Dave Grohl: The history behind Nirvana's Nevermind

Cover art for Nevermind

"The one thing I am most proud of is the raw simplicity of Nevermind,” Dave Grohl told Rhythm Magazine when he was inducted into their Hall Of Fame in 2005. “Our intention was to do something so straightforward that it was almost childlike; simple rhythms and simple patterns – the most direct songwriting. It’s bare bones, simple drumming and I think the fact that it is so stripped down and so easy to nod your head to is why people still listen to it.”

Nirvana’s second album has had its classic status confirmed by the powerful influence it still exerts over rock fans and drummers a quarter of a century on. Rock in the early 1990s was a big-haired affair, with acts like Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Poison, Whitesnake, Extreme and Warrant (Cherry Pie, anyone?) staples of rock charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Arguably the best of these hair-metallers, Guns N’ Roses, released their double Use Your Illusion albums in the same month as Nevermind, going head-to-head at a time when ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’ rock butted heads with mainstream rock and heavy metal. Nirvana were significant because their musical influences were rooted in ’70s metal – Black Sabbath, Zeppelin et al – but their attitude was most assuredly punk rock, and their success united both sides of that divide and crossed over to the mainstream in a way that not only took the music business by surprise, but has had a lasting impact on rock music ever since.

Nirvana had already made one brilliant record, Bleach, recorded for Seattle label Sub Pop on an eight-track by Jack Endino with original drummer Chad Channing. Cobain’s band found itself at the vanguard of the Seattle ‘grunge’ movement that also included Soundgarden and soon Pearl Jam, after the real originators of the term and true godfathers of the Seattle scene, Mudhoney, went on hiatus so guitarist Steve Turner could go back to college. American alternative music was rapidly becoming big business with the Pixies flying high and Sonic Youth now signed to a major label, Geffen. And this positioned Nirvana perfectly to take indie rock to the masses.

playing a Takamine acoustic guitar during a recording session at Hilversum Studios, Holland, 25th November 1991

Kurt Cobain playing a Takamine acoustic guitar during a recording session at Hilversum Studios, Holland, 25th November 1991

(Image: © Getty Images)

Nirvana were technically between drummers when Kurt Cobain first caught Dave Grohl’s act at San Francisco’s I-Beam venue, playing for DC hardcore band Scream. ‘Technically’, because Mudhoney’s Dan Peters had played a show with Nirvana and recorded one single, Sliver, after Chad Channing had moved on. Peters was a powerhouse drummer with a frenetic and hard-hitting style that would seem to perfectly fit the band. But Cobain and bass player Krist Novoselic were impressed with Dave’s energy, and invited him to Seattle. Awkwardly, Grohl tagged along to a barbecue with the band and UK music paper Sounds, who were doing a photoshoot, and was told by Cobain that he wouldn’t be able to speak to him or introduce him to anyone, as at this point Peters still, reasonably, expected he would be Nirvana’s new drummer. 

“I met [Grohl] the night before we played the show and he was with those guys, like, ‘I’m the drummer from Scream,’” recalls Peters. “The next day there was a photoshoot for the Sounds cover and they were like, ‘Don’t worry about turning up for the photoshoot,’ but I was like, ‘I can make it, no problem.’ They couldn’t come out and say, ‘We’ve got a new drummer and his name is Dave and he’s right there.’ So I went and did the photoshoot and Dave’s sitting there eating a hamburger.”

Grohl joined Cobain and Novoselic for a rehearsal the next day, after which they knew they’d found their man, and soon Nirvana’s new drummer played his first show with the band at the North Shore Surf Club in Olympia, Washington, on 11 October 1990. The show at the 300-capacity venue was sold out, and the band kept blowing the fuses in the place. Prescient of the hard-hitting style for which he would soon be known, Grohl put his sticks through the snare halfway through the set, and Cobain held the drum up to the crowd in triumph. Dave modestly told Rhythm back in 1993, “I think they needed someone who just played harder than anyone else and who didn’t play a lot of fancy stuff.” But there’s no doubt the band also needed someone who could help them take things to the next level. And even as the drummer settled in behind the kit, things were picking up pace in the Nirvana camp, with a new high-profile management deal with Led Zep publicist Danny Goldberg’s firm, and major label interest culminating in a deal with Geffen – home to Cobain’s heroes Sonic Youth.

The thing I do, a lot of it is bonehead stuff, you know? It’s like caveman drums, anybody could do it… as long as they drank enough coffee

Dave Grohl

The songs, too, were taking shape for what would become Nevermind, as Grohl recalls in Paul Brannigan’s brilliant biography, This Is A Call. “We’d always start rehearsal with a jam, and a lot of the songs came from that. I didn’t really think that much of Teen Spirit at first. I thought it was just another one of the jams we were doing… But Teen Spirit was one we kept coming back to because the simple guitar lines were so memorable. That song definitely established the quiet/loud dynamic that we fell back on a lot of the time. And it became that one song that personifies the band.”

