The interview was carried out by journalist John Robb in New York in 1989
The interview, conducted by Manchester journalist and Membranes frontman John Robb, was carried out in New York City during the bands first US tour to promote their debut album, ‘Bleach’.
In the 20 minute interview, Cobain and Novoselic can be heard initially talking about their hometown roots and desire to escape. They also talk about their enjoyment of performing live, how their writing process was changing, as well as their hopes for the future of the band.
Speaking shortly after their signing to Sub Pop records, Cobain told Robb: “I’ve been writing songs for six years in this style of music” and that the last “two years” saw him and Novoselic get “really serious” about their music after being in and out of other bands previously. Both talk about starting the band in Aberdeen, Washington, to escape a future of logging – one of the town’s main employment industries.
“I sat in my bedroom and played guitar,” Cobain said of avoiding a future in industry in his hometown. When asked by Robb what he would have done if he hadn’t formed Nirvana, Cobain says: “[I’d] keep trying in another band…I can probably say I’ve never learned the fine art of logging.” Both Cobain and Novoselic discuss their determination for Nirvana to succeed and how they “probably just [would] have resorted to putting out our own records” had they not been signed to Sub Pop.
Discussing some newly written songs, Cobain describes them as being about “anger, negativity” with a “typical punk rock attitude” before telling Robb that he found it harder to be “angry” since leaving home.
“I imagine I am becoming happier because I am escaping. I find myself sometimes making things hard for myself so I can still have a little bit of anger,” Cobain tells Robb.
He continues: “I’ve written most of the material on this record out of Aberdeen…all of the material on this record was written in Olympia…the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I’m getting happier and happier. [They’re] probably about conflicts in relationships, emotions and feelings…when I write a song, the lyrics are the least most important thing so I don’t dwell on it at all. I can actually have two or three different subjects within a song and the title will mean nothing to the rest of the music.”
Speaking about the interview, Robb told NME: “Nirvana are now one of the most iconic bands in music history. Back in 1989 when I interviewed them, they were playing to 20 people at Maxwells in Hoboken and there was no sense of how big they would become.
“I conducted the interview in a hot, claustrophobic flat the night after the Maxwell’s gig. In the interview, they talk of young band ambition, their music and they are talking about a new song they have just written which we think could be ‘Teen Spirit.'”
In the interview, both Cobain and Novoselic talk about developing a new writing style for a new song, with Robb thinking this might have been one of the first descriptions of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’.
Describing a “new song” they’re working on, Cobain says: “I think we’re getting a good mixture now from the heaviness like both of the extremes [of our styles] combined – instead of just really heavy, relentless monster scary songs and a light pop song.”
Cobain and Novoselic talk about the intensity of their gigs being “a nice relief” and a “release” of anger on stage. They also say they are “loving touring America” and that they enjoy smashing up instruments on stage at the end of their gigs. Cobain can be heard laughing, saying: “the other night I jumped into the drum set and Krist was taking beer bottles and throwing them at us and they were busting all over the place.”
Cobain also describes the early, varying line-up of the band, with Jason Everman having recently joined Nirvana. He says the growing line-up helped him to “concentrate on…vocals more” and that the addition of Everman added “a lot of force” to their sound.
Robb adds: “the interview catches a very young Kurt Cobain talk about the creative process [and] the intensity needed to reach the peak of his Nirvana songs. At the time the band were a four piece with Chad Canning on drums and Jason Everyman on guitar. I spent four days with Nirvana and Tad who were headlining the tour. We were in a very small, very hot flat on Avenue B in New York City, sleeping on the floor. I even helped to lug their amps up and down three flights of stairs!”
Speaking about the tape, Robb said he thought the recording had initially been lost. “I thought I’d lost the tape but one afternoon I discovered this massive bag of cassettes and it was the first one I pulled out.”
Both Cobain and Novoselic talk proudly in the interview of the band’s recent inclusion in the music publication ‘Village Voice’ and of how new audiences are enjoying their shows. “They also realise…we’re good….”, Cobain says, speaking about their growing audiences. Both add that the audience response was “encouraging…it’s like a complement.”
Recently, Dave Grohl sparked excitement amongst Nirvana fans after admitting that he and Novoselic wouldn’t rule out a Nirvana reunion show. As the Foo Fighters headlined CalJam earlier this month, they ended the set with a mini reunion that marked their first time performing together since being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
Robb’s interview with Nirvana is one of the first in a series of archival interviews being released as part of the ‘John Robb Tapes Series’.