Uncut, August 2021

Dave Grohl on freezing cold rehearsal spaces, road trips with Kurt Cobain and "Wilson Phllips, Mariah Carey and fucking Bon Jovi"

Can you still remember the very first time you, Kurt and Krist played together?
Absolutely. It was in a rehearsal space in a warehouse district south of Seattle. I knew the album Bleach, but before I flew up to audition for the band I had memorised it. When we sat down to play for the first time in this little damp, dank, disgusting rehearsal space, that I think belonged to either Mudhoney or Tad, we locked in perfectly immediately. Plus, they hadn't had anyone to sing back-up vocals before, so Kurt encouraged me to sing the back-up harmonies that he had put on the album but had never sang live. Within one minute we knew that this was the right thing to do. It doesn't happen often, there are only a few times in life when things lock in perfectly. It happened with Them Crooked Vultures as well. When things just settle in so comfortably, you immediately know that it is meant to be.

Can you pinpoint the beginning of the process that eventually led to Nevermind?
When I joined the band in September 1990 I had only heard Bleach. I loved that record so much. It really stood apart from all the other music I was listening to, mostly because of Kurt's sense of melody. There was lots of noise, lots of heavy riffs and lots of punk rock going around, but there was something about Nirvana that set them apart. The song "About A Girl" on Bleach just kind of blew everybody's minds, that the band had that much of a range of dynamics, not just musically but melodically. When I joined I hadn't heard any of the music they had recorded with Butch Vig months before [in Madison, Wisconsin, in April 1990]. Originally those recordings were meant to be the next Sub Pop record, but that fell apart. When they played me those demos - they considered them demos - "Breed" was then titled "Imodium". I loved that riff, I loved the chorus, the simplicity of melody. "Lithium" was there and "In Bloom". "In Bloom" was the song that they had invested the most faith into. They had made a video for it and the production was amazing. I heard those songs and thought, 'Wow, these guys have really taken a giant leap, from Bleach to this new material.'

How did things progress from there?
We rehearsed those songs together and I stayed true to the drum parts that Chad [Charming] had played on the recordings they had done with Butch. Then we started writing more. Our process of writing was pretty simple. We had this little rehearsal place in a barn that had been converted into a makeshift rehearsal studio. It was about the size of a garage, but it did have a stage and stage lights, which we thought was hilarious, considering the whole place was covered in clam shack carpets. We would set up our instruments and turn on the space heater - it was always freezing fucking cold - and we would begin with noise. We would just have these freeform jams and those would eventually turn into songs. Kurt had riffs but they weren't fully formed. Songs like "Come As You Are", "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Drain You" started to take shape. So having those early songs that were recorded with Chad before I joined the band, then having these new songs, we knew that the record was going to be good. It was just a matter of being rehearsed and coming down to Los Angeles to record with Butch. It was an exciting time. To me, it just didn't sound like anything else. There were elements of bands that we grew up loving, but this was far beyond those - and we knew it.

What preparations did you make before you left Seattle to record at Sound City in LA?
Kurt and I decided to make the drive down to Los Angeles together. From Seattle to LA is, I don't know, fucking 1,000 miles or something. It's a long drive! I don't know the story, but this old woman had gifted Kurt a Datsun B210, a tiny, blue Datsun from the '70s. This thing was a piece of shit. I remember pulling up to the rehearsal place once and a wheel fell off! It was fucked. So we started making the drive and it was overheating. We'd drive for an hour and a half and have to pull over. Then another hour and a half, and another... Considering it's a 16-hour drive, we eventually just retreated back to Seattle, pulled into a quarry and stoned the car. We broke the windows out, we were pissed. Then we grabbed the van with Krist and drove down in that.

What do you remember about the album sessions?
Nobody thought that Nirvana was going to be a huge band. So not only was there no money, but there was no time. I think we had booked 12 or 13 days. It was fast. Knowing that we had so little time in the studio, we rehearsed every day to make sure that we could get this shit in one take - which most of the songs are. At the same time, when we pulled up to Sound City, as much of a shithole as it was, it was the most legitimate recording studio I had ever been in at the time. Knowing the history of that place, we thought, 'Now, this is the real deal.' That being said, nobody thought that it was going to be what it became. We thought, 'Hopefully we'll get to achieve the success of a band like Sonic Youth, and each get to have our own apartment!' That was the extent of our ambitions.