It fell to producer Butch Vig to commit these quiet/loud songs to record. Vig had already recorded Nirvana for a demo at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin in April 1990. Some of those tracks, like In Bloom, Lithium and Polly, would resurface on Nevermind. A drummer himself, Vig had just finished recording another great player, Jimmy Chamberlin on Smashing Pumpkins’ debut, Gish. Vig asked to hear the band’s latest material, and was sent a cassette of one of the band’s rehearsals. Says Vig, “It sounded terrible because it was completely distorted… After the first song I remember Kurt yelling into the boombox, ‘We have a new drummer, he’s the best fucking drummer in the world!’ and then there was a cymbal crash. I laughed… but as it turned out, he was right.”

Geffen had booked studio time at Sound City in the Van Nuys area of LA, a studio with a rich musical history, where Fleetwood Mac had recorded some of Rumours. Its already legendary Neve mixing desk and big live room would be huge factors in the album’s sound. But, at the time, it was cheap by Hollywood standards – $500 a day from a budget of $65,000 allocated to the band for recording. With limited time before tracking was due to commence, Vig booked the band into a North Hollywood rehearsal space so he could hear the band’s new songs properly, and work on arrangements, but soon decided that little rehearsal time was necessary. As the band played Vig the first track, Smells Like Teen Spirit, it seems the producer was suitably wowed, in particular by the sound already coming from Dave Grohl’s drums. He duly called up the band’s manager and, keen not to let the band lose any of their energy and enthusiasm, insisted they were ready to commit to tape.

In This Is A Call, Vig reveals that from the first time he heard him play, Grohl was “rock-solid, time-wise and he just hit the drums like a motherfucker… those songs are really powerful and a lot of that has to do with his drumming because he’s just on it”.

“You can’t underestimate how good Dave is,” Vig confirmed to Rhythm. “If you put any other drummer at that kit in that room they’re going to sound different. He is so solid and he hits the drums so hard but consistent that it made him quite easy to record. He wrote these little drum fills that became hooks in the songs. Whether it’s the pickup fill in Teen Spirit or whatever. That’s something drummers should take note of; write drum parts that become hooks.”

Grohl’s kit for the session was rented from Ross Garfield, aka Drum Doctor, in North Hollywood. It was a Tama Artstar II kit, 24"x16", 15"x12" rack tom and 18"x16" floor tom, with a 14"x6" bell brass Black Beauty snare – the heaviest Drum Doctor could provide, described by Garfield as having “a lot of low-end as well as crack to it, so you get that real nice punchy, rock’n’roll sound”. This drum was nicknamed ‘The Terminator’, and Grohl was thrilled with it, after all Lars Ulrich had used one on Master Of Puppets, as Rick Allen had on Def Leppard’s Pyromania. Dave approached the recording of the album with youthful naivety, enjoying every minute of the opportunity to smash his ‘Terminator’ snare, and equally happy to let Vig do his thing. “Dave would listen to the drums and say, ‘They sound great, man.’ He’d leave it up to me to make sure the drums sound good in the context of drums and bass.” 

The sound achieved in the recording of Nevermind has become as legendary as the band themselves, and was seemingly a combination of a number of key factors. Firstly, the large room at Sound City; a big, square space that had, as Grohl noted in his Sound City documentary, “a really nice decay”. Grohl’s 2013 documentary, about saving the legendary studio’s Neve console, notes the ‘magical’ quality of the room, with rock producer Nick Raskulinecz observing, “It’s one of those spaces that just randomly, haphazardly turned out to be fantastic to record a drumset in.” It was a quality not lost on its previous visitors, like Mick Fleetwood, who had recorded Rumours there. “Selfishly, the drum sound was why we went there,” he confessed.

Vig’s plan was to record the band basically live in the studio, and to this end he wired up the kit with standard mics and placed a drum tunnel on the kick to extend the low end thump – the effectiveness of which you can hear best on the punchy ‘live’ feel of Breed. Neumann U87s were placed 20ft from the drums to try and, as Vig put it, “pump up the room sound”. But it seems that even ‘magic’ needs a helping hand. When the sessions with Vig slipped beyond their original schedule, Nirvana’s label and management suggested they bring in a fresh pair of ears. Andy Wallace was engaged because of his work on Slayer’s 1990 classic Seasons In The Abyss, of which Cobain was a fan. Wallace’s main contribution was to boost the room’s ambience using digital reverb and equalisation, blending samples behind the snare and kick to beef up the sound – to varying, and debated, degrees. On Smells Like Teen Spirit, Vig has confirmed that Wallace used custom samples as ambience, giving the snare some of that ‘gunshot’ effect, although, he says, the samples were mixed pretty low. 

