At bloody last! After months of speculation, controversy, title-changes, track-swapping, and the Steve Albini-inspired melodramatics over whether Geffen would even put it out, NIRVANA are finally set to release ëIn Uteroí, the follow-up to ëNevermindí. So whatís it like? Is it just a tame re-run of its 10 million-selling predecessor? Or is it a provocative noise fest, a sonic punk blast designed to piss off everyone except their hardcore fans? The Stud Brothers tracked down a tired and emotional Kurt Cobain in New York for the answers to these questions and more in the first part of an exclusive in-depth interview.
“My A&R man called me up one night and said ëI donít like the record, it sounds like crap, thereís way too much effect on the drums, you canít hear the vocals.í He didnít think the songwriting was up to par. And having your A&R man say that is kind of like having your father or stepfather telling you to take out the trash.
“I was kind of hurt by it on a personal level, because I wanted him to like it, and it was surprising to hear so many negative things about it. And he wasnít alone in his opinion. A few other people – our management, our lawyers – didnít like the record either.”
He sounds distant, ghostly, and he looks unsettlingly strange. Sitting at the head of a large conference table in New Yorkís Omni Berkshire hotel, the top of Kurt Cobainís dangerously thin frame is wrapped in a rib-huggingly tight pink nylon shirt. His pale blue eyes, pinprink pupils dancing paranoiacally from left to right, are heavily, sluttishly made up. His mouth, bearing the remnants of scarlet lipstick, seems both vulgar and sensual. The beard doesnít help much. Kurtís fingernails, painted crimson, are chewed down to neurotic cuticles.
Heís also tired, immensely tired.
When he settles a little, his eyelids close to reptilian half-moons. Kurt has spent three days doing The British Press. Or, rather, three afternoons, since he rarely surfaces before two pm, and three nights.
Heís also spent about the same length of time dodging the press, largely, we think, on the advice of his wife, Courtney Love, whoís made a mental blacklist of hacks deemed unsound and told Kurt to avoid them.
Kurt delays them, fights with Courtney, then meets them and apologizes profusely for having kept them waiting for the last 48 hours.
Weíre talking to him about “In Utero”, Nirvanaís third album.
“In Utero”, originally titled “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”, generated controversy almost before it was even written. Many in the music industry had convinced themselves that the pressure on the singer to follow up the 10-million-selling “Nevermind”, coupled with Cobainís alleged drug problems and the (supposedly) even more pernicious influence of his wife, had left him creatively void.
Given this, pop pundits speculated that “In Utero” would be a petulant punk cop-out, an album designed to excuse its lack of sales, an album that would lose them their fan-base as quickly as “Nevermind” had gained it. It would be The Beastie Boys all over again.
This idea was lent some credence when, earlier this year, the albumís producer, Steve Albini, gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune wherein he claimed that Nirvanaís label, Geffen, had put pressure on the band to “clean up” tracks recorded by him. A month later, he repeated these allegations in the international publication, Newsweek. Kurt Cobain responded by telling Newsweek, Melody Maker and anyone else who cared to listení (which was everyone) that, though the band did indeed intend to remix some tracks from the album, it had nothing to do with pressure from the record company.
In May, Albini, in an interview with Melody Maker, adopted a more conciliatory tone. “Right now,” he explained. “we have national and international publications writing news stories about rumours of peopleís opinions. All of that, to me, marks irresponsible journalism. From now on, people should just speak to the band.”
Which is what weíre doing now. And, from what Cobainís saying – A&R men, lawyers and management saying the album was crap – Albini sounds like he had a point.
“No, no,” says Cobain, wearily. “The whole thing was Steveís fault. He initiated the whole problem by convincing himself that people were out to get him, to discredit him. Heís a paranoid person in general. Heís told me a lot of terrible stories about how heís been fucked around by major labels, how theyíve insisted on remixing the stuff heís done, so itís understandable. But he really had no reason whatsoever to be as paranoid as he was.
