Nirvana celebrate 20 years of 'Nevermind': Read the extended roundtable interview and backstory -- booze! corn dogs! transvestite karaoke! -- here!

Nirvana-Grohl

Image Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP Images

In the early ’90s, Aqua Net-fueled hair metal and disposable pop songs gripped the marketplace. Then came three shaggy dudes whose blistering mix of radio-ready hits and caustic deep cuts blew the dawning decade wide open.

Now, with the arrival of a deluxe box set celebrating 20 years of Nevermind, the full story of Nirvana’s seminal album can finally be told: During a round­table with EW in Los Angeles, Dave Grohl, 42, Krist Novoselic, 46, and producer Butch Vig, 56, recall creating a soon-to-be classic with their late friend and collaborator Kurt Cobain—and all the booze, corn dogs, turtles, and transvestite karaoke singers that came along for the ride.

April 1990: Cobain, Novoselic, and then-drummer Chad Channing visit Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, to record with producer Butch Vig.

Krist Novoselic
We were going to tour with Tad, and we said, “Why don’t we go to Madison, Wisconsin,” because we were kicking around these songs. So we drove out there straight from Washington State to Wisconsin in two days.

Butch Vig
They were with Sub Pop then, and they came out ostensibly to do a new album for Sub Pop. We tracked maybe seven songs in five days.

Novoselic
We had heard of Butch. He was doing a lot of Touch & Go bands. And Tad recorded there too, so they sent us good references.

Vig
it was a little tough because Kurt kept blowing his voice out. And during the middle of the recording, they did a show at a local club in Madison and he blew his voice out even worse. I think the last two days he couldn’t sing at all. I expected they were going to come back. I didn’t hear anything, and all of a sudden I started getting these calls from people saying, “Hey man, I love these Nirvana tracks.” They had gone home and dubbed a cassette I gave them, and they made a hundred copies and gave them out to their friends. They bootlegged themselves, essentially.

Novoselic
That was how Geffen got a copy. I think [Sonic Youth members and Geffen signees] Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] had a copy, and they gave it to [Geffen A&R executive] Gary Gersh

September 1990: Cobain and Novoselic fire Channing and replace him with former Scream drummer Dave Grohl. While working out the growing batch of new songs, the band signs with Geffen Records.

Dave Grohl
I joined the band almost to the day of the release of the album a year later. I joined on September 22 of 1990, and it was almost exactly a year later the record came out.

Novoselic
There was an evolution when Dave joined that was a cosmic leap.

Vig
Kurt had left an answering machine message telling me, “We got the best drummer in the world, man. He’s Dave Grohl. He’s awesome!” And I thought, “Right, I’ve heard that one before.” But he was right.

Novoselic
So these songs were coming together, and Kurt was bringing in new ones, and all the while we were getting courted by major labels. Remember? We went to New York and Los Angeles, getting wined and dined. We’d go to fancy restaurants and rack up these huge bar tabs.

Vig
Benihana! That was their idea of a fancy restaurant.

Grohl
We used to take the A&R business cards to karaoke bars and hand them out. Do you remember that? Someone would go up and sing terribly, and we had so many of them, there were a lot of labels that were courting the band. We had so many A&R cards in our wallets that we’d go to a karaoke bar and someone would sing like “God Bless America,” and we’d walk up and hand them a card and say, “Yeah. Give me a call.” All those A&R guys were getting calls from f—ing terrible karaoke singers.

Novoselic
That was great. “Give me a call! I like your style!” Why did we even go to those karaoke bars?

Grohl
I don’t know. You almost got kicked out one time for singing “Those Were the Days.”  Remember? You started stripping?

Novoselic
Oh God!

Grohl
People got pissed because you weren’t taking it seriously! How dare anybody not take this seriously!

Novoselic
We went to transvestite karaoke once. Remember that one? Transvestites doing karaoke. Anyway. Transvestite karaoke. That was the template for Nirvana.

November 1990: Grohl moves in with Cobain in Olympia, Washington, and the band gets to work rehearsing for the recording of Nevermind.

Grohl
It was a long winter. Kurt and I lived in this s—hole apartment. There was a hole in the window, so it was f—ing freezing all the time.

Novoselic
It was disgusting. I used to come down and yell at you guys. Did Kurt still have the turtles then?

Grohl
Kurt had built this makeshift aquarium that was in the same room as the couch I slept on. In fact, it was bigger than the couch I slept on.