“The thing that I do, a lot of it is bonehead stuff, you know?” Dave Grohl told Rhythm when asked about what it is that makes Nevermind so timeless. “It’s like caveman drums, anybody could do it… As long as they drank enough coffee!” And it’s true to say that, back in those days, Dave was not what you’d call a drum-nut; he even admitted his lack of drum knowledge in an interview with Rhythm in 1993.

“I swear to God I know nothing about drummers,” he said. “If you were to mention some hardcore drummer I might know who they were, but I don’t know anything about drums. I don’t read music, I never really had lessons – I took two jazz lessons one time and realised I was better off not knowing what I was doing. I try to keep it like that, as long as I can beat ’em up pretty bad. It feels good to play hard. I’d rather hit something with two hands than one; I’d rather see the drums shaking after I’ve hit them rather than just sitting there like a couch! It feels really good when you beat the shit out of them, it feels good inside. You can feel it in your stomach, when everything is going great and you know that’s what it’s all about. The only thing I pay attention to is not being too busy and hitting little six-inch splash cymbals, I’m not into that. I’d rather have something that’s going to blow your hair back when you hit it.”

And, with Nevermind, he found it, blowing back the collective hair of a generation of rock fans and drummers alike. The album’s opener has one of the best and most memorable drum intros of all time – voted Number 8 in Rhythm’s Greatest Drum Intros poll – a slamming, flamming two-handed snare hit on the downbeat with contrasting hi-hat played on the upbeat, with a bass drum note between. From there, his powerful groove is reminiscent of John Bonham’s playing on Immigrant Song, with the hats loose and a crash on beat ‘1’ of every measure. Dave tightens the hi-hat for the verse – classic Nirvana loud-quiet-loud – before they’re loosened up again in the bridge to build towards the chorus, at the end of which is a Bonham-style triplet between toms and kick.

My goal was to make air drummers out of a generation of people that had no idea how to play the drums

Dave Grohl

Breed kicks off with a machine-gun single-stroke snare roll, before settling down into a syncopated rock beat with open crashing hats, Grohl punctuating the verse-chorus transitions with a variety of fills on snare and toms, building the intensity as the track progresses and incorporating a tom motif into the middle. On In Bloom Dave kicks off with a two-bar intro pattern that moves in conjunction with the guitar riff, with tight hats and simple kick drum pattern in the verse groove. In the chorus, he punctuates the guitar riff with two different eighth-note triplet fills, first around the kit and then on the snare. Krist Novoselic’s effects-laden bass groove loops over Grohl’s relatively restrained and almost-funky beat on Come As You Are, with some nice snare and tom fills punctuating the bridge, while Dave rides the crash during the guitar solo. There’s an almost-reprise of his Teen Spirit two-handed snare intro into the last chorus. Some more loud-quiet dynamics for Lithium, with Dave employing cross-stick in the verses and pounding his drums with flammed fills in the chorus. Polly was the only track to survive from the Smart Studios session with Vig and Chad Channing on drums, who remained uncredited on the album. Andy Wallace added a delay line effect to give Channing’s cymbal crashes a shimmering quality, made necessary by the fact that the drums had been recorded on 16-track equipment rather than the 24-track they were recording on at Sound City.

Side two kicks off with the furious drum roll intro of Territorial Pissings, with Dave’s hardcore background serving him well for the album’s fastest, punkiest track. His motif on Drain You both punctuates and paces the verse and he hits hard and rides the crash for the chorus. The track contains an extended instrumental passage that has the nearest he came to ‘soloing’ – a pulsating tribal motif like a Native American rain dance. Lounge Act has a mostly straight-ahead rock beat but executed with typical Grohl flair and power; then, once again, he brings in Stay Away with a powerful rolled intro, his syncopated tribal tom groove driving the track forcefully and in a way that is typical of his playing for Nirvana – lifting the band’s riffing punk-rock workouts way above many of their contemporaries. On A Plain gives some respite as the pace slows, just a little, but Grohl can’t resist throwing in the odd powerful yet perfectly judged fill, and he breaks out the toms again in the middle-eight. Something In The Way closes out the album at a languid pace – Dave’s gentler side and a deft touch forcibly drawn out of him by Vig and Cobain. As Vig revealed to a Classic Albums documentary on Nevermind, “When Dave was doing the drums, Kurt was in the back of the control room saying, ‘Quieter, quieter, quieter…’ and I think it’s in his nature to hit hard.”

It’s a masterful drum album by any standards, mature considering his age and hardcore punk background, and Nevermind remains both Grohl’s personal drumming legacy and a benchmark for modern rock drumming. But Grohl himself puts its lasting impact down to its simplicity.

