Editor’s note: Greg Prato originally published this article on April 3, 2015 on Alternative Nation. We are re-publishing it today to honor Kurt Cobain on the 23rd anniversary of his passing. Check out Greg’s new book Shredders: The Oral History of Speed Guitar.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an oral history book that focused 100% on Nirvana. But that changed in 2015 with the arrival of Nick Soulsby’s I Found My Friends: The Oral History of Nirvana, via St. Martin’s Griffin. Instead of tracking down the usual suspects to be interviewed, Soulsby has taken a unique approach – speaking to members of the bands (many of which remain ultra-obscure) that opened shows for Nirvana back in the day, to reflect upon when their paths crossed with Cobain & co. Mr. Soulsby was kind enough to answer some questions via email for Alternative Nation, about his book and thoughts on the band that altered the landscape of rock n’ roll back in the early ’90s. Soulsby also took a look back at some of Nirvana’s craziest concerts.
Care to share a few new facts about the band or Kurt Cobain that you discovered?
It was great speaking to the Argentine and Brazilian bands – DeFalla, Biquini Cavadão, Dr Sin, Los Brujos, Pirata Industrial – they’ve basically been ignored by western media ever since, but they were there for these shows which probably rank as Nirvana’s biggest and worst all at once. The Buenos Aires show in October ’92 has always been portrayed as just one-sided sexism, but the Argentine band think it was just a bad decision to put an underground punk band after a gold selling set of national superstars and before the platinum-selling global superstars.
Realizing how poor and ordinary Nirvana were so late in the day – it’s autumn of 1991, Nevermind is almost out and Krist Novoselic is having to sell his motorbike for cash. Kevin Kerslake, the film director, was kind enough to talk in real detail about working on what became the Live! Tonight! Sold Out! video with Cobain in 1992 through 1993.
The spring 1990 tour after which Chad Channing gets sacked – I don’t think I’d realized what an appalling tour it was; there’s everything, broken equipment, bad venues, arguments with support bands, booed on stage…I’d never realized what a mess it was. And straight after that, I hadn’t realized how many drummers Cobain invited to join Nirvana – I spoke to half a dozen people who were asked to try out for the band on top of the further half dozen candidates mentioned at various times over the years.
I loved talking to Rod Stephen of Bjorn Again about Cobain personally inviting their Abba tribute to open for them at the Reading 1992 festival, he really made clear how supportive Nirvana were, how funny they thought it was.
Photo credit: Nirvana-Legacy.com
I enjoyed recounting the story of Nirvana’s first show entirely through their then manager Ryan Aigner plus Tony Poukkula and Duke Harner from the band Black Ice who lived in the house in Raymond where it took place. They made it really personal, this sense of Nirvana having to be railroaded into playing, then being jumpy and nervous performing…I guess what makes me proudest is getting the support of Nirvana’s third drummer, Dave Foster, when I wrote the chapter focused on him. A lot of the important stuff – move to Seattle, first notice from Sub Pop – happens when he’s drumming but he’s not been treated with as much respect as I feel he deserves. He read the chapter I wrote about him and was willing, afterwards, to be quoted on the cover of the book. I think his has been a story that hadn’t been told – he’s a nice guy, still hoping he’ll tell it all himself some day.
When and how did you begin listening to Nirvana?
I discovered Nirvana while on a school trip cycling round the battlefields near Arras in Northern France. I was thirteen so maybe it was the time, on the trip back a guy sat opposite had his cassettes in a hat on the seat and I dug through them, pulled out a tape with Nevermind on one side and Bleach on the other. I remember him saying, “You’ll like that,” turns out he was right. A year later the family had saved up and we visited Florida, the whole Disney World experience. On the last day there, Friday April 8, we went to some mall in the morning and I bought the last Nirvana album I didn’t have – Incesticide I believe – then headed to the Magic Kingdom. We made it home late, turned on the TV and the news anchor said something like “Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the grunge super-group Nirvana, was found dead today at his Seattle, Washington based home with gunshot wounds to the head – apparently self-inflicted.” I was young, I’d never experienced anyone dying, not even someone I didn’t know personally but had an engaged interest in – guess it was just that age where fixations form easily and everything feels intense.
