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Jack's Nirvana FAQ

For other questions, see my General FAQ.

With Bleach and half of Incesticide, 7 tracks on With The Lights Out (the box set), an extra one added to Sliver – The best of the box, plus the whole extra live show added to the Bleach reissue, I think I have recorded and/or mixed more released Nirvana tracks than anyone else. I actually recorded Nirvana with four different drummers, in fact FIVE if you count Mark Pickerel playing with Kurt and Krist on “Ain’t It A Shame” etc (Box Set). (And I’ve seen ‘em onstage with a sixth one, Dave Foster.) I made this sort-of-a-FAQ because of all the time-sucking Nirvana-related mail I used to get, hoping this would deflect some of it. Ten million fans and only one of me, ya know?

OK, here goes:

The 10-song demo w/Dale Crover on drums was recorded at Reciprocal Recording on 23 Jan 88, recorded AND rough-mixed by me in five hours. (Mixing time: about 6 minutes per song…) Five of these songs went on Incesticide in their original rough mix form. Another, “Spank Thru”, has never been officially released. It was re-recorded that summer after drummer Chad joined the band (“Love Buzz” session) and later appeared on Sub Pop 200. (There’s a low voice on backing vocals on Spank Thru. On the original version it was Dale; on the later, released version, Kurt had me do it.) Two more from the “Dale” demo, “Floyd the Barber” and “Paper Cuts”, were later remixed and added to Bleach, with some harmony backing vocals added to “Paper Cuts”. Of the remaining two songs, “If You Must” was never released because Kurt later decided he disliked it, and “Pen Cap Chew” because it was incomplete; the master tape ran out halfway through it and the band didn’t want to buy another reel. (The rough mix, therefore, has a fade ending that I did just for their amusement. By the way, one reel = about 32 minutes…) “Spank Thru”, “If You Must” and “Pen Cap Chew” have been widely bootlegged, all from cassettes that were given out to many people. “Downer” also has Dale on backing vocals.

2005 UPDATE: “If You Must” and “Pen Cap Chew” are on the box set. I didn’t remix ‘em because they actually sounded better than I remembered, especially compared with some of the other rough demos and rehearsal tapes that are on the box. The original recording of “Spank Thru” was considered for the box set but did not make the final cut.

An interesting live tape I was sent purported to be “Tacoma, 12/87″. Curiously, on the day I recorded the first demo, 1/23/88, they had to leave by dinner time so they could make it to Tacoma (40 miles) in time to sound check for a show that night at the Community World Theater (the only place to play in Tacoma at that time). On this tape, they play the same songs we recorded on 1/23/88, in the same order we recorded them! (Starts with “If You Must”, “Downer”, “Floyd” etc, and later there’s a partial “Hairspray” interrupted by a broken string, and later in the set a complete version.) For this reason I wonder if it is actually the 1/23/88 show. Azzerad’s book says they only practiced with Dale “for a couple weeks” before recording on 1/23, and it’s definitely Dale on this live tape playing quite well, so I think it’s 1/23. Curious that on this tape are two extra songs near the end, possibly known as “Anorexorcist” and “Raunchola”, which we surely would have recorded if we’d had enough time/tape that day; on the other hand 10 songs were enough for one afternoon. This live recording is so bad that not much can be made out of these songs (it’s REALLY bad), not even the notes or riffs, but they sound like Nirvana songs to me. What a bummer to hear ‘em now, this way.

(Update: I asked Dale, and he says he only played ONE show at that time, the one on 1/23/88. I have video that matches the audio for the show that is supposedly 12/87, and it’s definitely Dale, so therefore the supposed 12/87 show is actually 1/23/88. That settles that…)

During summer ’88, after Chad joined, we worked on the Love Buzz single, recording “Love Buzz”, “Big Cheese”, “Spank Thru” again and a song called “Blandest”. “Blandest” didn’t come out very well and they opted to re-record it at a later time because the song was just not ready yet. They instructed me to record over this version, which we did. I never even kept a cassette of it myself so the bootleg copies of it that exist must have come from band members’ rough mix cassettes, perhaps stolen ones. When they were planning Incesticide Krist called me up and wanted to know if I remembered “Blandest” and if there was a tape of it anywhere; I told him “no, you guys told me to erase it!” Imagine how spooked I was when I later heard it on a bootleg…tenth-generation cassette tape hiss, horrible fried 3-AM rough mix and all…

2005 UPDATE: “Blandest” (sourced from a band cassette) is on the box set. Chad tells me that when they recorded it, the band had just showed him the song, and they hadn’t even learned or really practiced it yet, which was why they were going to try recording it again “later”…. I believe it was intended to have a fade ending like “Negative Creep,” but is on the box set in its entirety.

