Nirvana, founded by schoolmates Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, kicked off a grunge odyssey with their debut album, Bleach, in 1989. The album showcased Cobain’s characteristically gritty and comical lyrics and their raw, edgy sound heavily influenced by neighbouring Washington band Melvins.
Contrary to popular belief, Cobain and his band didn’t invent grunge. The seeds were sewn by Neil Young in the late ’70s, and by the time Nirvana started putting records out, it was a sturdy sapling. However, Nirvana brought a distinctive style, both visually and audibly, that defined the genre more so than any of their peers.
In 1991, Cobain revealed some of the secrets to Nirvana’s unique style in an interview with Guitar World. “We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded,” he said jovially, describing how their unique sound comes about. “We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.”
He added: “We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath, and we vomit onstage better than anyone!”
Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, remains the most commercially viable product of grunge to this day and heaved the band onto a wave of unprecedented fame and fortune. Sadly, the meteoric onslaught of media and fan-based attention didn’t sit on the trio’s shoulders comfortably.
Prior to Cobain’s death, pressure mounted as the trio’s influence broadened. At one point, as Grohl recalled during a 2021 interview with Vulture, Cobain considered replacing Grohl on the drumming duties.
Grohl recalled overhearing a conversation when the band were driving to Los Angeles to start rehearsals for the In Utero tour. “I was sitting a few rows ahead of Kurt and Krist. I could hear Kurt saying, ‘I think we need a drummer that’s more rudimental, along the lines of Dan Peters,’ who was the guy they almost hired when I joined the band,” Grohl told Vulture.
In the 1980s, Peters was initially earmarked by Cobain and Novoselic to drum for Nirvana, but he was already a member of the Seattle band Mudhoney, so Grohl took the position instead. “I was really upset because I thought things were ok,” Grohl continued. “I talked to Krist, and I said, ‘Is that really what you guys want to do? Because if that’s what you want, maybe just let me know, and we can call it a day.’ I eventually talked to Kurt about it, and he said, ‘No. That’s not what we want to do.’”
“I just felt like, ‘It’s up to you guys what kind of drummer you really want,’ and they decided I should stay,” he added. Grohl elaborated by pointing out that Nirvana were “on shaky ground for a lot of reasons” at that point.
Cobain suffered two alarming drug overdoses before ultimately dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 1994. In Nirvana’s final year, Grohl said he would “wake up every day not knowing what was going to happen next.”
“The sudden rise to fame in that band was traumatic,” he explained. “I can’t speak for Kurt, and I don’t usually because he’s not around to speak for himself. Each of us dealt with it in different ways, but ultimately that’s a hard thing to navigate.”