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Musicians Talk About Nirvana’s Influence

Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

It’s been 20 years since Kurt Cobain took his own life. And over the past two decades, Nirvana‘s influence has continued to grow, spreading from indie rock to hard rock to metal and beyond. On the anniversary of his April 5, 1994, passing, we asked some artists what Cobain and Nirvana mean to them, and why their legacy remains so strong.


Better-Than-Ezra

Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin

 
 

Nirvana will always make me think of the dramatic shift in music that 'Nevermind' brought about in the early '90s. Some much great music was happening at the time: Pixies, R.E.M., Smiths, etc. Nirvana was the band that took all those influences from the late '80s and turned it into a movement. Suddenly everyone was listening to and buying the sound of real bands playing music, and that was incredibly inspiring to a band like Better Than Ezra touring around the South in our van. We could actually make it. It was in our and every other band's grasp.

 
dandy

The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor-Taylor

 
 

[The music of Nirvana to me means that] mainly a huge chunk of my life that is gone. All sorts of of sadness and longing for someplace I can never go back to are associated with that fuggin guy. That band dominated popular culture for what at the time seemed like a helluva long time -- omnipresent while I lived through a lot of changes as a young man. He was exactly the same age as myself. This dirty little humble greatness guy. Sad and angry got huge.

 
Falling-Off-Maps

Falling Off Maps

 
 
I think everyone has at least one of those moments when you hear something for the first time, where you are completely immersed in a song, where you sit silently, possibly exchanging a knowing glance in awe of what your ears are currently registering, and knowing this was something rarely repeated, something special.
My brother and I had one of those moments the first time we heard Nirvana. My school friend Steven Kendal had given me a recorded cassette, with hand-written titles and whatever information he had been able to find, scribed neatly onto the lines provided. I have to say I was already excited as I made my way home, Steven had been adamant this would change my life, the way it had for him (so much so he wanted the tape back the very next day). I remember we were having our living room redecorated at the time, so our parents had set up a makeshift lounge area in the dining room, along with the TV and stereo system. My brother and I usually arrived home a while before our parents, so when we did we threw down our bags and before we even got out of our school uniform, put in the cassette, turned up the volume and perched on the sofa, expectantly. As kids living in the midlands in England, we weren't that privy to the American punk or hard rock scenes, it was more the Smiths and the Stone Roses if you were lucky, and a lot of '90s dance/pop if you weren't. There was almost this divide, like you couldn't like bands from the "grunge" scene as well as a band like the Stone Roses. As soon as I heard the opening chords of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' I think I knew which side I was leaning toward, and by the time the drums kicked in? No contest. My brother and I listened intently, the songs were so strong, raging with intensity, each one hitting like a hammer, until 'Something in the Way' and the realization that this album was beyond special. I think we listened to the whole album twice before our parents got home.
I can't speak for my brother but I've managed to have that feeling hearing a couple of bands since, something I feel privileged about, but the way I get taken back to that moment every time I hear Nirvana and Kurt's voice, makes it very dear to me. Nearly 20 years later my brother and I play in this band and although the musical similarities aren't really that obvious, we owe a lot to the inspirational kick-start of that moment.
 
hank3

Hank 3

 
 

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana mean many different things to me. One thing I think that should cross people's mind if they get that much success in such a short time is that you don't haft to drape yourself in front of the cannon and hit fire. You can pace your self a bit. Yes, being famous and being a worldwide sensation is great. But you have to keep in mind the road and the shows will always be there if you want it. But to have such a overload can be very hard to come back from in many ways, and unfortunately Kurt didn't get to stick around and be a father and a musician -- especially for a guy like Kurt Cobain with a punk rock background and who liked to march to his own beat. Nirvana brought tons of hope and dreams to kids and adults all around the world, showing you don't have to be the world's greatest guitar player or singer to do what you do.

 
Hiatus-Kaiyote

Hiatus Kaiyote's Paul Bender

 
 

Nirvana represented a new "realness" that had been lacking in popular music at that point in time. I think it's important that everybody have art on their lives that relates to their own experience, and for the kids who had not already discovered Sonic Youth, the Pixies and the Melvins, etc, 'Nevermind' and its explosion into mass culture must have been quite the revelation, a beacon of teenage catharsis. I got onto the Nirvana boat pretty late, but it was some of the first music I ever played, as I was ushered into my older brother's punk/grunge/metal cover band Frij. Those were the days (sort of).

 
Mainland

Mainland's Jordan Topf

 
 

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were the culmination and answer to the end of the punk and hardcore era. Their sound was a grimly painted representation of suburban Seattle in the late '80s/early '90s. I love that they sound like where they are from. Their songs are economical but deep in Kurt's cynical, abstract and damaged viewpoint of the world around him. I discovered Nirvana in high school and grew fondly of their ballads more so than their thrashers. Kurt's voice always resonates so nicely on songs where he's not straining or screaming. His screams are essential to Nirvana, yet the ballads they wrote always struck a chord (for lack of a better term) with me.