Novoselic
It was like a quarter of the apartment. It was f—ing huge!

Grohl
There was one turtle who hated the aquarium, and all he wanted to do was escape. So all night long I’d be on the couch listening to it band its little turtle head against the wall of the aquarium.

Novoselic
Those turtles were so sad.

Grohl
There was a gas station across the street that had three corn dogs for 99 cents. So that was my meal for the day. I’d get two for f—ing lunch and then eat one for dinner.

Novoselic
You guys survived on corn dogs and pop.

Grohl
We lived across the street from the state lottery building, which was weird.

Vig
And thinking, “If only we could win the lottery!”

Grohl
We used to shoot at that building with a BB gun.

Novoselic
I can’t believe you guys did that.

Grohl
So basically, the only thing to live for was the f—ing rehearsals. Kurt and I slept all day. In the wintertime in Washington State, the sun comes up, if there’s f—ing any at all, it’ll come up at nine and go down about three in the afternoon. Those winter months are wet and dark and cold. We would rehearse for four hours, five hours a day in this barn in Tacoma. Krist found it. I don’t even know how you found it.

Novoselic
It was in the newspaper: “For rent. Barn. Rehearsal space.” I went to go look at it, and it was this big room and it was warm inside and dry. It was awesome.

Vig
That’s why you wanted to rehearse! To stay warm!

Grohl
We were rehearsing and writing more songs. We recorded on this boombox, and that’s where you can hear us working out “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “On a Plain.” “Lounge Act” was done there. An early “Come As You Are.” That was our entire existence. We always knew that if we needed to, we could go play a show. When I joined the band, we set up a show on a whim. I had only been in the band two weeks, and we wanted a warm-up show before we went on that tour with L7.

Novoselic
Oh, the one at the North Shore?

Grohl
Yeah, North Shore Surf Club. We put up a flyer a couple days beforehand, set up the show really quick, and all of a sudden there were 500 kids at the show.

Novoselic
So we’d get, like, a thousand bucks.

Grohl
So you’d have enough to eat. You know what the real ace in the hole was? The “Love Buzz” singles. Kurt had a bunch of those original “Love Buzz” singles, and at that point they were collectible. So if we were starving, we could go down to that record store in Olympia, and we could sell that dude two of’em, and get enough money for TV dinners.

April 1990: The band travels to Los Angeles to record at Sound City Studios and hires Vig to handle the album’s production.

Grohl
I remember it was so funny that we’d get the call saying Butch was ready to start in March. Then they were like, Butch needs another three weeks. It’s getting pushed back. Then it got pushed back again. And we were like, “Who the f— is he recording?” And he said the Smashing Pumpkins. And none of us had heard of them yet, and we were like, “That’s the dumbest f—ing band name.”

Vig
I hadn’t heard from them at all after I recorded them in Madison, and then I got a call about six months later when they were setting up for Nevermind.

Grohl
I bet you they wanted us to come down to Los Angeles to keep an eye on us. But honestly, the whole time we were making the record, no A&R guy came by, no one from the record company came by. Not f—ing once. I remember calling our manager John Silva and being like, “Nobody has come down here yet. Should I be worried?” And he said, “Count your blessings, dude. Make your record. You don’t want them in there.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Vig
The only time Gersh came by was the last day of rehearsals. We were out in North Hollywood, and he said “I’ll be in at 3 or 3:30.” We went in at noon or 1. You guys ran through everything, and I didn’t want you to burn out because you were playing so good. So we were hanging around, and Krist and I went to the liquor store to get some Jack Daniels and a twelve pack.

Grohl
Circus Liquor, baby!

Novoselic
See, you’re bored, and you’re waiting, and all of a sudden, “Let’s go get some beer!”

Vig
We’re waiting and waiting. Three hours go by. Meanwhile, we were getting buzzed, and Krist had about half a bottle of Jack Daniels. Lenny Kravitz was recording down the hall, and Krist disappeared at one point, and all of a sudden we hear Krist on the PA. “Attention! Would Lenny Kravitz please come to the front desk! Lennyyyyyyyy! Please come to the front desk!” I panicked and tried to find him. Finally Gersh showed up, and at that point Krist was plowed, but they managed to get through four songs.

Grohl
I thought we were coming down to some fancy-ass Hollywood studio. But Sound City was not a fancy studio at all. It was just a f—ing incredible board with an incredible drum room. And some really classic albums were made there, too. Tom Petty did Damn the Torpedoes. Some stuff from [Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumors was done there. [Cheap Trick’s] Heaven Tonight. I actually just bought that board and brought it in to my own studio, because Sound City is closing.

