In the early ’90s, Aqua Net-fueled hair metal and disposable pop songs gripped the marketplace. Then came three shaggy dudes whose blistering mix of radio-ready hits and caustic deep cuts blew the dawning decade wide open. Now with the arrival of a deluxe box set celebrating 20 years of Nevermind, the full story of Nirvana’s seminal album can finally be told: During a roundtable with EW in Los Angeles, Dave Grohl, 42, Krist Novoselic, 46, and producer Butch Vig, 56, recall creating a soon-to-be classic with their late friend and collaborator Kurt Cobain — and all the booze, corn dogs, turtles, and transvestite karaoke singers that came along for the ride.
April 1990: Cobain, Novoselic, and then-drummer Chad Channing visit Smart Studios in Madison, Wis., to record with Butch Vig.
Butch Vig We tracked seven songs in five days, including ”In Bloom’ and ”Lithium.” I expected they were going to come back. Then all of a sudden I started getting these calls from people saying, ”Hey, man, I love these Nirvana tracks.” They had gone home and dubbed a cassette I gave them, then made a hundred copies and gave them out to their friends. They bootlegged themselves, essentially.
Krist Novoselic That was how Geffen got a copy.
September 1990: Cobain and Novoselic hire former Scream drummer Dave Grohl. While working out the growing batch of new songs, the band leaves indie Sub Pop for Geffen Records.
Novoselic There was an evolution when Dave joined that was a cosmic leap.
Vig Kurt had left a message telling me, ”We got the best drummer in the world, man.” And I thought, ”I’ve heard that one before.” But he was right.
Novoselic We were getting courted by major labels, getting wined and dined. We’d go to fancy restaurants and rack up these huge bar tabs.
Vig Benihana! That was their idea of a fancy restaurant.
Dave Grohl We used to take the A&R business cards to karaoke bars and hand them out. Someone would go up and sing terribly, and we had so many A&R cards in our wallets that we’d walk up and hand them a card and say, ”I like your style! Give me a call.” All those A&R guys were getting calls from f—ing terrible karaoke singers.
Novoselic We went to transvestite karaoke once. Remember that one? Transvestites doing karaoke. That was the template for Nirvana.
November 1990: Grohl moves in with Cobain in Olympia, Wash., and the band gets to work rehearsing for the recording of Nevermind.
Grohl It was a long winter. Kurt and I lived in this s—hole apartment. I slept in a sleeping bag on an old couch and would wake up with cigarette butts stuck to my face.
Novoselic It was disgusting. I used to come down and yell at you guys. Did Kurt still have the turtles then?
Grohl Kurt had built this makeshift aquarium that was in the same room as the couch I slept on. So all night long I’d be on the couch listening to the turtle bang its little head against the wall. There was a gas station across the street that had three corn dogs for 99 cents, so that was my meal for the day. Those winter months are wet and dark and cold; basically, the only thing to live for was the rehearsals. We recorded on this boom box, and that’s where you can hear us working out ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ”On a Plain.” That was our entire existence.
April 1991: The band travels to Los Angeles to record, and hires Vig to handle the album’s production.
Grohl We’d got the call saying Butch was ready to start in March. But then we kept getting pushed back, and we were like, “Who the f— is he recording?” He said the Smashing Pumpkins. None of us had heard of them yet, and we were like, “That’s the dumbest f—ing band name.”
Vig I think the first thing they played me was ”Teen Spirit,” and I was floored. It was so good. I just remember getting up and sweating and trying to act cool. I just said, ”Hmmm, play it again,” but I was thinking, ”Holy s—, that was amazing.”
One day, Krist and I went to the liquor store to get some Jack Daniel’s and a 12-pack. Lenny Kravitz was recording down the hall, and Krist disappeared, and all of a sudden we hear him on the PA: ”Attention! Would Lenny Kravitz please come to the front desk! Lennyyyyyyyy! Please come to the front desk!”
Grohl We had practiced so much, it was just a matter of hitting the record button. We were tight. I wasn’t thinking about selling a trillion records or being the best drummer in the world. I just wanted it to be great.
Vig Kurt was good for two or three [vocal] takes. But I learned right away that I had to record the warm-up take, because he wouldn’t hold back. I told him, ”I’m probably not going to keep this, so you can take it easy.” You can hear him give out on ”Territorial Pissings” and ”In Bloom,” and even at the end of ”Teen Spirit.”
Novoselic We’d start a show, and Kurt would just go ”Eaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhh!” into the microphone.
Grohl That’s how Kurt would warm up his voice. Like he was trying to make himself throw up.
September 1991: Nevermind is released on Sept. 24, and the band’s video for first single ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” lands in heavy rotation on MTV. The album slowly creeps up the Billboard chart, finally hitting No. 1.
Grohl As the tour went on, the shows would sell out, and then there’d be an extra 500 people out front. And then there’d be an extra 1,500 people. But we were still in our van, still getting 10 dollars a day, still eating corn dogs and staying at the Holiday Inn. There wasn’t any MC Hammer moment where we were like, ”Cool, let’s get a jet!” It was still pretty punk rock.
Vig The record made it to the top 10, and I called their manager and said, ”John, is there any chance it could go number one?” And he went, ”Not a chance. Michael Jackson has a number-one record.” And the next week it f—ing went to number one.
Grohl That was the week we were on Saturday Night Live — the moment I thought, ”Okay, we’re a big band now.”
Vig September ’91 was really the death of the ’80s.
Grohl If you look at the top 10 from June 1991 versus June 1992, it was like somebody came in with a broom and swept out all the Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton and replaced them with people with instruments.
Vig C+C Music Factory. Remember that band?
Grohl That was good s—!