Two decades on, Nirvana's surviving members and producer Butch Vig tell NME how they made the record that changed everything in an ultra-rare joint interview
"Krist and I don't remember much about the making of 'Nevermind'," smiles Dave Grohl, lounging supine in his chair, his Virginia hardcore punk roots having long since mellowed into Southern California cool. "I don't nember anything," laughs Krist Novoselic, glancing over to his ex-bandmate. "But don't worry," reassures Grohl. "Butch remembers everything."
Twenty years after the seismic event that was Nevermind', NME has been granted an audience with the two surviving members of Nirvana, plus the producer of their epic masterpiece, Butch Vig. We're at Studio 606, deep in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. This is Grohl's Foo Fighters hangar - a sprawling cinder blockcompound swathed in old science fiction posters and enough rock memorabilia for a small Hall Of Fame.
The youngest of Nirvana and last to join, the all-black-clad Grohl remains sprightly and animated at 42 years old. He finishes Novoselic's sentences, remaining in tune with the man he described to NME last month as the "architect in Nirvana. Krist has a certain mentality and aesthetic that is entirely Nirvana."
At 6ft 7in, Novoselic himself speaks with the towering and clipped precision of a law student (no surprise, given he's currently studying the subject). On matters of Kurt Cobain, the trio defer to him - understandably, considering the two were best friends prior to forming Nirvana. The only one with a crystalline memory of the 'Nevermind' sessions, Vig fills in the gaps with the technical sophistication that seemed almost alien during the slacker era. Tension is non-existent and nostalgia is scarce, except when the subject turns to Cobain, the Elijah absent from this extremely rare reunion.
Cobain, of course, is the myth that was once reality. Sustaining the underground continuum while cataloguing the anxiety of MTV America, he inadvertently turned angst into triumph via simple songcraft - the subversive smirk and alternative irony of'Nevermind' concealed some of the finest melodies since The Beatles. "Nevermind' made "grunge" into a movement. It made Sunset Strip metal seem haunted by haggard poodle-haired ghosts. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and more all followed Nirvana's lead, but none could match their magnetism. To say we're in the company of true rock'n'roll revolutionaries is the greatest understatement in the two decades since they redefined the genre. But well let them do the talking...
Looking back 20 years later, what memories strike you most about the recording process of'Nevermind'?
Grohl: "For me, it's a personal landmark. My life was split in two by 'Nevermind'. I don't remember the making of it, nor the day that it came out. But it caused a profound change in my life."
"At the time, it didn't seem like that much was changing. We were just inside the rental van that we had on tour. More people started coming to gigs, and slowly the band's name took on a whole new meaning. But in our own little world, things stayed the same for a while."
What do you make of the 20th anniversary celebrations surrounding the re-release?
Novoselic: "It's nice. Nirvana came from a lot of places. There were other bands that broke ground for us. Jane's Addiction and Faith No More had alternative rock hits on the radio. The Sunset Strip sound and hair rock thing had played its course out. We helped bring in a new wave of rock, a new wave of punk rock, or at least that sensibility. 'Nevermind' is an accessible record. Those are pop songs with a lot of melody. The production was top notch and people were ready for it."
Krist, you've previously called it a 'rite of passage' record. Would you agree, Dave?
Grohl: "I think so. I was so young when we did it. Twenty-two. A fucking kid. Honestly, the one joy in my life was playing in the band. I had no stability or security. I just had Nirvana. So when we came down to Sound City to make the record, I didn't know what to expect or what was going to happen. I just wanted it to be good. "At the time, we just wanted to be one of those bands that played the Palladium and could eat food without pawning our gear."
Novoselic: "You can't forget what an artist Kurt Cobain was. He would draw, he would do sculpture, and he would write songs. He was really gifted. On Twitter, or in the street, or from fan mail, I receive notes from people for whom Nirvana changed their life. For me, Flipper and Black Flag did that. So when someone tells me that, I chalk one up for Kurt."