What made you decide to do an oral history on Nirvana?
Accidental and fortuitous discovery. I was into doing data-based analysis of Nirvana for the blog and I’d written a piece sometime in February 2013 giving the headline numbers; Nirvana played alongside 234 bands (not counting festivals), there were only 36 they played with more than 4 times…I made some jokey point about how numerologists should love the fact they played with 27 bands in 1992 then 27 across 1993-94; can you hear the theme music from the Omen playing? Staring at all these band names I just became so curious about who they were; Lansdat Blister, Victim’s Family, Steel Pole Bath Tub – some really stellar names. So, I started seeing if I could find former members – just intending it to be blog fodder at first. But it kept building and certain people were such a pleasure to speak to that it encouraged me to keep going and find more. Gradually, my spare time around my actual job turned into 25-30 hours a week Nirvana time, working from 9pm each night until 1am, then getting up at 6.45am to head to work, coming home at 6.30 and doing it again. Putting in the work made the difference. Making a book of it became the intention probably sometime in the summer of that year because there were just so many stories I felt (and still feel) deserved to be told, a lot of talented people who lived intriguing lives and I ended up feeling a desire to bring them into the light. It was like writing a book then erasing myself from it piece by piece, until gradually as much of it as possible was crammed with other voices – means it’s something I can read back on and enjoy. Guess that’s it in the end, I wanted to write something I’d enjoy as a fan.
How does your book differ from previous Nirvana books?
There are obviously the classics one works around – Gillian G. Gaar is the best, Charles Cross and Michael Azerrad are essential – between them they’ve sewn the biographical approach up tight. I don’t think my own thoughts and opinions are particularly remarkable hence why I save them for the blog mainly – it means when it came to considering doing the book what interested me was bringing together the people who were actually there and letting them tell their own story. I think it’s pretty rare to find an oral history built entirely around one band, told entirely by the bands who shared the stage with them – I kept a list and basically ticked them off as I found members game to talk, 170 of my list of 234 bands in the end. The key for me is in the title, I Found My Friends, that felt right for a book that’s about the lives of people in the underground scene in those years, about situating Nirvana in the environment they came from and shared with all these people…plus, it’s so clear that once Nirvana became famous they spent their entire time trying to share the spotlight with their friends in the underground, trying to take their friends with them, promoting underground bands, getting favourites out on tour. To write a book that hopefully shares that supportiveness and inclusiveness – I kinda just hope the people in the book feel their time was well-spent and that I’ve honored them.
Who would you say were the best interviews you conducted, and why?
Blag Dahlia of the Dwarves is a true gentleman – profane, sardonic, rude…and incredibly sharp-witted. He’d give the most hilariously vicious replies but over and again the underlying points he was making were absolutely accurate. A deeply intelligent man. Victor Poison-Tete of Rat at Rat R, likewise, has an awesomely capacious intellect and a great way of expressing it – a real artist. Truth is there were moments over and again where I felt really lucky and privileged that people would let me into some part of their lives; sharing homebrew with former members of the bands Machine and Yellow Snow in Tacoma was a really good night. Being reminded that writing about Nirvana or Kurt Cobain isn’t just some academic topic for dissection, it’s a story about people’s friends and loved ones and I don’t ever want to forget that. In the time it’s taken to write the book, I’ve lost my father, my grandfather, and my godfather – the week the book was handed in, the book I usually joke is my Kurt Cobain memorial week, I finished the last touches sat on the tiles on the floor of a hospital in Spain doing what I could to keep my father comfortable. We hadn’t known he was dying, he hadn’t known, I’d been traveling out to celebrate our birthdays which are just a day apart then the news hit. Kurt Cobain was a guy with a lot of friends who loved him and who still feel hurt when they think back – I think I maybe understand that better now.
