Nirvana 1992 cover story
[Image by Charles Peterson]

With our Jan-Feb 1992 cover (#44), AltPress highlighted grunge pioneers Nirvana. Just following the Sept. 1991 release of the band’s legendary record Nevermind, the interview took fans behind the scenes just as the band were exploding into the mainstream. The article explored Nirvana’s experiences as they reconciled their newfound success with their punk rock roots, but in retrospect, it reads as something of a state of affairs for the now-legendary act. During the conversation, the band talked about the process behind the album, their difficulties confronting their status as rockstars and much more.

Story: Susan Rees

If only there were a way for Nirvana to be a celebrated rock group and veritable unknowns at the same time. Giving interviews, being recognized, signing autographs—you name it, Nirvana hates it. But when the latest punk-rock heroes from the Seattle suburbs grumble about being successful major-label commodities, it’s tough to sympathize. After all, they willfully left the relative obscurity offered by independent record company Sub Pop to sign a two-record deal with Geffen in 1990. It’s like moving from a small town to Los Angeles and complaining about the smog—it sort of goes with the territory. So the question remains: If being popular is so offensive to Nirvana, why court popularity?

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Just getting through this interview proved too much for the press-weary band. Spread out about as far as three people can spread out in one small New York City hotel room, they tried to be responsive, but Sunday afternoon weighed heavily on them. Instead, bassist Krist Novoselic, who did offer a Beck’s and some Pepperidge Farm cookies, showed more interest in watching television, drummer David Grohl was polite but didn’t have much to say and vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Kurt Cobain—who sat at a desk facing a window—spent the greater part of his energy eating lunch and holding his very hungover head in his hands. Apologetically, they followed up with phone interviews.

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To follow up their 1989 Sub Pop debut, Bleach, Nirvana left behind the heftier grunge that they helped popularize for pure, punky pop. And if their sound can be described the way Cobain puts it—as the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath—then Bleach was heavy on the Sabbath, while Nevermind leans more toward the Knack.

Cobain discounts the progression. “I really don’t feel there’s much of a difference between the Bleach album and this album besides the fact that we don’t bend our strings as much,” he tries to assert while slumping over his food. “I think we’ve always been a pop band.”

Despite what he may think, the 24-year-old’s songwriting has come a long way these past two years. Though the songs on Bleach have an immature and sloppy charm, cheese-metal dinosaur Ted Nugent could have written some of the guitar riffs. On Nevermind, however, the shorter, more infectious verses, choruses and bridges are structured to wrap around one another and recur, making each song round, complete and satisfying. “To me, that’s what pop music means,” Cobain says. “Something in repetition.”

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Cobain likes the songs on Nevermind better than those on Bleach; perhaps it’s because these days he uses different emotions from which to write. Using hatred, he felt, imparted a certain gloominess to the songs on Bleach. “I don’t hate anything anymore; I did when we were writing Bleach,” he says, though he won’t get more specific. “Now I think it’s turned into frustration. And confusion.”

Better sound quality also makes Nevermind more accessible than their first album. Bleach’s 1970s-era muddiness came courtesy of producer Jack Endino and a $600 studio tab. “With the new album, we tried to get more of a studio sound,” Cobain says. “I felt it was the best way to put these songs across.” Butch Vig supplied his classic larger-than-live production—the types he’s demonstrated on numerous other recordings, including the Smashing Pumpkins’ debut—and finally carried Nirvana straight into the ‘90s, right where they belong.

In the ‘90s, unfortunately, the rock media regularly tries to impose greater significance on popular music than the artists may have begun with. Think of a journalist elevating Madonna’s masturbatory crotch-grabbing to a statement on women’s rights, and you’re thinking of someone who’s stretching for something to talk about. Cobain may have qualms about his lyrics being the object of such invention, but in the end, he goes along with it.

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“We have to make up an excuse for what I’ve written later on when someone asks me. The majority of my lyrics are just lines from poems I’ve written,” Cobain says, referring to the poetry he’s written since junior high school. The process is “therapy” for him, so he rarely lets anyone see it—unless it crops up in songs. “It’s mainly just words, words that hopefully paint a picture,” he says, stressing that he means that sarcastically.

The pictures painted by the lyrics on Nevermind are sometimes ugly. Guns are mentioned in at least three songs. This fact isn’t news to Cobain, but he can’t explain it, either. “I don’t believe in them,” he says, “but then again, I still think people have a right to own them. It would be nice if you could abolish all guns, but people are still going to kill people. You’d never be able to get rid of them in this country.”