May 1991: The Sound City sessions roll ahead steadily, with little outside interference and only minor hiccups when it came to recording vocals.

Grohl
We had practiced so much, that it was just a matter of hitting the record button. We were so tight.

Vig
When Sub Pop sent me Bleach before I did those first sessions, I was not that impressed. I thought the record was cool, it was vibe-y, but the only song to me that really stuck out was “About a Girl.” That had a very Lennon-McCartney melodic structure, the way the chords played around. That, I think, was an early template of where the band was starting to go, especially where Kurt was going melodically.

By the time I went out to L.A. to do Nevermind, I knew the songs we had done for the demo, and Kurt had sent me a boombox tape from the rehearsals in the barn. They sounded terrible because they were so distorted, but I could hear the songs in the background. I think the first thing the guys played me was “Teen Spirit,” and I was f—ing floored. It was so good. I just remember getting up and sweating and trying to act cool. They got done and I just said, “Hmmm, play it again,” but I was thinking, “Holy s— that was f—ing cool.”

Grohl
Getting to hear “Come As You Are” and “Teen Spirit” through the giant speakers at Sound City, it was like, “F—in’ A! That sounds good!” It was almost a relief, too. We would go home to the corporate apartments where we were staying and listen to the takes from that day. I wanted it to be good. I was nervous and hopeful that I was being a good drummer. I wasn’t thinking about selling a trillion records or being the best drummer in the world. I just wanted it to be good enough for the album. I just wanted it to be great. I knew what a good album sounded like, and I wanted it to be a good album.

Vig
Kurt was good for two or three [vocal] takes, maybe four. But I learned right away that I had to record the warm-up take, because he wouldn’t hold back. I told him, “I’m probably not going to keep this, so you can take it easy.” But he didn’t know how to dial it down. Everything was 90 miles an hour. You can hear him give out on “Territorial Pissings” and “In Bloom,” and even at the end of “Teen Spirit.”

Grohl
Kurt had a really special voice with a lot of character. You can see a lot of it on the Unplugged, where his voice will break. He’ll go from having a smooth, pretty voice, and then he’ll pull it into his throat and make it break up.

Novoselic
Remember when we’d take the stage and make a ruckus, and Kurt would just go “Eaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhh!” into the microphone?

Grohl
That’s how Kurt would warm up his voice. Like he was trying to make himself throw up. Do you remember when he went to the vocal coach?

Novoselic
No!

Grohl
We were making Nevermind, and he went to go see that guy in the Valley that everybody goes to see. Kurt comes back laughing and he says, “You’ve got to hear this.” It was a cassette of all these crazy vocal warm-ups, like “moy moy moy moy moy moy moy.” We were just cracking up, because there was absolutely no f—ing way he was ever going to do it again. Nor would it be of any benefit at all.

June 1991: Vig begins to mix the album, but the product proves unsatisfying. Andy Wallace is brought in to finish the mix.

Vig
I was mixing it with the band, and the mixes sounded good, but I was not pumping them up very much. I was mixing them very au naturale. They gave me a list of 10 mix people. No one knew who I was, but I knew all those names and they were all amazing. They’d all be cool. I wanted to work with all of them. At the bottom was Andy Wallace, who had Slayer next to his name. And Kurt said, “Call that guy.”

Grohl
The first day we went in to mix with him, I thought, “I can’t wait to meet the guy who mixed Reign in Blood.” And I’m thinking he’s going to be this corpse-paint death-metal dude, and I walk in and he looked like a friend of my dad’s.

Vig
Like a math teacher.

Summer 1991: The band hits the road with Dinosaur, Jr. and spends the months leading up to Nevermind’s release on the road.

Novoselic
We finished the album, left Los Angeles and drove straight to Denver to play with Dinosaur, Jr. and the Jesus Lizard.

Grohl
That tour was fun.

Novoselic
That’s when we started doing really long sets. In the beginning, we’d do 50 minutes and then smash our gear, because it was a shtick to get off sensationally.

Grohl
Can’t do an encore!

Novoselic
But all of a sudden we had all these new, finished songs that were fresh, and we started doing like 26 songs a night.

