Studio Life

The trailer for Dave Grohl’s documentary on the Sound City studio where Nirvana recorded Nevermind has just emerged. I enjoy the snippet where Brad Wilks, drummer of Rage Against the Machine chuckles “we chose Sound City because Nevermind was recorded there,” as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world that less than a year after Nevermind’s recording it had already set such a standard that RATM should want to work there.

The trailer dwells briefly on the death of the studio in 2011 as newer facilities took over and digital became the way of the future — it also implies that the decline of the music industry and the spread of low-cost recording technology has put paid to the recording budgets that allowed dedicated studios to thrive. Yet this isn’t an uncommon piece of the Nirvana story. As well as Sound City, Reciprocal Recording, Nirvana’s key locale, had already closed by mid-1991. It then became Word of Mouth Production and saw one Nirvana session in 1992 until it too closed in 1993. The list goes on; Butch Vig’s Smart Studios (Nirvana, April 1990) went out of business in 2010; The Music Source in Seattle which Nirvana recorded at in Autumn 1989 then again in January 1991 survived from 1969 to 1996 before owner Jim Wolfe closed it down. Viewing the history of Nirvana studio visits means looking over a clutch of tombstones.

It isn’t all gloom of course; Robert Lang Studios (Nirvana’s home for the fleeting January 1994 visit) remains a fully functioning facility, meanwhile Pachyderm Studios (In Utero sessions, February 1993) rolls on happily. Yet, following the trail, means coming across not just the ‘dead’ studios, but the lost. I can’t even find present day evidence of the BMG Ariola Ltda studio where Nirvana recorded in January 1993. BMG Ariola no longer exists as a distinct entity, the facilities themselves are now hidden somewhere inside the Sony identity. The name has gone, the location may or may not still exist, the owners have moved on — until someone furnishes me with the evidence it’s no more than a spectre.

There’s already, however, a sense in which studios were something more than a physical space. By the time Nirvana hit Barrett Jones’ Laundry Room Studios in 1992 it had already moved through four locations in Arlington, Virginia before settling in Seattle. The history page of the official website then shows it shifting through a further four locations from 1993 to present day. The point being that with the studio gear changing, with the location shifting so fundamentally, it’s unclear whether the studio is more than a name. Yet, actually, the name itself has significance. Instead of marking the physical presence of bands in a defined location, Laundry Room Studios remains as a marker of Barrett Jones’ first efforts in his parents’ basement laundry room. So, again, there’s a personal history, this time of the producer and owner, inscribed into the existence of the studio making it (for want of a better phrase) a mind-space floating free of present day location; tethered somewhere in the past.

That’s the wider point hinted at by interviewees in the trailer; there’s a spell in which they sit reciting lists of bands and artists who made use of Sound City. While focused on a single location, the studio’s significance within the trailer is as a haunted house. The past presence of an artist shouldn’t have any relevance to someone recording there but that link back to their predecessors seems to spark smiles on a host of places (“That’s what I’m talking about!” says Dave Grohl to emphasize the significance of studio ghosts.) Past residents act as a mark of taste, a source of inspiration, a reassurance that one has made it; music tourists walking through the phantoms. The studio is decorated to ensure this particular point is unmissable; the cameras trail down walls loaded with memorabilia indicating the people who haunt the hallways and the past records that acted as ancestors — in the sense of being previous Sound City recordings — to whichever album was being made in the present. Pachyderm Studios takes this to a further extreme given it houses a Neve Mixing Console that previously saw service in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland studio and the Record Plant where John Lennon among others recorded. Even the equipment in the studio is haunted by those who came before.

It’s often hard to separate a celebration from a lament; there are few tributes until the life of something is passing — memory and remembrance imply a look back at what has gone. When interviewing Miti Adhikari about his involvement in Nirvana’s penultimate radio session, I asked (long-windedly) “the studio in which these songs were recorded, some producers seem to work hard to minimise or eliminate room noise, to what extent did the studio in which the songs were recorded matter to the music created?” I was just meaning the physical conditions.

His answer reinforced the sense that the value of a studio isn’t so much about the technical facts of recording or its physical realities. He replied; “these songs were recorded in Studio 4, Maida Vale. The studio is legendary, as it is easier to name the artists who haven’t recorded there than the artists who have. The place reeks of history and music and anyone who records there is acutely aware of this and wants to play their part in creating yet another bit of history. The sound of the room is the USP and has been loved by musicians through the ages.”

