Guilty for good of the world-wide musical coup d'etat that was called grunge, Kurt, Chris and Dave have in the meantime seen all corners of the American dream (fame, money, damage, shame and stomach-ache) And now there is an unruly new album ready: 'In Utero', recorded in only two weeks.
We definetely DON'T want to win new fans with this CD.
Hope that works out. Now to Seattle.
The view over Elliot Bay from the hotel is rather nice. ("Breathtaking" is what a brochure would say.) Completely un-American on top of that, because if you - like me - are used to the hectic cities of the East Coast, this is a Swiss mountain lake in comparison. No stink, no bustle, no filth, no sirens, and no honking, although in the distance a big white ferry-boat - or is it a cruise ship? - goes by, and seems to have to test its horn every minute.
For a moment I fancy myself being on vacation in the city that became famous because of its port and its trade center, its steel industry, fishery, Boeing plants and (of vital interest to the European) good coffee. Nothing more. But 2 years ago something changed. By a benevolent freak of nature, Seattle became an epicenter, a magic word and a place of pilgrimage. In that order. Since then, no guitar-riff could be strummed here without turning to gold.
A knock on the door. "Housekeeping! Room service! Can we make the beds, please?" My idyll is shattered. The beds were made a long time ago, and did I ask for room service?
Then, from the hall, comes giggling and a bumping noise. Thumping on the door of another room. Giggling again. A look around the corner of the doorway into the long passage makes it clear: further down there are 3 figures, one of them strikingly tall, running away laughing out loud. They're here. And they obviously haven't changed a bit. Luckily.
Everyone knows the fairy tale that came true, the one of Nirvana: a rebellious little noise-band becoming superstars. Why? Because they have iron-strong, catchy, robust pop songs, and rode (in a wheelbarrow - the same one Sonic Youth habitually uses to transport their guitars) into the right place - the office of record-company boss David Geffen - at the right time. The right time was 1991, and they had the right sound (hard) and the right attitude (recalcitrant).
But after a short while, the fairy tale was not much about music anymore. Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, the talented enigma of the group, turned out to know exactly what the key to international publicity was: anything but normal behavior. Because of that, the tall tales about Nirvana piled up. Sometimes this was helped by Cobain, sometimes not - but the press quickly latched onto stories of his drug-addiction, his destructive nature, and his unhappy youth; his marriage to also-heroin- addicted Courtney Love; allegations of her heroin use during pregnancy; the arrest of Cobain for posession of illegal weaponry ("or", the gutter press giggled, "was it due to ill-treatment of Courtney?"); and his supposed tirades directed at the English people, which, as later became clear, were only directed at the British PRESS.
Only in July 1993 did the storm settle down a bit. Nirvana's appearance at New York's New Music Seminar, at which a foretaste of the upcoming CD 'In Utero' was given, garnered positive reviews. Cobain, bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl had survived (just like former Exploited guitarist 'Big' John Duncan, added for this appearance as an extra guitarist, who now has been replaced by Pat Smear from the legendary LA punk band The Germs). Something sane could now be reported - about music this time.
Dave Grohl is the first one ready. Time is of the essence: 'project promote In Utero' is only a couple of days old, and a few members of the European press were allowed to come over for the first stories, but it has to be done quickly. Luckily one of my decisions was undisputable: I would ignore all sensational stories.
Meanwhile, as Novoselic and a pale-as-a-corpse, tired-looking and fish-bone-skinny Cobain shamble successively into the room, Grohl and I agree on In Utero: it's a capricious, obstinate album. Of course, songs like 'Serve The Servants' (with lyrics like "Teenage angst had paid off well/Now I'm bored and old", the cynical opening lines of the album), the sublime 'Rape Me', the ballad 'Dumb', thick with throbbing cellos, and the slurred recital of 'Pennyroyal Tea' could all fit on the 'Nevermind' album because of their beauty. But opposed to that, there's a portion of cussedness which could make the audience gained with 'Nevermind' nauseous. The three heads nod in agreement. Outside a horn is audible.
Grohl: "We think 'In Utero' will get 3 types of reactions. For the listener-by-accident, spoiled by 'Nevermind', this album sounds like our commercial suicide; probably he/she will ignore it, and consider us one hit wonders. The sceptics will rate it a pretentious album: 'Nirvana makes some noise and think they are good at it.' "Big deal." The fans, finally, will instinctively like it. They will rate the album at its true value: a spontaneously realized, no-nonsense album, without the post-production polish."
van der Berg: "For the first time you guys had to make an album knowing half the world would be waiting for with high expectations. Could you handle that pressure?"
Cobain: "Sure, easily. Just because the image of the group had been hyped up to outrageous proportions, we had the idea it didn't matter what we recorded: it would sell anyway. Lou Reed once made an album called 'Metal Machine Music' and lost all his credibility with it. We could have done something like that. But our musical aims are somewhat bigger; we like to have a good feeling about an album."