Grohl
We played the Warfield [in San Francisco], and that was my introduction to panic attacks. The curtain was down, and some stage hand kept coming down and saying, “You’ve got one minute. You ready?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m fine.” “You got thirty seconds. You ready?” “Yeah man, no problem.” I went to shift my seat into place, and I hit my kick drum, and I didn’t know that the PA was on, so it made this loud boom, and I heard the audience go “Waaaaaaaaaa!” right as the curtain came up. And we started with “Polly,” where I don’t even have to play drums, and I remember thinking I was going to faint. And then every f—ing show after that I had a panic attack. For like 12 years.

Novoselic
How did you break that?

Grohl
Booze.

Novoselic
Good old booze!

September 1991: Nevermind is released on September 24. The band’s video for first single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lands in heavy rotation on MTV. Nevermind slowly creeps up the Billboard album chart, eventually breaking into the top 10 and finally displacing Michael Jackson’s just-released Dangerous as the number one album in the country.

Grohl
We didn’t sit around watching MTV, so we didn’t realize they were playing the s— out of our video.

Vig
I knew it had taken off. I went to go see them play at the Metro in Chicago, and the buzz from the crowd was amazing. You could feel this thing was taking off.

Grohl
As the tour went on, the shows would sell out, and then there’d be an extra 500 people out front. And then there’d be an extra 1500 people out front. And then you’d look out into the crowd and see jocks. And it’d be like, “F—in’ A, there’s jocks here? What a trip.” Then it just became chaos. But we were still in our van, still getting 10 dollars a day, still eating corn dogs and staying at the Holiday Inn. There wasn’t any MC Hammer moment where we were like, “Cool, let’s get a jet!” It was still pretty punk rock.

Vig
The record made it to the top 10, and I called John Silva, their manager, and said, “John, this record is zooming up the charts. Is there any chance it could go number one?” And he went, “Not a chance Butch. Michael Jackson has a number one record.” And the next week it f—ing went to number one.

Grohl
That was the week we were on SNL.  That, to me, was the moment where I thought, “OK, we’re a big band now.” I grew up watching SNL. It’s still my favorite television show of all time. I discovered so many great bands watching it as a kid. And while we were in the dressing room, we got the call from “Weird Al” Yankovic calls to ask if he can do a parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it was like, “OK, we’re not that little band in the van any more.” Something happened.

Vig
September ’91 was really the death of the ’80s.

Grohl
Before Nevermind came out, the Smashing Pumpkins record Gish was the next big thing since Jane’s Addiction. Jane’s had wrapped up, and the first Lollapalooza had just happened. Then the Chili Peppers’ [Blood Sugar Sex Magik] got huge, and then Pearl Jam and Nirvana were kind of right behind that, and then Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger. It was a good time for music.

Vig
All the things that came out in the fall of that year really changed everything.

Grohl
If you look at the top ten from June of 1991 versus the top ten of June in 1992, it was like somebody came in with a broom and swept out all the Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton and replaced them with people with instruments.

Vig
C&C Music Factory. Remember that band?

Grohl
That was good s—!

Read more on EW.com:
Awkward Questions With…Dave Grohl
Foo Fighters slam Bieber and Coldplay, channel ‘Falling Down’ in new video for ‘Walk': Watch it here
Pearl Jam’s drunken MTV debacle: Cameron Crowe looks back — an EW Exclusive

Comments (32 total) Add your comment
Page: 1 2
  • heej

    “September ’91 was really the death of the ’80s.”
    I started college in Fall ’91. Everything was different from high school, even the music.

    • blurgh

      things you tell your grandkids?

  • MT

    Great stuff!

  • Wild

    September ’91 – I started college too. The music was different-and it was OUR music. We weren’t just borrowing pop or hair metal from previous generations, it was a whole new, awesome monster. We don’t get to experience these shifts often, and we owned the music.

    Awesome story!

  • S.O.

    Sept ’91 was when I started the 8th grade. & everyone at school was into hair metal & butt rock bands. Once I 1st saw “Smells like Teen Spirit” on MTV, I knew right away that Nirvana was going to change the music landscape, Plus it was way better than what everyone else was listening to at school by a mile. Buy the End of 8th grade, every one at school was into Nirvana & Pearl Jam. I hope sometime in my lifetime, a moment like that from 20 years ago will again happen. That some good rock bands w/ depth will change the music landscape that is Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Lil Wayne & most music that’s on TOP40 radio.

    • Karate Pants

      Amen to that. What an amazing time.
      Great interview, loved the story about passing out labels’ business cards to the crappiest karaoke singers, hilarious!

