The Truth About How Nirvana’s Most Iconic Album Got Made

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged,' New York, New York, Novemeber 18, 1993. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
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Nirvana might just be the most iconic rock band of the 1990s. The record that saw them achieve this status, and rocketed the band to worldwide fame, was their second album, Nevermind, released in 1991. It’s sold millions of copies, and it received wall-to-wall coverage at the time that it came out – but in the years after its release, Cobain would say that he couldn’t stand it.


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Nevermind came a few short years into the band’s history. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had founded the group back in 1987, with Cobain serving as the band’s singer and lead guitarist, and writing most of the band’s music, while Novoselic was on bass. Before settling on “Nirvana,” the band had considered a number of other names – including Skid Row, Fecal Matter, Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred.
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Cobain reportedly said that “Nirvana” had particular significance though. “Punk is musical freedom,” he explained. “It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, ‘nirvana’ means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that’s pretty close to a definition of punk rock.” Of course, in the following years, Nevermind would encumber Cobain and his bandmates with global celebrity and a worldwide following – success that it would seem the lead singer both yearned for and resented.


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The group’s first album, Bleach, had been released by Sub Pop Records in the summer of 1989. The first single, a cover of “Love Buzz” by Shocking Blue, had come out the year before and had attracted a reasonable amount of positive attention. The record ultimately came together quickly, and relatively cheaply, and was warmly received by critics. Nirvana’s first album was “the biggest, baddest sound that Sub Pop have so far managed to unearth,” a review by NME reported.


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When Nirvana started work on a second album with Sub Pop, it had the working title of Sheep – apparently joking about the band’s anticipated success, and coming with the tagline, “Abort Christ.” According to Charles R. Cross’ 2001 Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, much of the album was inspired by the lead singer’s relationship with Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill. The two had been together for a period in 1990 but then split, seemingly amicably.


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In April 1990, the band began recording songs with producer Butch Vig for the planned Sub Pop release at his Smart Studios in Wisconsin. The band had settled on Vig, having appreciated the heavy sound of some of his previous work with acts like Killdozer. The recording would see a significant change to the material on Bleach, though.


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And these sessions would see the band fine-tuning many of the tracks that would eventually appear on Nevermind – and the prerogative was to create a live, heavy sound. However, things would slow down following the demo session. For one thing, drummer Chad Channing quit the band following a 24-show tour – which sank any idea of using the material as the basis for an album.


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But Channing didn’t leave with hard feelings towards the rest of the band. In an interview with KAOS TV in 2018 he explained, “Our differences were strictly on a musical level. We always stayed friends.” Even so, his absence meant that Nirvana needed a new drummer. Fortunately, the band soon discovered Dave Grohl – and it was at this point that things began to fall into place.


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Grohl had formerly been the drummer for Scream and bringing him into the band had a marked effect on Nirvana’s sound. Producer Vig received a message from Cobain informing him that they’d found “the best drummer in the world.” Vig was skeptical at first. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said, “I thought, ‘I’ve heard that one before.’ But he was right.”


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With the demo recordings in hand, the band went looking for a new label, aiming to secure their own deal at a time when they were concerned that Sub Pop was about to become an indie subsidiary of a larger business. Subsequently, the band moved over to Geffen Records’ DGC imprint and began rehearsing for Nevermind in earnest. Grohl moved in with Cobain in Olympia, Washington, and the trio got to work.


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DGC put forward a number of producers, but the band was keen to stick with Butch Vig. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Dave Grohl recalled, “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 fuck is he recording?’” The answer was apparently the Smashing Pumpkins – who the members of Nirvana had never heard of. When the band eventually did manage to connect with Vig, though, they impressed him.


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Indeed, the band sent Vig an early recording of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While talking to Kerrang!, years later, he described the first time that he had heard the track. It was apparently hard to hear anything due to the level of distortion – but the producer nevertheless knew that the band were onto something. “Underneath the fuzz, I could hear, ‘Hello, Hello,’ melodies and chord structures. And even though the recording was terrible, I was super excited.”


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The song took its title from a piece of graffiti written by Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna. On a night out in Olympia, Cobain, Hanna and Tobi Vail had written, “Fake abortion clinic, everyone,” on the walls of a teen pregnancy center – the purpose of which was apparently in fact to advise women against abortions on religious grounds. Later that evening, Hanna then wrote the words, “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall – unbeknownst to him, referring to a brand of deodorant.


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With things coming into place, the band headed down to L.A. to commence the recording of the album. “They were living in this apartment complex, and it was chaos,” Vig told Rolling Stone. “There’d be graffiti on the walls, and the couches were upside down. They’d stay up every night and go down to Venice Beach until six in the morning. I’d go into the studio at noon and they’d wander in around four.”


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Nevertheless, the band were putting in the equivalent of a full working day putting the album together. Furthermore, the band were extremely familiar with the tracks, which meant that things tended to go smoothly. “We had practised so much,” Grohl told Entertainment Weekly, “It was just a matter of hitting the record button. We were tight.” Indeed, to a significant degree, the album had been set in place by the end of the earlier Smart Studios session. That’s not to say that there weren’t disagreements, though.


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For example, when it came to “Smells Like Teen Spirit, “ Vig wanted to double-track Cobain’s guitar and vocals, to add weight to the finished sound. Cobain disapproved of this, however, apparently considering it to be a form of cheating.


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The producer got his way in the end, though. He reportedly talked Cobain around to the practice with the line, “John Lennon did it.” And the singer’s vocals were actually so consistent that Vig was able to use two different takes to build a double track.


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“Drain You,” meanwhile, featured so much layering of guitar tracks that Vig referred to it as achieving “an almost orchestral sound” – and it required a significant amount of trickery, Vig said, to coax out of Cobain. The track includes everything from squeaky toys to aerosol cans, as well as a freeform section that Grohl has called as “the Bohemian Rhapsody of Nevermind.”


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