Grohl: "The pressure is on the record company, not us. THEY have to sell the album. We just went into the studio and recorded what we liked to see recorded. No one meddled with that. Then we mixed everything, gave the master tape to Geffen and said "this is it". It's up to them to make the link to the mainstream. I just think this time it will be harder to do that, because if you work with Steve Albini - he has some pretty obstinate production standards - you KNOW you won't get a radio-friendly sound."
vdB: "Everything sounds a bit dirtier than 'Nevermind'."
Grohl: "That makes sense; we did almost no post-editing on the songs. We recorded everything in 1 take, and did as little overdubbing as possible. 'Nevermind' was polished; every mistake was taken out of it. With 'In Utero' we meant to produce an honest group album again. Musically there is much more to be taken out of it. Take the track 'Milk it' for example: it has a very remarkable dynamic. There is some cracks and creaks in it, the bass screws up regularly... Those sorts of little things give the album character."
Cobain: "When we went into the studio, only half of the compositions were ready. The rest originated from messing around in the studio. This way we applied a pressure that was far more defining than the one that was applied from outside: we restricted ourselves to a deadline - two weeks - and a recording budget. I like to work that way. I also waited with the lyrics to the last moment. I know me; if I make something long before, I keep working on it and start to doubt. Or else I'll decide it's not good anymore and throw it away. For the new album I fixed everything in my mind on the very day."
vdB: "Does 'In Utero', in spite of that, reflect what's happened to you guys the last two years?"
Grohl: "Some things. But that will be something personal for each of us. Of course we had never experienced anything like this [fame] before, so when it happened it was quite a shock. In the beginnig you try to put the whole circus away from yourself; later on you can't do much more than make the best of it. But you can really freak out sometimes. At a given time you notice that things are completely out of proportion, and you ask yourself what it all has to do with music any more. People sueing each other, people sueing YOU, because apparently you stole something from them, incomprehensible business maneuvers, commercial tricks... and of course it's all about money."
Novoselic: "You enter a kind of identity-crisis. You are a punk band with punk ideology, when suddenly you get into the mainstream. Are you different then all of a sudden? Or is it not just the popularity, but the fact that you work along with it and in that way, adapt yourself to a broader audience?
Grohl: "You get doubts. What name to call yourself. And what to call your music. Suddenly all kinds of labels appeared: alternative music, grunge. But some moment you will think to yourself: "fuck", in the end, isn't it all music?"
vdB: "Hey, you are the cause of it yourselves!"
Grohl [laughing]: "Yeah, that's our tragic downfall, I think. But lately, we are returning from all of it a bit. A while ago, our record company asked us if we wanted to do a concert at a convention for record distributors. They wanted us to play there for the chance of our CD getting a more prominent spot in the stores when it was released. At first we thought: okay, why not? But a while later on, we thought deeper about it, and came to the conclusion it was, of course, all pure ass-kissing, and that we never would have done those kind of things previously. We stopped it and said we thought it was a stupid idea. It was amusing to sense an immediate slight panic; a kind of fear that that new CD, in all its non-productiveness and incommerciality, won't sell. We think it will sell really well or it won't sell at all. Because everyone knows a new Nirvana album is coming up, and everyone also knows it won't be like 'Nevermind'. It's a fact 'In Utero' won't bring in new fans out of the mainstream audience. I myself wouldn't like it if we were to become even more popular than we are now."
vdB: "The lyrics on 'In Utero' are, so far as not too cryptic, fairly bitter and introverted. Does that reflect the harvest of being dragged along in the uncontrollable un-wieldiness of superstardom?"
Cobain: "I can be very clear about themes and concepts: they are non-existent. I can tell you something about a few songs; the rest is "stupid poetry". Romping with words and associations. A while ago, a journalist pointed out to me there are a lot of MEDICAL terms in the new lyrics. He had a point. Many songs are indirectly about disease, bad health and the feeling of being trapped and being kept in check."
vdB: "So there may be a bit of a feeling of being trapped - which must have bothered you - after all?"
Cobain: "I don't know. I myself tend to think those medical associations have to do with a stomach condition that I had for years which only recently disappeared. It's heritage; my mother had the same thing when she was my age. It lasted for 5 years and then it was suddenly gone. I've read a lot of medical manuals and had discussions with people who have chronic stomach-aches, because I wanted to know what I had. In the long run it all became a bit obsessive, and probably led to the textual basis for the new album."
vdB: "Which of the songs don't contain the 'stupid poetry'?"
Cobain: " 'Rape Me' is my taking a stand against rape. It's the oldest track on the album. I wrote it a week after rounding off the recordings of 'Nevermind' and it speaks for itself. 'Tourettes' refers to the people who suffer from the disease of the same name. You know that? Gradually you lose control over what you say, and in the end you yell and curse at random; those are psychic outbursts that you can't help having - but of course you can be a burden to your environment. In America there are a striking number of patients. When I saw that, I recognized many of the same things I see in myself. Especially things from 5 to 6 years ago: I was frustrated, angry and completely unreasonable. If I had kept that up for the rest of my life, it would have become something resembling that syndrome."
vdB: "A title like 'Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle' probably also didn't appear out of the blue?"