You mention at the beginning of the book that the Nirvana Live Guide site proved helpful to your book. What can you tell people about the site (who are not familiar with it)?
The Nirvana Live Guide is the combined knowledge of a set of uber-fans who have put in so much sweat and toil that I feel unworthy each time I utter a word about Nirvana. It’s essentially a chronology of Nirvana’s appearances, set-lists, known footage or recordings, plus evidence from the occasion such as flyers or photos. Especially in the first three years of the band when they were playing a lot of house shows and barely had a song out it’s a real mission discovering where they played and when. A lot of the energy now goes into the LiveNirvana site which is an even more comprehensive hub for data on shows, recordings, rarities. There’s a community there dedicated to tracking down unreleased material and lost shows – nice guys, awesome work.
Are you a big Nirvana live bootleg guy? If so, which live recordings do you recommend the most?
I admit after twenty plus years of listening to these songs there has to be something pretty fresh or different for me to pay great attention to live material. I’d totally recommend the Outcesticide bootleg series or a set called The Chosen Rejects to anyone just wanting to hoover up particular rare songs and material that hasn’t been officially released – that whole “Montage of Heck” sound collage has been circulating for years. Live-wise, what I’d say is it’s about picking an era you enjoy, or deciding what kind of show you want to go for – late era sets are longer, early set-lists are brief but more varied because the band aren’t playing as often, 1990/early 1991 sets catch the band at their peak blowing clubs sky-high over and again…I go for the early material where they’re still sketchy, keep testing out songs, get things wrong. The Off Ramp Café show from November 1990 is the show everyone raves about; a ton of rare performances plus energy like you wouldn’t believe, everyone sounds thrilled to be there.
You also run your own Nirvana site, Nirvana Legacy, right?
Nirvana-Legacy.com. Pretentious title I admit – not a clue what was on my mind when I wrote that, forgive me! I felt there was no reason anyone would give “Dark Slivers” a chance (another pretentious title…must have been a phase) if I wasn’t willing to push my work out there and let people see it and decide for themselves if I was worth giving a hoot about. Early on it was about analyzing, trying to explain things about Nirvana via graphics and charts, by giving people the raw data to work with wherever possible. I’ve a feeling I was a bit possessed at the time, I was pouring out thoughts on Nirvana, posting most days, building up this pool of material…I had to pause after a year or so and go in, tidy up, delete some posts altogether, but still there’s over 400 pieces on there now all from October 2012 to present. I enjoyed posting my tour of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest up there – sharing the trip with people, such a great place and I think the friendliest people I’ve ever met. It was one week after I’d watched my grandfather die, two weeks after we’d had to have his partner arrested for basically robbing him blind…a strange time to go but maybe darkness makes the bright sides of life seem more special. I sometimes feel less or more inspired, I feel like apologizing sometimes when I don’t feel it but it keeps coming back. Next thing I really want to do on the blog is use all the leftover material from I Found My Friends to write stories focused on each of the bands in the book; who were they? Where did they come from? Testify to their existence, show a little of what people might have missed or just scanned past on an old flyer…
You penned an earlier Nirvana book, Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide. Please discuss.
A publisher issued an open call for proposals back in early 2012. The desire was for one volume histories/analyzes of important albums – I saw the advert and thought, “I could do that,” so the demon on the other shoulder sneered and said “Yeah…right” I decided to prove him wrong. The choice of Nirvana’s Incesticide compilation was simply because it was on the mind that year what with the twentieth anniversary of its release creeping up, plus it’s a deeply neglected release – a full EP from Nirvana’s first recording session, songs from each previous year of their development, all the tracks that showed the move between Bleach and Nevermind. I didn’t get through the contest, I didn’t give a fuck – I’d done too much and I finished it because I was damned if I was quitting. I found a friend with a small publishing imprint who was willing to help, a friend in Oregon worked into the nights with me to finalize the design and graphics, we got the printers set up and paid for, prepared the eBook version too. I just had this desire to write a Nirvana book that was something more than soap opera and a ‘pretty story book’ – I wanted to analyze, dissect, cut it apart, build data, over-think it. I think music is often treated as if musicians aren’t intelligent beings who use their minds, they’re not considered worth deeper study in the way one would the works of an author. I think that’s a shame and that while music can be enjoyed on the physical and emotional level that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an intellectual or literary level too. The coolest thing was how many intriguing people I ended up in touch with, all these people sharing art, music, writing or just their thoughts – that really made the days so much better when someone would come back and share a little of themselves with me, an underrated feeling.
