A worldwide cacophony of loud guitar music, toques and plaid shirts on the runaways and in the malls, the hot, unwavering media spotlight on a mid-sized Northwest town...
By Jennie Punter
The first thing I notice about Seattle is the sounds. Not just the Puget Sound, Seattle's shore, the long narrow body of ocean water slicing raggedly down into Washington state, but also the kind drifting through a window of the famous Edgewater Hotel ("The Beatles stayed here," a man murmurs to his companion in the lobby. Do they know the story about Led Zeppelin and the mudshark?). The evening I arrive, seagulls, tourist boats, ferry horns, a waterfront concert, airplanes and traffic din mingle in the twilight hours.
And after the sun sets? That's a sound anyone following popular music in the last few years has heard about: bands practicing in basements and warehouses, firing up amps in one of the many rock music establishments, bashing out new tunes in the studio. Sure, such sounds can be heard in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, but in Seattle's case, the sounds of a bunch of those bands burrowed into the mass consciousness. First it was in the eardrums of many record company A&R people. Then the sound became the scratch of pens on the record contracts, video cameras rolling, tour buses revving up, gradually swelling into a cacophony of cash registers ringing, stadium cheers, mass media salivating, Sub Pop's sigh of relief, more A&R clamoring, but mostly, loud music from America's Northwest corner being listened to, loudly, by millions of people, many of whom don't speak English.
But they understand grunge. The "Seattle sound," unwittingly christened grunge, has been much brooded upon. Aided by the media, the term developed a life of it's own in recent years, much apart from the bands that were unwillingly lumped under it (if you don't live in a cave, you know who I'm talking about). Grunge: a rock revolution, a fashion statement, a passing fancy, and itch you can't scratch?
Nirvana ... a rock band started by guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Chris Novoselic around 1987 in Aberdeen, Washington ... gets both the blame and the credit for much of the hoopla. After attaining hip credibility with Bleach, released by the Seattle indie label Sup Pop in 1988, they added permanent drummer Dave Grohl, made some demos, signed to DGC, recorded and released an album called Nevermind and started touring. But an eerily captivating song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and its equally arresting video smashed any neat little plan of a slow build. Copies of Nevermind flew out of stores in the thousands (close to 10 million have been sold worldwide thus far), radio and video stations rotated the song heavily, and the hot, unwavering media spotlight began widening in Seattle. As the title of Sonic Youth's 1991 European club festival tour movie, which includes plenty of Nirvana footage, succinctly put it, it was The Year That Punk Broke ... broke the tether of "alternative" and sped at a breakneck pace into the mainstream.
While varying degrees of commercial success and media scrutiny were felt by Seattle-area bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees, no one felt the glare more keenly than Nirvana. But despite whatever artistic and personal struggles its members have undergone, they have managed to emerge with a solid grip on reality. Simply put, the band still has to practice.
And that's what they were doing last night. Nirvana's new album, In Utero, was released in September, and a full blown North American tour ... their first in ages ... begins this month. They've been working in a new guitarist, Pat Smear, and the rehearsal went late... which means they're going to be late for their interview and photo shoot at the Edgewater. Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl arrive first, cracking jokes as they enter the room, and after a touch of pancake is applied to ward off the merciless camera lights, and whisked away. Kurt Cobain show up soon afterwards, and just says no to makeup, "I washed my face today," be mutters. "That's good enough."
In the next room, he gets me a chair and asks me twice if I mind if he smokes before lighting up. "I usually don't wake up this early, to tell you the truth," he smiles, piercingly bright blue eyes shining in a face covered by a few days' stubble. He's relatively relaxed, a little reserved, attentive, articulate and particularly animated when he's talking about two of his favorite things: Frances Bean Cobain ... the daughter he made with wife Courtney Love, guitarist/songwriter of Hole ... and music. I mention I've been listening to an advance cassette of the Melvins' major-label debut (and a truly grungy record it is), produced by Cobain, who as a teenager helped lug around the Aberdeen band's gear and became fast friends with Melvins leader Buzz Osborne.
"I still don't know what the technical description of a producer is," Cobain says. "I just oversaw everything, I pretty much observed and made a few comments and suggestions here and there. I physically set up the microphones for a few of the songs. And I mixed it."
For their part, Nirvana have worked with three different producers, most recently Chicago's Steve Albini, who's worked with the Breeders, PJ Harvey and Toronto's Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. "Every recording we've done has been total experimentation," Cobain says. "I wanted this band to sound like this record forever, since we started. And I just had this feeling... If you put a microphone in front of a snare drum, go into the control room and listen to somebody hit on it, it sounds really fake and weird. So instead of doing that, I thought we should use more microphones.
"I suggested to Jack Endino [Bleach] and to Butch Vig [Nevermind] that we should use a whole bunch of microphones to get an ambience out of the room, but they wouldn't do it. It turns out that's exactly how Albini does it, and it was an assumption that I had. He came so close with the Pixies and the Breeders, who sound the way I've always wanted to sound. You can hear the chair creaking because we had so many microphones around us. We had 30 for the drums alone."
Recorded in just over two weeks in a snowbound studio outside of Minneapolis last February, In Utero is a far looser, riskier album than Nevermind. "It was from One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich," Novoselic says, comparing the environs to the Siberian prison camp of Solzhenitsyn's novel (a familiar landscape to us Canucks). "We were in this house built in the early '60s, it was like Mike Brady meets Frank Lloyd Wright. There were these architectural innovations, but there was also this '60s kitsch. It was a good working environment; you could really concentrate on having a good time. But I got a little cabin fever towards the end."
