Nirvana's In Utero At 20: Pat Smear Interview

Clash speaks to the band’s guitarist…

Some things are, clearly, just meant to be. Pat Smear was a comparative unknown in the early ‘90s, at least to grunge-loving teens tuned into the sounds emitting from the Pacific Northwest. But a phone call changed everything for the Los Angeles punk, largely off-radar since the dissolution of his first band, the Germs, in 1980.

“I won’t forget that phone call, ever,” says Smear, when Clash catches up with him over a transatlantic telephone line. “I remember it very well. It totally set my life on a different course.”

Smear wasn’t exactly inactive in the ‘90s: his second solo LP, ‘So You Fell In Love With A Musician…’, had emerged in 1992 via SST Records, the label founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn which served as a home for releases from Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and Soundgarden. But his profile was about to skyrocket. On the other end of the 1993 call: a certain Kurt Cobain of the platinum-selling, globally successful grunge act Nirvana

Cobain was after a fourth band member, a second guitarist, for his band’s upcoming tour in support of their at-the-time-unreleased third studio set, ‘In Utero’ – an album which celebrates its 20th anniversary in September 2013. Smear was about to go from the shadows to the spotlight, joining bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl as a core constituent in one of the biggest bands of the time – one of the biggest bands of all time.

Nirvana was, briefly, a four-piece in the early days – when supporting their debut album, 1989’s ‘Bleach’, one Jason Everman served as second guitarist, even though he’d not performed a note on the LP in question. He had paid the $606.17 to record the album, though, which may have smoothed his passage into the band’s ranks. But it wasn’t to last: Everman left Nirvana after just a short spell, joining fellow Seattle outfit Soundgarden in 1990.

“I’d read an interview with Kurt, where he said that Nirvana was meant to be a four-piece,” says Smear. “And I thought that I could be that fourth member. I was looking to join Nirvana, it was as simple as that! I was looking to search them out, to ask them about joining. And then I got the call – it was a big, crazy coincidence.”

“I was calling friends, asking for Courtney [Love]’s number,” he continues. “I’d not had her number for a while, as she was always changing it. But the story I heard about the call, from the Cobains’ nanny Cali, was that Kurt and Courtney were just sitting around, talking about potential second guitarists to bring into the band, and the Germs were playing in the background. And then Courtney says, ‘Hey, I know this guy…” And it was that simple, as far as I know.”

- - -

There is nothing at all disturbing about this… nothing at all…

- - -

Naturally, Smear was sceptical – initially, he took the call for a crank one, a trick played on him by a friend. But, once its legitimacy was confirmed, he jumped at the opportunity to become the fourth member of Nirvana, and set about learning his parts for the upcoming tour for ‘In Utero’.

Nirvana’s 1993 album wasn’t expected to be a runaway success – after the storming performance of 1991’s ‘Nevermind’ – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and all that – the band’s label, DGC, was playing things cautiously. Better to burn out than fade away? Not from their perspective: this was going to be a carefully managed campaign, taking each step slowly to achieve the maximum results.

So, ‘In Utero’ was issued, initially, on just vinyl and cassette in the US, and without any commercially available singles (in the UK, the campaign was managed a little differently, but was still a lot quieter than might have been anticipated.) Perhaps this caution was a result of the record’s more visceral, punk-like sound. Recorded with Steve Albini, early reports were that it represented a raw sound when contrasted with the MTV-appealing gloss of ‘Nevermind’. But Smear didn’t really hear it that way.

“I’d not heard ‘In Utero’ when Kurt called – it wasn’t out then, and I was just looking forward to it as a fan. But when I did hear it, I didn’t think it was a radical departure. I thought that it was another great record, by a great band, full of great songs. I thought it was a bit noisier, but no complaints there!”

“I definitely thought, though, that it was a record that would be there for discovery for future generations. I couldn’t hear anything in it to make me think otherwise.”

And so it’s proved: as the years have passed, the reputation of ‘In Utero’ has perhaps surpassed that of its studio predecessor. In 2003, Cobain’s biographer Charles R Cross has commented that it was the superior of the two LPs, and a set that was spreading its influence a full 10 years later. In the same year, it ranked 13 on Pitchfork’s top 100 albums of the 1990s, just a handful of places behind the juggernaut of ‘Nevermind’, which came in at six.

For its 20th anniversary reissue, ‘In Utero’ features a recording of its makers’ live set at Seattle’s Pier 48 from December 1993. (This ‘Live And Loud’ performance is also available as a separate DVD.) It’s here that Smear is in his element, firmly locked in as part of the now-foursome. And he wasn’t a proverbial spare wheel by any stretch – on joining Nirvana, Smear began to impress his own tastes on the band’s live setlists.

