As In Utero turns 20, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic helps Eddy Lawrence paint an intimate portrait of Kurt Cobain’s final studio album. And his tragic last months
In 1993, anti-establishment vogue made Kurt Cobain rich and famous – more so than he had intended. Nirvana began as an underground punk band hoping to sell as many records as Sonic Youth, and ended up defining a generation.
Their response? They hired a famed anti-commercial producer and recorded their follow-up album to the gargantuan Nevermind in a fortnight. Featuring tracks Cobain had written before Nirvana existed, new material such as Dumb and overbearing noise experiments including Scentless Apprentice, it wrongfooted pretty much everyone. In Utero was a f*ck you to the music industry, press and even some fans.
A f*ck you that has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the US alone. The disturbing lyrics addressed Cobain’s thoughts on fatherhood, marriage, conflict with fame and his record company. Within a year of the album’s release, he was dead. But, as Nirvana’s bassist, Krist Novoselic, explains, for all the significance that has been attached to In Utero, it’s often forgotten that the band went into the studio to record a beautiful, significant, lasting pop record. As a new reissue package demonstrates, it was mission accomplished.
COME AS YOU ARE
In Utero was recorded in February 1993 and its genesis was as contradictory as the band’s bubblegum-buzzsaw sound.
“We were just trying to go back to the roots,” says Novoselic. “There are a lot of big choruses on Nevermind and the production was really slick. Kurt said he didn’t like it, but I think he was blaming things on it, like, ‘Oh, if that record wasn’t as big I wouldn’t have as many problems’.”
To avoid giving the new record the same glossy treatment, the band defied the wishes of their label, Geffen, to record with nonsense-averse indie producer Steve Albini (who had produced Cobain’s favourite record, Surfer Rosa by Pixies). One of Albini’s conditions for taking on the job was that the label had no influence over the recording or mixing of the album. The band complied by, at his suggestion, paying the $25,000 bill for the sessions out of their own pockets.
The album was recorded and mixed in 12 days; the short deadline kept production within the band’s budget and fit Albini’s concept – to create a raw document of the band at their primal best. It likely also reflected Cobain’s fear that the band may fall apart in the studio.
It was the first time Nirvana had worked together after a fractious year that strained their relationship. Cobain’s increasing heroin use led to him being hospitalised after an overdose, in addition to a dispute over songwriting royalties.
But the mood during rehearsal and recording was optimistic – Cobain was clean after his OD; Grohl and Novoselic were inspired by the new material.
Although a visit from Courtney Love, who reportedly turned up berating Cobain for what she felt were weak songs and performances, did little to lift the mood, both Nirvana and Albini were pleased with the results.
“That’s why In Utero is my favourite Nirvana record,” says Novoselic, “because the band, with everything that was going on, still made a good record. It’s a testimony to Kurt Cobain’s artistic vision and his songcraft.”
While interviews and TV appearances suggested Nirvana were wearing their mammoth success lightly, they were well aware that it was a serious business to those around them. This was made clear in a call from their A&R, saying the label hated the recordings, thought they lacked potential singles and insisted the band remix the record.
Initially, the band had reservations about the request. But Cobain wasn’t without commercial sensibility. He wanted the band to be a success and knew how to play the game.
“Even with Nevermind, we recorded with Butch Vig and the label just wasn’t happy,” recalls Novoselic. “They were like, ‘You need to work with Andy Wallace’, who mixes big pop hit records. And oh, the curse! We had a No1 record! Would it have been this big with Butch mixing it? I don’t know.”
After some deliberation, the band agreed to remix two singles, Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies, to make the tracks palatable for radio. Novoselic visited producer Scott Litt in Seattle, where he was recording Automatic For The People with REM, who agreed to help.
“When you’re a No1 band, there’s an expectation to rise up to that,” says Novoselic. “And Kurt realised that, too – in his better moments. You’re given huge paycheques and have critical success, so you have these obligations. After working with Steve, we weren’t really meeting some of those, so we decided the fix was to work with Litt.”
Novoselic was charged with persuading Albini to hand over the masters. The producer was incensed, but ultimately acquiesced. It wasn’t the only compromise Nirvana would make to get the record heard.
LIVE! TONIGHT! SOLD OUT!
Although Nirvana struggled with the notion that some of their fans would have happily beaten them up a few years before, they were pleased so many people had, as Novoselic says, “come to us” to discover underground music. When retailers WalMart and Kmart refused to stock In Utero, claiming it violated their policies on ‘offensive material’, Novoselic persuaded the band to tone down the graphic cover and retitle Rape Me as Waif Me. Nirvana faced criticism from fringes of their fanbase for this perceived act of self-censorship at corporate insistence, but Novoselic saw it as democracy. “As for playing ball with WalMart,” he says, “if that’s the only place you can buy a Nirvana record – some WalMart in Alabama – yeah, we’ll change an album cover. Then the kids’ll get the record, and they’ll listen to it, and then we got ’em! Because I was once that kid, that’s how I saw things.”
Similarly, the band went to great lengths to ensure ticket prices for the forthcoming tour were affordable.
“You know how much the tickets were for the In Utero tour? Twenty bucks. We wanted to make sure you could afford to go to a Nirvana concert.”
THE BIG PAYBACK
Nirvana’s efforts paid off. In Utero may not have been the same phenomenon as Nevermind, but it “still consolidated Nirvana’s position as the poster boys of alternative music”. But the pressure was mounting again. When warm-up dates for the In Utero tour began in July, Cobain was back on heroin.
“I had my issues,” says Novoselic. “I wasn’t that together. But the thing with Kurt was, he was very intelligent and capable, but he carried the biggest load, because he was the frontman. Out of all that craziness he got the most attention, it was a lot of pressure. At that time, he couldn’t take it.”
The European leg of the tour began in February 1994 and, to the outside world, there was little indication that anything was wrong within Nirvana. Then, in Rome on 1 March, Love found her husband unconscious and Cobain was again rushed to hospital.
The incident was reported as an accidental overdose of Rohypnol (Cobain had been prescribed it for a stomach condition) and champagne. Love has since claimed it was Cobain’s first attempted suicide. Cobain never seemed to fully recover, withdrawing to spend more time with heroin.
“That thing in Rome,” Novoselic sighs, “I remember talking to him after that, and he was just different. I don’t know if the coma he was in affected him, but that was a game-changer. The rest of the tour was cancelled, and he was home for a couple of weeks. I went to see him and there were these other people there – junkies – it was terrible. What do you do? It was a disaster.”
PEACE, LOVE AND EMPATHY
Novoselic felt Cobain was drifting out of orbit and got together a group of friends for an intervention. Grohl refused to take part, feeling it wasn’t anyone’s business to tell Cobain what to do. It didn’t go well – Cobain locked himself in a bathroom. “Kurt was so stubborn,” says Novoselic. “And he was really high. It was hard to get through.”
Cobain eventually agreed to get help, but after one week in rehab he absconded. Just over a year after recording In Utero, on 8 April, 1994, Cobain was found dead in his home.
“What do you do, dealing with drug addiction?” asks Novoselic. “When people don’t want to change, what are you gonna do? Just be there for them. ‘When you’re ready, I’m here,’ you know? [Sad laugh] And then he got hold of the shotgun. And that was it.”
The 20th Anniversary Special Edition of In Utero is released on 23 September