Nevermind has been at Number One on the Kerrang! Album Chart for a month. Stateside it’s the same plus Double Platinum, and worldwide the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is on ultra-heavy rotation. So are NIRVANA, like, the Biggest Rock Band in The World at the moment? Or are they just a bunch of bored ‘f**k-the-system guys’ confused by their sudden success and by all the music biz bullshit it has brought raining down on them? STEFFAN CHIRAZI scratches the surface and finds a bit of both…
ARENAS CAN kill… but they can’t kill Nirvana. On New Year’s Eve I saw them ploughing up 17,000 people with the same power and verve displayed the last time I saw them, in 1989, with Tad in front of 400.
This is an extremely rare sight, a three-piece who lose nothing in Arenaville. I will treasure the memory. The floor heaves and bobs to ‘…Teen Spirit’ whilst ‘Floyd The Barber’-era Bleach material induces a collective buzz. Nirvana could’ve played the whole gig with the house-lights on and it would have been just as exciting…
When I tell Kurt Cobain after the show how well they came across, he seems pleasantly surprised. I then ask him if he likes cats, out of the blue, because he seems like the type.
“Yeah… I love ’em. You do too, right?”
So it is that we discuss cats for five minutes before Leialoha takes some more pictures and they go home. The reason I asked Cobain about cats is because I wanted to know, in my heart, that this guy is a good guy, a shy fellow and not a total asshole. Based on yesterday’s first meeting I had been in grave doubt…
“WE SAY things, get into lengthy discussions with journalists about all sorts of issues, and then the story comes out and they haven’t printed a word of it.”
Kurt Cobain is confused by Nirvana’s recent effect upon the world. He is also bored by the inconsistencies of the press, bored by the way Nirvana’s considerable opinions are edited out after interviews.
This explains why for 90-odd minutes Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl spoke only to each other whilst photos were taken. They didn’t seem to trust me one iota. I ask what gets them? Is it how people write that Nirvana are a miserable bunch who don’t give a shit?
“Yeah, sure, that sort of thing,” confirms Cobain.
So it all comes down to a blunt mistrust of the press?
“Definitely; you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the writer and more often than not you’re betrayed anyway. There are good bands and bad bands, there are good writers and bad writers…”
Cobain: “There’s more bad writers than bad bands…”
Novoselic: “Everybody’s a writer: y’know, I was looking through the ‘Personals’ of the LA Weekly, where it says, ‘Single white female, straight, into this, I’m a writer…’ Every third or fourth one is a writer. Sssshhh, writers are a dime a dozen.”
COBAIN TELLS me that they’ve often done interviews for eight hours a day. I suggest that they must sometimes sit down and wonder what the f**k is happening to them, as a band and as people…
Kurt: “The only time I think that is when I read back an interview we’ve done and I go beet-red in the face with disgust or embarrassment — because I’m amazed at some of the things we say sometimes.”
What has really embarrassed you?
“Y’know, a lot of people don’t get my sense of humour,” sighs Grohl.
“Especially the English!” blurts Kurt, no doubt aware of my origins.
Grohl: “Not only the English, some American journalists, and the way it gets transcribed is… wrong”
Cobain: “It’d be easier if they’d put in brackets, ‘in a jokey tone of voice’.”
Grohl: “There was this one interview I did where they asked me, ‘How would you describe your music?’, and I replied (in a bullshitter’s tone), ‘I’d describe it as male’. The way it read definitely makes it look like we’re a ‘male band’.”
Now I wanna laugh. Wouldn’t anybody who listened to your music know where you lot come from?
“Sure, I guess… but I dunno. Reading back some of the things we’ve said, it’s almost healthy never to pick up some of those f**kin’ interviews because you look back at yourself and get all self-conscious.”
“I THINK the most embarrassing thing we’ve talked about in interviews,” says Cobain, “is drugs and alcohol in a way where it comes across as though we’re heavily into those things. Whenever they come up in interviews and we’re just honest about them. But it’s as if we’re promoting their use, which we don’t.”
Why not tell people what you believe in, instead?
“We do. We really try,” protests Kurt. “You’d be amazed how many times we’ve sat down with a journalist for hours and been completely prolific, articulate, describing what’s on our minds — the things they choose to print are incredible! It blows me away.”
Alright then, what are some of those issues on your minds that never seem to make it into print?
Cobain: “Sexism is the top of all the ‘isms’ as far as I’m concerned, because man dominates and controls everything — the corporate man, that is.”
Novoselic: “This guy said last night, ‘There’s a lot of pussy walking around in here’. It was like, ‘Wow, gimme a break, guy…’
“There’re different facets of it, but these are our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our girlfriends, they’re people…“
Cobain: “And as far as I’m concerned, they’re superior!”
Do the people at Geffen understand Nirvana?
Cobain: “Geffen? Oh sure, the people we work with are totally aware.
“A lot of those people think on the same terms as we do. They’re great. We have a really good relationship with all the people we work with.”
HE’S GRINNING like a Cheshire cat, and not for the first time I wonder if my leg is leaving its socket. We return to the issue of media.
“I’ve always been afraid of claiming that we’re a band cursed in interviews…” he trails off in dismay.
By ‘curse’ do you mean ‘misinterpretation’?
“Especially misinterpreted, or misquoted. The last interview we had in — the NME, I think — if you could’ve heard… I’d actually like to ask that woman to give me a tape of what we said that night. We sat there for three hours talking about all sorts of things in-depth with her — and she chose to use an old quote from another interview attacking Guns N’ Roses! We went out of our way to not say anything about Guns N’ Roses.”
