Nirvana had released their debut album “Bleach” in 1989, which went on to become Sub Pop‘s biggest seller and popular with college radio and in the UK. Even though Sub Pop were going through some financial difficulties, they knew they had to get Nirvana back into the studio to record a new album as the likely sales were needed to keep them afloat. So as spring 1990 came in, Nirvana were to make their second album for Sub Pop, speculatively titled “Sheep”.
Although it was Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman‘s idea to use Butch Vig on “Sheep”, he was well known to the members of Nirvana, having produced their friends Tad and Killdozer, whose sound they liked and would ask Butch Vig to recreate for them.
Also, when Jonathan Poneman called Butch Vig to propose that he produce the new Nirvana album for Sub Pop he found Butch Vig very receptive to the idea. Butch Vig was keen to work with Sub Pop as he was well aware of their standing in the independent music world, “I wanted to work with Sub Pop because I knew they were a cool label” he later recalled.
Nirvana Record “Sheep” with Butch Vig at Smart Studios
Having played a gig the night before in Chicago, Nirvana drove down to Madison, Butch Vig‘s home and the location of Smart Studios, in early April 1990. Sub Pop did not have the money to pay them advances, so Nirvana were reliant on gigs to pay their living expenses and were booked to start a 6 week tour on April 10th in Ann Arbor, so Nirvana knew they had to work fast to get all the tracks done.
Unlike “Bleach”, where the songs were finished and had been well rehearsed before entering the studio, Nirvana‘s new songs were not yet finished. Nirvana had been touring extensively and not had the time to sit down and thresh them out, although most of the arrangements had been solidified through playing at sound checks and in some cases, live. However most were lacking completed lyrics.
Butch Vig and Nirvana soon struck up a good rapport. Nirvana were not used to people bringing ideas to them about how to record and Butch Vig had the knack of doing this without seeming overbearing. He had experience getting the type of sound Nirvana wanted and went out of his way to try to capture the intensity of Nirvana‘s live performances to the point of putting sheets of plywood around the studio to try to get a sound closer to that in a club. He also pushed Cobain’s pop sensibility.
The songs Kurt Cobain was coming up with were more melodic and poppy than those on “Bleach”. Kurt had been torn between his heavy, punk roots and this new direction, but Butch Vig thought this was the way to go and told Kurt, “You have a genius for doing this. Don’t ignore it, it is beautiful”. However Nirvana felt nervous about both the unfinished nature and the differences between this new material compared to “Bleach”. This all left them unsure which to tackle first and which to leave alone.
Doug Olsen, the engineer at Smart Studios for the sessions, was also amazed at how certain Kurt Cobain was about what he wanted. When he offered him what he thought was a better Marshall valve amp to use over Kurt‘s transistorized Sunn he was greeted with an acerbic, “No, I don’t want to do that…”
The Songs that became the “Nevermind” Demos
By the end of the week they had recorded eight tracks, seven of Kurt‘s compositions and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”
In Bloom remained almost identical to the version that appeared on “Nevermind“, although it was completely re-recorded. On the original version there was a bridge, which after recording they decided they did not like, so the section was cut out and that is how the song remained.
The only area that showed any real change was the drumming. Dave Grohl‘s no nonsense style on the “Nevermind” version is starkly different to the more complex fills employed by Chad Channing and highlighted one of the reasons he and Nirvana would later part ways.
Lithium was another track that made it to “Nevermind“, but the Smart Studios recording was a fraught affair. Chad Channing and Kurt Cobain‘s visions of what the drumming should be differed, and it came to a head on the recording of Lithium. Kurt grabbed the sticks and showed Chad what he wanted. Chad had been feeling under appreciated and this was another sleight he felt and would contribute to their worsening relationship.
Imodium was the name of a diarrhoea treatment that Tad Doyle of Tad used while Nirvana toured with them in Europe. The track became “Breed” on “Nevermind“, possibly to avoid legal problems with McNeil Healthcare, the makers of Imodium.