“Basically, he heard from me – about a week after we got back from recording – that my A&R man had said he didnít like the record. But the thing to understand is that it never went beyond that, just these people expressing their opinion. There was no hint or threat, no suggestion came from any of these people that we should re-record.
“Obviously, though they never said it, they wanted us to re-record, or at least re-mix, but at that time I couldnít really say much to anyone because I wasnít sure myself what I wanted to change on the album.
“The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. I wasnít interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesnít happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb.
“So for three weeks Chris and Dave and I listened to the record every night, trying to figure out what was wrong with it, and we talked about it and decided the vocals werenít loud enough, the bass was inaudible and you couldnít hear the lyrics. That was about it.
“We knew we couldnít possibly re-record because we knew weíd achieved the sound we wanted – the basic sound was typical Steve Albini, which was the sound we wanted really bad. So we decided to remix two of our favourite tracks, just as a litmus test, and we left it at that because to remix any more wouldíve destroyed the ambience of the whole thing.”
“We decided to take a chance on mastering, which we really didnít understand. We thought it was the last stage in the process where you just take the tapes in and run them through a machine that allows you to cut it onto a record, or whatever. So we went to the mastering plant and learned that you can actually take the vocals right out if you want to. Itís amazing, itís practically like remixing.”
“So thatís what we did ,we just gave the bass more high-end so you could hear the notes, turned the vocals up, maybe compressed it a little, and that did it, cured everything. As soon as weíd done it, we knew weíd made the right decision, it was over. And now I wouldnít change anything on it, Iím 100 per cent satisfied.”
The two tracks remixed (by Scott Litt, who produced the last four R.E.M. albums) were “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” … both potentially enormous singles. The remastering of the album was carried out by the band themselves. As Cobain admits, remastering is “practically like remixing”. Canít he understand why Albini is angry?
“I donít think heís angry any more. I just think he was trying to protect himself before he had any evidence that he was being fucked with. Like I say, itís understandable because heís told me some really nasty stories about whatís been done to him. But, still, I canít help but resent him for jumping the gun.”
This is all somewhat surprising given that Cobain was fully aware of Albiniís “difficult” reputation. Cobain actually said of him: “Heís made a career out of being anti-Rock Establishment.” Blast First supremo, Paul Smith, one of Albiniís closest friends, remembers walking down a street with him once in Chicago – “Within two blocks, three people had yelled, ëFuck you, Albini!”í Reasonable pragmatists do not front bands called Rapeman.
If the biggest band in the world invites a man like Albini to produce their album, they surely donít have to be mystics to realise that at some point, in some way, heís gonna fuck with them.
“Well, I donít really think that necessarily follows,” says Cobain. “Iíve always respected him as a producer, mainly, probably solely, because of the Pixies record and the Breeders record. I found him to be surprisingly pleasant when we showed up in Minneapolis, didnít find anything wrong with his personality. I just think he worked too fast for our tastes, especially when mixing. He wanted to mix a song in an hour. He has this theory that if something you transfer onto tape isnít immediately satisfying to you thereís no point remixing, you might as well throw it away and start again. I donít know why heís so against mixing but he is, and weíre not used to working like that anymore.
“With our first record, we had to work that fast and we were lucky to achieve that sound, which turned out to be unique.”
Have you spoken to Albini since?
“No,” he says, firmly. “I donít have any desire to talk to him again.”
“In Utero” is not a difficult album.
In fact, even the recent Melody Maker preview of it exaggerated its peculiarities, If anything, Cobainís songwriting is moving towards the more considered and melodic. Some songs ó notably “Rape Me”, “Serve The Servants” and “Dumb”, each of them simple, compelling and extraordinarily mellifluous ó would sound as effective framed by the delicate timbre of an acoustic guitar as they arc electrified. On the albumís final track, “All Apologies”, the warm tones of a cello are even audible.
Of course, as with “Nevermind”, there are out-and-out punk tracks. Some are very effective, like the primal “Scentless Apprentice”, others are not much more than a (rather dull) blast of bile, like “Very Ape” and “Tourrets”.