    • Lee

      Give me a break. I’ll take New Wave music of the 80s over the grunge rock of the 90s. What was grunge anyway? Heavy metal with a New Wave beat. Wow–that was really original. Didn’t Michael Jackson come up with the same idea with Beat It? U2, New Order, Talking Heads, Echo & the Bunnymen, Cure, Jesus & Mary Chain, etc. were 10x better than any of the bands from the 90s. I’d even take BritPop (blur) over grunge rock.

  • LCF

    Thanks for taking me back. I’m 42, have two kids and drive a minivan but I still crank it when I hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Great interview…great music.

  • MJ

    GREAT STUFF!!! Kurt must be rolling over in his grave with all the crap that is out today. “Selling out” has become the norm. The album is dead. We need a band to stand up and remind us that music can be art, not just catchy beats with mindless lyrics. I am sick of rappers and Brittney Spears taking finished tracks, adding a few of their own lyrics, and calling themselves artists.

  • Michael Weston

    This could have been a really fascinating story. Instead Dave Grohl and Novoselic come across pretty douchey. A little too cute and too cool for school. “We do cool things like drink half a bottle of Jack Daniels and shoot BBs at government buildings. We were so awesome!” I expected more interesting stuff.

    • patrick

      Sorry they disappointed you. I really enjoyed the article, but I just expected true stuff.

    • Karate Pants

      I don’t think they were bragging, just reminiscing.
      Maybe when you fondly remember Michael Weston’s glory days, there aren’t any shades of immaturity or youthful recklessness in your past.
      But they’re not begging YOU for interviews, are they, Michael Weston?

    • PN

      I thought the album was all rockers in the vein of Smells Like Teen Spirit. But the out of left field surprise to me was their quiet ballad Something in the Way, the final song on the album. That was very well done and showed that they do have true talent to clash with the high charged grunge rock of the rest of the album. That song doesn’t get talked about as much like the more famous songs. This is why I love album cuts more than just the hit single.

  • tati

    I was 6 when this came out..But, I can still remember watching the video on MTV… and thinking it would be pretty awesome to be one of those cheerleaders.

  • Jim

    We need another September ’91. Music sucks right now and is ripe for another transformation like that one.

    Primus’s Green Naugahyde hit the stores last week people.

  • jmo

    I could read this all day…

  • Lady Gaga 4Ever

    Oh please, these guys aren’t even culturally relevant anymore. Lady Gaga has outsold them by millions of copies and will remembered far longer than these clowns.

    • TheRealDeal

      Go back to school, little one. Your ignorance is showing.

      • Lady Gaga 4Ever

        Truth hurts, doesn’t it? They’re fossils in today’s world of music.

    • Obeem

      Actually, Lady Gaga’s sales are pretty small compared to the seminal grunge rock bands (Pearl Jam, Nirvana).

  • PN

    I remember this time 20 years ago when their album really took off with Smells Like Teen Spirit! I later heard their album in the summer of 1992 and it was astounding. It is still a classic album and was instrumental for grunge rock to take 6 years of the ’90s! It blended well with the disposable pop songs that year in 1991 and the other kinds of music that played that year. The ’90s took a slow time to start (we were still stuck in an ’80s mood), but Nirvana really kicked it in and got us in the ’90s big time! I’m sure the band members never expected the massive sales, but people loved the music and that’s what mattered!

  • PN

    I’ve got something to say about that last line about C+C Music Factory. That song is still being played at clubs 20 years later and in dance routines. And Freedom Williams and the group still perform but on a smaller scale. That dance music was huge back then and they were smart to get out of the way before Nirvana took over! Face it, late ’91 and most of 1992 were Nirvana’s time and years!

  • PN

    I think what hurt hair metal in 1991 just as Nirvana’s album and rival band Pearl Jam came out was their overreliance on power ballads as singles instead of their full charged rockers. And they were always top 5, or No. 1 or No.2 on the pop charts while the rockers stalled at 6, 7 or 16. They never continued their momentum, just relied on that sappiness.

  • PN

    It is remarkable that those three still remember how they recorded the album Nevermind. I can see now why the album sounds like that with all those retakes and the mixing and the full sound. It’s like you’re witnessing the magic and excitement and long hours they made of recording the album with producer Butch Vig. And even outpacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album on the charts! It was insane how huge Nevermind sold at that time!

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