Again, Dave Grohl refers in the trailer to “the social” in music; it seems that a lot of that communion isn’t with those who are present; it’s with the ghosts in the machines, in the walls, with the echoes rolling through the building.

Well, anyways, here’s the breakdown of Nirvana’s time in studio by number of days spent and songs recorded.

Studio_Number of Days

While Sound City was the longest committed length of time Nirvana spent in studio in one go, Reciprocal Recording was the place where a core chunk of Nirvana songs were made. I sometimes wonder if the flitting between studios in 1992-1994 was a physical manifestation of Kurt Cobain’s discomfort with making music…

Studio_Number of Songs

Preferred Remembrance Part II

So what could I imagine being worthy future Nirvana releases?

Well, OK, clearing away what is already known to be on the way — Autumn 2013 will see the Super-Deluxe edition of In Utero which presumably will include the Rio De Janeiro and Word of Mouth outtakes, plus the unmixed versions and leftovers from Pachyderm Studios in February. It’d be nice to see some of the earlier versions of In Utero material also. In some ways, given the drawn out origins of In Utero, with some songs dating back to 1990, there’s potential for quite a span of material to be incorporated.

Moving beyond that, there are enough alternative takes left from studio sessions, plus radio session tracks and TV performances to make for a solid CD (or two) along the lines already provided by With the Lights Out; the outtakes from June 1988, the unreleased Sappy take, the jam performed on Dutch radio in late 1991 alongside takes of Here She Comes Now and Where Did You Sleep Last Night, the audio of Seasons in the Sun seen on the With the Lights Out DVD, the jams from January 1994…There’s enough.

For the anniversary of his death coming up in 2014, however, it would be great to see a Kurt Cobain collection. This would naturally have to, finally, feature an officially approved release of the Fecal Matter demo of Easter 1986 (see Gillian G. Gaar’s book Entertain Us for a really well-argued explanation of why this recording took place later than was thought), could feature more of the radio session with Calvin Johnson from 1990, could finally spit the 1994 basement demos out (and stop teasing everyone with their existence) and could gather up some of Kurt’s wider musical experiments which run into far more unusual terrain than anything seen on Incesticide. I can’t imagine Montage of Heck ever seeing official release but some of the other scraps would be good to hear cleaned up. Such a release could also hoover up some of Kurt’s collaborative work; The Go Team single, the two tracks performed with Earth, Mark Lanegan. In some miraculous future maybe someone will have found the 1982 Cobain demos too…Let’s dream.

Either in combination with that, or as a separate release in its own right, I’d very merrily listen to a two CD set of Kurt’s acoustic (or electric if they exist) home demos. While it’s fair to say that the pieces seen so far aren’t exactly musical triumphs on the guitar front, they do possess a desirability simply because there’s so little material where Kurt’s voice is laid so bare, so stark.

Likewise, there are enough unusual live renditions available that a fully-polished and mastered major label disc would be of genuine interest despite the stirling work done by the fan community. The unusual 1991 take of Vendetagainst (A.K.A. Help Me I’m Hungry) often referred to as Come On Death would be great to hear in better fidelity; the opening jam from the Rio de Janeiro concert would be worthwhile; Curmudgeon, Oh The Guilt, variations on some of the early Nirvana songs likewise; and of course the various songs with alternative lyrics in their initial iterations — a release bringing these together would garner much goodwill from a fan base fed up of hearing yet another carbon-copy edition of Been a Son.

A similar project could gather together at least some portion of the many live covers Nirvana performed over the years. I’ve always adored the version of My Sharona from 1994; Bad Moon Rising and Run Rabbit Run from 1988 are both quality, Krist’s version of The End is great… There’s enough material out there and with a half competent mixing it’d be possible to use the shorter scraps and quotations Nirvana used live to segue between the more fully fleshed out songs. It’d be nice to see post-hoc mixing that actually does expand on the audio experience rather than just being used as a way of punching the listener in the head with VOLUME. It’d be lovely to have a covers collection.

The only other place I can imagine Nirvana going on record (not including endless reissues of full live shows on CD and/or DVD) would certainly be one for the hardcore only…Maybe that would preclude it receiving official support, but who does anyone imagine is forking out for vinyl reissues of Incesticide or scraps of extra Nevermind material anyway? J Mascis recently released an album with his friends under the name Heavy Blanket consisting of a short selection of studio jams. Nirvana’s live jams are intriguing, varied, interesting for refocusing on the musical talents of these individuals — the Nirvana: Live, Tonight, On Tape article by Brett Robinson I shared on Facebook and Twitter yesterday points to a couple of good examples. A single disc selection wouldn’t outstay its welcome, at least not with fans whose ears are open to feedback and raucous sprawls of sound.

