In Utero may be the most anticipated, talked-about and argued-over album of 1993. Didn't you feel at any point during all the title changes and the press hoopla stirred up by Steve Albini that the whole thing was just getting stupid? After all, it is just an album.
Yeah. But I'm used to it [laughs]. While making the record, that wasn't happening. It was made really fast. All the basic tracks were done within a week. And I did 80 percent of the vocals in one day, in about seven hours. I just happened to be on a roll. It was a good day for me, and I just kept going.
So what was the problem?
It wasn't the songs. It was the production. It took a very, very long time for us to realize what the problem was. We couldn't figure it out. We had no idea why we didn't feel the same energy that we did from Nevermind. We finally came to the conclusion that the vocals weren't loud enough, and the bass was totally inaudible. We couldn't hear any notes that Krist was playing at all.
I think there are a few songs on In Utero that could have been cleaned up a little bit more. Definitely "Penny Royal Tea." That was not recorded right. There is something wrong with that. That should have been recorded like Nevermind, because I know that's a strong song, a hit single. We're toying with the idea of re-recording it or remixing it.
You hit and miss. It's a really weird thing about this record. I've never been more confused in my life, but at the same time I've never been more satisfied with what we've done.
Let's talk about your songwriting. Your best songs – "Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are," "Rape Me," "Penny Royal Tea" – all open with the verse in a low, moody style. Then the chorus comes in at full volume and nails you. So which comes first, the verse or the killer chorus?
[Long pause, then he smiles] I don't know. I really don't know. I guess I start with the verse and then go into the chorus. But I'm getting so tired of that formula. And it is formula. And there's not much you can do with it. We've mastered that – for our band. We're all growing pretty tired of it.
It is a dynamic style. But I'm only using two of the dynamics. There are a lot more I could be using. Krist, Dave and I have been working on this formula – this thing of going from quiet to loud – for so long that it's literally becoming boring for us. It's like "OK, I have this riff. I'll play it quiet, without a distortion box, while I'm singing the verse. And now let's turn on the distortion box and hit the drums harder."
I want to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure. It's a really hard thing to do, and I don't know if we're capable of it – as musicians.
Songs like "Dumb" and "All Apologies" do suggest that you're looking for a way to get to people without resorting to the big-bang guitar effect.
Absolutely. I wish we could have written a few more songs like those on all the other albums. Even to put "About a Girl" on Bleach was a risk. I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old '60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground-like the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.
We have failed in showing the lighter, more dynamic side of our band. The big guitar sound is what the kids want to hear. We like playing that stuff, but I don't know how much longer I can scream at the top of my lungs every night, for an entire year on tour. Sometimes I wish I had taken the Bob Dylan route and sang songs where my voice would not go out on me every night, so I could have a career if I wanted.
So what does this mean for the future of Nirvana?
It's impossible for me to look into the future and say I'm going to be able to play Nirvana songs in 10 years. There's no way. I don't want to have to resort to doing the Eric Clapton thing. Not to put him down whatsoever; I have immense respect for him. But I don't want to have to change the songs to fit my age [laughs].
The song on In Utero that has whipped up the most controversy is "Rape Me." It's got a brilliant hook, but there have been objections to the title and lyric – not just from skittish DJs but from some women who feel it's rather cavalier for a man to be using such a potent, inflammatory word so freely.
I understand that point of view, and I've heard it a lot. I've gone back and forth between regretting it and trying to defend myself. Basically, I was trying to write a song that supported women and dealt with the issue of rape. Over the last few years, people have had such a hard time understanding what our message is, what we're trying to convey, that I just decided to be as bold as possible. How hard should I stamp this point? How big should I make the letters?
It's not a pretty image. But a woman who is being raped, who is infuriated with the situation . . . it's like "Go ahead, rape me, just go for it, because you're gonna get it." I'm a firm believer in karma, and that motherfucker is going to get what he deserves, eventually. That man will be caught, he'll go to jail, and he'll be raped. "So rape me, do it, get it over with. Because you're gonna get it worse."
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