Are you curious to see the new Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck?
Can’t imagine any Nirvana fan not being intrigued by Montage of Heck right now. I get the impression that a bloody talented director was given what was undoubtedly a difficult project and that he took time over it and chose the path less traveled – 100% a cool thing. Question on most true fans’ lips is whether there’ll be a soundtrack release or accompanying compilation of some sort – it’d be nice to see a touch more of Cobain’s undeveloped work, but guess it may need more patience. What’s been coming across in the reviews is the sense of the personal and private guy being exposed to view – he’d probably hate it but in the end it’s not like he chose to become a librarian or to stay a janitor, the catch 22 of performing for a living. Brett Morgen seems a decent bloke too – honest about what he’s done and his intentions, trusted by the key people who have the right to tell their tales, a track record worthy of respect. Hats off to him. Love the idea of working so thoroughly with the visuals, to make something more artistic – seems appropriate for a subject who seems to have seen himself more as a total artist than just a musician. Music, artwork and writing all on an equal standing seems a real declaration of who Kurt Cobain wanted to be and felt he was and I’m looking forward to seeing how Brett balanced it.
Any other book projects on the horizon?
Thanks to the book I had the chance to pitch a music compilation idea to Soul Jazz Records called No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the Northwest Grunge Era, which came out last year, bringing together a lot of rare and lesser known bands from that scene – the crew at the label were a pleasure and if/when it feels right to them we’ll potentially do a sequel. I helped select the bands and wrote the inlay booklet. Latest thing I’ve completed is another music release, there was a pretty cool band called Fire Ants back in the mid-Nineties in Seattle. It was Nirvana’s former drummer, plus the brothers of Andy Wood. Chad Channing put me in touch with Ed Dekema who’s working on a reissue of the band’s only EP plus a load of rarities – he asked if I’d be up for helping them and I agreed. I interviewed all but one band member, plus the label owner, plus Jack Endino who produced the EP and wrote essentially the band’s history for the inlay booklet. Ed really feels he wants to create a proper tribute to the band, something marking that they did something worthwhile. In return for a t-shirt and a copy of the album, I was delighted to help. There’s another book I was invited to act as editor on which’ll come out next year as part of Chicago Review Press’ Musicians in Their Own Words series, that was fun to do. There’s maybe one more Nirvana work I could imagine doing mainly for fun – and maybe a travel guide to touring Nirvana locations but that’d just be a freebie on the blog. It’s all too busy now preparing for the book to come out – the last big thing I wrote was a 30-40,000 word dissection of Thurston Moore’s solo discography that I’m still finishing, that guy is prolific.
Out of curiosity, have you ever checked out my book, Grunge is Dead? If so, did you fancy it?
Heh! Dude, Grunge is Dead is on the shelf behind me right now. The books I felt gave a sense of ‘what good looks like’ while I was preparing I Found My Friends, the only music books, were Grunge is Dead and Jon Savage’s England’s Burning. I just felt if I could get somewhere in that terrain, weave the voices together, treat everyone with respect without it becoming inhumanly polite – like a marketing brochure or some crap – then that would make me proud; Grunge is Dead hit that hard. Warts n’all portraiture, real life, truth but not a hatchet job, not one that wasn’t clearly done with love, with people who felt good about being a part of it. Community is important even in writing.
Click here for I Found My Friends ordering info.
Click here to read an interview that Mr. Soulsby recently conducted with yours truly.