Cobain: "That one is about an actress who made a few movies quite a while ago. She also was from Seattle. She was somewhat unstable, but extremely opinionated and provocative. Time went by and the authorities started to consider her a danger to the establishment. At least, they made it appear that way. They declared her insane, put her in a psychiatric institution and systematically maltreated her there. I read the book recently, but never realized before that how gruesome the story was."
vdB: "Why did you dedicate a song to it?"
Cobain: "Because I realize how and why such things can happen. How it even can happen to ME, if you don't recognize certain mechanisms in time. Luckily nowadays it's not that easy anymore to plan something like that. That McCarthy period was so paranoid; every form of strange behavior was recognized as a symptom of communism. I hope nobody will experience something like Frances did. Did you know that people who were in on that scheme still live care-free in Seattle? I can work myself into a lather by thinking about that. If I had the means, I would bomb their houses flat."
vdB: "You don't adopt many social or political positions in the lyrics.
But then you guys show up for benefit performances, like in April in San Francisco, for the benefit of the victims of the rapes in Bosnia. Did you play 'Rape Me' over there, too?"
Cobain: "Once again, that is an ANTI-rape statement."
vdB: "You hardly hear that. The text is very concise."
Cobain: "When I just finished the song, it was even worse: it was only a repeatedly yelled 'rape me'. Later on, I added a few things. If I had to make a new song about this subject now, I would be more nuanced. Now it has become a sarcastic statement, and I suppose not everybody will pick that up. I also hope that girls don't take it as an insult because of the cheerful melody under it."
Novoselic: "We did that benefit-performance because as INDIVIDUALS, not as musicians, we have our feelings about the circumstances in Bosnia. Although you don't find it in the music, it doesn't mean Nirvana is no political band. We are VERY concerned with things happening everywhere. By the way, I am of Croatian origin myself, so how could the events over there have NO effect on me? If we have discussions between ourselves, it's almost always about politics. That has never been different. We were raised in Reagan's period; a very frustrating period. Via groups like M.D.C. I discovered punk-rock then, and contextually that was always about politics. Unadapted behavior, that was the heart of it. That's what infected us. And that's still in us."
vdB: "How do you see the future of Nirvana? Continuation of the craziness, putting up with the media digging in your private lives, or rather a return to the margin, where, according to a lot of people, Nirvana belongs?"
Grohl: "For me, Nirvana doesn't have to become bigger. I'm afraid our music won't have the same effect in stadiums with 60,000 people anyway. It's deadly for the intimacy and the energy. I would have no problem with us standing in clubs like Paradiso [ a pretty big disco in the Netherlands ]. And as for the lack of privacy, you get used to that. As soon as Americans have a hunch that they can make money off you, they will start digging. Or write books on you. At a given moment, you KNOW all that sudden interest in your band has only got to do with one thing: money. Especially with those manager types and 'sudden' friends. But if you pay too much attention to it, and get concerned about it, you will go nuts. Look at someone like Axl Rose. Although, he probably wanted to be a rock star all his life, so now he is one, he plays his part okay. He has a model for a wife, many cars, a couple of villa's..."
vdB: "And you don't?"
Grohl: "Of course, but nobody knows! No, we don't play along with that sort of crap. Besides, where are you in ten years then? How's Axl Rose in ten years? He's already a parody of himself."
Cobain: "How you deal with the whole circus, you define for yourself. To escape from it all I did heroin for quite some time [laughs]. But that didn't help. Meanwhile I've had the time to get used to the nonsense. And to learn how to deal with it and how to prevent certain things. Although it still irritates me if once more a group of fans comes towards me for an autograph. I appreciate the fact they like my music, but I don't want them thinking I'm someone special. That's what I'm worried about. But I will have to live with that; I won't discontinue the band for something that trivial."
Grohl: "I still want to go back to school. The idea of being a rock star for the rest of my life stifles me. I want to study, get married and have children. I was with the group that was number one everywhere in the world, so what more do you want? What's the next step? I understand there are more extreme and funnier things to think of still, but there are simply some life goals you set up for yourself. I started playing when I was 18, in squats, everywhere in Europe. Then already I thought I'd made it: 'wow, Europe!'. I still love making music, but I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. Bigger isn't necessary. As long as I can play with Chris and Kurt, I'm satisfied."
Novoselic: "I never think about the future. And that's why I'd rather not make predictions. I am not Nostradamus."
vdB: "The one who predicted the breakthrough of Nirvana, by the way."
Novoselic: "Correct, yes. He called us 'Nirjana' or something. He was a few letters off."