You’ve heard it a million times before, but Nirvana’s Nevermind really did change the music world when it was released. The perfect combination of punk-informed alt-rock sounds and accessible songwriting and production, it put rock back in the charts.
When compared to the band’s previous effort, Bleach, or even their follow-up, the Steve Albini-produced In Utero, Nevermind retains all of the raucousness and power of Nirvana whilst sounding polished and modern.
Much of this was due to producer Butch Vig, who made bold choices with the grunge icons, who idolised bands like the Pixies and the Melvins. Vig even managed to convince frontman Kurt Cobain to double-track his vocals, noting that John Lennon, another hero of Cobain’s, used the technique.
But according to Vig himself, it was drummer Dave Grohl who was by far the most potent influence on the sound of Nevermind. Speaking recently to Ultimate Guitar, Vig credited the way Grohl plays drums with creating the Nevermind sound.
“We recorded Nevermind pretty quick,” said Vig. “We did the whole album in 16 days. I had worked with Nirvana before at Smart when they had come out about a year earlier to do some demos.”
“That was before Dave Grohl joined the band and what happened is we didn’t finish the record ’cause Kurt lost his voice. I mixed the songs they had finished and the band pressed up 100 cassette copies and gave them out to their friends.”
“They ostensibly bootlegged themselves and then all of a sudden all the major labels started calling and they jumped ship and went to Geffen. They had a lot of big name producers they talked to and didn’t like any of ’em.”
“They called me at the 11th hour to go out to LA so I didn’t really have any preproduction time.” According to Vig, he was immediately struck by the visceral power of the band, as well as their work ethic, noting how they practiced for six months straight before recording.
“[Dave’s] an incredible drummer. The first day of preproduction in North Hollywood, Kurt had this fucking very loud Mesa Boogie he was playing and Krist [Novoselic] had an Ampeg SVT bass amp and those were both loud as hell,” said Vig.
“They had a small PA setup but the drums were not in the PA because there was no kick and snare mic. It sounded so fucking intense and I just kept pacing around… The first song they played was ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.”
“I just kept pacing around the room and going, ‘Oh, my god. This sounds fuckin’ amazing.’ Dave is an incredible musician. He really is. People always say, ‘How’d you get that sound on Nevermind?’ and 90 percent of it is Dave Grohl.”
“I just miked drums the way I normally miked drums and that room, Sound City is what it is. But it’s just how Dave plays and he’s just so, so powerful.” 90 percent is a substantial amount, but we’re not about to argue with Vig. After all, he would know.