So, although I’d heard most of the songs on it, I’d never owned “In Utero”, so I downloaded it from iTunes the other day. It’s different from “Nevermind” in many ways, and there’s a huge difference in production. Anyway, I remember you once saying that you weren’t really a Nirvana fan and that part of the reason was because of all of the Cobain stigma, although I am guessing there’s more to it than that. I kind of just wanted to hear more about that (this isn’t a challenge, like “Why don’t you like them YOU SHOULD LIKE THEM”), I am just really curious. Mostly because Nirvana were such a big influence on me and I like them a ton, and since we’re in the same generation, I just wondered what the differences were in our Nirvana experience. (And maybe I have your view completely wrong, or maybe it’s changed, or who knows!)
I have Nevermind and From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, that’s all. Let’s back up and let me re-phrase how I feel about Nirvana, OK? Try to wipe out what you remember me saying.
Mostly what I feel is the tension between Kurt’s feminism / pro-gay position / feelings about celebrity culture / etc., and the way that the knuckleheaded bros of our generation (and the corporate structure of the next generation older) were able to accept and use Nirvana’s music at the surface level without being challenged by its politics and social criticism. That discrepancy just makes me feel sick, and never sicker than when I hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I pretty much can’t listen to it. I can sort of listen to the live version from “Wishkah.” I guess in sum, I just hate the shallow read that Nirvana gets in popular culture.
So, Nirvana is a pretty big deal to me, but I think it would be hard to call me a fan or say I like them a ton, and I almost never listen to their music. Does that parse? I don’t know how to categorize my feelings about Nirvana.
Thanks for asking, I hope you’ll have some stuff to say about it. -h
No, that’s totally interesting! I didn’t think that you thought they were a terrible band or anything like that, and it sounds like you don’t think that; it’s more that the context in which you experience(d) Nirvana is a lot different than mine.
I think the main difference might be that I either didn’t directly witness or was totally ignorant of the very real Bro/Corporate misinterpretation/exploitation of Nirvana’s music. I am sure people I thought sucked listened to Nirvana in Middle School/High School, but looking back, it feels like almost everyone I knew who liked Nirvana were nerds. I am specifically thinking of people like Josh Oberndorfer, who was obsessed with “Bleach”/”Incesticide”/weird b-sides and crud. That’s kind of my conception of the typical Nirvana fan; the nerd/loner who finally found a band/message they could relate to.
Also, I think this matters: my first contemporary record (the first record I listened to that wasn’t played for me by my parents) was a cassette tape of *Nevermind* that was dubbed for me by my Uncle Bob, and I remember sitting my room and playing that thing over and over and over as an 11-year-old outcast (this was when I was in 6th grade). It was my first year of Middle School and I had transferred to a new district the summer before, and so I didn’t have any friends from Elementary School there with me. I was also really short, really heavy, I had braces and headgear that I had to wear during school hours, I had a bowl-cut, and I played the baritone in band. Hey Laaaaaaadieees!
I’m not saying all of this because I want to reverse-brag about my nerd-dom, but I think it’s important to note that I discovered Nirvana when I was very much looking for something I could relate to, and I think that explains a lot regarding why I am not/was not bothered by a lot of the stigma that bothers you. Although of course, I totally agree with your assessment; I just never experienced it in a direct way. I am also sure that there are bands I can’t fully enjoy because they are fatally connected to other negative things in my mind, although I can’t think of an example off the top of my head.
I don’t know. I think your feelings about them make sense, and I think both of our views on them are perfectly valid. And I think that helps me understand completely why you can’t just sit down and listen to them and enjoy them without kind of going, “Lord, this is a shame.”
Yeah… when I hear Nirvana, or think of Nirvana, I can’t avoid thinking of the weight room in high school and the singles from “Nevermind.” I was a little later coming to Nirvana than you, since I was more into Boyz II Men in 1991/92. And when I was getting really into music, probably starting freshman year (1995-96) or maybe a bit earlier, I was also starting to discover politics, and non-conformity was really important to me, creating a self-image that was partly defined through almost reflexive opposition to what i perceived as mainstream, etc.
You’ve got a really cool story for discovering Nirvana! I remember the first time I heard “Dookie” – it was 7th grade algebra, and we were reviewing for a test or something and finished early. This guy in my class, Leon Smallbear, was playing the tape on a little boombox. And of course, he was showing us the hidden “all by myself” track.