The “Love Buzz” single version had an intro, originally twenty seconds long, that was an audio collage of little snippets put together by Kurt at home through skillful use of the pause button on his cassette deck. We spliced it on to the beginning of the tape but the Sub Pop folks made us shorten it. A long version (of just the intro) has been bootlegged (Christ! What hasn’t??) as “Montage of Heck” and “Buzz Cut” (also called “The Landlord” I think), and if it was ever longer than the twenty seconds they brought to the studio, I don’t remember ever hearing about it at the time. The album version of “Love Buzz” is a different mix, without the intro. Another difference is that in the middle of the single mix, there’s a “noise break” which has extra noises from the same collage cassette (another thing he did, not part of the intro) added in. Since all 8 tracks were full on the master tape, we had to plug the studio cassette deck into the board like a virtual 9th track, and each time I ran through the mix, Kurt had to press “play” on the cassette deck at the right instant so that the stuff would be blended into the mix I was doing. When we later went to re-mix Love Buzz for the album (the single mix ain’t that great) Kurt forgot to bring that cassette, so those noises are absent. (Take that, trivia fans…) Actually, it hardly makes any audible difference.

(Record collectors: The “Love Buzz” single is all black and white except for the hand numbering which is fine-point red marker pen. The sleeve is semi-gloss paper, folding, not pocket-type. The inside of the sleeve is blank. Buyer beware.)

Around Xmas 88 we began work on Bleach. The only finished outtake from these sessions was “Big Long Now” which later appeared on Incesticide. Kurt decided there were already enough slow heavy tunes on Bleach so this song was left off. There was also an earlier, instrumental version of “Sifting” with a wah solo, and similar early versions of “Blew” with a different solo and gibberish (i.e. unfinished) words, and “Mr. Moustache” with gibberish words. These seem to have been widely bootlegged.

2006 UPDATE: There was one other “finished” outtake from the Bleach sessions: we discovered a complete version of “Hairspray Queen” with Chad on drums, on the Bleach master tapes. It was considered for the box set but didn’t make the cut.

2006 UPDATE: I forgot to mention… some of our box-set sleuthing indicated that the widely bootlegged instro version of Sifting with the wah-wah, and the sloppy Mr Moustache version, were probably recorded at the Love Buzz sessions.

Shortly before Chad left the band we recorded a version of “Sappy” (Chorus: “… You’re in the laundry room…”) that wasn’t that great and is still in a Sub Pop vault somewhere. I don’t think this version has been bootlegged. I think it was later called “Verse Chorus Verse”, confusing it with another song by that name. Several other versions exist. Nothing else was recorded or attempted at that session.

2005 UPDATE: This version of “Sappy” was considered but did not make the final cut for the box set, although there’s at least one other version of the song included; I believe it is the “No Alternative” Albini version, which is actually the definitive and best version of Sappy. There is also a studio version with scratch vocals (a Nevermind outtake) of the “first” Verse Chorus Verse, also known as “In His Hands” from a live bootleg, a totally different song… plus a Nevermind outake called “Old Age” with scratch vocals, the same song I recorded with Hole while Kurt observed, not saying anything at the time.

2006 UPDATE: Well, they asked me about bonus stuff to put on the “Sliver (Best Of The Box)” CD and I reminded ‘em about that “Sappy”… so there it is, finally. Weird version, eh?

Somewhere in there, they did a very late-night session at Music Source Studio with Steve Fisk that yielded “Been a Son” and “Stain”. The most sought after outtake from this session is called “Token Eastern Tune”. The vocal was never finished: there’s only the “guide” or “scratch” vocal, with his voice pretty thrashed and lots of guitar bleeding into the vocal mic, which is why this studio version may never be released. It has been widely bootlegged in live form as “Junkyard” (“…born in a…”). (Yes, it’s definitely that song. Kurt sings “Born in a Junkyard” in the choruses… about 32 times! The verses sound VAGUELY like Love Buzz or Dive. Bootleg live versions may have different lyrics.)