As if to strengthen his argument, the word “violent” pops up often in Cobain’s speech. When asked how all this violence affects him personally, he mentions that there are places he’d like to visit but can’t because of crime. The discussion takes several turns, eventually settling on gang violence. “If all the gangs across America would band together, dig up [civil-rights radical] Eldridge Cleaver and start a blacktop counter-revolution,” he says, “they could make a target of Jesse Helms and people like him. It’s a totally ridiculous and violent idea, but if you’re going to be killing people, it might as well be your oppressors instead of each other.”

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People shouldn’t, however, turn to religion for comfort, according to Cobain. The lyric to “Lithium,” which is written in first person, dramatizes the weakness he feels is inherent in such a reaction.

But the lyrical theme Cobain returns to time and again on Nevermind is love. Does he feel love is an inexhaustible subject for rock lyrics? “Oh definitely. Love’s the most important thing,” he says. “I can’t stand political lyrics—they’re so obvious. There should be a cryptic element to rock ‘n’ roll so you can’t quite figure it out.”

The lyrics to Nevermind’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” are definitely difficult to explain, even if you can decipher what Cobain is saying. But Nirvana’s press release states that the song speaks to their generation’s apathy, as does the album title. Nevermind supposedly pokes fun at the fact that these days, no one wants to address important issues; people would rather say, “Never mind, forget it.”

“That’s what the press release says, but we made it up,” Cobain contends. “It’s a big lie.” But the apathy theme does seem to make sense. Cobain refuses to discuss it. “We just can’t elaborate on something so broad. I have no right to be spewing out things like that.”

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Cobain brought it up on the album, however, and perhaps because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about a very negative social issue, Nirvana decided to conceptualize it in the sarcastic video that has been splattered across MTV. Staged as a high school pep rally—without the authority figures or even the football team—Nirvana’s cheerleaders sport anarchy A’s on their uniforms. “I think you can take it any way you want,” Cobain says. “It’s ridiculous to be on such a serious platform politically. We don’t consider this a crusade or anything. You have to have good humor.”

Because of Nirvana’s signing to Geffen, you can find their latest album at any mainstream record store near you—which you wouldn’t have been able to do back when they were signed to Sub Pop. “On our last two tours, we were constantly bombarded with people coming up to us and saying, ‘We can’t find your record anywhere,’” Cobain explains. “So we decided that we wanted to be on a label that could ensure good distribution.”

Nirvana would have preferred to sign to another independent label—a move which might well have prevented the band from achieving the popularity that’s overwhelming them now—but no indie could have afforded to buy them out of their Sub Pop contract. “We had no choice but to go onto a major, and we’re completely happy with that decision,” Cobain says. “All the people that work at Geffen are so totally aware of alternative and punk rock music; they know exactly where we’re coming from.”

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He may be partly right. On first listen, Nirvana’s A&R man at Geffen actually thought the songs on Nevermind weren’t raw enough. But Geffen has also worked to ensure that, at press time, Nirvana’s single was being played habitually on major radio stations across the country, that the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video was making regular appearances on MTV and that Nevermind shot up above Guns N’ Roses on Billboard’s album chart. No wonder so many people love Nirvana.

Here’s why that’s a problem: For a band that espouses the hardline punk credo, being adored by people who not only don’t believe in punk rock, but probably don’t even realize the argument exists, is irritating.

“I’m becoming frustrated with having to deal with the kind of people who come up to me after the show and say, ‘You guys fucking rock, dude,’” Cobain says. “I don’t need that at all. Normally I just walk around in the audience after a show, but I’ve been sort of hiding out in the back room a lot in fear of having to hear people like that.

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“I’m just having a hard time dealing with that right now, because I feel guilty for wanting to hide out in the dressing room,” he continues. “I feel like a rock star. And I can almost understand why rock stars act the way they do.”

As opposed to Cobain’s quiet, sober personality, bassist Novoselic comes across as sort of a wiseguy. “I’m the Jethro Bodean of the band,” 26-year-old Novoselic says, whose short but unruly hair helps him play the part. “But we’re all pretty moody.”

Although Novoselic can’t comprehend why fans would want to ask for autographs, he still lets them do it. “I don’t want to,” he says, “but I don’t want to offend them. Who am I to say no?”