My teacher in the class was super-cool. At one point, she played me this song by a friend of hers, “Addicted to Carmex,” and it was one of the first times I can remember being introduced to the idea that you could know someone personally who recorded music or made rock-ish type music. The song itself was a kind of Violent Femmes-sounding acoustic punk affair. I think she played it because she’d seen me with Carmex, and she liked Carmex too.
6th grade for me… let’s see; frog t-shirt? Check. Yep, braces; check. (No ‘gear, though, you win that one!) 14 oz. of hair gel per day + side-part? CHECK. Large metal-frame glasses? Check. My friend, we are in business.
That “Dookie” story is rad: Green Day (and that record in particular) were my next foray into contemporary music. I guess that would have been 1994-ish, and I remember actually being kind of weirded out about how different Green Day was to anything else I’d really heard. They were catchy but weird and semi-profane and didn’t sound anything like the Fleetwood Mac or Genesis or .38 Special my parents listened to. It was delightfully disturbing/eye-opening because it was so unsafe at the time, which is funny, because Green Day’s one of the safest bands around these days!
I am betting that if I were somehow able to see a visual representation or measurement of how much Nirvana, Green Day and Weezer influenced/still influence my songwriting and how I think about music, I would be shocked. I think that, because of when I got into those bands, they have a stronger hold on me than I’d like to admit.
I love the piece about finding out that real, un-famous people can make music too, and not only that, they can make good music! I remember being at camp and finding out that my FRIENDS could write songs that were just as good (if not better) than the stuff on MTV. I just always assumed that songs on MTV/radio were there because they were the best songs. In retrospect, that’s a really cute/sad/naive thought :) Good thing I was just a kid! I would be terrified/intrigued to know how many adults still think in that way.
I think my single biggest influence might be a quote. I read somewhere, around when I was first writing songs, Elvis Costello saying something like “my goal is to put words and music together in the most interesting ways possible.”
Could you speak to any enduring influences you hear in my music? Obviously, DMB on the earlier h&s stuff, 5*C on “not nothing”… but consciously, I see more of how I go through an influence, pick up some things, and then sort of move on. I’d be interested if there are longer-term things I might not recognize.
The MTV thing reminds me of that study I know I’ve told you (& everyone) about where like 50 groups of people rated a set of songs, some seeing others’ ratings and some not, and they showed how strong the purely *social* influence is on what we consider aesthetically good. (I assume the same process works at every level, from national/international down to local sub-cultures.) (BTW, I don’t think that necessarily leads to total aesthetic relativism, but that’s a different conversation.)
That’s a good quote. I try really hard to make my songs really fun/rewarding to listen to. Sometimes it’s fun to make songs that are creepers and maybe they’re not fully awesome until you’ve listened a few times, but either way, I want the fun-factor to be the same. And there’s obviously nothing wrong with writing songs that pay off upfront. I think people think that this is wrong, though. Especially these days.
When I get really into a band, I’ll say, “I want to try and write a song that sounds kind of like them, but that sounds mostly like me,” and I think the more bands I get into, the more diverse my songs become, and the more tricks I get up my sleeve. But then the main goal, I guess, is to make all of those tricks my own instead of emulating bands outright. I think I get better and better at this, especially when you consider my 20-year-old-self’s Bright Eyes/Cursive obsession!
I am not sure if I hear any outstanding specific influences in your music, or at least, not in the last many years. Which is a good thing. Maybe with the first few h&s records there was a lot of folk/rock there and maybe the DMB stuff was more present, but now, I just mostly detect certain themes/priorities in your songs. For example, you usually stay away from any kind of conventional chord progression/melody. Either you’ll mess with the time signature, or you’ll break the rules on purpose regarding the key you’re in, or you add some other factor(s) to keep it from being too straightforward. I know from personal experience that your songs are trickier to sing/play than they sound. “Snow is a Bear” is really tricky to play. I’m OK with just listening to it and singing along :)
But in spite of all of this, you’re still really attentive to hooks. You won’t write a weird song that just meanders and doesn’t stand out aside from just being unconventional. Songs like “Berlin” and “The Picture Song” and “New Slow Sea” and “Green Christine” are all examples of songs that have weird elements in them to make them interesting, but they’re still really catchy. And when you hear the “weird” parts, you don’t think, “Man, that’s really weird and it doesn’t make sense,” you just see that it’s totally appropriate and makes the song MORE hooky, not less.
I know when I was younger I had bigtime Weezer/Superdrag influences, and then probably Elliott Smith for a while, but I think (hope!) I’m doing something pretty Kiblery now.