2005 UPDATE: This “Token Eastern Tune” is on the box set, along with a couple other songs from the Steve Fisk session.

At one point, Kurt, Krist, and Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel from Screaming Trees were in the studio with me trying to do a collaborative single. What resulted was “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” which later appeared on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album, and a very short throwaway traditional-type tune called “Ain’t it a Shame” with Kurt on vocals/guitar, and Krist and Mark Pickerel backing him. Everyone thought it was pretty silly and it has remained in a Sub Pop vault, unbootlegged to my knowledge.

2005 UPDATE: “Ain’t It A Shame” is on the box set, along with an unfinished one-riff instro from the same session called “Gray Goose”, and a Kurt solo (vocals/guitar) version of a traditional song called “They Hung Him On A Cross”. I was allowed to do proper mixes on all of these. To be honest, I (and almost everyone else involved) had forgotten that those last two songs even existed on the reels, possibly because the unfinished “Grey Goose” has no words to remember it by (or bridge, or chorus… some great drumming though), and it seems no rough mixes were ever made except of “Shame” and “Where Did You Sleep”. So much for my memory.

Much later when Dan Peters was briefly drumming for them we cut “Sliver” using Tad’s equipment, though Kurt and Krist brought their guitars. (There were two takes attempted, one was finished. Nothing else was recorded or attempted at that session.) This was on a single and is now on Incesticide. The other side of the single was “Dive”, recorded earlier (w/Chad drumming) at the Butch Vig sessions for what would have been their second Sub Pop album.

The last thing I did with them was some 8-track demos for In Utero. The band did 5 or 6 songs exactly as they would later appear, but Kurt only bothered to sing on one of ‘em (Rape Me), and not even a cassette was made so no bootlegs have appeared. With no vocals, it would not make a very interesting bootleg. There were no extra “unheard” songs, but there was an interesting noise jam, over 4 minutes in length, that I caught by hitting “record” at the right time.

2005 UPDATE: This “Rape Me” demo is on the box set, mixed by me at a later date. A piece of the noise jam was used in one of the menus on the DVD. Phil Ek has reminded me that he assisted at the original session (he was an unpaid intern at the time) although I most definitely turned the knobs.

(I have zero info on sessions with Craig Montgomery or Barrett Jones so don’t bother asking — sorry! No contact info, either.)

I am often asked how we got Kurt’s guitar sound, in fact Guitar World just asked me…so here it is, once and for all. Guitars: in the early days, a left-handed Univox with Univox humbucking pickups. Don’t know what model but it looked sort of like a Mosrite. I didn’t see him play anything else until maybe when we did “Sappy”… definitely by the time we did the In Utero demos he had a small Fender guitar, a Mustang or Jaguar, I wasn't looking too closely. Distortion: the bottom-of-the-line orange Boss pedal, very basic, a DS-1 or a DS-2. Amps: for the 1/23/88 stuff with Dale on drums, a Randall amp that I seem to remember was solid-state but might not have been. (Courtney has stated in print that it was the “Commander” model. Who knows?) Probably also used that summer at the “Love Buzz” session. When we did Bleach, the Randall was “in the shop” for repairs so we used my ’68 Fender twin, identical circuitry-wise to the pre-CBS ones, CBS hadn’t fucked them all up yet. No speakers in my Twin: we used a 2×12 cab, sealed back, with 70 or 75-watt Celestions, that Kurt had. Close-miked with an SM-58, recorded to Otari half-inch 8-track at 15 ips with no noise reduction. Much later, for the In Utero demos, Kurt showed up with some top-of-the-line Mesa Boogie rack gear that sounded completely colorless and washed out – but was loud as fuck. As for Krist’s gear, I don’t remember much about it, except that the bass cab was a big 2×15 that in the early days was always missing one wheel. It sounded fine though. Chad had these hilarious looking North drums that were fiberglass (?) and each drum was curved-horn-shaped… if you look close on the cover of Bleach you can see ‘em. They sounded pretty awful, and Chad jokes about ‘em now! Incidentally, he now has a great band called Before Cars and another called Paundy. (For what appears to be the LAST WORD [right!] on Nirvana equipment, check out the August ’97 issue of Guitar World; it appears they did their homework on this one. Or better, check http://www.livenirvana.com/equipment/.)