The most recent addition to the band—drummer Grohl—joined in 1990, and the 22-year-old’s easygoing, amiable nature smooths out the stronger personalities in Nirvana. He also finds the social aspects of semi-celebrity disconcerting. “It’s weird being recognized by people who like the band,” he says. “They just stare at you, and you feel like you’re being violated or something. Nobody says anything to you. They just watch you.”

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Grohl is genuinely flattered that people like Nirvana, but he can’t reconcile himself with what the fans expect of him. “When I got into punk rock, the attitude was, ‘Kill all the rock stars,’” he says. “And autographs are something the whole punk thing was against. I try not to let it offend me because then I seem rude—and the last thing I want to do is be rude to anyone—so it’s really hard to say no.”

During his youth, Cobain lived with aunts, uncles and grandparents who constantly moved him back and forth between Montesano and Aberdeen, two small towns in Washington. “It’s very typical, like an evil-stepmother scenario. I just couldn’t meet the demands of my parents,” he says. “They wanted me to be into sports and stuff like that.” Changing schools all the time made it difficult to make friends. “I couldn’t relate to people at all, so I basically hung out by myself all the time and played guitar.”

He finally met one intriguing guy in a high school art class, someone who always carried around books on the Sex Pistols and the Who. He turned out the be Buzz Osborne, eventual founder of the Melvins, a band many people credit with helping to inspire the characteristic metal style that bands from the Pacific Northwest are known for. “We started going to shows together, and I remember the first one I went to was DOA,” Cobain says. “I sold my whole rock record collection for $12 so I could see them; it was worth it.

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“My second show was Black Flag,” Cobain continues. “After that show, I claimed I would forever be a punk rocker. The next day, I spiked my hair and started spray-painting people’s cars.” Cobain claims to have gone to prison a couple of times for vandalism.

Through the Melvins, Cobain met Novoselic, who also had trouble relating to his high school peers. Having moved from Los Angeles to the small logging community of Aberdeen when he was 14, Novoselic grew so depressed about the upheaval that he went to live with relatives in Yugoslavia for a year. Once home in Aberdeen, Novoselic met Cobain through Osborne. “Kurt was fun to party with,” he says. “We’re both analytical pothead philosophers.”

Cobain still likes Novoselic for the same reasons he liked him then: “He’s a very funny guy,” he says. “Loud, obnoxious—and we like the same music, which is always a big attraction.”

The songs Cobain eventually wrote and recorded with Dale Crover of the Melvins so impressed Novoselic that he asked Cobain if he wanted to start a band in 1987. Cobain, having already declined a scholarship to art school, accepted his offer. “It made me feel special,” Cobain says. “It was exciting to be a ‘subversive’ type of person in a town where there wasn’t anyone like that.”

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Choosing a band name took more time than joining up did: Nirvana’s first five or six shows were played under different names, including Pen Cap Chew, Ted Ed Fred, Dope Hippy and, strangely enough, Skid Row. For obvious reasons, they settled on Nirvana.

When they got enough songs together to record a demo, they booked time at Reciprocal Recording with producer Endino, who, unbeknownst to them, later gave a copy of their tape to Sub Pop. Within a few months, Nirvana was signed and had released their first single, “Love Buzz/Big Cheese.” Their first full-length, Bleach, came out in 1989 and was followed by two EPs, “Blew” and “Silver/Dive.”

No one can be sure, it seems, how many drummers have done stints with Nirvana over the years, but Novoselic guesses it’s somewhere between three and five. It wasn’t until 1990 that the band found the drummer they really wanted, but—much the way these things often turn out—he was already taken. Novoselic and Cobain saw Scream, a Washington, D.C.-based punk band, in San Francisco, and extended an invitation to drummer Grohl through their mutual friend Osborne. When Scream’s bass player unexpectedly quit, Grohl happily applied to Nirvana. “Now if Dave leaves the band,” Novoselic says, “we’re just gonna break up.”

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Novoselic can make light of Nirvana’s breaking up someday because, given good material, he claims he’d stick with the band forever. But the other members have differing thoughts about Nirvana’s longevity. Grohl says he can’t envision the future. Cobain seems genuinely concerned about the group becoming too popular and on the national charts for a short time: Kajagoogoo, Adam Ant, the list goes on and on.

“So we could be just a flash in the pan,” he says. “Actually, I hope we are.”