Nirvana Producer Recalls How Kurt Cobain Acted in Studio, Reveals One Thing Kurt Didn’t Want to Do

During a new interview with Consequence of Sound, famous producer and Garbage drummer Butch Vig looked back on his collaboration with Nirvana back in the day. Vig was involved in the production process of the band’s legendary “Nevermind” album, ultimately helping the record achieve its multi-platinum status. Recalling his initial contacts with the band, Vig recalled how he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the official debut album “Bleach.” He said (transcript via Music Radar):

“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.”

However, this one piece was enough to persuade the producer to start working with Nirvana. Recalling the demo stage of “Nevermind,” Vig said:

“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.'”

He also adds:

“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.'”

Pay To Play (Smart Sessions)

Recalling how eventually he and Nirvana came to a mutual agreement to work together. But going deeper into it, Vig recalls hearing the band’s early demo of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He said:

“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 (Boombox Rehearsals)

Remembering the start of the studio sessions, Vig 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.”

However, as Vig added, Kurt wasn’t super keen on even the standard studio tricks and overdubbing. He wanted to keep the process as true as possible. The producer remembered:

“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.”

Recalling the process for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Vig also said:

“I just had to be bulletproof. So anytime he was ready to go, I was ready to record. We would finish the song and then once I thought the rhythm track was great we would go back and just start doing some of the overdubs and build the song quickly.”

Photos: Valdo Howell (BVSmartStudios), P.B. Rage (Nirvana around 1992 (cropped))

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 Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.

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