Overall, itís a more refined album than “Nevermind” in that the songwritingís more sophisticated, though it lacks the crystalline clarity producer that Butch Vig afforded its predecessor. Like “Nevermind”, “In Utero” is not a particularly radical album. Its subversive qualities will be largely dictated by the number of people who buy it.
So was there ever a temptation, as was rumoured, to record something more contentious?
“Not so much,” says Cobain. “Obviously there was a lot of pressure on us to come up with ëNevermind IIí. But I canít consider that to be pressure, it was just what a lot of people expected. The only reason I wouldíve put out a really aggressive, raw album would have been to piss people off, to get rid of half of our audience and more”
ëAfter all the shit Iíve had to read about me, and especially my wife, in the last year and a half, I shouldíve put out a really hateful record. I shouldíve sued every chance I had to attack people. I wanted to, but thereís no point. Iím already known as a cry-baby whinerí ñ Kurt Cobain
Why would you want to do that?
“Because at the time we werenít comfortable with our audience.”
Are you more comfortable now?
“Yeah. But it took me two years to recuperate from that.”
Following the success of “Nevermind”, Cobain, bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dove Grohl spent unhealthy amounts of time deriding their new audience, dismissing them as jock meat-heads. At the time, it struck many as ungrateful and, more to the point, actually seemed to miss the point.
Surely one of the great things about Nirvana was that they recorded an indie album that went mainstream and, in doing so, proved that the great record-buying public, far from being congenitally conservative, were in fact open to new ideas. Nirvana proved that things didnít have to stay the same, musically at any rate.
Do you regret saying any of those things now?
“Yeah, I do. I do, but the point we were trying to get across was never stated in the right way. I was upset about finding myself having to play in front of really rude, sexist jerks. Iíd never had any desire to play to people like that and I never expected to have to.
“Itís all very well saying, ëWell, you signed to a major, so you should expect thatí But weíd seen Sonic Youth put out an album on the some label and theyíd barely got a larger audience, they were playing the same smaller venues, and we thought itíd be the same for us. I think it was a matter of us not realising how commercial we really were.
“You know, a person can say a lot of stupid things when theyíre going through stressful times in their life. I donít regret the majority of things I was trying to convey, but they didnít really translate right. And there were a handful of things I can remember that I really do regret us saying.
“Like when Chris said, ëFor the most part, heavy metal kids are just stupid.í I couldnít say that. I was a heavy metal kid at one time. Thatís just way too insulting, itís too extreme a thing to say. You have to elaborate on things like that, or not say them at all.”
Attendant to Nirvanaís derisory remarks about their new fans was Cobainís apparent guilt about his new-found success. In the interviews he gave after “Nevermind” took off, he filled unseemly column inches whinging about the indignity of being recognised in the street and the appalling amounts of money thatíd been foisted upon him.
To those whoíve never stood onstage, with 50,000 people hanging on their every word, or received million dollar royalty cheques, this sound a little odd, not to say offensive.
Is there nothing you enjoy about it at all?
“I enjoy the opportunity to try to affect the jock-type people, but that was an opportunity that came-to us after the fact, without us even really wanting it. But I do enjoy it now.”
But you donít exactly seem to enjoy the wealth.
“I enjoy the wealth because it means we can afford a nanny, which is extremely helpful. Especially the nanny weíve found, this 21 -year-old guy from California who was a friend of Courtneyís and has become one of my best friends. He takes great care of our baby, which is great to know. And itís great to know that if my car breaks down I can take it into the shop and not have to scrape around for money to get it fixed.
“But Iím not nearly as wealthy as people think. I know itís to be expected that people think I am wealthy, theyíll think, ëYou sold 10 million albums, so thatís 10 million dollars.í But itís not. I made a million dollars off that record. Over 300,000 dollars went on taxes, there were legal problems and medical bills because we didnít get insurance in time. I found myself spending all that money, all at once, all in that one year. I also bought a house, too.”
Are you honestly saying youíve got nothing left?
