The Lost Tape Interview: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain
Twenty years ago, on August 16, 1991, my publisher/editor Drew Masters offered me a last-minute phone interview with a band called Nirvana from Seattle. Its sophomore album, "Nevermind," would be coming out a month later on September 24. Glam-metal acts, such as Mötley Crüe, Poison, Warrant and Cinderella, ruled the rock airwaves, but this kind of rock was the complete antithesis: raw, visceral, intense. I liked it.
There was no term for it then. "Grunge" had not entered the musical lexicon. I was just starting my music journalism career and wasn't the best interviewer (as you'll see). But what made this conversation with front man Kurt Cobain especially tough was the phone connection was so bad, I strained to hear what he was saying. Even now listening back, there are some words and sentences that are completely inaudible.
I also reference the bio that Nirvana's new record label at the time, DGC Records (a subsidiary of Geffen), had sent with "Nevermind," but don't have that now. By the sounds of it, it was quite funny and must have referred to them as being art students. The band consisted of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, the newest member. My interview was scheduled with Novoselic, or so I thought...
The following is an edited transcript of that interview recorded on cassette on my answering machine.
Operator: Good afternoon, thanks for calling the Beverly Garland Hotel. How may I direct your call?
Karen Bliss: Can I have room 158 please?
Operator: "Okay one moment please."
Unknown person: "Hello."
KB: Can I speak to Krist, please?
Unknown person: "Krist isn't here right now."
KB: It's Karen Bliss from M.E.A.T. magazine in Toronto. I was supposed to do an interview with him.
Unknown person: "Oh, do you want to talk to somebody else in the band?
KB: Yeah sure.
Unknown person: "[To person in room], 'Kurt, do you want to do an interview? [To me] 'Talk to Kurt, okay?'"
KB: He's the drummer, right?
Unknown person: "No, he's the singer."
KB: Oh, he's the singer. Okay. Thanks.
Kurt Cobain: "Hello."
KB: Hi, It's Karen Bliss calling from M.E.A.T. in Toronto.
KB: Are you prepared to do an interview now?
KC: "No, I'm never prepared."
KB: [Laughs] Well, I'm not either so that's cool. Are you based in L.A. now or are you just down there doing promotion?
KC: "Yep, that's what we're doing right now. We're just doing promotion, and we played a show. Well the main reason we came down here is to... [inaudible -- sounds like he said 'to see (Japanese pop-punk band) Shonen Knife']."
KB: You know what, I'm having trouble hearing you. Can you hear me okay?
KC: "Yeah, I can hear you."
KB: 'Cause I can barely hear you -- s***.
KC: "No, we're still in Seattle."
KB: Everything's getting a bit more corporate now, are you finding?
KC: "A bit more busy. We're constantly doing interviews. I mean, we don't even have any time for ourselves anymore. We just do interviews all day for some really ridiculous things too, a lot of heavy metal magazines, hard rock magazines that feature Guns N' Roses and stuff like that. So it's kind of... I don't know, it's different for us."
KB: You don't feel you fit in there?
KC: "Well, maybe we fit in musically, but I can't, personally, I don't personally like most of the bands that are in those magazines. So it's just kind of alien to me. It just makes me wonder why. But I'm not complaining. It's something to do. It's kind of fun, actually."
KB: When my editor gave me this assignment, he said something like, "Yeah, I think Geffen Records is trying to make them into their Faith No More and they're probably going to break in eight months." Or is it going to be a really slow build before people really get hot to what you guys are doing?
KC: "Yeah, well, I don't know. I don't really know what their plans are. I know everyone else is real excited about it, a lot of enthusiasm."
KB: In this bio, there's a focus on punk. Were you part of that scene or too young?
KC: "I was about 12. But I did follow it through 'Creem' magazine, wishing I could be there. I was getting into punk in the early eighties through hardcore."
KB: What was it about that era you think is missing now?
KC: "There just doesn't seem to be as much excitement in the underground as there was at the time. But that could have a lot to do with just my being 14, 15 or 16 when I started to get into it. I happened to have a different perspective then and being exposed to music that's completely different than I was used to before was still exciting. It was revolutionary to me at the time. When I was 16, punk meant a lot more to me and as I'm getting older, it just doesn't seem there's as much enthusiasm and spirit in the underground scene."
KB: You have a pretty intense sound for a three piece. Was there ever a consideration of you not playing guitar and adding a guitarist?
