Nirvana: Take The Money and Run

If any of the US underground bands are likely to break through into the mainstream, then it’s got to be NIRVANA. Currently being courted by eight major labels, they’ll probably take the money and flee their Sub Pop nest but they’ll be taking their dignity and powerful pop with them. KEITH CAMERON visits them at home in Seattle.

“ONE PERSON per car! One person per car!”

Nirvana’s bassman and mild mannered lunatic Chris Novoselic is screaming his way through hell’s freeway, bumper to bumper on the Tacoma-Seattle main route, offering a side-splittingly accurate parody of the American sickness – greedy, selfish dumb-assed Republican-voting, sabre-rattling macho bullshit, all wrapped up in a smoggy petroleum haze.

Chris reckons that when the 70’s oil crisis made the traditional gas guzzlers obsolete, people over here simply compensated by having two small cars instead of one big ‘un. Husbands and wives drive into town separately. And they’re all on this freeway. Sanity’s gone out of style. “I voted last week,” says Chris, “and everything I voted for was defeated. l voted for less police station money and against adding more courtrooms. The guy I voted for, a congressman, lost big time because he’s totally anti-military. He wanted to cut the CIA budget! He’s really cool. But he lost.

They’re raring to go in the Gulf, though, Chris. “That’s gonna be great, that’s gonna be so great. And I want it to happen, I really do, cos it’s gonna throw a wrench in the works. It’s gonna be trouble. Things are too smooth.”

THEY SURE are. Right now, American rock ‘n’ roll apathy is a growth industry up there with towelhead-baiting and electoral non-turnouts.

Latest MTV gods are Nelson, the twin blonde bozos who make like the new soft rock kings but aren’t much more than the white Milli Vanilli, and Warrant, whose ‘Cherry Pie’ promo vid sets new standards in plopcore metal porn – a not inconsiderable feat.

Metal’s a formula cop-out, with the rise and rise of Faith No More sparking a host of odious “funk” crossover acts, while the noise underground remains content to pillory the on-going “sell-out” of Sonic Youth yet failing to offer anything better. Thank God, then, for the few still prepared to kick the proverbial botty with a bit of style. And although their awareness of quality control in their vocabulary could occasionally be doubted, Seattle’s Sub Pop label has breezed life back into the Yank rock scene.

Soungarden made metal fun again while proving themselves arch riffmasters before buggering off to major label luxury. Tad gave ‘heavy rock’ a novel twist and have begun to shake off the unfortunate novelty tag with music as monstrous as mainman Mr Doyle’s girth. And Mudhoney made stoopid snotrock clever once more, before cutting their hair and heading back to school.

But now we’re entitled to ask – where’s the beef? A greasy grin on a few thousand clued-in faces isn’t going to change lives, and that’s all the latest US invasion has really brought. Mudhoney are cool, funny and occasionally even turn out an inspired song but ain’t gonna make the world hold its breath for more, ain’t gonna penetrate deep into the gunked-up minds of our misspent youths. Enter Nirvana…

Anyone privileged enough to have attended last December’s Lamefest UK Sub Pop triple header in London will recall how the first-up Nirvana ripped the night’s glory from the hands of their more notorious neighbours Tad and Mudhoney with a slew of tunes from their debut Bleach album.

Nirvana don’t tell jokes, don’t invite the crowd to invade the stage and don’t blatantly take the piss out of rock ‘n’ roll. Instead they burn with a wholly unpredictable intensity that sets them apart from their label’s generic sound and irreverent attitude.

With furiously catchy pop songs set to monster heavy rock riffs, Nirvana stand out. Tempers and instruments fly. They’re for real. They’re the beef.

It’s been pretty obvious for some time that if any of the emergent US underground bands are to break through into the mainstream, Nirvana will be the ones to do so. Sub Pop knows it.

LAST TIME Sounds caught up with the band was during an East Coast tour last spring, and label bosses Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman were courting CBS for a lucrative distribution deal that would catapult Sub Pop into shops all over the US. Nirvana were prime bait.

But Nirvana themselves are aware of their potential and when it became clear that Sub Pop’s flirtation with corporate compromise was not about to bear fruit they decided to cut out the middle man and take on the bad boys themselves- “We got tired of waiting,” says band leader Kurdt Kobain, “so we started looking”. Nirvana currently have eight major US labels seeking their signatures.

“It’s really not hard to keep your dignity and sign to a major label,” says Kurdt. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Most people don’t even have any dignity in the first place. Sonic Youth have been really smart about what they’re doing. They’ve had the experience of this shit for seven or eight years. I feel we’re experienced enough to deal with it now. I hope that we are. A year ago we wouldn’t even have considered signing with a major, or even looking into it.”

So what’s happened in a year?

“lt’s hard to tell. We’re changing a little bit, we’ve been into more accessible pop styles of music for the last two years and finally we’re being able to relieve ourselves of some of that. The Bleach album is pretty different to what we’re doing right now. So we figured we may as well get on the radio and try and make a little bit of money at it.

“I don’t wanna have any other kind of job, I can’t work among people. I may as well try and make a career out of this. All my life my dream has been to be a big rock star – just may as well abuse it while you can.”

Money, Nirvana freely admit, is the essential reason for them seeking to quit the Sub Pop nest.

They share none of Mudhoney’s political opposition to hooking up with multi-national dollar machines and cite lawyers’ bills as one of the new drains on their stretched resources.

“We were always opposed for similar reasons until recently, but I just don’t see independent labels running their businesses any better,” says Kurdt.

