Dave Grohl on 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'

Kerrang! 2002

What do you remember about writing 'Teen Spirit'?
"We wrote that song in January or February of 1991. We'd been rehearsing in this shed behind a house in Tacoma Washington. At the time we were really experimenting with that quiet verse, loud chorus dynamic, and a lot of it was derivite of the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Rather than talking about arrangements we just jammed - you just knew when the chorus was supposed to get bigger, and you just knew when to push songs one step higher."

What did you think of the song at first?
"I didn't think much, to be honest. It was just another one of the jams we were doing - we had so many jams like that which we recorded onto a boom box tape and then lost the cassete and lost the song forever. But 'Teen Spirit' was one we kept going back to just because the simple guitar lines were so memorable. And then we played a show in Seattle at a club called the OK Hotel in order to get the gas money to drive down to LA to record the record. It was an afternoon gig and we played that song for the first time and the audience went nuts. I don't know if it was the rhythm of the song or the melody, but people got caught on it pretty quick."

Did you realise it would be so successful?
"With 'Nevermind' I thought 'In Bloom' or 'Lithium' was going to be the 'smash hit' of the record. I thought 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was just another album cut. We went in and recorded it pretty quickly. I think it may have been one of Butch Vig's favourites, and it became pretty clear that it was the special song on the record. You have to understand that back then we didn't think anything was going to happen with the record - it was like releasing a Jesus Lizard record or something; there was no world domination ambition, that just wasn't allowed to happen. I though the song would maybe get us on '120 Minutes' on MTV or get us a tour with Sonic Youth or maybe allow us to headline Brixton Academy or something, but no-one thought it was a hit single because hit singles were just unimaginable."

Was it weird then, watching the song really take off?
"Yeah. The funniest part was seeing the video on MTV. We were touring America at that point, playing 300-capacity clubs. We'd turn on the TV and see the song on there. We'd be laughing about it every night. And then with the video came more people and the clubs got bigger."

Do you look back on the song as a turning point in Nirvana's career?
"Well, that song definitely established that quiet/loud dynamic that we fell back on a lot of the time. It did become the one song that personifies the band. Whether that was down to the imagery of the video I don't know. At the time the video was the most key element in the song becoming a hit. People heard the song on the radio and thought, 'This is great', but then the kids saw the video on MTV and thought, 'This is cool, these guys are kinda ugly and they're tearing up a fucking high school', and I think that had a lot to do with it's success."

Is 'Teen Spirit' really the greatest song of all time?
"I don't think it's the greatest single of all time, of course not. I don't even think it's the greatest Nirvana single. It's flattering anyone would think that and I'm honoured to be part of that little piece of history, but gimme a fucking break, man. Listen to 'Revolution' by The Beatles or 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys, those are serious singles. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a really great moment in time, but there's better."