An Interview with Bob McFadden: Nirvana’s First Drummer

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I was reading an early interview with Nirvana a couple months back and at one point they’re asked about their history with drummers. This is during Chad Channing’s time on the stool and Cobain replies “Is Bob in…Should we count Bob?” Novoselic and Cobain eventually decide not to count Bob McFadden. On that occasion, however, the band are being so strict with their timeline that they also state that Nirvana didn’t form in Aberdeen, “…as Nirvana we formed in Olympia and Tacoma…” Which is technically accurate but overlooks the tentative period from mid-1986 through early 1987 when ‘something’, a no-name-band at the time, was starting up. It made me curious to learn more about Mr. McFadden — what role had he played in the first foray of the Cobain/Novoselic five-year-plan?

I browsed the books — there’s barely a mention. A few comments online and that’s it. So, here I have to make an immediate thank you to a friend who was willing to pass on a note for me. Within just a few hours I’d received a very polite message back and was able to explain that my sole desire was to hear a little more about the time Mr. McFadden spent with the future stars. Hope it’s of interest — from my side it was a pleasure, a really enjoyable conversation with a really pleasant fellow. In summary, in August-September 1986, for a period of up to four-five weeks, Mr. McFadden was invited to be part of a new band just getting together…

Bob McFadden, first man on the Spinal Tap roster of ‘Nirvana’ in its early years, thank you.

Bob: Years ago I had a chance to do a couple of interviews but I was in a place in my life where I was a little selfish and I declined. Nice to have it come back around. I don’t know how much I have to share but if you’re interested and your heart’s in the right place then I’m happy to share a little of my history and feel pretty good about it.

Nick: Your name’s come up again and again with regard to the Nirvana story and yet, looking through all the books, you’re kinda not there. But I was reading an interview the other day, a very early interview, where the interviewer asks Kurt and Krist how many drummers the band has had and the first thing Kurt asks Krist is whether they still start with Bob or not… I just wanted to flesh out what that time was — my first question was what was your story? There was quite a small crew into the punk scene in that area, how did you come to be part of the crew?

Bob: I grew up in Aberdeen, that’s where I went to elementary school and high school. This was pre-grunge movement and though there were a few punk rockers around Aberdeen most of us were just in cover bands and doing covers of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, some of the old rock n’ roll. That’s what we were getting together and rehearsing then we’d go out and play the parties. I never envisaged myself as a musician then seventh grade jazz band I was asked to play the drums — never studied it but I was asked so I got up there and kept the beat. Guess I got bitten by the bug — it intrigued me — and I ended up getting a kit then hanging out with a bunch of people, the Dale Crovers, the Aaron Burckhards. There was just a little clique of us who hung around and jammed a lot…

Chris Novoselic’s brother — Robert — me and him started a thing with Evan Archie and ended up doing a lot of parties. So I was always going over to Chris and Robert’s house to do some rehearsing — which is how I met Chris, it was actually through his brother Robert. There weren’t many venues up there — we were really young, still in high school, not really thinking about that as a career. Fast forward a little bit, I’m still hanging out with Robert while Chris was actually playing guitar for us in that little cover group. I got approached by Chris late in my senior year, maybe right after, and that’s when he asked me to come hang out with him at Maria’s Hair Salon and sit in with him and Kurt.

I didn’t actually know Mr. Cobain very well. I’d seen him around some of the parties and some of that scene, but he was a pretty quiet, reserved guy. So, I was asked by Chris to come and sit in so I met them over at Maria’s Hair Salon — I was only there for a few short weeks and that’s why you won’t see my in a lot of the publications because I was only involved pre-Nirvana, in the really early stuff. It was brief, just a few weeks of me going over and we’d rehearse two-three times a week. I have to be honest I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get what they were trying to do. Unfortunately! Because a couple of years later they’re properly produced and they’re ‘NIRVANA’ of course! I didn’t get it, I didn’t understand the movement that was taking place. It is what it is. Back then it wasn’t all put together nice and neat in the studio, it was pretty raw, I didn’t get what they were doing — I was used to doing cover tunes and this was all brand new to me.

Then I had to make a decision. I was talking to my girlfriend, who became my wife — Mrs. Tina McFadden — she was asking me what my plans were; “are you going to work and have a family or are you going to go out on the road?” And at that point I had to make that decision; did I want to go do this music thing, or was I going to raise a family and join the working class? I’m really glad I chose the path I did because I have two beautiful daughters — Kayla and Kenzie — a good career and I still know some people in the industry so — bonus. Had I chosen that rock n’ roll path I may not be here today talking to you. If you go into it thinking of it as a job, in an industry, I think you’re a little better off but some of us get a glorified vision of what it’s about. Today that’s how I think of it — people getting together and making this product and then putting it out into the market then you go out and play to show it off — but back then that’s not how I felt and that wasn’t my vision of what rock n’ roll was all about. But yeah, at that point all of us had a vision that this could go somewhere — we all wanted to go do that until I had that discussion with my girlfriend and got some perspective on it. Everybody we were hanging around with was trying to break out.

