"There are a few ways you can look at it," Dave Grohl says of In Utero, the last studio album he made as the drummer in Nirvana and the group's back-to-punk triumph after its 1991 multi-platinum monster, Nevermind. "You can describe it as a remarkable achievement." He pauses. "You can also remember it as a really fucked-up time."
It is a recent morning at 606, Grohl's recording studio in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Downstairs, in the control room, producer Butch Vig and members of Grohl's long-running band Foo Fighters are arriving for work: pre-production for the followup to that group's next album. Upstairs, in the lounge, Grohl marks the 20th anniversary of In Utero – released in September, 1993 and reissued this month in a deluxe edition with rare demo and live tracks and a new remix – with one of his longest, deepest interviews on the final days of Nirvana and their star-crossed leader, singer-guitarist-songwriter Kurt Cobain.
Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic both spoke at length about In Utero and its tragic climax – Cobain's death from a self-inflicted shotgun wound in April, 1994 – for a feature story in the new issue of Rolling Stone. The drummer was especially vivid and detailed in his memories of In Utero and the foreboding loaded in Cobain's songs. What follows are additional excerpts from our conversation, after which Grohl gave me a tour of 606, including a hallway he has dedicated to Nirvana, lined with vintage tour posters and gold-and-platinum awards from around the world.
You joined Nirvana just in time to play on Nevermind. Did you have time to develop a bond with Kurt?
Every band I had ever been in, up until that point, had been a band of friends that either got together to make music or we all became a close family out on the road. Nirvana was a little different. Living with Kurt was funny. He isolated himself in a lot of ways, emotionally. But he had a genuine, sweet nature. He never intentionally made you feel uncomfortable. Living with him in that tiny apartment in Olympia, Washington, there was some sort of bond. But it was much different than his relationship with Krist.
How would you characterize that?
I looked at Krist and Kurt as soulmates. The two had such a beautiful, unspoken understanding of each other. Those two guys, together, totally defined the Nirvana aesthetic. Every quirk, all the strange things that came from Nirvana came from Krist and Kurt. I think [growing up in] Aberdeen, their experiences together in those formative years, had a lot to do with that.
Musically, the chemistry was simple. All we had to do was be ourselves. Joining a band without ever having really met the people before, you just want to be musically powerful. There were a lot of times when I felt like a total stranger. I was used to being surrounded by people I'd known since I was 13 years old. Then I was living in fucking Olympia, with someone I don't know. There was no sun. It was just the music.
I keep coming back to that first line in "Serve the Servants": "Teenage angst has paid off well." It has for you with Foo Fighters, this studio. Kurt could have had that. His principal vulnerability was an inability to enjoy the rewards of his work.
I don't know where that came from. A lot of people don't consider their work valid. Because it's their own. I can understand that. I know a lot of people who wouldn't be comfortable with everything that comes with being in a band as big as Nirvana. The thing that I don't understand is not appreciating that simple gift of being able to play music.
When Nirvana became popular, it was a difficult transition. You're in the underground punk scene with your heroes like [Fugazi's] Ian McKaye or [Beat Happening's] Calvin Johnson. You're desperately wishing for these people's approval, because it validates you as a musician: I'm for real.
I was lucky, because I went back to Washington, D.C. and had all my heroes tell me they were proud that I became a fucking corporate rock star [laughs]. That weight was lifted from my shoulders, right out of the game. I never worried about that. That might have had something to do with Kurt's anxiety. He was afraid that the people on the scene wouldn't approve of where he was.
You mentioned that things were strange for Nirvana in 1992. There were rehearsals but not much touring or recording. You were in this great situation, able to do anything you wanted, but you didn't know what to do next or how to do it.
Lollapalooza was calling: "You gotta headline Lollapalooza." I go to see U2 play a show with the Pixies and get pulled into Bono's dressing room: "You guys have got to come on tour with us." Gun's N' Roses is calling. I'm like, "What the fuck is going on?" It was good for us to not do much. But it was like holding a match and watching it burn down to your fingers. It was only a matter of time before something happened.
We were recording a couple of songs, one for the single with the Jesus Lizard and a Wipers cover. And Kurt said, "Oh, I have this new song idea." And he played "Frances Farmer" ["Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"]. It was "Oh my God, we're gonna have another record."
What state was the song in when he played it the first time? How would he bring a song in from his bedroom?
That day, he was in my basement. He said, "Check it out," and played the riff. He also played "Very Ape." We may have jammed on it that day. Usually, when Nirvana made music, there wasn't a lot of conversation. We wanted everything to be surreal. We didn't want to have some contrived composition. A song like "Heart-Shaped Box" – we would start jamming. Kurt would play the riff, and Krist would tune into what he was doing, and I would play along with the two of them. We would get into this dynamic, getting loud, then quiet, then loud. A lot of that quiet-loud thing came from those experimental jams.