That’d be the barrel fully scraped I believe – nothing left. The Swans official website ( has always run an intriguing project offering CD-R issues of a vast number of the band’s performances. If Universal had the patience then a custom-built website offering similar access to the live archive (whether as downloads or with a CD ordering option) would appeal. Beyond that…My imagination runs dry.

…Unless…Unless someone loses their mind and goes down the road of Having Fun With Elvis on Stage — this is worth a look if one wishes to see how bad posthumous recordings can be:

Other bright ideas for Nirvana recordings welcomed!

Preferred Remembrance

Yet another Jimi Hendrix album on the way but at least nothing more from Tupac:

Oh…Hold up. Nothing more since October I mean:

Anyways, the point here is about the kind of legacy we wish an artist to leave behind. In the case of Jimi Hendrix his death was followed by a raft of albums across the next decade, of varied quality to say the least, including overdubbed session musicians and a lot of unstructured jamming. Tupac’s death resulted in a similar flood of material ranging from early demos verging on beat poetry, to bawled out live tracks, unnecessary remixes, and lots of soul-heavy production and ill-matched collabos.

In each case, the artist concerned had a tendency toward incontinent recording with every last thought or improvisation committed to tape to be sifted at a later date for lines worth tweaking and guitar parts worth reprising. By contrast The Notorious B.I.G. left nothing more than a few stray verses and sketches requiring substantial ‘heavy lifting’ by other artists to create anything approaching song length. The Beatles’ vast six disc, three volume Anthology project laid bare a paucity of genuinely unheard originals but at least an awful lot of practice covers and variations.

Nirvana could never leave an archive like the former examples; prior to fame they didn’t have the money to spend lengthy sessions in studio and post-fame they didn’t want to do so. The resource that could, potentially, be delved into in more detail would consist of any surviving rehearsal tapes (so expect Boombox Demo sound quality and clarity) or remaining home demos of which there’s little proof any exist after 1992 that are anything other than alternatives to known renditions. In a post a few weeks back I pointed to ‘The Empty Cupboard’; a studio archive with a few alternative takes and a few jams left to go. Meanwhile the only visible hint at rehearsal material is With the Lights Out’s first shot at Scentless Apprentice indicating there’s worthwhile In Utero era demos and Gillian G. Gaar’s comment that a couple of brief shreds from a 1987 rehearsal are still unreleased. As far as home demos go, well, there are a number of more experimental pieces still to emerge officially but well bootlegged — I discuss these in more detail in the Post-Mersh chapter of Dark Slivers. Then finally there’s the rumoured 1994 demos described in the Dry as a Bone chapter released as a sample on here the other week.

So what we’re seeing instead is a continued discography bearing greatest similarity to The Beatles’ treatment. The custodianship of the Nirvana legacy, I would argue, has actually been in relatively good hands — there have been no ludicrous attempts to ‘improve’ (i.e., corrupt) the remaining recordings with unnecessary guest appearances, remixes, artificially created acapella or instrumental renditions. The most that has happened is some typical modern day remastering work involving compressing everything at the expense of dynamic range and beauty. Some complaints were aimed at the one disc Sliver release with three new tracks slammed on to sweeten the compilation but that release did have a purpose for those unwilling to sift the entire box set and, so far, that approach hasn’t been reprised.

What it does mean, however, is that the kind of jumbled releases seen thirty years after The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix ceased to be (e.g., Anthology, West Coast Seattle Boy) are actually what we’ve already seen in the form of With the Lights Out. They’re also what we’re more likely to see in future. The absence of a strong studio archive leaves it more likely that future releases will rely on effective gathering of live material (we’re seeing it already with the Live at Reading, Live at the Paramount releases) to create something approximating an official equivalent to Outcesticide.

…But at least we won’t see that bloody awful Duets album that they put together for Notorious B.I.G. It’s my vote for the worst album I’ve ever heard. I whipped it out of the laptop, slotted it back in the case, walked out into the cafeteria area at work and began offering it to passersby. Nirvana’s post-finale releases may not have scaled the heights at all times but at least they haven’t been an open insult to fans and to the artists concerned. We should be grateful they haven’t plumbed these depths…

Too Many Books About Nirvana

The title paraphrases the most common reason I received for rejection by publishers over the course of 2012 when I submitted Dark Slivers. It’s actually a not unreasonable position to take given the pressures the literary sector is under.