“My goal in Nirvana was to make air drummers out of a generation of people that had no idea how to play the drums,” he told Rhythm. “The idea was to get people swinging along to those flams, and cranking it up and playing along in their cars – having never held a pair of drum sticks in their lives. The albums that turned me on to drumming as a kid had basic rhythms, you know, like The Beatles or AC/DC, or even the drums on disco records. I could hear the kick and I could hear the snare, and it was so simple it made me want to pick up sticks because I thought I could do it. Then of course I turned into a metalhead and it was all about how fast I could play! But at first, it was that simple rhythm that got me. All the drumming that I’ve done since Nevermind, I don’t think that I’ve gone in that direction again, and I’m really proud of having been a simple drummer.”

By June 1991 the album was in the bag, and though the budget had doubled, no one seemed concerned – even from the early mixes word was already spreading that Nirvana had created something incredible. Grohl later recalled: “Krist, Kurt and I would take a tape of the songs and just drive around the Hollywood Hills listening to it. When Smells Like Teen Spirit first came through the speakers… we were only used to hearing it sound like a shitty bootleg… all of a sudden you have Butch Vig making it sound like Led Zeppelin IV!”

“The record came out and people heard about it,” Grohl told Rhythm. “Then the Smells Like Teen Spirit video came out and people saw what we were doing – we were fucking shit up and having fun. And I think that’s pretty much what every kid in the world wants: to be able to feel like they’re fucking something up and getting away with it.”

The Nirvana effect was incredible, and arguably ruined music for the next few years as record companies jumped on the bandwagon and sought to emulate the band’s now-marketable anger with a plethora of grunge-lite also-rans; while nobody could best the sound Dave and co had achieved. The success of the album took everyone by surprise, not least the band themselves – Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, had sold 75,000 copies on Sub Pop – a respectable amount for an indie rock band in 1989. “We recorded Nevermind and there was a big buzz in the industry, everybody started wondering, what is this Nirvana thing? We were happy to open up for Sonic Youth on tour for the next five years of our lives, and that’s what we were expecting to happen. We thought it’ll sell maybe 150,000 copies, and the record company thought the same. I think at first they pressed 100,000 copies, and those went in the first week. Then we were selling 150,000 copies a week and it got to a point where we just couldn’t believe it any more. People were telling us this stuff and it was kind of funny, like winning some ridiculous contest that you never knew you’d entered and didn’t care whether you won or lost. 

“It was never our intention to become some huge rock phenomenon,” added Dave, “and I think that that not being the goal sort of saved our ass; we just made this record and we put it out and we went on tour, we never imagined anything like this. When things slowed down and we came off tour, when we actually stopped and sat down, we couldn’t believe it. We just thought, ‘God, look what fuckin’ happened.’

Despite – or perhaps because of – the album’s near-perfection and resultant success, when it came to the follow-up two years later, the band tried to return to their more punk-rock/hardcore roots, enlisting Big Black’s Steve Albini to produce In Utero.

“Working with Butch Vig on Nevermind there was a lot more attention paid to perfection,” explained Dave. “With [In Utero] there was none. I think it has a lot more character, there’s a lot more flaws. It was pretty much go in and sing into a microphone, or go in and play the drums. When we did Nevermind we had a month in the studio, but the basic tracks were done within the first three or four days. You know, we had three more weeks to fuck with it, and a lot of the time that can ruin a record. But that was an experience for all of us, to spend a lot of time on something like that. With In Utero it was just go in and bash it out. That was our experimentation, let’s see how fast we can make a record.”

That Nevermind still sounds incredible today is testament to Kurt Cobain’s songwriting, but equally to the genius drumming of Dave Grohl and the drum sound enabled by Vig. But to what does Butch himself attribute the album’s longevity?

“I think that record sounds great and the drumming and drum sounds are great,” he told Rhythm. “Part of that is that it’s pretty simple and not gimmicky. Drum sounds can be defined by a certain era and then frequently they sound dated when a style or fad moves into fashion. Just the way I recorded those drums was pretty standard. Miking kick and snare, overheads, toms and some room mics. Having said that the room we recorded that in at Sound City was amazing and part of it was that Dave Grohl is an incredible drummer. I think that helps it all sound fresh. I think it’s a great sounding rock record and his drumming is incredible.”

We’ll leave the last word to Dave himself, reflecting on Nevermind’s success in the December 1993 issue of Rhythm.  

“It was a record that people could put on and for 45 minutes could… work it out. Whatever they were pissed off about, they could scream along to it; if they were sad, maybe they could be uplifted… it really did strike a chord with people. I don’t know why and I don’t know what that chord was… It’s like sitting on a surfboard and wondering what propels that board. Well, it’s the wave. But what makes the wave? It’s gravity and the Earth’s rotation… But as far as you know, you get on this board and it takes you to the shore.” 

This article originally appeared in issue 262 of Rhythm Magazine.