“I think people think that [writing songs that pay off upfront] is wrong, though. Especially these days.” Really? You mean just in Lincoln, or in general? What about the success of Robyn in the indie scene, etc.?
The theme you pick out is good; I really like trying to make something weird into something catchy. (“In Rainbows” is kind of like the ultimate example of a band having massive success at this!) One way or another, that figures in to almost everything I do.
“You won’t write a weird song that just meanders and doesn’t stand out aside from just being unconventional.” – :-) Actually, this is precisely what I did, until we started working together! You are the vector through which an interest in writing hooks/catchiness even got on to my radar. So, thanks! I remember early on in college talking about songwriting, and you said something about working hard on writing melodies, and in my head I thought “Huh. Writing… melodies. Paying attention to vocal melodies with the purpose of making them singable. I never really thought about that!” Before that, my vocal lines were just the first thing that popped into my head.
You know, another thing that I’m not sure I’ve said before, is that I’m on a mission to write something really immediate and visceral, and that’s totally a reaction against my earliest stuff. Those first tunes were so cerebral and unconventional-for-unconventionality’s sake, that since getting interested in hooks and rocking out, I’ve always been afraid my songs would be haunted by that more emotionally distant kind of approach forever and I wouldn’t be able to write something that just had some raw power. I’m definitely still on that mission (See; Exploder Mode, “not nothing”) even though I think I’ve had some (at least partial) successes. “signs” has something about it, even though it’s something I’m not sure many people understand (I don’t fully understand it myself, which I love), or even bits of “comets,” there’s maybe hints of it, like in the whimsy of “Yes Song” or the way that “The Picture Song” resonates with people for some unknown reason. But that tension might be the beating heart of my creativity; constantly fighting against my cerebral/distant/unconventional instincts.
I think I’ll listen to “Oceans of Ice…”
I guess what I meant by that statement was that, within the indie community, there are certain artists who are totally accepted when they’re simple and catchy, and there are other artists that will get crapped on for it, no matter what, even if they write amazing stuff. For some reason, motherforkers totally accept/love/praise Justin Timberlake and Kesha and Lady GaGa and Robyn and Timbaland and all of those artists, I guess because they’re somewhat urban or dance-y or whatever. I am not sure. (And I love a lot of them too!) But you would *never* see a Pitchfork rave review about a rock and roll equivalent such as Fall Out Boy or Panic at the Disco or Blink182, even though Panic at the Disco’s last record is WAY more creative and catchy than a lot of that other radio-pop stuff.
It’s like Panic or Fall Out Boy remind hipsters what they used to genuinely love in high school, and they’re ashamed or something and so they can’t think it’s cool so soon after they turned their back on it. But they probably always hated on people like Lady GaGa until recently, and since it’s socially acceptable for hipsters to love Lady GaGa (even hipsters are totally susceptible to the social influence!), they’re totally OK with liking radio-pop in their older years, even though they wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere NEAR their Reel Big Fish tour t-shirt.
Related note: the new Maroon 5 single is actually really rad. On the surface, it doesn’t deviate a ton from their basic formula, but the chorus is really good, esp. the falsetto part.
I am glad I had some influence on your desire to write hooks! :) Hooks are my favorite part of music, whether that be a vocal line or a sick guitar riff or a drum thing or the weird sampled tones in “Idioteque.” Anything to make me go, “Dang, this is HOT!” I very much look forward to your stripped-down experiments with songwriting. No matter what you try, I don’t think you could ever let your songs get too simple in a bad way, so it sounds really cool. For what it’s worth, I think you pulled me in the opposite direction, i.e., caring a lot more about the meaning of a song and its poetry and lyrics and story instead of just singing whatever cliche stuff. So there! I SAID STRIP DOWN
Ah – I get it. So, arbitrarily depending on genre, it’s OK/not OK to be really hooky and immediate, and you’re calling that out. Check.
I’ve been anxious for M5, since I know they went to Germany or wherever to work with Mutt Lange, but I haven’t heard it yet. I didn’t get the second record; I liked the fast songs, but there were tooooooooooooo many lame sappy slow jams for me.
We’re the Voltron of songwriting. -h
Yes, sorry: it was really general at first when I said it. I guess it’s hard to be a really catchy rock band without people who are “in the know” dismissing you.
That second M5 album mostly sucked. Unfortunately. Next time I’ll play before I pay! The new M5 song is “Misery,” just in case you want to hit it up on the ‘shark!