“I do now because a little bit more royalties have come through and we got the advance for this new record. And also in the last year Iíve gotten a bit more of a percentage on the songwriting royalties. I get a fair bit more than Chris and Dave do because I write 99 per cent of the songs. I just felt entitled to it, you know?
“At the time, when we were signing contracts and stuff like that, it was always divided equally and that was fine. But I never realised I would became a millionaire and then, all of a sudden, need money. Itís a ridiculous situation really.”
Until recently, all band profits were split evenly between the three members. Did Chris and Dave mind this new arrangement?
“Well, we didnít agree on it right away. It took a bit of convincing on my part. I still believe in all-for-one, one-for-all, you know. Weíre a group, weíre a three-piece. Chris and Dave are equally as important as I am as far as the persona of the band goes, in the way weíre perceived. Weíre perceived as a band. But I had written 99 per cent of the songs and many were the times Iíve Chrisí bass away from him and shown him what to play, and sat behind Daveís drumkit and shown him what to play, stuff like that. I donít enjoy being in that sort of dictatorship position, but I came up with the songs at home and introduced the songs to the band and I could be asking for a lot more.
“Iíve been blown away by stories of how other bands split their percentages. Like, Perry Farrell in Janeís Addiction got 90 per cent of everything, just cos heís the lead singer. But he didnít write all the songs. I know the bass player and guitar player wrote a lot of the music, 50 per cent or more.
“In The Pixies, Frank Block had those people on commission, you know. So when I found out about things like that and I found myself needing money, I didnít feel guilty about asking for a higher percentage. And, anyway, itís only in one area of payment, just the songwriting credits. We still split the touring money, and royalties off the record, and stuff like that. Itís only an extra few thousand dollars a year or something. But it was a touchy subject at the time. I felt really guilt about it. I just feel Iím entitled to it.”
Cobain’s capacity for guilt rates as positively Catholic. “In Utero” appears to be riddled with it.
“Penny Royal Tea” reads like a bitter rejection of money. “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”, which may not appear on the finished album, kind of speaks for itself. As does “Rape Me”. Real sackcloth and ashes stuff.
Like we say, “In Utero” is riddled with guilt.
Well “All Apologies” for one. Unless youíre being heavily ironic.
“Thatís a very, very sarcastic song.”
What about the line, “I do not want what I have got”, from “Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter”?
“I just thought that had a nice ring to it. Also, itís kind of a pisstake on Sinead OíConnor. I dunno, I just wish things werenít token so literally. Really, after all the shit Iíve had to read about me ñ and especially my wife ñ in the last year and a haIf, I shouldíve put out a really hateful record. I shouldíve used every chance I had to attack people. I wanted to, I feel that strongly about it, but thereís just no point. Iím already known as a cry-baby whiner.”
Itís true that “In Utero” isnít as lyrically direct or brutal as Cobain threatened it would be. Was that deliberate?
“Yeah. I did take a few shots at the media and some of the other things thatíve happened to us. But, for the most part, I made sure not to complain. I really tried not to.”
But on “Heart-Shaped Box” the chorus goes “Hey/Wait/Iíve got a new complaint”.
“Thatís just me giving an example of how Iím perceived. People donít realise that Iíll say something and itíll be quoted in an article, then itíll be taken out and used in another article in a different place, and then again, and then again. Iíll only have said it once but it looks like Iím complaining all the time. People also donít realise that in all the interviews before ëNevermindí come out, and in the first few months afterwards, we had different perspectives on what our band was. We just went into it very blindly. We didnít realise how many interviews we were doing, just knew that we were exhausted every night after talking for hours on end.
“So suddenly, thereís a stack of magazines, all with us on the cover, all with incredibly similar articles, the same fucking story over and over, because we were always asked the some questions, over and over for four months. So I guess itís understandable that people thought we were totally pissed off about our audience, that we hated everything, corporations, everything.”
So, Cobain the whining anarchist millionaire was a media fabrication.
Do you still whinge about stuff?
“Only when Iím asked about it, usually.”
So youíre a natural whiner?
