Back in 1990, Kurt Cobain's greatest problems were finding money for meals and time to write more songs. His band at the time (which also included bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing) had cultivated a reasonably loyal indie-rock audience even before the notorious Seattle sound (aka grunge) took root. They had completed their debut, Bleach, in 1990, and the album enjoyed considerable college radio airplay with relentlessly cool hard-rock songs like "Love Buzz," "Floyd the Barber" and the early "Spank Thru." But the attention didn't faze the band. Cobain merely saw it as a force that enabled him to do what he loved: write songs. See, for indie rockers in the '80s and early '90s, you weren't supposed to be aspire to wealth. You weren't supposed to be comfortable. You weren't supposed to have nice clothes. You welcomed suffering because you believed in yourself, your sacrifices, your art. Sleeping on floors and driving all night in a ramshackle van were part and parcel of rock 'n' roll, and in doing those things, Cobain knew he was on the right track.
In January of 1990, the date of this rare interview, Cobain was a gentle, self-effacing 22-year-old. Clad in ripped jeans and thrift store sweaters, and graced by a stern, stubble-darkened face, he seemed content (at least on the surface), and things were looking up. After Bleach met with underground success, Nirvana signed to DGC, and Cobain's would soon be given the chance to reach a mainstream audience.
In the summer of 1991, Nevermind was released and almost immediately, the record's first single, the stunning, disjointed "Smells Like Teen Spirit," impacted on a global level. In September, the band's subsequent tour drew huge crowds and strange, unpredictable responses from the now-overwhelmed Cobain. The pressure of performing to larger audiences took its toll and the attention threw Cobain into a tailspin of depression and drug abuse from which he'd only infrequently recover.
To complicate matters, Nirvana (a hillbilly punk band from rural Washington) hit number one on the Billboard Album Chart, and were unwittingly on their way to becoming the most significant band of their time. This interview with Cobain and Novoselic took place before the shit came down, presenting Nirvana in an almost naively positive light. Flush with the gratification of having just created the rough tracks for Nevermind, Cobain and company were fresh, fun, chatty, insightful, and (occasionally) prescient.
Guitar.com: What's your objective as a band?
Kurt Cobain: To write really good music -- the best music we possibly can. That comes before anything else; it comes before philosophy, image or playing live. It's always been the main point. Just songs. As a unit we've come a whole lot closer to getting where we wanna be as collaborators.
Guitar.com: Is attitude important in your lyrics and stage show?
Novoselic: Attitude? We're a pretty lighthearted bunch. Kurt, you write most of the lyrics.
Cobain: Yeah, but I don't know what they're about. It's more of a lazy thing, you know? We just don't bother cultivating an image. We're definitely opinionated. But we're too illiterate to back up what we have to say. We took too much acid and smoked too much pot to store much information in our brains. So, if we were to get into an argument with someone about any topic, we would lose.
Guitar.com: Whatever happened to Jason Everman, your original guitar player?
Cobain: He had an affair with Chris' father, so we thought it best to kick him out of the band. Yeah, the band got to be a soap opera, so we decided we needed to eradicate the source of all those problems.
Guitar.com: Should I believe that?
Cobain: You don't have to believe it, but you can write it! Chris' father is actually this burly Yugoslavian guy who told Chris at one time that we should trade in our guitars for shovels. He's a fun-loving guy. With Jason, [on the] last tour we drove back home from New York, like 50 hours, and didn't say a word to each other the whole way. The songs we were writing while he was in the band weren't satisfying. He was holding us back. He likes more heavy, slow grunge. Now he's in Soundgarden [a very temporary situation -- ed.], and it couldn't have worked out better. It wasn't his fault; we just didn't realize how his tastes ran.
Guitar.com: Do you enjoy touring?
Cobain: I wasn't anticipating going on tour, but I'm having a good time. You have to psyche yourself up. The drives are pretty long, sometimes 12 or 13 hours, like the bookers threw a dart at the map to determine where we'd play. But we sleep in, don't show up to sound-check if we don't want to. This is what we chose to do, and we always considered rock 'n' roll to be kind of lax. Heck, we may as well not burn ourselves out on it. We're just here to have fun, write songs and play. We're not trying to climb our way to the top and be popular. We're totally comfortable with the level we're on now. It'd be nice to get a little higher so we could pay the rent for sure every month. I mean, we just want people to like our music. We don't want a big multi-million dollar promotional deal to bring us into every high school across the country, to make us into multi-million-dollar paper dolls.
Guitar.com: If someone came up to you and said, "If you work harder we'll make you rich," how would you react?