You guys came from the punk rock tradition and there were accusations about selling out at the time. How did that make you feel'
Grohl: "I never got it."
Novoselic: "I got it a little bit, but you have to remember how doctrinaire punk rock was. When I got into punk, there were people burning Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath records because those were false idols and the new god was punk. And even then, I was like, 'No, this is good music."
"Whenever we did interviews, we would promote a lot of underground bands like Dinosaur Jr. We did it because we loved them, but also to inoculate ourselves from criticism. 'Yeah, we're on a major label and we're in the media, but we're...'"
Grohl: '"...shouting out the Melvins.' I never thought that anyone could accuse the band of selling out creatively."
Novoselic: "How did we sell out? We had a $260,000 advance, about half of which went to taxes."
Grohl: "And Sub Pop."
Novoselic: "Sub Pop commissions. Professional fees, and then we spent it on the record. We were broke."
Grohl: "The first thing that happened when I joined Nirvana was that I got sued by a punk rock guy."
What were you sued for?
Grohl: "I can't talk about it publicly, or I'll get sued again. Some famous old punk rocker dude sued me right out the gate. It was my introduction to the music industry. I was like, if the punk rock guy is suing me then everyone's fucked."
Novoselic: "That's what happened. There were a st of lawsuits, even after Kurt had died and Nirvana had ended. All kinds of bullshit."
Grohl: "Punks have lawyers too."
Do you feel like the notion of selling out still exists?
Grohl: "I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If you want to make music, you should make music. You can't judge someone else's practice or music, if you're there to do your own thing. I didn't start playing music to make millions of dollars or sign autographs. I did it because I loved listening to The Beatles and had a fucking guitar in the house. It's still the foundation of what I do. Foo Fighters is me making music with my friends and hoping people get off on it. People should be free to do whatever they want to do musically, without fear of 'selling out'.
Novoselic: "Pavement made great records and they were staunchly independent. Those philosophical arguments about 'independent or not?' never come into my head It's more like, 'Do they rock?'
Grohl: "It's fun to have this conversation with Pat Smear because he was in one of the first gnarly punk rock bands in Los Angeles [The Germs]. They were crazy people who worshipped Alice Cooper, Bowie and Iggy Pop and were taking as many drugs as they could the entire time. You think it mattered what record label they were putting it on? Fuck no, they wanted money for coke. Ask the old punks what they think about that bullshit."
Do you remember what the mood was like when you were out here recording the album? Were you guys holed up in the studio all hours of the night?
Grohl: "Ask Butch."
Vig: "You were in the studio nine to ten hours a day. You'd come in early afternoon, record, take a dinner break, record at night and then split around nine or ten. I'd stay around and tinker with stuff for a couple hours.
"The band were super-focused. When we went into rehearsals in North Hollywood, there was no slacker ethic. I was amazed at how tight they sounded. I didn't have to rearrange the songs. Some things we'd tighten up or shorten for a couple bars, but that was it."
Were there fights in the studio?
Grohl: "Not one."
Vig: "There was no drama"
Grohl: "We'd stripped everything down to its most simple form. Three people, short songs, verse-chorus verse formula, minimal overdubbing. We'd usually nail the songs in two or three takes."
Vig: "Some are first takes. There were only two songs that we struggled to get right: 'Lithium' and 'Something In The Way'. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was done on second take. It went fast. Kurt didn't have a lot of patience. He wanted to get things done in a couple takes or he'd quickly lose interest."
What was Kurt like in the studio?
Vig: "That was the hardest thing. You had to deal with Kurt's mood swings. He could be totally engaged, funny, witty and focused. But sometimes, a switch would go off, and he'd want to be alone in the corner. After an hour or two, he'd just snap out of it. We learned to give him his space when he went into a black hole, but we had no idea when that was going to be."
Do you ever think what direction Nirvana woulg have gone if Kurt hadn't died?
Novoselic: "You can't downplay what happened at the end, so that's a really hard question to answer. It's just too monumental."
Words: Jeff Weiss
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