The songs on the new album range from relentless noise constructions through rough Beatlesque romps to porch-swing punk, and span over a year, from one week after recording Nevermind to the week before recording In Utero." Ever since Nevermind came out, I've been kind of... lazy," Cobain says. "I don't have quite as much fire in me. It still comes, but in stages. I used to write all the time ... every day I picked up my guitar. And now I find myself not even playing for an entire month. At the same time, I'm always writing songs in my head.
"It used to really affect me. I would drain myself emotionally. I wouldn't be able to go outside or go to a party or anything because I was almost schizophrenic sometimes; I was like a mad scientist. And once you get into that frame of mind, your focus can't be distracted at all, by a stupid party or something."
Lyrically, many of the songs on In Utero go deeper and darker, with provocative images of containment, resignation, insanity, the womb, but always with an ear for a catchy phrase, even if it is "Rape me, my friend."
"I was working feverishly," Cobain relates. "I went out of my way to make sure I didn't get too personal. I mean, it would be so obvious for me to write an anti-press song." Still, you can't help hearing personal imagery, only half-buried, especially if you reread the Vanity Fair piece on Cobain's wife that appeared exactly a year ago. The article, in which Love mentions the couple's brief fling with hard drugs early last year, describes objects in their old L.A. apartment like see-through body anatomy dolls (check out In Utero's cover) and kiss-and-make-up heart-shaped boxes of candy ("Heart-Shaped Box"). And then there's the reference to Love's wedding dress, once worn by Frances Farmer in a movie ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle").
When I ask Cobain if "Penny Royal Tea" is about indigestion, he half-laughs. "Penny royal tea is a herbal abortive," he says. "I threw that in because I have so many friends who have tried to use that, and it never worked. The song is about a person who's beyond depressed; they're in their death bed, pretty much." Cobain's own bout with serious stomach pain was well documented last year."Yeah, it did rub off on the song," he admits. And I couldn't help noticing the "Canadian" reference to a Leonard Cohen afterworld. "That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I'd read things like Malloy Dies by Beckett, or listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse," he laughs.
But whatever the doctor ordered, Cobain and his bandmates seem now to have adjusted to their celebrity, and are philosophical about this next phase of their career.
"Of course, people are going to tell you, 'Oh, I think it's great, it's going to be huge,"' Grohl says of the new album's advance hype. "I don't think it will be, because it's not a radio-friendly record. If it was to become popular, it would break things open more so than Nevermind did, because it tests the people at radio stations. Are they willing to play something this unproduced on the radio? Are the mall kids about to buy something about as close to punk rock as they've ever seen?
"I think people expected us to make another Nevermind kind of record," he continues. "I think it's cool there's something kind of threatening about the band. People always ask us about the pressure. But we don't really feel any pressure from our audience. I think the pressure is really on our label, because they have this product and they have to sell it."
Nirvana holds up their end, making a video for the first single, "Heart-Shaped Box," and embarking on a North American tour with a second guitarist in tow. Pat Smear played in the Germs (Slash just released their complete anthology), and made an off the-wall solo album in 1988. "He's really great," Grohl says enthusiastically. "He's got this great sense of humor, and he's a good player. I can't wait 'till we start writing stuff with him, that could be pretty cool. It's unsaid within the band as to whether he is a member or just coming on to play guitar."
"It gives me a lot of room," Cobain explains. "If I screw up it won't matter. I might actually be able to have a little eye contact with the audience. I'm tired of having to concentrate on so many things at once ... like remembering the lyrics, playing the notes perfectly."
At a "surprise" show in New York last July, during the New Music Seminar, Cobain did have his hair-draped face close to the mic most of the time, as the Roseland Theatre audience swayed and shoved and dove. But it looked as though Grohl was having the most fun. "I had just done a tour with a band I was in before Nirvana, called Scream, from Washington D.C., "he explains." There was a CD coming out of our unreleased stuff we'd recorded before we broke up. So we got in a van, played CBGBs, went back to the clubs. And it was so much fun. It really restored this weird rock faith. After a while it gets to the point where you play huge places, and you forget what it's all about."
As far as his extra-curricular activities go, Novoselic's hands were full earlier this year with his efforts to shed some light on Croatia, where his parents are from. "I helped start this organization called the Balkan Women's Aid Fund," he says. "We did this benefit for rape survivors in the former Yugoslavia."
"We're always doing benefits," he continues. "We just played one for Mia Zappata [the Gits' singer, whose murder earlier this year has yet to be solved]. None of us knew her, but we thought, this is where we live, and this is a terrible thing that happened. And it's the least we can do, to play for an hour, give something back to the community."
Cobain settled in Seattle about a year ago with his family, after a year or so in L.A., which he says he hated. Fatherhood, as he explains, is not something that will take a backseat when Nirvana hits the road next month. "I'll be taking the baby with me for some part of the tour," he says. "We were hoping Courtney would be ready with her album, so they could go on tour about a week ahead or behind us, so we could bounce the baby between tour buses. But they're running a bit later than we thought."
"She likes to sing," the father continues on the subject of Frances Bean. "She's practicing her vocals. And she seems to be fascinated with the acoustic guitar, which kind of disturbs me. One of my favorite things to say to her is, 'Leave that stupid rock'n roll music alone; you're going to be a classical musician, rock'n roll is dead.' I'm sure I'll let her do whatever she wants. But Courtney and I both hope she isn't too interested in rock music. I just couldn't imagine what rock music will be like for a kid 20 years from now."
Out on a balcony of the hotel, Cobain throws scraps to the birds in Puget Sound ... no mudsharks in sight. The seagulls squawk hungrily, fighting over lettuce and cooked shrimp. Cobain can't imagine rock music 20 years from now, but you have to wonder if the hotel's famous former tenants could have imagined anything like Nirvana.