The exclusive oral history of Nirvana's debut album 'Bleach'

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Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Chad Channing, and Krist Novoselic. (Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Chad Channing, and Krist Novoselic. (Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)

It was shortly after the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's debut album Bleach when I started working with co-writer Katherine Turman on the book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. At the time, we planned to include a chapter about grunge since the music form was the loudest, most chaotic and most original rock subgenre for a while, and bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains clearly were influenced by metal as well as punk and classic rock.

Their rebellious spirit and counter-culture aesthetic literally wiped out everyone but like-minded alternative rock bands, and for a while many hair metal and thrash groups scrambled to stay relevant, most to no avail. Some cut their hair, others changed their songwriting to sound more contemporary. Grunge bands – especially Nirvana – were the new blood and deserved recognition for tearing down the walls of traditional metal.

To write a comprehensive chapter about grunge, we conducted extensive interviews with members of most of the major groups and used material from our vast archives to present a retrospective of the Seattle-based music movement that swept the globe, starting in the late '80s. When Louder Than Hell proved to be too long for publication as a single volume (the rough draft was over 1,000 pages long), we were instructed to make some major cuts. One of the first casualties was the grunge chapter.

So it is with great joy that we can now celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most groundbreaking grunge albums, Nirvana's Bleach (released June 15, 1989), by presenting a previously unpublished overview of the birth of Nirvana and the creation of their debut full-length. Bleach isn't Nirvana's most developed or best record, but it put them on the map in a big way and set the stage for their earth-shaking follow-up Nevermind.

KRIST NOVOSELIC (Nirvana): At first I kind of faked [bass]. I started listening to other bass players to find out what they were doing. My first concert was Iron Maiden. I was so stoned, it was a riot. I was into the Scorpions two years before anyone else was. I was into Ozzy before anybody else was.

KURT COBAIN (Nirvana): I was aware of punk in, like, '78, '79, through reading Creem magazine, but I was only, like, 12 at the time and was too young to find [punk] — especially living in Aberdeen, Wash. But I always felt that I wanted to get into it. Then in '83 I finally found some people who had some punk rock. I met the Melvins, who made me a few compilation tapes. The first punk rock song I heard was "Damage II" by Black Flag.

DALE CROVER (Melvins): I knew Krist and one day he was like, "I'm playing with the Melvins, I'm in the Melvins now," and I was like, "Really? Wow, pretty crazy." They were playing at Metal Church's first ever gig in Aberdeen, and I thought, "Oh, that will be cool, I like them," so I went to see them play. Krist was kind of a popular guy at school, but his being in the band was him coming out and playing a punk version of "Sunshine of Your Love" with them while Buzz sang. Then that was probably around April or May of 1984.

KRIST NOVOSELIC: [Kurt] hung around my brother. He was a cool guy, and he gave me [the Fecal Matter demo] that him and Dale from the Melvins made of these songs that Kurt wrote. I listened to it and got really excited, like, "Whoa, this is really cool. Hey man, let's start a band." He played guitar, so he had a guitar and amp, but I borrowed a bass and bass amp. We found a drummer with this junky drum set and we started hammering out some stuff. In two weeks we had a bunch of songs, like "Floyd the Barber" and the first song I heard on that tape was "Spank Through."

DALE CROVER: There was at least one of song on the [Fecal Matter demo I did with Kurt] that became a Nirvana song. We did the demo at his aunt's house. His aunt was this musician in Seattle that had a four-track, and we went up there and he recorded all the songs that he had, and I think I played drums and bass. We ended up getting this friend of ours to play drums for a little bit, and I played bass, but I don't remember doing any gigs — maybe one or two. It was because of that demo tape that Kurt got Krist to play with them, and they got a drummer. There weren't many musicians around Aberdeen, and they weren't happy with the guy that they had playing drums with them. After they'd been playing around for a while, they asked me to record a more professional demo with them so they could get a drummer. It's funny, because from that demo, [songs] got spread on Bleach, Incesticide, the boxed set; it's been a nice little chunk of change.

As raw as it was, Fecal Matter paving the way for the type of punk and metal hybrid Cobain and Novoselic pursued with Nirvana. The musicians went through a couple of drummers, Bob McFadden and Aaron Burckhard, during which time they wrote songs and pondered names including Pen Cap Chew (an early song), Bliss, and Ted Ed Fred. Finally they settled on Nirvana.