I ask them about a quote which had Nirvana claiming they ‘aren’t like 99 per cent of other rock bands’. This looked incredibly pompous in print.
Cobain: “Well, that’s fine, y’know. We don’t feel we are part of that world, and to attack another band is pointless. It only happened once and this woman…”
“‘Mainstream’. We said, ‘We’re unlike 99 per cent of mainstream rock bands’. Taking that word out right there blows the whole quote.”
Cobain: “I think it’s pretty obvious we’re not. We have a lot of those rock ‘n’ roll qualities… but the rest of that interview we’d talked about rape and support groups, rape crisis centres, and this woman twisted the words around to where it sounded like I was attacking other rock bands who write songs about rape, and then claiming that we so righteously can write a better one! It’s ridiculous!”
NIRVANA MAY very well be unlike 99 per cent of other mainstream bands as far as they’re concerned, but many of the two million who’ve bought Nevermind have them sharing wall space with Van Halen and Marky Mark. Nirvana are the new gurus for many young teenies. Is this an obscene notion to them?
Cobain: “I think it’s fine because we may have sold two million records but Poison, a piece-of-shit band as far as I’m concerned, sold seven or 12 million probably — I dunno how many but they sold a lot more…”
Novoselic: “They’ve got some great values: all these busty women…”
Cobain: “Feeding garbage down people’s throats, so I don’t feel guilty in that respect at all.”
Grohl: “I think the idolisation of rock stars as a whole is pretty disgusting. It’s gross to think that someone would idolise us but I’d rather have someone idolise Kurt and Chris than… whoever.”
There again, everybody needs something to believe in: for some it’s the church, for others, it’s musicians…
Grohl: “That’s true but it shouldn’t be idolisation. I think Ian MacKaye…” (of Minor Threat and now Fugazi, the underground champions) “…is a great guy — a good friend and a nice guy but I don’t look at him as some ‘veggie guru’ or something, he’s just a nice guy. I’d rather think that people look up to us instead of idolise us.”
SO WHAT the hell do Nirvana feel people want them to be? The next Sex Pistols? Or a bunch of sombre ‘f**k-the-system’ guys?
Novoselic: “I haven’t got any vibe that anybody wants us to be anything.”
Cobain: “Well, they want us to be something…” He pauses before sniggering: “What are we?”
Grohl: “I think there’s a lot of people who don’t want us to be a lot of things. They don’t want us to come out and spew rock-talk all night between songs… ‘Howya doin’, Cleveland?’.
“I’m not sure people can get a good hit of what sort of people we are just listening to records. If they come out and watch us play maybe they’ll have a better idea. There’s probably some kids out there who think we’re some posturing Metal trio… probably expect a drum solo or something.”
CHRIS NOVOSELIC, a mellow free-thinking ‘pothead philosopher’ type if I ever met one, quietly cuts in with a thought:
“Y’know what’d be really neat? If MTV or someone had a programme where they had these people who are, like, really big in music and had a debate team. ‘On the left we have Henry Rollins and Ian McKaye and on the right we have Sammy Hagar and Eric Clapton’.
“Then they start debating issues, see who gets smothered and then people who are mainstream, who would vote for the right, can see their people and then kids who are into Fugazi could see their people…”
Cobain: “But to get the general public to watch that show they’d have to offer cash prizes and have women with big breasts walking around…”
Novoselic: “…Or they’d show a 1973 avocado-green Pontiac Le Mans!”
They’re right, too, because MTV isn’t about anything except something to do when your Nintendo’s broken.
Dave Grohl grimaces at the thought: “One time, when I was in my previous band Scream, the singer had a sister who knew all these rock people, and we’re from Washington DC. One of the sister’s friends was in the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Vinnie had his own limo to get to the show but the band could fend for themselves or whatever.
“The bass-player and the guitar-player ended up having to go to the show in the van we toured in, and there was a Bad Brains tape or something on. The bass-player, a full poofy Metal guy, said, ‘This really brings me back to my roots’!”
Novoselic: “Yeah, brings you back to your roots which are growing out a little black from your bleached hair!”
There are a few chuckles before Kurt continues:
“A whole lotta people, especially in the underground, think there’s this huge two million dollar hype-machine involved with our band because we’re on MTV all the time, because there are posters in every record shop.
“But we’ve realised that the reason this is happening is because of the people, and people in the music industry, from radio stations and the programmers down to the people who work in the record stores and the people at MTV, are seriously into our band. They like us as a band, they’re all supporting us.
“There’s no pay-off. There’s no big money going into our promotion at all. DGC didn’t even bother with it because it took off all on its own.”
Novoselic: “DGC shipped 50,000 copies off the bat — not many really.”
Would you not agree that MTV has changed the attitude of new bands who once thought of just playing but now visualise the riches available?
Cobain: “I don’t think you can blame MTV or the radio stations, that sort of impression is the band’s fault. MTV and radio try to play whatever they can…”
Well, MTV wouldn’t play Tad’s video because he’s basically considered too ugly for them.
Cobain: “If that’s the actual excuse, then that’s terrible. I have mixed opinions on MTV because it seems like they want to play more subversive things but that the general public won’t take it.
“They have these really cool ads and commercials with a lot of really weird artistic visuals. I think they’re pretty cool really myself. And the MTV News often exposes a whole lotta shit that goes on.
“There’s a lot of people at MTV who are struggling and fighting the business-side of it. That’s the way it is with all the labels we’ve spoken to — I found at least a handful of employees who were into underground music and trying to fight the corporation. At least they’re doing their part and posing as the enemy…”
© Steffan Chirazi, Kerrang!, 8 February 1992