When did you start to realise that you might have underestimated the potential impact of the album?
There were friends who heard it and said, "Oh my God. You guys are going to be fucking huge!" We would go, "What? What are you talking about?" Donita [Sparks] from L7 came by and said we were going to be fucking huge. My old friend Barrett Jones, who I had grown up with in Virginia, who was a musician and a producer himself, heard "Lithium" and said we were going to be fucking huge. He thought "Lithium" should be the first single. Everyone had these lofty opinions and I thought, 'Well, it's nice of you to say so, but there is no fucking way that is ever going to happen.' You also have to remember what was popular at the time. It was Wilson Philips, it was Mariah Carey and fucking Bon Jovi. It was not bands like us. So it seemed totally implausible that we would ever even get close to that kind of success. But, you know, it all sounded great: the drum sound at Sound City, Butch Vig's production. The band was tight and Kurt's songs were fucking great. We would do one or two takes and maybe do an overdub here and there, Kurt would go in and do the vocal and it was crystal clear and so fucking powerful and tight. It was the album I think we'd all always wanted to make. You want to make a record that is so powerful, melodic and beautiful that you're proud of - and we were definitely proud of it.

Was there a moment around the release of Nevermind when you realised you had gone through the looking glass and wouldn't be coming back?
Well, I still haven't figured the whole fucking thing out. What I do know is that once we signed to the David Geffen Company and made a video, it started feeling a bit more professional. Now we were doing in-stores and signing posters. We had a rock video that was on MTV. It started feeling a bit more legitimate, but it wasn't until the tour started that I realised, 'Oh, something is going on.' We would pull up to a club that held maybe 100 people and there would be 100 more people outside. Then we got to next club that held 250 people, and there would be another 250 people outside. You could tell that it was a happening, but it wasn't until the end of the North American tour for Nevermind that I realised, 'Holy shit, this thing is snowballing.' It was fucking crazy. We started the tour in a van playing places that held 95 people, and a month and a half later we played our last show in America on Halloween, at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, which held about 3,000 people. That night we were notified that we had a gold record. Then we jumped on a plane to Europe. We had, I think, one day off between our American tour and the European tour. Europe was a little bit behind America, so it was back to normal, back to the places that felt comfortable. But by the time we left Europe it had started happening there. At the same time, we weren't really paying attention to much other than getting in the van on time and getting on stage every night. Our view of all of this happening was from the lip of the stage. Everything else, we had no fucking clue.

Would you change anything about Nevermind?
No. [Incredulously] No! No! I remember when we were recording the album, we would track a song and at the end of the day come home and have a cassette of the rough mix of what we had just done. I remember listening to it and being so critical of myself, and thinking, 'Oh God, I'm not good enough. Shit, I'm falling behind there, I'm speeding up there. That snare drum hit is late.' I wanted it to be great, I wanted everyone to say that this album is a killer. I was very critical of it while we were doing it, but over time it becomes what it is.

Is there much left in the vaults from that time?
You know, I don't think so. I saw Krist about a week ago, and he said, "Man, there are so many songs we played that we never used!" I had no idea. As far as the Nevermind sessions, fuck, we didn't have any time to record extra songs. It's been 30 years, but I don't think there was much left over. We used what we had.

How will you mark the 30th anniversary, both publicly and privately?
Krist and I are still very close, dear friends. Whenever there is an anniversary we text or call. He sends me pictures of his planes, I send him pictures of my children. We might plan on getting together or jamming, but we haven't got anything specific. I'm sure something will come up. Personally? Well, I don't build an altar to Nevermind! If I'm sitting in traffic in LA listening to the radio, fucking chances are one of those songs is going to come on - and I don't turn it off. I used to, but I don't any more. I drive around with my kids and if one of those songs comes on, they start singing all the words to it. It's not because I've brainwashed them. It's just become part of their universe.

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