“No, not at all,” he smiles. “Courtney and I just talk to each other about it. She has a pretty good idea how the media works and stuff. Iíve never really paid attention to it. No, Iíd never think of boring my friends complaining about shit like that. I donít complain about anything as much as I used to. In the last year or so, Iíve become a lot more optimistic about everything.
“Having a wife and child can obviously change your perspective on things. Like, two years ago I never thought about the future, not at all. But now I have this huge responsibility to my family and itís probably more pressure than Iíve ever had dealing with this band. Now Iím thinking about not leaving the child in the car, not even for a second, in case someone snatches her, all kinds of things like that.
“In the last year and a half, even before we found out Courtney was pregnant, Iíve started to evolve a little bit from being a completely negative bastard, pretending to be punk rock and hating the world, and saying clichÈd things like, ëAnyone who brings a child into the world at this point is completely selfish.í”
Did you plan to have the child?
“We wanted to have a baby. We definitely wanted to have a baby.”
So it was a conscious choice.
“Yeah. Definitely.” He pauses. “But not at that time. It happened too soon. I really wish it could have waited. But, then again, I donít know if weíd have had Frances. Every sperm is different, and Iím really glad we had Frances. Iím totally happy about my family situation.”
Are you a doting father?
“Oh yeah, embarrassingly so. Iím always making noises and acting the fool. Itís really fun though, it gives me an excuse to do that again. And itís great to have Frances around. We took her to the photo shoot today and it took my mind off the monotony of having to stand in front of the camera. Every few seconds, I would look over to Frances and make fart noises to make her smile.”
There are references to childbirth and children on “In Utero”.
He looks genuinely puzzled.
Well, thereís the title to begin with, and the smell of babies stuff in “Scentless Apprentice”, and you mention the umbilical cord in “Heart-Shaped Box”. Were you thinking about Frances when you wrote those songs?
“Probably. Actually, “Heart-Shaped Boxí mightíve been one of my pieces of poems. I know a lot of the words to that song are from poems. Itís just another of those songs that are pretty much wordplay. I didnít have any specific idea.”
Ignoring the lines that appear to have an explicit meaning ó about guilt, childbirth, the media, etc ó or rather, reading them as a stream of consciousness, “In Utero” appears extremely abstract, almost as if the lyrics were a series of cut-ups.
“Yeah, absolutely. Almost all my lyrics have been cut-ups, pieces of poetry and stuff.”
So theyíre not intended to mean anything.
“No. And the pieces of poetry are token from poems that donít usually have meaning in the first place. They were cut-ups themselves. And often Iíll have to obscure the pieces I take to make them fit in the song, so theyíre not even true pieces of poem. But this is the first record where Iíve written at least a couple of songs thematically.
“ëScentless Apprenticeí is one. And ëFrances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattleí is about her, about the way she was exploited in her life.”
The lyric for “Dumb” seems peculiarly direct, a song about lifeís simple, silly little pleasures. Like “I think Iím dumb/Or maybe just happy.” Is it intended to reflect that new-found optimism youíve mentioned, or should we be reading it ironically?
“Thatís just about people whoíre easily amused, people who not only arenít capable of progressing their intelligence but are totally happy watching 10 hours of television and really enjoy it. Iíve met a lot of dumb people. They have a shitty job, they may be totally lonely, they donít have a girlfriend, they donít have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, theyíre happy.”
Are you ever envious of them?
“At times. I wish I could take a pill that would allow me to be amused by television and just enjoy the simple things instead of being so judgmental and expecting real good quality instead of shit. And just using the word ëHappyí I thought was a nice twist on the negative stuff weíve done before.”
So this has a negative tone, too ñyouíve just hidden it?
“Yeah,” he laughs.
He leans back in his chair. Sitting at the top of the conference table, a table thatís played host to Donald Trump and Mario Cuomo, and whose vast expanse is littered with bottles of Perrier and frosted jugs of fruit juice, dressed like heís dressed (a smeared She-Male), he makes it look like the revolution really has happened. A revolution of some sort anyway.
Source: Melody Maker – August 21th, 1993