KRIST NOVOSELIC: I don't even know if Kurt knew what he was doing. It was just like, "Let's have a band," and we always stuck with it through whatever obstacles came up. Even when we were both working with jobs, we kept the band alive, because the music was always there, and things started to happen. We drove up to Olympia from Aberdeen in this Volkswagen beetle. We took the backseat out and just stuffed everything in there and Kurt and a gallon of wine in there. Then we started playing in Tacoma and then Seattle.

KURT COBAIN: I was supposed to go to art school, but I decided to drop out of high school the last month, because the reality of it was too much for me to handle, because I knew I didn't want to do art, I wanted to be in a band.

KRIST NOVOSELIC: Kurt does most of [the writing]. Riff and vocal melody, and we start jamming on it and then we'll come up with bridges and arrangements and the dynamics and stuff.

KURT COBAIN: We play so hard that we can't tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that. We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath. We're just musically and rhythmically retarded.

DAVE GROHL (Scream, post-Bleach Nirvana, Foo Fighters): I'll never forget them telling me this story about being on tour before recording Bleach, and they had one tape in the van. One side was Celtic Frost and the other side was the Smithereens, and they'd f---in' listen to it over and over. Listen to "Big Cheese" off of Bleach, man, it sounds exactly like that!

KURT COBAIN: I think what most people can get out of our lyrics is that I'm equally as frustrated and confused as anyone else, so it helps break down the rock star barriers. I've been writing since I was in high school. Poetry, many booklets filled full of stupid ideas and philosophies so I take a lot of lines of those and put them in songs. I like writers like [William] Burroughs the best and I'm into [Charles] Bukowski, [Samuel] Beckett… anything with a B. I like denseness. I feel really close to [Burroughs's] writing. The first time he used the cut-up technique, in the '40s, it was totally revolutionary.

Novoselic and Cobain moved to Tacoma and Olympia, respectively, and Burckhard stayed in Olympia. So Nirvana started practicing again with Melvins drummer Dave Crover.

DALE CROVER: I liked [Kurt and Krist], but I liked playing with the Melvins better. Musically, I always felt that we were ahead of those guys. Even that demo tape — not the very first one I did with Kurt — but the one with more of an established band: A lot of it sounds like the Melvins, for sure. It was kind of before they found their own groove. We did a demo tape so they could get a drummer and they ended up with a record deal instead. It was almost the next day that Sub Pop called them. We went and recorded with Jack Endino, and I knew him from him being in Skin Yard, and Kurt, I think, wanted to record with him because he had done a Soundgarden EP or something like that. Kurt called him up and said he was a friend of the Melvins, and Dale was playing with him and they wanted to do a tape. Jack was really into it, and we recorded eight or 10 songs, and recorded and mixed in like six hours, and then played a show that night. Almost the next day, they got a phone call from, maybe Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop? I can't remember who it was. Jack had played him this demo tape [and] they were interested right away. I was already planning on moving to San Francisco and continuing playing with the Melvins, which ended up working out pretty good. If I'd stuck with Nirvana I'd be out of job today and out of a band. So I think I made the right choice.

With a record offer on the table, Nirvana connected with drummer Chad Channing, who played on their first recording for Sub Pop, a cover of the Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz." The recording went so well that in December, 1988 Nirvana entered Jack Endino's Reciprocal Recording Studio to track Bleach.

JACK ENDINO: (Skin Yard, producer): Dale Crover did exactly one recording session and one live show with Nirvana, both taking place on Jan. 23, 1988: the session in Seattle in the afternoon, the show in Tacoma in the evening. [By the time we worked on Bleach], a year had passed and two of the songs were no longer being played by the band, so they opted to just use the Dale takes [on the album]. The third one, "Floyd the Barber," we tried to record with Chad [Channing], but everyone decided that the original version with Dale was just a better take. Chad's a good drummer, but Dale, even then, was world-class. Chad knew that and had no problem with it. The total recording and mixing time for Bleach was in the neighborhood of 30 hours. It doesn't get any more together than that.

