Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Idol

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In 1991, as Nevermind topped the charts, Kurt Cobain tried to explain why Nirvana were suddenly the hottest band in the country.

“We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded. We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.” So said Kurt Cobain when he sat down for an interview with Guitar World in late 1991. At the time, Nevermind, the Seattle trio’s majorlabel debut, was one of the hottest out-of-the-box albums in the country. Fueled by the contagious hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the spirited album turned Gold a mere five weeks after its release and, one month later, leaped past both volumes of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion. Nirvana’s sudden, multi-Platinum-bound popularity said much about the mood of pop fans: bored with the slick, flamboyant music that had dominated much of the Eighties, they embraced the comparatively raw sounds (driven by cheap second-hand guitars, no less), infectious dirty riffs and wry lyrical hooks that were “Teen Spirit”’s hallmarks. None of that, however, prevented Cobain from postulating his own reasons for Nirvana’s rapid ascendancy.

“We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath,” he continued in his nasty smoker’s hack. “And we vomit onstage better than anyone!”

It was a light-hearted side to the guitarist that would become rarer over the following two years as Nirvana’s fame grew and Cobain’s psyche spiraled out of control. During this Guitar World interview, Cobain’s first, he showed no evidence of his dark side. Moreover, we certainly had no idea that the brash young man in our presence would influence a new generation of rockers and change the course of music. To us he was just Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s guitarist, singer and songwriter, and teen idol of the moment. In this brief but breezy interview, he waxes humorously on the pros of cheap guitars, the perils of twang bars, and why Leo Fender was a dork.

GUITAR WORLD MTV thinks Nirvana is a metal band.

KURT COBAIN That’s fine; let them be fooled! I don’t have anything against Headbanger’s Ball, but it’s strange to see our faces on MTV.

GW Metallica’s Kirk Hammett is a huge Nirvana fan.

COBAIN That’s real flattering. We met him recently and he’s a real nice guy. We talked about the Sub Pop scene, heavy metal and guitars.

GW Speaking of guitars, you seem to favor low-end models.

COBAIN I don’t favor them; it’s just that I can afford them. [laughs] I’m left-handed, and it’s not very easy to find reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars. But out of all the guitars in the whole world, the Fender Mustang is my favorite. I’ve only owned two of them.

GW What is it about the Mustang that works for you?

COBAIN They’re cheap and totally ineffi- cient, and they sound like crap. They are also very small and don’t stay in tune, and when you want to raise the string action on the fretboard, you have to loosen all the strings and completely remove the bridge. You have to turn these little screws with your fingers and hope that you’ve estimated it right. If you screw up, you have to repeat the process over and over until you get it right. Whoever invented that guitar was a dork.

GW It was Leo Fender.

COBAIN I guess I’m calling Leo Fender, the dead guy, a dork. Now I’ll never get an endorsement. [laughs] We’ve been offered a Gibson endorsement, but I can’t find a Gibson I like.

GW Is the Mustang your only guitar?

COBAIN No, I own a ’66 Jaguar. That’s the guitar I polish and baby. I refuse to let anyone touch it when I jump into the crowd. [laughs] Lately, I’ve been using a Strat live because I don’t want to ruin my Mustang yet. I like to use Japanese Strats because they’re a bit cheaper and the frets are smaller than the American version’s.

GW The acoustic guitar you play on “Polly” sounds flat.

COBAIN That’s a 20-dollar junk shop Stella—I didn’t bother changing the strings. [laughs] It barely stays in tune. In fact, I have to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place.

GW Considering how violently you play the guitar, you probably use pretty heavy-duty strings.

COBAIN Yeah. And I keep blowing up amplifiers, so I use whatever I can find at junk shops. Junk is always best.

GW What was the last amp you blew up?

COBAIN A Crown power amp that was intended for use as a P.A. but which I used for a guitar head because I can never find an amp that’s powerful enough—and because I don’t want to have to deal with hauling 10 Marshall heads. I’m lazy. I like to have it all in one package. For a preamp I have a Mesa/Boogie, and I turn all the mid-range up. And I use Radio Shack speakers.

GW How reliable is this setup? It doesn’t seem like it would be that durable, especially in view of all the touring you do.

COBAIN It works out okay. The sound changes with every club we play in, but I’m never satisfied. I think the sound I get is mainly a result of the Roland EF-1 distortion box I use. I go through about five a tour.

GW Ever get the urge to use a twang bar?

COBAIN No. Anybody that plays guitar knows that only Jimi Hendrix was able to use the standard tremolo and still keep it in tune. Those things are totally worthless. I do have one on a Japanese Strat, but I don’t use it.

GW Your first album, Bleach, was recorded for $600; how much did Nevermind run you?

COBAIN [laughs] I don’t remember; I’ve got Alzheimer’s. And don’t ask us how much our video cost; that’s a hell of an embarrassment.