Nirvana Producer Names One Thing He Did That ’Broke Dave Grohl’s Heart,’ Recalls ’Scary’ Moment With Kurt Cobain in Studio

While recently paying a visit to Rick Beato’s YouTube channel, famous producer Butch Vig recalled working with Nirvana on their landmark album “Nevermind” from 1991. One issue that he brought up was the band’s tendency to speed things up while recording “Lithium.” This was solved by using a simple click track — something that wasn’t really typical for Nirvana. Vig explained (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“The only song that was done to a click was ‘Lithium’… The day we tracked it, they started playing, [and] as soon as they kicked in, it sped up. Speeding up is okay in rock ‘n’ roll, but it was the only time I noticed [them] really kind of lurching, and Kurt noticed that too.”

“And he said, ‘What do we do? I just don’t like the way this is feeling.’ And we did three or four takes; we got to the end of one of the takes. [We] didn’t even finish, [and] Kurt said, ‘Stop, stop, stop. This doesn’t feel right to me.'”

Vig then explained that Kurt was angered by the whole thing. But fortunately, this helped him in recording another song, the album’s “Endless, Nameless.” Vig continued:

“And then he launched into ‘Endless, Nameless.’ I’ve never seen so much rage on a person’s face — it was scary. In the end, Kurt completely smashed his guitar and blew his voice out.”

So after Cobain got that out of his system, it was time again to go back to “Lithium.” This time around, Vig decided to help them out with a click track. Sure, a pretty unconventional approach for a band like Nirvana, but the producer suggested the idea to young drummer Dave Grohl. He continued:

“I pulled Dave aside before they went out the door and said, ‘Have you ever played to a click? And he said, ‘No. Why?’ ‘Because I think maybe we should try it. Might be worth it in the song, to keep a really steady groove.’ I always carried this tiny little Roland drum machine with me… And he said, ‘I’ll go try it tonight.'”

Nirvana - Endless, Nameless (Audio)

“And he came in the next day. I asked how it went with the click, and he said, ‘I think it’s okay. I don’t like playing too much. But I think it’ll be okay. So we roll a click, ‘Lithium’, first take — boom, done. Perfect. I didn’t have to do any drum editing.”

“I was just like, ‘Oh my god, Dave Grohl is a machine.’ He told me years later doing [2011 Foo Fighters album] ‘Wasting Light’ that when I asked him to play with a click track, I broke his heart… but only for one day [laughs].”

Well, broken heart or not, the resulting song became one of Nirvana’s classics. And it’s thanks to producer Butch Vig and his incredible ability to get the best out of musicians he’s working with.

Nirvana - Lithium (Official Music Video)

In a last year’s interview, Butch also looked back on what working with Cobain was like for the “Nevermind” album. However, one thing that he mentioned as well is that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the debut album when he heard it. At the time, this was all that Nirvana had to offer and Vig said of it:

“I was kind of unimpressed. I thought their record was kind of one-dimensional, but there was one song on there, ‘About a Girl,‘ which to me was a brilliant pop song and sounded like Lennon-McCartney-style songwriting.”

And it was actually this song that persuaded Vig to work with Cobain. He continued:

“They hadn’t written ‘[Smells Like] Teen Spirit.’ I knew that Kurt’s songwriting had progressed a lot because of the songs that we recorded for those ‘Smart’ sessions. ‘In Bloom’ was one of them, which is just a fantastic song and a great melody over a chord structure. ‘Stay Away‘ was on there. I think it might have been called ‘Pay to Play.’”

Pay To Play (Demo)

“I knew that he [Cobain] was trying to grow as a songwriter and it was during those early ‘Smart’ sessions… I discovered he was a huge Beatles fan, and as much as he admired John Lennon’s aesthetic, he really admired Paul McCartney’s melodic songwriting and his melodic sensibility. So I filed that away as a reference point that I would use later on when we recorded ‘Nevermind.’”

And then came THE song:

“A couple of days later a cassette showed up. So I put it in my cassette player in the car… It was Kurt, and he said ‘Hey, Butch, we’ve got a new drummer, his name is Dave Grohl. He’s the best drummer in the world.‘”

“And they kicked into ‘Teen Spirit‘… And as soon as they kicked in, it was so distorted because they recorded on those boomboxes with the built-in microphones.“

“Yeah, it sounded like shit. But even though it’s a wall of fuzzy distortion, I could hear the song, you know, I could hear the chord progression. I could hear the ‘hello, hello’ part. And I could tell even though the recording was horrible that they were really, really tight.”

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

Reflecting on the beginning of “Nevermind” sessions, he said:

“It wasn’t a party, they came in and meant business. I wanted to make sure every time we recorded something, everything was set up… and then just basically have them go for performance.“

“So the first day… I walked into this big room…  said, ‘Okay, let’s do it’. They play me a song and they kicked into ‘Teen Spirit.‘ And it blew my mind how good it was… it was so incredibly powerful.”

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Live at Reading 1992)

“I would go ‘let’s go overdub that with a separate sound’. And initially, he was totally up for that. But then as soon as you started doing it, he would get a little mad – ‘I don’t want to do that again’. Really, really, really impatient.”

“But I kept saying, ‘You know what, remember we’re trying to make this sound larger than life, man, let’s go for it’. And then the first track we got to when I want him to overdub extra vocals he just said ‘I really don’t feel like I should do that just feels fake.’”

“And I kept saying the Beatles double-tracked all their vocals. Listen to John Lennon. Listen to Paul McCartney, all the vocals are double-tracked. And he sat there silent for about five seconds, and then he went ‘Okay.’”

“He was wary of that because I think now that he had signed to Geffen he wanted to retain his punk authenticity… I mean, the recording is really simple. It’s basically them playing the song, with some some overdubs and some harmonies and vocals and I really concentrated more on the performance and the sound of everything being recorded. And that’s really the sound of Nevermind.”

Photo: Valdo Howell (Butch Vig at Smart Studios, Madison, WI, United States of America), Paul Flynn (Dave-Grohl)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.