This vague allusion to Sub Pop is typical of the weird shadowplay that currently passes for a relationship between the two parties. Nirvana have not yet told the label of their wish to leave.

Like any businessman, Jonathan Poneman isn’t about to let this potentially lucrative asset vanish just like that. Nirvana’s imminent single ‘Sliver’ will be released on his label (through Glitterhouse in Britain).

As Poneman says, he still has the band under contract: “Ethically speaking, I have a signed agreement and I don’t want to get fucked over. Having said that, I don’t think they want to fuck me over. Those guys are very popular, they’re very talented and they want to check things out. That’s fine. But sooner or later they will have to sit down with us and make a deal. I get bummed out about the lack of communication.”

Nirvana’s own, apparently pretty hazy impression of what they want bears the familiar hallmarks of intuitively talented young people slightly unsure of what use their talent should be put to. Should they take advantage and cash in on what is rightfully theirs to exploit? Or ought great rock art be above such considerations? It’s an apprehensive time for them.

“It is,” says Kurdt, “because we feel a loyalty to Sub Pop and we’re still under contract with them, and we don’t want to start a war – or at least lose our friendship with Jon and Bruce and everyone else that works there. They’re aware of what we’re doing right now, and hopefully we can all agree on something.”

He sighs.

“I don’t know. Maintaining the punk rock ethos is more important to me than anything. I’m surprised that we’re even doing this!” he says with a sheepish laugh. “But it’s just something to do and it’s not a major goal in our lives. We’re gonna try it and if not we’re gonna play to 20 people next year, everyone will hate us and we’ll have to change our style. I mean, we’d like to do that anyhow, we’d like to put out a third album of something completely, totally different. Maybe we’ll revive new wave or sornething.”

WHATEVER LABEL it comes out on, Nirvana’s next album will undoubtedly bring them to the attention of a far wider audience than the already considerable hordes who dug Bleach and last year’s British shows.

For now, ‘Sliver’ is a great, powerful pop single that’ll boost the band’s reputation still higher. Just about the only thing to throw a spanner in the works could be the self-destruct capability that lurks within the volatile personal chemistry of this highly strung three-piece.

For instance, Nirvana will step onto UK stages this week featuring their fourth drummer this year!!! Mudhoney’s Dan Peters lasted just one gig and a Sounds photo-shoot before being told, Bugger this – you’re off!

Still, there’s nothing like a bit of Spinal Tap-esque vanishing sticksmanship to tempt that mainstream audience out of its slumber, eh? Then, whump! The ol’ Nirvana necklock’ll get ’em reeling.

Kurdt: “We’re one of those bands that break you in, that eases the middle class into wearing leather eventually! Most people that are alternative or mainstream seem to have those tendencies built into them anyhow. They’ll always be that way.”

Chris: “See, alternative music I always thought of as the counterculture – with punk rock, with bands like Flipper – and usually people who listened had a different perspective about things. They considered most of the world to be just a bunch of imbeciles – which they are. But now you have alternative bands at such a large scale it’s not really counterculture any more.

“I meet the average person on the street and I’m kinda prejudiced towards them. Cos this person’s like, I’m really into my car and I think George Bush has done a good job and I’m a supermarket manager and I’m really into it and if I lost my job it’d be such a big deal… Fuck! Nothing’s a big deal – unless it’s love! But I don’t think many people think that way, though. You, can knock on every door in a 20 mile radius from here…”

“And you won’t find one Black Flag record!” laughs Kurdt.

“No, you won’t. Everybody’ll be watching TV. Watching some dumb show, too, the Cosby Show or something worthless like that. Or they’ll be watching Lethal Weapon on cable.”

“Everybody’s got their own form of heroin,” says Kurdt.

“There are some neat people,” considers Chris. “You find some genuine characters that are cool, but it seems like people’s values are pretty screwed up.”

Certainly, any PMRC-style scaremonger looking to pin the blame for the nation’s ills on Nirvana would have to dig a little deeper than their well-nigh impeccable lifestyles: married, cat-loving Chris and meek, turtle-keeping Kurdt.

What do they get up to of a boring Sunday afternoon? Have a barbecue on Chris’ back lawn, of course! When pushed for evidence of true punk rock cred, Kurdt offers that he hasn’t cleaned the turtle tank for a week. Pathetic.

Chris: “So what’s wrong with barbecues?!”

Nothing, it’s just interesting how very establishment alternative bands in the US are – another aspect of how rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a rebellious thing any more, just something to do.

Kurdt: “It’s a stale thing. It’s a really safe thing. Everyone’s afraid of burning bridges. I mean I’ve read Marc Bolan interviews where he’s just tearing apart David Bowie and people like that – and he’s just completely pompous about it And I thought, That’s rock n’ roll! That’s really great, that’s what it should be.

“But though an attitude is one thing, music is much more important. A good song is the most important thing, it’s the only way to really touch someone. You can have the most perfect political ideals in the world and still can’t get your point across to most people unless you have good music.”

Yup, when it comes down to it this Nirvana thing’s serious stuff. After all the contractual ballyhoo is settled, theirs promises be one hell of an assault on that stale, safe old thing called rock ‘n’ roll. And even if it all goes wrong, no one will be able to fault them for attitude and for just wanting to be rock stars – the ultimate retard route.

Kurdt: “Well, we’re trying to stay children.”

Chris: “Retard – that’s the key word.”

The kids are alright.

© Keith CameronSounds, 27 October 1990

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