Cobain: We'd have to have a say in everything. We would have to pick our own producer and do the record the way we want. Like Butch Vig. He was right on. My idea of an excellent producer is someone who can take an idea from someone's head and find the best way to put it on tape without interfering too much. The same with promotion as well. You need someone who's gonna put forth the image that you feel comfortable with. We've gotten a few offers from major labels. They'd call Sub Pop, our label, and ask to talk to us about making us an offer, and Sub Pop told them to fuck off. We don't care about it at all.
Guitar.com: What happens when all the great indie bands get swallowed up by all the major labels? Will rock have to redefine itself?
Cobain: Every band since the mid-'80s has surfaced in a revival act. It's a sure sign that rock is slowly dying. There's nothing like wallowing in the past when everything in the future looks bleak. It happens in every art form. When they're afraid of what's in front of them they always look back. They'll reach a plateau and they'll think everything's been done, but in reality, they're just not thinking hard enough. They're just stalled. If everybody gives up though, that's when things start to die.
Guitar.com: Are you ever afraid that there won't be enough of an audience to listen to alternative music? Your music?
Cobain: I don't even know who our fans are. Most are like us, it seems, a mixture of white trash and punks who at least appreciate the arts. I hope it's not the typical thrash scene metalhead kid who has no clue what we're trying to get at. We actually had some jocks at a few of our recent shows and they liked it a lot. That's scary.
Guitar.com: Is rock dying in your opinion?
Cobain: I don't know. I consider rock 'n' roll like mathematics. There's only so much you can do after a while until someone comes up with an entirely new approach. I mean, we're working with a 4/4 time beat, the standard rock tempo, and there are only so many notes on a guitar.
Guitar.com: You read all these articles about how bands hate to be branded. Do you feel the same way?
Cobain: I haven't read too many articles that have tried to do that to us. I see that Soundgarden gets compared to Led Zeppelin so much, it's like, why bother? It's too bad. Someone referred to us in an article once as "Lynyrd Skynyrd without the flares." I thought that was pretty funny -- way off, but still pretty funny.
Guitar.com: So what does money mean to you guys?
Cobain: We care about paying our rent. You know how it goes. Almost everything we make goes right back into the band. If we didn't abuse our equipment so much, we could probably save a little. I only pay $170 a month [for rent], but I shouldn't be saying this 'cause then even more people will want to move to Seattle. We're not gonna work this summer so we can spend more time at home, write some more songs. The last tour we did in Europe was so bad. We're not going over there again unless we get some guarantees. We worked every night for seven weeks and haven't seen a dime. Plus, we starved; we were only given a budget for one meal a day.
Guitar.com: What do you guys listen to on the road?
Cobain: Anything that isn't grunge! Not really, we listen to Tad, we love all the Sub Pop stuff. Mudhoney's my favorite band. The Fluid, Beat Happening, Young Marble Giants, the Melvins, the Pixies, Leadbelly, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, some bluegrass, Middle Eastern stuff.
Guitar.com: What's the best thing about being on the road?
Cobain: Record-buying at second-hand record stores, trying to find obscure children's records and old blues records. I really don't go much for the CD revolution either. There's something I like about records. I really can't explain it. I know it sounds stupid, but music to me is kind of sacred.
Guitar.com: You're music is pretty angry and bleak. Is there anything to be hopeful about?
Cobain: Chris and I watch the news and get pissed off about it and start spewing on things for days. I usually get intimidated by people who pressure their opinions on me. If I go into a truck stop, I'm gonna get laughed at, or get called "queer," "hippie," or instantly stereotyped. Me, I'm just too sensitive about that kind of stuff to shake it off. It bothers me too much. When I was a kid I thought everything was so great. I was so excited to grow up. But in sixth grade I realized, "Wow, my whole life really sucks. Everyone I know is an asshole."
Guitar.com: At least you have your music now. What do the new songs sound like?
Cobain: A few songs sound like the old stuff off of Bleach. Some new songs are so mellow that we're probably gonna lose half our audience. Well, maybe. Hopefully, if they're music lovers they'll like it; if it's good it's good, right? But there are a couple of acoustic songs that are like Leonard Cohen. Simple, quiet, manic-depressive songs. They're definitely not commercial. Some of the heavy songs are more raw than the last record. It'll be a mixed bag of songs. I'm real happy about it. We've got to get a meeting together with the record company, get them on the ball, get a little bit better promotion.
Guitar.com: What will you do after rock 'n' roll?
Cobain: Hopefully have enough money to buy a house in the woods. If not, you'd better lock me up, 'cause you never know what'll happen.