Nirvana, Kurt and me... meet the Irish musicians influenced by the King of grunge
It has been 25 years since Kurt Cobain’s death. John Meagher talks to some Irish musicians who were influenced by the iconic grunge band and their legendary frontman
It was set to be one of the gigs of 1994. On April 8, Nirvana were due to play the RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin — but that was the day that the body of the band’s beloved frontman, Kurt Cobain, was discovered. He had died by suicide three days beforehand.
For a generation of music fans, news of his death was their Elvis or JFK moment. In just a few years, he had become the most important voice of his generation and now, at that cursed rock age of 27, he was gone.
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A quarter of a century may have elapsed since his death, but Nirvana’s legacy lives on and continues to inspire new generations of musicians and fans alike. Here, six Irish musicians and Nirvana lovers talk about what made the grunge icon from Aberdeen, Washington state, so special and why their studio albums, Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero will endure.
‘They’re one of the reasons that Ash started as a three-piece’
I was exactly the right age for Nirvana. I was 14 when Nevermind came out. It was life-changing. And I got to see them play the King’s Hall in Belfast in 1992 [it would be Nirvana’s last ever show on the island of Ireland].
They’re one of the reasons Ash started as a three-piece. We had been into heavy metal before that — a lot of technical, complicated stuff I couldn’t really play well. And then Nirvana arrived and they were so simple and direct and powerful, too. Ash were really trying to copy them at the beginning. They really were cool. He had an amazing punk rock attitude and really strong principals — he talked about feminist ideals, for instance.
I like all their albums, but Nevermind is my favourite. The songs are so strong from start to end. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was very powerful and aggressive, but there was a slickness to the production — it sounded really good. Kurt’s voice was so abrasive and acidic. It carried so much emotion. You felt how much he meant it.
That King’s Hall gig had a great bill — they had Teenage Fanclub opening, and then The Breeders. It was a young audience. All my friends were there. They waltzed on to Tori Amos’s version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
I remember after that show, Kurt got himself in a bit of bother. He ended up at the Royal hospital that night. I think he’d taken too many painkillers. I’ve talked to [drummer] Dave Grohl about it — and he remembers waiting in the hotel lobby the next day and Kurt coming down in a wheelchair.
We hung out after the show. We got Kurt and Dave’s autograph. Courtney [Love, Kurt’s partner] was there, too. It was the night in Belfast that he bought that famous red-and-black stripey sweater he used to be photographed in so much afterwards. He bought it from a fan who was hanging around backstage.
I met Dave Grohl loads of times over the years. Ash were pretty much discovered in London by a guy called Paddy from a press agency called Bad Moon, and Bad Moon were Nirvana and Foo Fighters’ publicists. We got to know Dave really early on — and he knew we were massive fans. He was really cool to us.
Our very first UK shows coincided with when Kurt died. I think we were playing the Joiner’s Arms in Southampton the night he had died — we were devastated. We were 17 and really heartbroken.
Mark’s bedroom [Ash bass player Mark Hamilton] had been a shrine to Kurt, but his mum had had the bad timing of totally clearing his bedroom by the time we got back off that tour. He came back and he was extra devastated.
Even though Nevermind is my favourite, now I tend to listen more to In Utero and Bleach. But if I need a masterclass in genius economic songwriting, I do come back to Nevermind and listen to the whole thing.
‘It was so relatable. Kurt’s hometown could have been Larne or Ballyclare...’
Myself, Michael [McKeegan] and Fyfe [Ewing, the original drummer] came from the east Antrim towns of Larne and Ballyclare. There was lots of small-town boredom, that suburban ennui. All the people who liked punk and metal were friends and everyone else saw us as freaks — but music was an escape from the sectarianism that went on back then.
We would listen to bands singed to Touch and Go Records and Amphetamine Reptile. We got our eduction from [BBC Radio 1 DJ]John Peel. There were no barriers between metal and punk for us. And then Nirvana came along and it was so relatable. Aberdeen [Cobain’s home town, not far from Seattle] could have been Carrickfergus, Larne or Ballyclare for us.
There was a guy called Paul Chapman and he worked in Caroline Music in Belfast and he had a flat just off the Antrim Road. He’d bring records home. He played ‘Mexican Seafood’ from Nirvana off a compilation he had. I remember the first time hearing it, thinking it was really good. By the time I heard ‘Love Buzz’ and ‘Sliver’, I’d completely fallen in love with the band.
I remember listening to Bleach when it arrived by mail order in Fyfe’s house — the minute I heard ‘Negative Creep’ it was everything I ever liked about rock ’n’ roll. That was the first time they really meant something rather than a band I merely liked.
I loved Nevermind for the same reason I love Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols — they sound amazing, the songs are incredibly infectious and you cannot just listen to one track. Once you put it on, you want to hear every aspect of it.