 
JESSICA-LEA-MAYFIELD

Jessica Lea Mayfield

 
 
I think there's this point where a teenage outsider discovers Nirvana and feels like someone understands them. I was on the second wave, being that I was four years old when Kurt died ... I was probably 13 or so when I got really into Nirvana. I was worried about all these glee kids dancing around and looking at me like a grungy old twentysomething pot-smoker person who likes rock music and acting like that's so uncool.
But lately I've been seeing teenies in Nirvana tees and it's a glimmer of hope, the third wave! And a comforting proof the music of Cobain isn't going anywhere.
 
NOMADS

NOMADS' Nathan Lithgow

 
 

Kurt Cobain means a lot to me. He represents the inherent paradox of our hero worship of stars in the modern age. He made art that ultimately became commercialized and successful, even though he just wanted to make something pure and unadulterated and raw. He was as much a poet as a "rock star," and his rejection of his own success is something that fascinates me. We're all in bands, we all want to tour and see the world and make money and live life largely, but those are all things that Kurt Cobain fought against even after achieving meteoric fame and fortune. In my opinion, grunge music gets a bad rap because of what ultimately followed it (think Creed, Limp Bizkit, Korn, etc.), but to me, Kurt Cobain was as pure a natural lyricist as there has ever been in popular music. Plus, he had a way with songs that connects to how we process musicality as children ... simplicity in melody, juxtaposed with extremely powerful imagery and sense of higher song. He also wrote songs that just kick f---ing ass. Territorial pissings? Are you kidding? Try to listen to that song and not freak the f--- out.

 
Photo-by-Odonis-Odonis

Odonis Odonis' Denholm Whale

 
 

Nirvana was a band that helped fuel the dramatic angst of my teenage years. Without Nirvana I wouldn't have been exposed to bands like Flipper, Scratch Acid, Big Black and Bad Brains at such an early age. I feel like if I hadn't caught on to the band at the age I did, I just wouldn't have the same outlook on music. It's different nowadays when I go back, but I still get a surge of nostalgia every time I hear a 'Bleach' track.

 
One-Hundred-Percent

One Hundred Percent's Matt Habegger

 
 

I was 11 years old when 'Nevermind' broke. I was just this youngster trying to tag along with the cool older kids but never quite making it into the inner circle really. When you're that young, you're always looking up to the older kids for guidance on how to be cool, what to listen to, how to act. Especially the bad ones! At the time they were all into bands like Mötley Crue, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Poison and the rest. I felt that I was supposed to like this music because the older kids did, but I didn't really understand or relate to it. Then 'Nevermind' came out and completely obliterated that whole era of music. When that happened, I learned that not only were there options out there, but that I didn't need most of these guys to show me the way. This seems pretty silly to say now, but hey it was an important lesson for an 11-year-old to learn, and gave me the kick in the ass to start finding my own path.

 
1,2,3

1, 2, 3

 
 

Right after 'Nevermind' came out, I bought the T-shirt with the track listing on the back. For some reason, my fifth grade teacher didn't find 'Territorial Pissings' draped on the back of a shirt appropriate for an 11-year-old to wear to school, so I was sent home that day. Nirvana meant everything to me when I was a kid. I was a skate rat, and when I saw the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' I thought, "Whoa, these look like dudes I would hang out with." In a way, they were the Ramones of the '90s in that they made you feel like, "Hey, I can do that too!" I was devastated when Kurt died; I cried for three days straight. He was one of the last frontmen who felt larger than life and at the same time someone who you completely identify with. That's what made that band special.

 
Unicycle-Loves-You

Unicycle Loves You's Jim Carroll

 
 
It was on some autumn night in 1991, just before my 13th birthday. I was at a childhood friend's house. We were just sitting around watching TV or something when I was first exposed to the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video. It changed my f---ing life right then and there. Up until then, I had been a metal kid with some hip-hop tendencies, but neither gave me the feeling that this was my music made for my generation like the first time I heard Nirvana. I'm glad that I remember the exact moment and the way the music made me feel back then, because I absolutely cannot listen to 'Nevermind' ever again. Nirvana's music has since been beyond overplayed to death, endlessly misinterpreted in the wrong hands, and s--- out and eaten up again so many times that I just do not even recognize it. But it changed everything for me immediately, and forever sent me into a world of musical and self discovery. I went out and bought 'Nevermind' and 'Bleach,' and lived my high school years through 'Incesticide' and 'In Utero.' From the Daniel Johnston T-shirts, to the bass-throwing, anti-Axl Rose MTV music awards performance, to Kurt's suicide, I was tuned in and turned on. I can't imagine those years any other way. I can't imagine what other way I would have discovered Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Smashing Pumpkins, the Pixies, Guided By Voices, Unrest, Eric's Trip and all the rest of the bands that made up the soundtrack of my teenage life. But man, the stuff that followed ... remember the "trying to sound like Nirvana" radio of the late '90s? That was the worst. We still bring 'Bleach' on the road with us every single time we tour, and I still use the 'Come As You Are' riff every time to check the tuning of my guitar.
 

Next: More Rock Musicians Talk About Nirvana

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