Pay To Play
This song became “Stay Away” on “Nevermind“. Musically it changed little, with the addition of a tighter ending and Dave Grohl‘s more streamlined drumming.
The original lyrics refer to the practice of many club owners to force bands that played at their club to buy a quantity of tickets upfront, which they would have to sell to their fans to make any money. Kurt thought this practice was reprehensible, but also felt that the people that went along with it were simply sheep, hence the lyrics “Monkey See Monkey Do, I Don’t Know Why, Walk Around I Follow You”
Originally titled “Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus” due to it’s simple structure, Sappy would be revisited during the “Nevermind” sessions but it did not make the album.
Polly is the only track where the original Smart Studios recordings made it to “Nevermind“. The haunting track was, according to Butch Vig, in half an hour flat on a beaten up, cheap, 5 string acoustic guitar (apparently the strings were as old as the guitar as they had never been changed!) Vig, just set up a microphone and recorded it.
Kurt had tuned the guitar down a semi-tone from E, but the guitar was horrible, with duct tape holding the tuning keys in place. The basic take was recorded with Kurt and Krist playing live and they got a take that was hauntingly beautiful, if a little out of tune. However Kurt was impatient and did not want to try for another take, so this was the take that the song was built on using overdubs.
The song was based on the case of Gerald Friend. Friend was a 49 year old who was convicted on August 19, 1987 of kidnapping, raping and torturing a teenage girl from outside a music venue in Tacoma, near Seattle.
Kurt cast himself as the rapist, writing in the first person in a haunting manner. The lyrics are even more harrowing when you read the reports from the trial –
Prosecutor Tom Stratton said he would recommend an exceptionally long sentence for Friend, 49 (age), who was convicted in a similar attack 27 years ago. In the latest case, Friend was charged with first-degree kidnapping and first-degree rape in the attack that occurred over several hours late June 5 and early June 6.
Officials said the victim was a runaway who accepted a ride from Friend near the Tacoma Dome after she attended a rock concert in the area. When the girl tried to get out of the car, authorities said, she was handcuffed and abducted at knife-point to Friend’s mobile home.
The victim testified last week that Friend tortured and repeatedly raped her with several objects in his mobile home. She said he blindfolded her and ran a propane torch close to her skin. She eventually escaped.
Here She Comes Now
According to Krist Novoloselic, “Here She Comes Now” was done not for Sub Pop but for Tupelo Records for a Velvet Underground tribute album. It was recorded in a single take and was one of the easiest tracks to lay down according to both Krist Novoloselic and Chad Channing.
Post Smart Studios
According to Butch Vig recording Lithium, “Blew out Kurt‘s voice” so they could not record more tracks. However other reports state that Nirvana played a gig with label-mates Tad in Madison on April 6th, their last night in town before they headed up to Ann Arbor, which seems to imply Kurt‘s voice was fine.
What is known is that Jonathan Poneman had flown in to see how the sessions had gone. According to Butch Vig he liked what he heard, but the members of Nirvana remember him being very subdued. According to Chad Channing, Poneman‘s lack of enthusiasm was one of the reasons that almost nothing from the Smart Sessions was released on Sub Pop.
After Nirvana left Wisconsin on their tour, Butch Vig got down to mixing the tracks. The majority were done on April 11th, 12th and 13th, but according to Butch Vig, “For some reason I didn’t get down to mixing ‘ Here She Comes Now’ until June 8th, 1990”
Sub Pop were aiming for a September 1990 release of Nirvana‘s album and all parties were expecting to be back at Smart Studios to record a few more tracks and finish the album, but Butch Vig did not hear anything for a while as Nirvana were to lose one drummer in the shape of Chad Channing, gain another in Dave Grohl and sign with DGC before they would record together again, this time to make “Nevermind”
- Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
- Nirvana: Nevermind (Classic Rock Albums)
- Q Magazine
- Classic Rock