Nick: So, it was known locally you were a drummer and Chris approached you around the time you finished high school?

Bob: Yeah I was still playing with Evan Archie — he was now the guitar player in the band — and Robert Novoselic, Chris’ little brother. We were doing some things, starting to play small clubs, couple of wedding receptions, that type of thing. Very semi-professional stuff. And Chris just came up to me one day, “hey, I’ve got this guy, you want to get together?” And I was just “sure, I’m up for anything.” So that was it, we got it together. Like I said, it was just for a brief three—four week deal and I bowed out gracefully and off they went. It was ’86 but it’s a long time ago so it’s after graduation in June but I’m guessing we definitely started off around summertime — sometime around August.

Chris and Kurt had some material written but they needed someone to help out on the drum track portion of it. So they definitely wanted some input — like I said, I don’t recall all of it, but they had songs and I just didn’t understand what they were trying to do. Kurt seemed in charge of what was happening — Chris would always give his input even when we were doing cover songs before this. Chris had great vision, I was always able to envisage him producing things because he had a lot of good insight. But mostly Cobain was the driving force. I’d call it a democratic process, just with a leader — we all got our say. I’ve listened to a lot of Nirvana but I don’t recall anything that I’d played on at that time, nothing I remember.

Nick: And Maria’s Hair Design was the only place you practised or were there other places?

Bob: For this particular thing it was Maria’s — before that Chris was part of what we were doing at his house. I remember Kurt showing up a few times there, playing some covers. But this period at Maria’s was geared toward a particular thing which was putting together what their vision was. I think they were trying to put this thing together and to go do what they did — but unfortunately I couldn’t see that. Kurt and Chris played together comfortably — I’d say they were very comfortable with each other. I remember they had a Tascam four track recorder hung up with one microphone in the center of the room so they could do some playbacks. They seemed serious about what they were doing.

Nick: Do you remember a day where it felt ‘right’ where it felt like “yes, we could do this!”?

Bob: I don’t recall. Typically people only remember the worst but I’m sure there were points where we gelled as musicians and it felt right, felt good. I don’t remember contributing anything specific — I’m the kind of guy who would have said something if I’d had something to add, but it’s a long time ago and I don’t remember. Worth asking, you might jog a memory or two! It was quite a serious time commitment at the time — pretty organized. They knew where they wanted it to go and it was pretty well-structured. So they’d put some thought in before they contacted me and made sure they had their material together. I’d taken a little time off music in order to finish and graduate high school so in that time I think they were getting together and pre-rehearsing it because that was what Chris said when he first spoke to me about it, that they had stuff ready and they wanted to see if they could get it worked up. I think they wanted to find a drummer so they could go to a studio, record a demo, then go do the clubs. It definitely seemed they had a vision. I didn’t practice outside of playing with them because my drum kit stayed there at Maria’s so it was just about showing up and playing when we got together. I just remember they were working well together and I think they had that vision…

Nick: Do you remember the kinds of covers you were playing together at the time while you were at Maria’s?

Bob: Just the classic rock n’ roll — Black Sabbath…We played Cream, Sunshine of Your Love was on our list for sure. Mustang Sally — that was one of Chris Novoselic’s favorites but that’s because he was playing a Fender Mustang around that time which is why he liked it so much. Chris was always kind of reserved — you’d never think it when you see him stepping out with the bass in his hands, or now when he’s doing the political stuff. You’d never know he could be a quiet guy — I don’t think he ever wanted to be a front man.

Nick: How did things end?

Bob: I recall having that conversation with them. We rehearsed and I cut that off a little early and said “hey, I need to talk to you guys — I’ve made a decision…” and then I broke the news to them, packed my kit up and headed home. I didn’t just leave them hanging in the wind. I wish I had the recordings just for memorabilia sakes, I know a gentleman who does — I don’t know if it was my recordings at Maria’s but he just sold them back to the Cobain estate. I don’t personally have anything from that time frame.

Nick: Did you learn back then that Aaron took over from you sometime after, around November or December?

Bob: I actually didn’t know about Aaron until just recently — literally a couple years ago — I didn’t discover that Aaron had been a big part of that until some of the stuff with him on it got released. I see he’s back in the scene, he’s playing with some fellas and doing that, good for him. I’m glad to see him back out!

I know that at one point I harboured a few feelings just out of jealousy — just because I’d not become part of what happened to them. But I worked through all of that really well. But I know some people in the area, people in the scene, who went through a lot of dark stuff because of what happened to Nirvana and had a degree of envy because they weren’t a part of that. It’s weird when you’re friends with somebody and suddenly they’re famous and you’re not. It’s human but most of us move on and I definitely have. I didn’t stay in touch with Chris or Kurt once things started happening to them. I’m still in touch with Robert, Chris’ brother. I’d love to have a cup of coffee with Chris, see where he’s at in life, but I don’t want to feel like I’m intruding given how much he must get contacted by people.


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