The wealth of printed material is pretty shaky from what I’ve seen. The only Nirvana book worth the paper its printed on that was written while Kurt was alive is Azzerrad’s. I’ve read it cover to cover, and the man did his homework. Some have said he was too nice; but he did have the band’s cooperation, so that while perhaps not all the truth that could be told is there, none of it is lies. (1/2010 UPDATE: I also highly recommend Gillian Gaar’s “Rough Guide To Nirvana.” I also recommend Everett True’s book, it’s the only one that captures some of the bittersweet crazy fun we all had before things got tragic.) On the other hand, recently someone sent me a photocopy of just two (!) pages (106 and 107) from Chris Sandford’s book on Nirvana, entitled “Kurt Cobain”. In it he describes the sessions for Bleach from the point of view of “Endino’s engineer” and even an unnamed “second source at Reciprocal”; he describes Kurt putting lit matches in his mouth, spraying antiperspirant down his throat, pouring beer on the mixing board, taking “fistfuls of pills”, etc, etc. Let me fucking set this straight: this is pure fiction! In all the times I worked with Kurt I never even saw him drink a beer in the studio. His pre-Nevermind times in the studio with me were utterly normal; the band was there to work. They didn’t have enough money to fuck around. And in my entire career no one has ever poured beer (or anything else) on the board. Further, there were NO assistants or “other sources” to witness any of the goings-on at Reciprocal except for me, the band and one or two of their friends, for the simple reason that the 3 producer/engineers there (me, Chris Hanzsek, and Rich Hinklin) always worked separately, equally and alone. There were no other employees, no staff, no runners, no front office. We never had assistants or interns, paid or free, until 1992 or so when Phil Ek, fresh out of recording school, sat in with me for a few sessions. (This was after the studio had turned into “Word Of Mouth Productions” for a couple years. It was not “Reciprocal” anymore.) I mean, an assistant? The control room was so small you couldn’t even fit all the band members in it. So: either this guy made all this up (can’t really see why he would want to) or better yet, someone else decided to take the gullible journalist for a ride, figuratively speaking. (It’s even possible that someone in the band’s own entourage fed the guy this bullshit with the band’s secret approval; these are the sort of unbelievable stories Kurt just might have encouraged as media pranks. I doubt this, but I’m trying like hell to give this guy the benefit of the doubt.) I haven’t read the rest of the book yet ’cause I don’t want to spend the cash, but I hope for Kurt’s (and his daughter’s) sake that the rest of it isn’t like those two pages I got. (Later note: It is. I’ve since read it. The whole book is full of equally outlandish nonsense. Sigh. OK, now extrapolate from how 100% fictional the two pages I know about are…) Seeing this kind of fiction printed about Kurt really bums me out.

(Addendum 2002: I’ve heard that Charlie Cross’ book “Heavier than Heaven” is respectable and well-researched; I haven’t been able to read it though, because the subject is pretty depressing to me.)

For the definitive account of all Nirvana recording sessions, with dates etc, see Gillian Gaar’s lengthy article in the 14 Feb 97 issue of Goldmine, also included in a later book, “The Nirvana Companion: 2 Decades of Commentary”, edited by John Rocco, from Schirmer Books.

For Nirvana equipment info, see http://www.livenirvana.com/equipment/.

For a pretty good “sessionography” list, check out http://www.livenirvana.com/sessions/.

Gig info is at http://www.nirvanaguide.com.

For detailed facts, dates and info about the historical background of the Northwest US music scene, see Clark Humphrey’s fastidiously detailed book “Loser” and Steven Tow’s book “The Strangest Tribe”. Greg Prato’s “Grunge Is Dead” is a good read too, and Everett True’s book also, and Mark Yarm’s.

And go find a copy of Joe Carducci’s “Rock and the Pop Narcotic” while you’re at it. It would do you good.

Hey, don’t forget to check out my non-Nirvana FAQ!

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