In the early ’90s, Aqua Net-fueled hair metal and disposable pop songs gripped the marketplace. Then came three shaggy dudes whose blistering mix of radio-ready hits and caustic deep cuts blew the dawning decade wide open. Now with the arrival of a deluxe box set celebrating 20 years of Nevermind, the full story of Nirvana’s seminal album can finally be told: During a roundtable with EW in Los Angeles, Dave Grohl, 42, Krist Novoselic, 46, and producer Butch Vig, 56, recall creating a soon-to-be classic with their late friend and collaborator Kurt Cobain — and all the booze, corn dogs, turtles, and transvestite karaoke singers that came along for the ride.
April 1990: Cobain, Novoselic, and then-drummer Chad Channing visit Smart Studios in Madison, Wis., to record with Butch Vig.
Butch Vig We tracked seven songs in five days, including ”In Bloom’ and ”Lithium.” I expected they were going to come back. Then all of a sudden I started getting these calls from people saying, ”Hey, man, I love these Nirvana tracks.” They had gone home and dubbed a cassette I gave them, then made a hundred copies and gave them out to their friends. They bootlegged themselves, essentially.
Krist Novoselic That was how Geffen got a copy.
September 1990: Cobain and Novoselic hire former Scream drummer Dave Grohl. While working out the growing batch of new songs, the band leaves indie Sub Pop for Geffen Records.
Novoselic There was an evolution when Dave joined that was a cosmic leap.
Vig Kurt had left a message telling me, ”We got the best drummer in the world, man.” And I thought, ”I’ve heard that one before.” But he was right.
Novoselic We were getting courted by major labels, getting wined and dined. We’d go to fancy restaurants and rack up these huge bar tabs.
Vig Benihana! That was their idea of a fancy restaurant.
Dave Grohl We used to take the A&R business cards to karaoke bars and hand them out. Someone would go up and sing terribly, and we had so many A&R cards in our wallets that we’d walk up and hand them a card and say, ”I like your style! Give me a call.” All those A&R guys were getting calls from f—ing terrible karaoke singers.
Novoselic We went to transvestite karaoke once. Remember that one? Transvestites doing karaoke. That was the template for Nirvana.
November 1990: Grohl moves in with Cobain in Olympia, Wash., and the band gets to work rehearsing for the recording of Nevermind.
Grohl It was a long winter. Kurt and I lived in this s—hole apartment. I slept in a sleeping bag on an old couch and would wake up with cigarette butts stuck to my face.
Novoselic It was disgusting. I used to come down and yell at you guys. Did Kurt still have the turtles then?
Grohl Kurt had built this makeshift aquarium that was in the same room as the couch I slept on. So all night long I’d be on the couch listening to the turtle bang its little head against the wall. There was a gas station across the street that had three corn dogs for 99 cents, so that was my meal for the day. Those winter months are wet and dark and cold; basically, the only thing to live for was the rehearsals. We recorded on this boom box, and that’s where you can hear us working out ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” and ”On a Plain.” That was our entire existence.