Classic Interview: Nirvana, 1989

As part of Clash Magazine's celebration of the band

It’s been twenty years since ‘Bleach’, the debut album from Nirvana was released, setting the band on a path that would stretch from local clubs to the world’s stages, from obscurity to stardom, and culminating in tragedy.

In 1989, Nirvana were a fervent trio driven by punk and metal, eager to break out of their home town. ‘Bleach’ was their first step in defining their place in history.

To mark the Special Edition release of their debut, Clash celebrates the beginnings of this life-changing band with a special collection of memories from those that experienced first hand their fledgling talents.

Here John Robb revisits his 1989 NYC interview with the band. In the new issue of Clash Magazine you can read our full celebration as original drummer Chad Channing remembers his time served in the making of ‘Bleach’, we speak to the album’s producer and the head of their label, Sub Pop. Then, we move on to 1992, and Nirvana’s legendary appearance at the Reading Festival, where Everett True recalls wheeling Kurt Cobain on stage.

Join us as we delve inside the life and times of an incredible band.

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This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the December issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores now or subscribe HERE.

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Twenty years ago, a month after the release of their debut album, ‘Bleach’, music journalist John Robb flew over to New York to meet the fledgling Nirvana. Here, exclusively to Clash, he remembers the trip, in which his photographer was lucky to return alive!

New York City, summer 1989. A young band has just played one of the most intense rock gigs I’ve ever seen.

The vocalist’s slight frame and lank hair belies a stunning power as he shreds his throat singing these amazing melodic anthems that are all at once euphoric and melancholic over the dense, dark riffing.

The band is Nirvana and they are playing at Maxwell’s in Hobokon, just over the river from Manhattan. There is a handful of people watching this most incredible band – a typical night on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit where genius doesn’t always mean popularity. They may gatecrash the mainstream a couple of years later, but at this point in time Nirvana are just another bunch of mad-eyed hopefuls crammed into the back of a van looking for escape from their dull lives.

You can feel the frustration leaking from their pores when suddenly the set ends and the band start to push the ante up a few notches past where any other band dares to tread.

The bass player shoves his guitar through the venue’s roof, the vocalist dives backwards through the drums, the kit collapses and the drummer looks nervous. The amps get pushed over and the guitars are mashed into the floor. It’s either a thrilling moment of pop art auto destruction or the instinctive act of a band that is genuinely walking along the edge.

Nirvana had just released their debut album, ‘Bleach’, that June and were touring it. The Maxwell’s show was on July 13th and had seen the album garnering some press attention and a few people in the know were starting to get very excited by the group. They were in that curious place where they were press hip but the people haven’t come yet.

Meanwhile the gig’s cataclysmic ending would captivate even the most hard-hearted cynic, because this was no big band pretending to trash its gear but a small town group with no money crackling full of frustration and instinctive raw power brimming close to a self-destructive orgy of musical violence that finally exploded.

This was one of the things that made Nirvana so damn attractive and it’s one of the reasons that I was there in New York City all those years ago.

Now read John Robb’s original interview with the band from 1989…

Nirvana are the natural descendants of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr.

Their debut album, ‘Bleach’, which scorched the tail end of the summer, has collected some salivating press commentary. And now they’re on tour with a helluva chance of making up some spectacular ground. The band have the teen beat at their feet, their overt pop ethic is married to mad dog guitar antics; a rowdy burn-out that’s featured on the band’s new four-track twelve-inch, ‘Blew’, released in the UK on the Tupelo label.

The three, formerly four-piece, literally explode onstage, their enthusiastic energy burns – resulting in a trail of smashed gear and highly charged beat anthems. Offstage, the small town band are quiet and affable, with only seven-foot bass pulper, Chris Novoselic, and former guitar vandal Jason Everman chewing the social cud with any vengeance, whilst the other two members opt for the Lennon/Ono approved, ‘bed in’ method. Nirvana did their teenage thing in the wilds of small town USA in the Washington state backwater town of Aberdeen. Kurdt Kobain, the band’s songwriter, vocalist and guitar player, scratches the mouldy bumfluff on his pixie skull and picks up the tale.

“Chris and me are from Aberdeen, which is a really dead logging town on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest town was Olympia, about fifty miles away, which is where we’ve moved to.”