Providing a similar perspective, here’s a quick look at my ‘Nirvana Shelf’, this doesn’t include general volumes on grunge, punk or alternative, also a couple of tab books are elsewhere:

Nirvana Books

Now, I was told in my youth that Napoleon Bonaparte is the most written about individual who has ever lived with several thousand volumes between his rise to power and the present day. I’m also aware that historians and other trustworthy professionals have come to accept that each generation emphasises and focuses upon different aspects of a subject thus reflecting the social mores and interests of whenever the present day happens to be. While this opens the door to saying that some topics have a universal and continuous relevance, it doesn’t mean that there’s an infinite amount that is worth saying on any topic.

As a personal choice, naturally I’ll continue to buy Nirvana books as they emerge — Gillan G. Gaar and Charles Cross are guarantees of quality reads. There’s no way I could have written Dark Slivers without the work done by these two, plus Michael Azerrad and others, in pinning down the story of Nirvana so thoroughly. I also relied on the work done at the Internet Nirvana Fan Club, LiveNirvana and the Nirvana Live Guide. Having absorbed all these volumes over the years I was focused, while writing, on trying to create something that had something different to say — hopefully you can tell from the blog.

What I want to look at here and find interesting is the publishing phenomenon that was Nirvana. The peak of the era has long since passed but if we examine by date:


Books Published 1992-2012

It’s wonderful how clear the pattern is. Until Kurt Cobain’s death Nirvana are simply another popular band hitting it big, with barely enough time for anyone to begin writing the tale. His death (and canonization as a fully fledged musical saint) leads to a flurry of publication between mid-1994 and 1998. The peak in 1997 is deceptive incidentally given three of those publications are James Adler’s slim volumes on the Nirvana studio albums. Things tail off until the greatest hits release in 2002 then With the Lights Out in 2004 spark things up again. Having product emerging around which one could tag a publication seems to have become a motivating factor for publishers to take a chance on an author over the past ten years.

I excluded more general studies of grunge from the graph just to give it a focus. It’s intriguing that it’s only from 2007, at twenty years distance, that grunge becomes a book subject with six published in the four years to end of 2011. I’d theorize that the release/imminent release of the twentieth anniversary edition of Bleach, then of Nevermind, sparked the refocus upon grunge given two volumes came out that year then a further three in 2011.

After the pause in 2005 the rest of the calendar belongs to a small set of trusted authors. Gillian G. Gaar alone releases four of the nine volumes singlehanded. Everett True took time for releases in both 2006 and 2007. Charles Cross returns for a single volume and Mat Snow edited compilation of press articles arrives in 2011. It’s still Gillian, however, who rules the roost with releases in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Having convinced publishers there was a definite market it seems it was just a case of having the hook or angle. The result, if we look at ‘type’, ends up as band bios, Kurt Cobain bios, song studies, essay/article compilations, photo studies, album studies and then the volume on legacy (which I admit I don’t recommend.) I’m sure there are more possibilities. It’s a shame so many have been repeats. Of course, with this quantity, it’s hard to argue for more.

Whether you, as a reader, find value in the idea of yet more Nirvana works depends on whether you feel that reading about Nirvana (or indeed any topic) is simply about establishing the facts then closing the book, or whether you feel that reading is just as much about the act of thinking and exploring in real-time, the reader’s experience, as it is about the subject under discussion.

Come on Death!

Obama paying tribute to Led Zeppelin a couple days back. Its the fate of all history to be softened, sugared, reduced to soundbites – it’s intriguing that Nirvana’s career hasn’t really undergone that reduction to family-friendly status given the self-inflicted brutality of its ending. When I mentioned Nirvana or Kurt Cobain to people the responses are fairly uniform; “he’s the one who shot himself?” “Wasn’t he a massive drug addict – did he die of an overdose?” “He was married to that mad woman wasn’t he?” and then, increasingly regularly, “who’s Kurt Cobain?” There’s too much darkness surrounding the collective memory to be eased away and made fit for a Presidential tribute.

I’ve been asking, when people ask to be placed on the pre-order list, how/when people first got into Nirvana – what’s their story? As a personal part of my own, Kurt Cobain was my first experience of death. It seems strange but I was fourteen years old, I’d been at most three years old when my last major relative died, other family deaths were off too far in the extended network for me to really notice. Kurt Cobain was the first time death had penetrated my existence as anything other than a cartoon element in action films, comics, play fighting. Suddenly it was a real presence. I didn’t know the guy, I live thousands of miles from Seattle, but that didn’t stop it being a knife wound. Something I cared about so deeply had been unexpectedly and sharply severed.

