are they screaming? What do they see in us? They’re exactly the same kind of people who wanted to kick our arse in high school.”

“It’s just boring to play outdoors,” explains his singer. “I’ve only just gotten used to playing large venues because the sound is at least tolerable. But, outside, the wind blows the music around so much that it doesn’t feel like you’re playing music, it feels like you’re lip-synching to a boom box recording. Plus, these festivals are very mainstream – we’re playing with Extreme and Pearl Jam, you know? Ninety per cent of the kids out there are probably just as much into Extreme as they are into us.

“I try every night,” he continues, “but I just can’t fool myself. I’m not going to smile and pose like Eddie Van Halen, even though he’s a miserable drunk, That doesn’t mean it’ll be that way next month (Reading), but that’s how it is, right now.”

Do you feel any responsibility?

“For what?” Kurt asks.

The masses. The people who bought your record. Because you’ve been given this power to use.

“To me,” Dave begins, tentatively, “our main responsibility is to not pretend to be something we’re not. I don’t think pretending to be a professional rock unit really works. If we’re gonna have a shitty show, then let’s have a shitty show. I can see there’s a lot of responsibility playing massive shows, but other kinds? I don’t know.”

“It’s rock’n’roll to be irresponsible,” Chris adds.

I know.

“Once you start considering this to be a responsibility, it becomes a burden,” muses the drummer. Silence.

We’ve reached a brief impasse. Kurt starts leafing through a crap metal rag and spots a picture of Melvins (his early mentors), to his delight. Courtney sticks her head around the door to ask if we’ve seen Siren, because Inger Lorre slags her in it. Someone throws her a copy.

Dave starts telling me about the interview that they’ve just done for Swedish TV.

“They thanked us for saving rock’n’roll,” he laughs. “For throwing a bomb into the rock’n’roll establishment.”

Do you feel you’ve done that?

“Maybe we blew a paper bag up and popped it,” sneers Chris.

From where I’m standing, you don’t seem to have changed very much. Murmurs of agreement come from the assembled.

What do you hate most about being famous?

“Kids with Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen tee-shirts coming up to me and asking for autographs,” Kurt says. “When people in the audience hold up a sign that says ‘Even Flow’ (a Pearl Jam song) on one side and ‘Negative Creep’ (a Nirvana song) on the other.”

Silence from the other two.

Okay. What’s the best thing about being famous?

“You know, that’s a really good question,” answers Kurt, ironically.

“We might get some perks here and there,” his bassist ventures. “A free drink or two, maybe.”

Do you get many groupies?

“When I was about 12,” replies Kurt, “I wanted to be a rock’n’roll star, and I thought that would be my payback to all the jocks who got all the girlfriends all the time. But I realised way before I became a rock star that that was stupid.”

“Maybe it’s flattering to all these heavy metal bands, but we find it kind of disgusting,” adds Dave, Nirvana’s only unmarried member.

How about drink?

“I came into this tour with a fresh perspective” Chris muses. “I used to get stressed out, drink a whole lot and react to everything. Now I just go with the flow.”

“I’ve always loved the spontaneity of being frustrated and pissed off…” Kurt challenges him.

“…and drunk,” finishes Chris. “Oh yeah! I’ve had some of my best inspirations intoxicated – it’s a different reality. It’s like living in a movie or a cartoon, where your subconscious takes off. That’s where all the good stories come from. But it’s such hell on your body.”

Has the sudden fame appreciably changed your lifestyles?

“Definitely,” responds Kurt, vehemently.

“It hasn’t changed mine,” his bassist disagrees. “I can still go down to Safeway, buy fruit and vegetables, walk around town. I don’t care if people stare at me or whatever.”

“You don’t?” Kurt asks him “At all?”

“No,” replies Chris. “And the more they see me, especially in Seattle, the more…”

“Oh yeah, eventually they’ll get tired of sniggering at you and talking behind your back.” Kurt finishes the sentence for him. “Well, I’ve been confronted by people wanting to beat me up, by people heckling me and being so drunk and obnoxious because they think I’m this pissy rock star bastard who can’t come to grips with his fame.

“I was in a rock club the other night,” he continues, “and one guy comes up, pats me on the back and says, ‘You’ve got a really good thing going, you know? Your band members are cool, you write great songs, you affected a lot of people, but, man, you’ve really got to get your personal shit together!’ Then another person comes up and says, ‘I hope you overcome your drug problems’. All this happens within an hour while I’m trying to watch The Melvins, minding my own business.

“There were about five or six kids sifting around, very drunk, screaming ‘Rock star! Rock star! Oh, look, he’s going to freak out any minute! He’s going to have a tantrum! He’s going to start crying!’ Then this other guy comes up, puts his arm around me and says, ‘You know, my girlfriend broke up with me and took my Nirvana album, so you should give me $14 to buy a new CD, cos you can afford that now you’re a big rock star.’ And I said, ‘Gee. That’s a clever thing to say. Why don’t you fuck off?'”

“But you have to ignore them,” Chris warns him, “or it becomes an obsession. I have dreams about being nude in public, and I interpret them as worrying about sticking out. Forget it! It can become a preoccupation. I was like that, too, when I used to see someone famous…”

“Yeah, but did you pitch them shit?” Kurt interrupts him.

“No,” Chris replies. “I didn’t, but that incident you mentioned seems to be pretty isolated.”

“It’s not isolated,” snarls Kurt. “It happens to me all the time… every time I go out, every fucking time. It’s stupid. And, if it bothers me that much, I’m going to do something about it. Fuck it, rock doesn’t mean that much to me. I still love to be in a band and play music with Chris and Dave, but if it means that we have to resort to playing in a practice room and never touring again, then so be it.”

Chris and Dave fall silent. The mood in the room has turned dark.

“I have to hear rumours about me all the time,” the singer growls. “I’m totally sick of it. If I’m going to take drugs that’s my own fucking prerogative, and if I don’t take drugs it’s my own fucking prerogative. It’s nobody’s business, and I don’t care if people take drugs and I don’t care if people don’t take drugs.

“It all started with just one article in one of the shittiest, cock rock-orientated LA magazines,” he continues, “where this guy assumed I was on heroin because he noticed that I was tired. Since then, the rumours have spread like wildfire. I can’t deny that I have taken drugs and I still do, every once in awhile. But I’m not a fucking heroin addict, and I’m not going to…”

He trails off, momentarily wordless.

“It’s impossible to be on tour and to be on heroin,” he begins again. “I don’t know any band that could do it, unless you’re Keith Richards and you’re being given blood transfusions every three days, and you have runners going out and scoring drugs for you.”

Kurt glowers with anger.

“I never realised that mainstream audiences react towards mainstream rock stars in this manner, because I’ve never paid attention before,” he rails. “I don’t mean to complain as much as I do, but it’s a load of shit. It’s really stupid. I’ve had days where I’ve considered this to be a job, and I never thought that would happen. It makes me question the point of it all. I’m only gonna bitch about it for another year and, if I can’t handle it after that, we’re gonna have to make some drastic changes.”

© Everett TrueMelody Maker, 25 July 1992

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