How did you cope with Kurt's drug use?
I quit doing drugs when I was 20. I never got into heroin, never did pills. I did a lot of acid, smoked a lot of weed, had a lot of fun. When it comes to opiates, that's a whole other scene. I wasn't in that scene, happily so. Doesn't mean I didn't care.
We weren't in the van anymore, in that little club. You could feel an emotional distance, but in a melancholy way. There were times when you wouldn't speak for days, although you were on tour playing shows. And then you bump into each other in the hallway and go, "We should get some mini-bikes when we get home. I know this trail we can ride behind my house." Or, "The lawnmower place has go-karts. Let's get some of those." There would be these moments of connecting emotionally.
Would it happen? Would you ride the go-karts?
Of course not [Laughs]. All you needed was that moment of validation: We're still with each other.
What do you remember about the In Utero sessions? Was Kurt using heroin then? Krist said he didn't think so.
I don't know, man. That was a weird thing. We're sequestered in this house, in the middle of the snow, in February in Minnesota. Recording with Steve [Albini] – he would hit 'record,' we'd do a take, and he'd go [claps hands], "Okay, what's next?" Wait, is it okay?
Working with [producer] Butch Vig on Nevermind was a whole other exercise. We made that album to be that album. We were fucking psyched. We were in the practice space so long. We were just as loose, and just as tight, as we needed to be.
We blazed through In Utero. I was done after three days. I had another ten fucking days to sit in the snow, on my ass with nothing to do. Once we were finished with all of the instrumentation, it was time for Kurt to do his vocals and overdubs.
I remember everyone was concerned about the tempo of "Heart-Shaped Box." But click tracks were not cool. Kurt and Steve came up with this idea -- we should use a strobe light [laughs]. We had this long conversation about how it won't dictate the tempo, just imply the tempo.
Or hypnotize you.
I'm like, "Okay, guys, whatever you want me to do." I sat there for a take or two with this fucking strobe light in my face until I practically had a seizure. I said, "Can we just play? A little ebb and flow. Don't worry about it."
Were you surprised that Kurt wanted to record your song "Marigold" during the In Utero sessions? It is the only original song on a Nirvana record that he didn't have any hand in writing.
I wrote that on the four-track machine at the house. He was in his room. I didn't want to wake him. So I would record things, whispering quietly into a microphone. I was recording the vocal harmony to the chorus of that song, and the door opened. He goes, "What's that?" "It's just this thing I wrote." "Let me hear it."
We sat there and played it a few times. I would do the high harmony, he would do the low harmony. It's funny writing songs with other people. I've never done that. I write songs [for Foo Fighters] and then the band plays them with me. But sitting face to face with someone, that's another trip. I don't know if he had ever done that either. It was like an uncomfortable blind date. "Oh, you sing too? Let's harmonize together." I was kind of shy back then too.
I was very flattered. But I remember, I think it might have been Steve who said, "'Marigold' should maybe be on the album." I was terrified [laughs]. No, no, wait. It was that famous joke: What's the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? "Hey, I wrote a song."
Obviously, it didn't make it. ["Marigold" came out as the B-side to "Heart-Shaped Box."] I'm glad. Because the album retained the integrity of Kurt's vision. But I was incredibly flattered. "Really, you like that?"
Do you remember the last time you saw Kurt and what you said?
I called Kurt after Rome. [In March, 1994, during a European tour, Cobain overdosed on pills and alcohol in a hotel in Rome. Nirvana returned to Seattle, where Cobain died a month later.] I said, "Hey, man, that really scared everybody. And I don't want you to die."
Then I saw him at our accountant's office [in Seattle]. He was walking out as I was walking in. He smiled and said, "Hey, what's up?" And I said, "I'll give you a call." And he said, "Okay."
Is there something in In Utero that people need to hear and know, to understand Kurt better as a man and artist and less as a tragic figure? It is hard to hear that album the way he intended it, because of the subsequent baggage.
The album should be listened to as it was the day it came out. That's my problem with the record. I used to like to listen to it. And I don't anymore, because of that. To me, if you listen to it without thinking of Kurt dying, you might get the original intention of the record. Like my kids. They know I was in Nirvana. They know Kurt was killed. I haven't told them that he killed himself. They're four and seven years old. So when they listen to In Utero, they'll have that fresh perspective – the original intention of the album, as a first-time listener.
Someday they will learn what happened. And it'll change that. It did for me.