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Pod Corner: 'The Cobain 50'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the death of a legend Kurt Cobain, the singer and guitarist of the pioneering rock band Nirvana. Based out of a small town in Washington state, they are said to have brought punk to the mainstream. Before his death by suicide in 1994, Cobain wrote up a list of his top 50 favorite albums of all time, and it includes artists you might already be familiar with like the Beatles and David Bowie and Aerosmith, as well as some deep cuts like The Vaselines and Beat Happening.

To celebrate Cobain's legacy, member station KEXP in Seattle is producing a podcast called The Cobain 50. Each week, the show takes a deep dive into a different album on the list and its impact on Cobain as a musician. Here's a taste from Episode 3, in which KEXP's Dusty Henry guides us through the gritty sound of the Pixies' 1988 album "Surfer Rosa."

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA'S "VERY APE")

DUSTY HENRY, BYLINE: Frenzied guitars, an unmistakable manic voice, catchy hooks lathered in distortion, dynamics that jumped from quiet to loud to quiet again. Yes, of course I'm talking about the Pixies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONE MACHINE")

PIXIES: (Singing) This is a song for Carol.

HENRY: Coming off of "Come On Pilgrim," the Pixies were eager to get back into the studio. Their label, 4AD, recommended they work with a new producer this time around, a guy by the name of Steve Albini. These days, Albini has a reputation as one of the most prolific and influential producers of underground music. He's produced over 1,500 albums, ranging from Songs: Ohia and PJ Harvey to Joanna Newsom and Slint.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLINT'S "NAN DING")

HENRY: Back when he met the Pixies, though, he'd only just begun producing records, working with acts like Urge Overkill and Blatant Dissent. In 1987, Albini might have been best known for his role as the leader of the band Big Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEROSENE")

BIG BLACK: (Singing) Kerosene around, set me on fire.

HENRY: Albini first met the Pixies at a dinner party just weeks after "Come On Pilgrim" was released. They hit it off so well that they all headed to the studio the very next day. Albini played a crucial role in the careers of both the Pixies and Nirvana. He also goes by a very strict code of ethics. He would be paid a fee and not collect royalties, a practice common in most industry deals. In a letter he later sent to Nirvana, he wrote, I would like to be paid like a plumber. I do the job and you pay me what it's worth.

In the practicalities of recording, Albini prefers to record the band in the same room, playing together with minimal overdubs. It's a big part of what makes "Surfer Rosa" sound the way that it does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY BODY (2007 REMASTER)")

PIXIES: (Singing) Break my body. Hold my bones. Hold my bones. Break my body. Hold my bones. Hold my bones.

HENRY: Albini's mission is to capture the band as true as possible to how they sound in the room. It's his belief that, quote, "99% of the sound of a record should be established while the basic take is recorded." In other words, support the band. Get out of the way. And let the musicians express themselves. "Surfer Rosa" is the perfect complement to the band's songwriting that veers towards macabre imagery of broken bones, bone machines and sexual deviancy. It's the Pixies' first masterpiece and certainly not their last.

And when I say masterpiece, by the way, I don't mean that it's pristine. In fact, what makes "Surfer Rosa" so brilliant is its raw nature. It's the point when we see the band really coining the patented loud, quiet, loud dynamics. Just take a listen to the Kim Deal-led single, "Gigantic."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIGANTIC")

PIXIES: (Singing) Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Let's have a ball. Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Let's have a ball. Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Hey, Paul. Let's have a ball. Gigantic. Gigantic. Gigantic. A big, big love.

HENRY: It's a simple idea. Play your verse more subdued, more restrained, then explode at the chorus. This contrast has a huge effect. It makes the high moments feel especially huge and powerfully emotive, and vice versa is a powerful effect going from these massive choruses back down into a quieter verse. This is definitely one of the techniques that Nirvana lifted in their own songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART-SHAPED BOX")

NIRVANA: (Singing) I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black. Hey. Wait. I got a new complaint. Forever in debt to your priceless advice. Hey. Wait.

HENRY: "Surfer Rosa" might not have been a commercial smash, but it thrilled indie rock fans across the globe. This album became a guiding light for artists with similarly legendary careers. Kurt was obviously a devout fan, owning up to the fact that his songwriting was indebted to the Pixies. Nirvana had already cemented themselves as icons with their instant classic sophomore album "Nevermind" in 1991. When it came to follow it up, the band went in a different direction. While Butch Vig's clean and polished production of "Nevermind" made them superstars, they craved a more rawer sound, so they approached the producer of "Surfer Rosa," the very same Steve Albini. Here's Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl talking about the influence of "Surfer Rosa" with Conan O'Brien in 2023.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRIST NOVOSELIC: It must have been like 1989, 1990. And we were cruising in this van. And I think we were listening to "Surfer Rosa." And then Kurt was sitting there in the chair, and he raises his finger and makes a decree. And he goes, this shall be our snare sound.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVE GROHL: We had always listened to records that Steve had made. I remember when I first moved in with Kurt, I think he only had like four records. It was like - He had a Mark Lanegan record. There was "Surfer Rosa." There was The Breeders' "Pod" and The Jesus Lizard record. And that was just the sound that we felt most that we loved.

HENRY: It's hard to stress how radical of a move this was for Nirvana at the time. After the success of "Nevermind," Nirvana quickly became the biggest band in the world, and yet they hired a producer who compared himself to a plumber. Nirvana knew exactly what they were doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERVE THE SERVANTS")

NIRVANA: (Singing) Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I'm bored and old.

HENRY: You hear the spirit of "Surfer Rosa" right away on Nirvana's last record, "In Utero." With Albini's guidance, the band implemented the same studio practices that the Pixies used when making their record. "In Utero" combines the rawness of "Bleach" with the songcraft of "Nevermind." In my opinion, it's the fully realized version of Nirvana's sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOURETTE'S")

NIRVANA: (Singing) Mayday, every day, my day. Could've had a heart attack, my heart. We don't know anything, my heart. We all want something fair, my heart. Hey.

HENRY: Kurt never hid his love of the Pixies. He openly said that Nirvana was more than indebted to the Pixies, including on their breakthrough hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

NIRVANA: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now. Entertain us.

HENRY: In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stones' David Fricke, Kurt said, quote, "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily. I should have been in that band or at least in a Pixies cover band." In Michael Azerrad's Nirvana biography, "Come As You Are," the band openly worried about the song, saying, this really sounds like the Pixies. People are really going to nail us for this.

Fast-forward to 2013. Frank Black of The Pixies finally gave his take on the issue. His sarcastic response is, quote, "being original, influencing Nirvana so they could rip off a song. I'll admit it. If Kurt fessed up to it, f*** it. I'll agree with it. You ripped us off."

(SOUNDBITE OF PIXIES' "TONY'S THEME (2007 REMASTER)")

HENRY: With "Surfer Rosa," the Pixies created the template for a new wave of mutilation in punk and indie rock. Nirvana took that gritty sound to the masses, and the entire sphere of rock music fundamentally changed across the world. Without the Pixies, there might not have been Nirvana, at least not in the way that we know them. For KEXP, I'm Dusty Henry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONY'S THEME (2007 REMASTER)")

PIXIES: (Singing) It's not my superhero name, Tony. It's called "Tony's Theme."

DETROW: That was an excerpt from KEXP's weekly podcast series The Cobain 50. The station also produces a Spanish-language companion to the show, El Cancionero de Kurt, which explores the impact of Nirvana in South America and vice versa. You can learn more at kepx.org (ph). And you can find both of those podcasts on the NPR app or wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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