DAVE GROHL: [Kurt and Krist] told me about their second guitarist Jason Everman, who was in the band for a short period around the Bleach album. He actually paid for [the recording of] Bleach, then they kicked him out. F---ers! He was really into King Diamond, and they would make so much fun of him for it, and he would always say, "Don't diss the King, man!"

JACK ENDINO: I cannot verify that [Jason Everman paid for Bleach and was then kicked out] firsthand, but I have heard the same thing. I believe he loaned them the $606.16 and I don't know if they ever paid him back. Jon Poneman thought that he paid for Bleach, and I had to disabuse him of that. He may have reimbursed them later, but the money didn't get to Jason Everman.

JASON EVERMAN (ex-Nirvana, ex-Soundgarden): The whole thing was weird. I left Nirvana [after] I realized I wasn't going to be allowed to participate in songwriting [or be] anything more than a side guy. It wasn't my band. I'm the kind of guy where, one or two songs per record, a riff here or there, and I would have been sated. [When I] got back to Seattle following that U.S. tour, honestly, I felt kind of relieved, knowing I was out of the band. It got stressful towards the end [of the band's tour with Tad tour].

KURT COBAIN: I was so nervous [at our first show], I vomited. I don't think the wine I drank helped. It was red wine, like blood. They thought I was Kiss.

Shortly after Bleach was released, a division surfaced between metal fans who loved the album and punk diehards who clung to Nirvana as one of their own. In interviews, Cobain said he liked some metal, but expressed contempt for the jocks and metal bullies who had embraced Nirvana. From there, a tradition begin, in which Soundgarden disavowed any affinity for Black Sabbath, Tad badmouthed metal, and even Alice in Chains, who started out as a glam-metal band, gravitated more towards the flannel and self-loathing mentality of grunge.

BRANDON GEIST (Revolver magazine editor): I remember as a kid being so pissed-off having been more of a metalhead, and then getting into Nirvana and all the grunge bands, and then having my punk or more indie-rock friends saying, "No, this is punk." I would go, "Dude, this is metal!" Then you dig a little deeper and it's like, "Yeah, these guys like metal bands." Soundgarden toured with Pantera. Alice in Chains had Tom Araya on their record. These are metal bands. So it was all just a spin, and to a certain sense, bands played into it because it wasn't cool to be into metal then.

ZAKK WYLDE (Ozzy Osbourne band, Black Label Society): Just 'cause Kurt Cobain didn't have Al Di Meola shredding guitar solos [doesn't mean Nirvana wasn't heavy]. Kurt was a singer-songwriter. He would have been the first to say, "Dude, I can't play 'Eruption,' and he really didn't care. It was still heavy f---in' s---.

Even if Nirvana wanted to, they couldn't audience. Their music belonged to punks, metal heads and alt-rockers. The band supported women's rights and strayed from the typically misogynist antics of many rock stars, but lovers of the loud still dug him. Whether Cobain wore a dress or sang about junk-culture, his passion, integrity and talent were undeniable to a variety of subcultures and only grew as time passed.

DUFF MCKAGAN (Guns N' Roses): Nirvana weren't around when I left Seattle, but I was part of that Sub Pop singles club. I got Nirvana's single "Love Buzz" and it didn't really do anything thing for me. It was only later when I heard Nevermind that I was completely blown away. It was so good that Guns N' Roses started playing it over the PA before we played.

JACK ENDINO: For [the Bleach reissue], I got to mix an entire live show from the Pine Street Theatre in Portland. I think it was from 1990. They were at the top of their game. You can hear it in the recording. The vocals are dead on. It was one of their last shows with their old drummer Chad. He was a guy who got better each year, and by the time they finally got rid of him, he was pretty damn good. Chad was no slouch, but nobody's as hard a hitter as Dave Grohl. Period. He is a unique phenomenon. A force of nature.

DAVE GROHL (at Nirvana's Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony): Here's the thing. Guess what Chad's responsible for? If you listen to [the riff drum fills on] a song like "In Bloom," that's Chad. When I joined the band, I had the honor of playing Chad's parts. So Chad, thank you very much for allowing me to play your drum parts."

Select quotes used with permission from following: Jeff Gilbert, Jennifer Clay, Guitar World. Also thanks to musicliferadio.com. Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal was recently released in paperback on HarperCollins and is available wherever fine and filthy books are sold.

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