This weekend I spent sat with my grandfather. Until as recently as three years ago he was a powerful, immaculately dressed gentleman with a raft of stories always worth a retelling. He’d been a sportsman for most of the first part of his life, then a professional rugby referee, then a coach of professional rugby referees, only retiring from his involvement in his late Seventies. This was a guy who at age 72 bought an x-type Jaguar and had the most gleeful look on his face as he showed me he could kick it to 125mph without even touching the Sports Button. At age 76 a drunk tried to attack him in a newspaper shop – my grandfather decked him with a single punch then stuffed the guy over the top of the shop counter. You’ve never seen a happier ‘bad boy’, he was so chuffed with himself, a permanent suppressed grin for the next week.

Quadruple heart bypass in between the death of his wife and one of his two daughters , my grandmother and aunt respectively and truly one of the worst years I’ve ever heard of. He came back from that, began living again and its a joy to see someone restored, realising how they hadn’t been themselves in so long. He had the cartilege kicked out of his kneecaps during his playing career leading to a knee replacement operation he never really recovered from. Then cancer shut down one of his kidneys, all dormant but requiring regular observation – untreatable, inoperable, just sits inside there. Meanwhile his hips had been compensating for his knees so hip pain resulted, then his back began to go. The drugs that keep his blood thin mean he can’t be treated for the cancer, nor for the frozen shoulder that is causing him immense pain. The diabetes killed the circulation to his feet while the back problem made him walk less and less. Gangrene set in this year and ended with a toe being amputated and weeks of treatment to drain the feet. There’s a hole where the bone had to come out of. This weekend was the first time I’ve ever, in my entire life, seen him unshaven. I lived with him a year and there was never a day when he didn’t spend his morning preening himself ready to face the world. This weekend it was, as always, a pleasure and an honour to spend time in his company. He sat dozing with his head resting on his chest for most of the two days, he won’t wear the hearing aid so conversations are shouted over a TV with the volume dial up on fifty. The heating is up so high I get headaches but he’s still cold.

And there’s nothing to be done for it. He’s enduring a bad death. A drawn out three years of mounting problems making this great man a prisoner in his home. All we can do is make him comfortable, show him he’s cared for, find ways to reduce the burdens on him and keep him happy – bare witness.

So I didn’t post yesterday. I love Nirvana, Kurt Cobain is a hero, but real life and those I love will always be more important. It makes me wonder how hard 1992 was for Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl; forcing smiles to avoid media intrusion while being able to visibly see their friend reduced to a skeleton. What do you do? Most of the time all you can do is witness. It saddens me he couldn’t find a way back to life, I can’t even begin to understand what its like to carry so much physical and mental pain around though so I don’t give much credit to those who suggest he just needed to pull himself together, get over it. I’m watching a man die and I can see he hurts, but I can’t share in that pain, only acknowledge it. Pain is private, it can’t be passed from one body to another, ultimately Kurt Cobain endured alone.

Oh. And the bloody draft book still hasn’t shown up – delay is driving me nutty. It’ll be here today/tomorrow and then, with my say so, the full print run will be returned to me at the end of the week.



Nirvana 1990 Tours

Darn. Got home late last night and no sign of the draft book – cross fingers for today!

1990 contains a virtual repeat of the first half of 1989. The band kick off in Washington State, then swoop down the west coast through California, dipping out into Mexico, briefly visiting Arizona, back into California, back home. A further jaunt abroad, just across to Canada, follows then, finally, April sees the band off on the road again.

April kicks off in Chicago, then is broken up by further shows in Canada, dropping across the order to Toronto and Montreal before returning to blanket the North-East U.S.:

April 1989_Part 1 and Part 2

That second part is certainly confusing, the band returned to Massachusetts three times, Pennsylvania twice, hence the “cat’s cradle” style map work. This led directly into another run right back across the U.S., twelve shows and a mere fifteen days getting them all the way back to Idaho and then on to home (waving goodbye to drummer Chad Channing at the same time):Tour_May 1990


This was followed by a decent pause as the band regrouped, acquired temporary drummers, then returned to the road with a short jaunt down the West Coast:

August 1990 Tour


That tour, starting in Las Vegas, ended with a run from Seattle across to Vancouver. September-October was a quiet spell; Dan Peters only show, then two practice outings in Olympia for Dave Grohl before his full ‘blooding’ in the full European tour that saw out the year.