I’ve a 19-year-old son. I remember when he was four years of age and he was in the car with me and I was playing a cassette of In Utero and he said to me: “Daddy, why does that man sound so sad?” A four-year-old boy could pick up whatever was in his voice, whatever demons were there.
‘You were called a teenybopper if you only knew Smells Like Teen Spirit’
My generation of teenage boys and girls were all over Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was already a legend at that point. The Unplugged [live] album really had an impact on me. I used to hang around the Central Bank [in the centre of Dublin] and it was Nirvana central there. Everyone had the T-shirts and the grunge look and we talked about Nirvana all the time.
You were called a teenybopper if you only knew ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. If you wanted to have everyone’s respect, you had to know every single song. It was a great way for young people to be able to express themselves. A lot of people had huge frustration with the world and they were able to convey that though what Nirvana had done. There was this suburban world that we were not comfortable with — and Kurt totally understood that. And for anyone with a difficult upbringing and childhood, Kurt Cobain was their idol.
I remember being in my bedroom, listening to ‘In Bloom’ over and over again — I loved the guitar so much. ‘Lithium’ was so incredible — it just spoke to a teenager and there’s nothing like that feeling as making music that’s absolutely right for you.
‘They captured perfectly what it was like to be a frustrated young man’
Nirvana were one of those bands who became so big — and, on paper, it should never have happened. It was dirty and angry and passionate and deliberately discordant and anti-mainstream. People were sick of the poodle rock and the shitty pop and the sort of homogeneous, corporate rubbish that was on the radio at the time.
Then, at the perfect, pivotal moment when it was all about to kick off, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came out and it changed the lives of all those musicians, including Kurt’s. It was a perfect song from a perfect band at a perfect time. But that fame destroyed almost everything it touched — not just Kurt, but Chris Cornell [of Soundgarden] and Scott Weiland [of Stone Temple Pilots] and so many more.
Nirvana were angry. You could hear it in the songs. They were yelling at the void and perfectly capturing what it’s like to be a frustrated young man. At a very basic level, it was a howl against the world.
After Kurt died, they got big in my group of friends — I’d been too young to get into them when he was still alive but after he went, I was old enough to get really obsessed with music. And for me, that happened with Nevermind. [Producer] Butch Vig brought out the melodies that were there — and he had a huge impact on how that album would sound. I couldn’t get enough of it. In Utero was great too but, in a way, it was a reaction to everything.
‘I started playing guitar because of Nirvana’
I was just two years old when Kurt died, but I grew up in an environment where I felt they were the biggest band. I heard In Utero when I was 10 or 11. There had been a lot of Metallica and Guns n’ Roses knocking around our house. But this album was so visceral. It seemed so much more authentic than Guns n’ Roses. There were none of those two-minute solos. And when you’re becoming a teenager, there’s a lot of anger and frustration and I could relate far more to Nirvana than I could to any other music. I still listen to that album to this day and I never get tired of it.
I started playing guitar because of Nirvana. I learned what power chords were thanks to Kurt Cobain. His music opened up so many doors for me. Vulpynes’ music is all power chords and riffs.
I was always an In Utero fan. Nevermind is more palatable and I can see why it broke for them, but Bleach is my next favourite. It’s so raw. It’s not polished. It sounded like it was all done in one take. There are so many amazing pop songs on Bleach like ‘Love Buzz’ and ‘About a Girl’. And that’s another thing I love about Nirvana — it’s heavy, but they know how to write a pop song. He had such a great pop sensibility. Everything was built around a hook.
‘Dave Grohl came to lunch and then played drums in our living room’
I remember being in the bedroom and listening to Nevermind and being totally blown away by the sonics of it and the very original chord changes. Songs like ‘Polly’ struck a chord with me because they sounded different to everything else and they had this weird melancholy feel about them. I remember going between Nevermind and [The Smashing Pumpkins album] Gish and being obsessed with both back them.
We signed our first record deal with Capital in 1993 and our debut album came out in 1994 and grunge was this omnipresent thing then — it was all they were playing on the radio and on MTV. That Anton Corbijn video for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was everywhere.
I knew Melissa Auf der Maur from [Courtney Love’s band] Hole — we were friends. She used to go out with Dave Grohl and when Hole broke up, she played bass with The Smashing Pumpkins. The Pumpkins were playing this ‘secret’ gig at Vicar Street, and the next day Melissa and Dave Grohl came out to our house [in Dublin] for a bit of lunch. We had a little studio there and we started playing — Melissa on bass and Dave on drums. And it was funny because halfway through the first song it hit me: “That drum sound is so familiar... and it’s the drummer of Nirvana and he’s in my living room playing drums!”
I really liked the dark element of grunge and as a musician I really liked the Seattle impetus of it before it became this ridiculous over-commericalised thing with check shirts on fashion runways and so on. There was a pureness and originality to it. It was so exciting initially but then record companies starting signing all of these B and C-grade Nirvana soundalikes and it was never the same again.