KC: "Well, we tried that, right after we recorded our 'Bleach' album [Dec. 1988 to Jan. 1989]. We got another guitar player for a bit, but it just didn't work out. It really didn't make much more of a difference. So we kicked him out and replaced him with [deadpans] the tabernacle choir..."
KB: What are you like on stage? Does it get in the way, maybe, that you're playing guitar and singing?
KC: "It's definitely hard. It's really hard to concentrate on full gear, and singing, making sure I hit the right notes with my guitar and I have to turn my distortion pedal up and all the different effects boxes, and still make it look like I'm having fun and not just concentrating. It's definitely hard, but [inaudible] every time we've gotten another guitar player it didn't really relieve me of that."
KB: What are your plans now? Just going to hit the road?
KC: "Yeah, we're going over to Europe. We're going to play the Reading Festival and a week's worth of dates in Germany with Sonic Youth. "
KB: It was Sonic Youth that pushed you in the direction of Geffen?
KC: "Um, the fact of them being on the label had a lot to do with our decision."
KB: And you were very much involved in the production of this record?
KB: Have you had a lot of experience in the studio?
KC: "Not a lot but we've always had a good idea of what we want to sound like...
KB: Is Dave [Grohl] very much a part of the decision-making process now?
KC: "Dave? Oh, definitely."
KB: Because I would think it's hard to come into a band where there are two guys who have been together for a really long time.
KC: "You'd think so, but we get along so well. We think exactly the same. There's just no problems at all..."
KB: What about lyrically? Is it just your lyrics?
KC: "Yeah, I do all the lyrics."
KB: Is it important to [Krist and Dave] to know what you are singing about?
KC: "Um. I'm sure it is. We usually don't discuss the lyrics. I usually just come up with them and that's the way they are. I've asked them their opinion on things. But mainly I just do it myself. They don't really care. It's not like they feel the need to add their lyrics to [it]. I don't even think they write lyrics."
KB: So you had a lot of time to write these lyrics from the time you had off?
KC: "Not really. At least 50 percent of the album are old songs. They had been there [inaudible] for two years. In fact, two of the songs were written three years ago, before the 'Bleach' album."
KB: Are you writing from first person? Obviously not "Lithium" -- when I read what that's about...
KC: "These are ideas I've had, different scenarios, different things, stuff from television, books, characters... Um, a lot of the lyrics were written just minutes before we recorded the vocals in the studio. I like to... be spontaneous. It usually lends to a better creative force. "
KB: I'm surprised because a song like "Territorial Pissings" or what's the very first track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"?
KC: "Smells Like Teen Spirit, yeah."
KB: Those ones were impromptu?
KC: "'Territorial Pissings' was written within an hour or so. I had some ideas and I have a lot of notebooks that I can just use as references, and I can take lines out of it that were written before. I write a lot of poetry and stuff like that. So I use that stuff. I did take my time on 'Teen Spirit.' It took me about two days, but I did write them during the week that we were recording the album."
KB: So you think a lot of teenagers are really apathetic toward issues?
KC: "Yeah, pretty much."
KB: But what about in rap music? There are some young people who are confronting things...
KC: "Definitely. I'm all for it. I think rap music is the only vital form of music that has been introduced to music in a long time since punk rock."
KB: And yet you wouldn't attempt it?
KC: "[inaudible] Well, no, I would never do rap music. No. There's just no sense in it. The people who do rap music do it just fine. I usually don't like... nevermind."
KC: "[inaudible] I'm usually offended by people like Vanilla Ice and stuff like that."
KB: The people who really didn't come from the streets?
KC: "Right. The white man ripped off the black man long enough. They should leave rap music to the African Americans because they do it so well and it is so vital to them."
KB: What kind of music do you like that's happening right now, some of the young bands you think are doing things that are vital and unique?
KC: "I think the Breeders. I like the Pixies. I don't like their last album though... I like R.E.M. I like the Jesus Lizards, the Melvins, [inaudible] Shonen Knife, Bikini Kills. There are a few other bands I like. I'm kind of picky."
KB: Do you think songwriters are becoming too lazy these days?
KC: "Yeah. All formula. In fact most of the songwriters, most of the heavy metal bands, don't even bother with the songwriting. It's all spit out of a computer..."
KB: Well, good luck with everything. Thanks.