Chris, the bass beanpole, cuts in. “It’s a logging town – they want to cut all the trees down that are left in the state, you know. You could say that they are at loggerheads with the environmentalists…”

Touring has provided Nirvana with a welcome escape from the small town hell. Kurdt is animated with road fever.

“I’m seeing America for, like, free and only having to work for two hours a day. It’s weird though, I’m not homesick yet. If we hadn’t done this band thing, we would have been doing what everyone else does back home, which is chopping down trees, drinking, having sex and drinking, talking about sex and drinking some more…”

Which is a lifestyle not totally at odds with the band’s slogan, “Fudge packing, crack smoking, satan worshipping, motherfuckers”, which is sprawled rather rudely across their T-shirts. This small town suffocation inspired the first bunch of songs Kobain ever came up with and still fires the mood.

“The early songs were really angry,” explains Kobain. “But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships, emotional things with other human beings. When I write a song the lyrics are the least important subject. I can go through two or three different subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all.”

Kurdt’s still not totally comfortable with his new upbeat mood though.

“Sometimes I try to make things harder for myself, just to try to make myself a bit more angry. I try out a few subconscious things I suppose, like conflicts with other people. But most of the lyrics on the ‘Bleach’ album are about life in Aberdeen.”

Kurdt had been writing songs in his bedroom for years until finally deciding to lay down some demos with the help of Novoselic, a first generation Yugoslav. The drummer on these sessions was Dale Crover, who’s also played for the only other band in town, The Melvins, a seminal outfit on the development of Nirvana. The demo was laid down in a studio belonging to Jack Endino, an old chum of the dudes at Sub Pop Records and a guitar player with the crucial Skinyard outfit. Endino tipped off Sub Pop about this amazing band he was working with and the connection was made.

One phone call later and Sub Pop were marvelling at what they call the “beautiful yet horrifying voice” of the kid that looked like a garage attendant: Kurdt Kobain.

The final connection with the rest of the world must have been a relief.

“We’d been revolving around in bands for years,” explains Kurdt. “I’d been writing songs since I was about thirteen. I’d never heard of Sub Pop before, although I suppose we didn’t exist in a total backwater; we had The Melvins in our town and we used to go and listen to them rehearse all the time.”

The resulting debut single was a classic seven-inch; the seesaw-riff, garage punk cover of the Screaming Blues’ late ’60s slice of psychodrama, ‘Love Buzz’. The future now looked promising and was fulfilled by the ‘Bleach’ album, a twelve-inch platter that saw Nirvana taking the opportunity to cover several bases at once.

From the lighter pop dynamics of ‘About A Girl’, an uptempo melodic rush – and an indication of the band’s future development – through to the heavier post-Killing Joke grind of the intense ‘Paper Guts’, the album thrives on gristly hooks onto which Kobain grapples his scarred, world weary howl, sounding like a thousand years of life trapped in his young larynx. The live destruct and the album’s full bodied sound was enhanced by the heroic, hair-throwing antics of the band’s fourth member, Jason Everman. Having seemingly been ditched by the remaining three, he’s now taken up the bass in the gloriously ascendant Seattle rockers, Soundgarden.

Even at the time of the interview, Jason seemed to be orbiting on the outside, a key yet somehow peripheral component. It would be interesting to see how they fare as a three-piece, although label boss Jonathan claims that the already gigged trio are rocking harder then ever and with Cobain’s voice and song writing skill they have a good chance.

Nirvana’s live action is a dangerous burn out. At one of the gigs in New York, Novoselic, in a rush of Balkan blood, threw himself into the ground, seconds later the whole band hit auto destruct and emulated The Who’s early ’60s guitar antics.

Bit of a Townshend vibe going on here, Chris? “Yeah, it’s a nice feeling, it’s something that needs to be done at least twice a week. It seems to becoming more common at our gigs. The more people screaming at you the more you are into smashing everything up. It’s definitely not a contrived thing . We don”t smash the gear up on purpose, we’re not trying to impress or anything.”

Scrawny bar-chord operatives, Nirvana are the small town kids let loose in the middle-aged music biz grind. Their onstage, guerrilla insurrections and scuzzed pop punk anthems are just about heroic enough to push through the Nirvana-as-Sub-Pop’s-trump-card prediction made by some old fool a couple months back.

Words by John Robb

Read more of Clash Magazine’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’.

Everett True dispels some myths around Nirvana’s final UK appearance at the Reading Festival in 1992.
‘Bleach’ producer Jack Endino remembers the recording of the album.

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