- - -

Nirvana, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, from MTV Unplugged In New York’

- - -

“I was excited to play all of the songs, but especially the more punk-rock tracks,” he says of getting to grips with the Nirvana catalogue. “But I did get to pick a song for inclusion, David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Kurt knew I was a big Bowie fan, so he said to me, ‘Let’s play a Bowie song.’ I knew that it had to be a track from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, the album, but I don’t think the title-track was my first choice. It was the one we settled on, though.”

For most Nirvana fans, it’s their performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ from the ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ set that’s stuck in the memory, one of a clutch of covers performed for the music television network’s stripped-back sessions series. Recorded in November 1993 and released a year later, after Cobain’s death in April ’94, the album of the MTV set went to number one in the UK and US, replicating the success of ‘In Utero’. But ‘Unplugged’ wasn’t an entirely smooth-sailing affair.

“We were nervous about doing it,” Smear admits. “We knew we couldn’t just show up and play the same songs, the same way, just with acoustic guitars. It wouldn’t have worked. We wanted to do something more special than that, and that pressure definitely made us feel nervous.

“On the day, there was a lot of luck involved – as in, we just happened to play really well, at the right time. The setlist wasn’t hard to put together, as a few of those songs we’d been playing while on tour, in an acoustic section of the main set. So we’d been working on them.”

Nirvana’s luck wouldn’t last, of course, and in April 1994 the band was no more. But if Kurt hadn’t committed suicide, what might have been? “I don’t see why Nirvana would not have kept going,” says Smear. “Even if the band had broken up for a while, so many bands these days seem to get back together. It’s like no band has really broken up. So I think Nirvana would still be a going concern.”

Smear has reason enough to think positively about Nirvana’s chances of remaining a functioning unit, as he was involved in a comeback himself when the Germs got back together in 2005. They’re still together today – but Smear’s currently working on material for another band, namely the Dave Grohl-fronted Foo Fighters

“We’re already working on our next album,” he says, when asked what the Foos are up to, what with their previous album, ‘Wasting Light’ (Clash review), having come out in 2011. “It’s too early to say anything more than that, but we’re working on it.”

Smear was a founding member of Foo Fighters, contributing a great deal to the band’s 1997 second LP, ‘The Colour And The Shape’. He left the same year, but reunited in the studio with Grohl and company for ‘Wasting Light’. In the time between leaving the Foos and re-joining them, the band has grown into a stadium-filling act – meaning that Smear’s now become a member of two certifiably massive outfits.

“Wow, yeah,” he laughs. “I’d not even thought about it like that. That’s funny. I guess I get lucky like that, don’t I? ‘Hey, you guys… go away and get massive, and then I’ll come back…’ But, with the Foo Fighters, I’ve been watching them the whole time. I’ve seen them grow, and Dave has blown me away with how much better he’s become as a songwriter. He works all the time – he’s always working on improving himself – so it’s no accident that they’ve become as big as they have.”

- - -

Nirvana - 'Heart-Shaped Box' (director's cut)

- - -

And what about Grohl’s first forays into solo songwriting? It’s well known that Nirvana’s drummer was beginning to express his abilities around the time of ‘In Utero’ – he co-wrote the album’s ‘Scentless Apprentice’, having already earned a credit on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and his own composition ‘Marigold’ was a B-side to the (lead) single ‘Heart-Shaped Box’.

“There was one day, after Nirvana practice, before we’d begun the ‘In Utero’ tour,” Smear remembers, “where we were sat in Dave’s car, and he played me some of his solo stuff. I guess they were early demos for what would be that first Foo Fighters album, but I can’t be sure. But they blew me away. These were amazing songs, and I remember saying to him, ‘Man, you should be doing these properly.’”

The rest, as they say, is history. Foo Fighters became one of the biggest bands on the planet – ‘Wasting Light’ was a number one hit in the UK, the US, Australia and Germany, to name but a few important markets. Smear is very much a Foo Fighter today, but his post-Germs journey to becoming an essential player in a monolithic musical presence can be traced back to that call, to that “big, crazy coincidence”.

Some things are, clearly, just meant to be.

- - -

Nirvana – ‘In Utero’, 20th anniversary deluxe reissue

- - -

‘In Utero’ is reissued in a variety of packages, ranging from three CDs and a DVD to a single CD, on September 23rd. Click to the official Nirvana website for further details. 

Find Foo Fighters online here

Get the best of Clash on your iPhone - download the app here

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-