When Nirvana came to Madison

Here’s the untold story of Nirvana’s time in Madison.
Chad Channing, Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain members of Nirvana
Photo by Tyler Jarman
Nirvana at the WORT 89.9 FM radio station in Madison in April 1990. Left to right, Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain and Chad Channing.

The band was virtually unknown when it first came to Madison as an opening act. The following year the musicians returned to record songs at Smart Studios with Butch Vig, who would later record and produce “Nevermind,” forever linking Madison to one of the most acclaimed albums of all time. Here’s the untold story of Nirvana’s time in Madison. For more never-before published photos of Nirvana’s visit to Madison, order a print issue here.

“So you’ve heard of us in Wisconsin?”

Only about 30 people saw Nirvana make their Madison debut at O’Cayz Corral on July 7, 1989. Sure, it was summer and a lot of University of Wisconsin–Madison students had already headed home, but this was the kind of turnout that’d disappoint even a local band of nobodies. No one in Madison seemed to know who the band was or cared enough to risk the $4 cover charge to see them play. In fact, more people had showed up the previous weekend to see Old Skull, a three-piece novelty punk band made up entirely of 10-year-old kids.

Madison was one of the early stops on the band’s first U.S. tour. Nirvana’s debut album, “Bleach,” had been released just three weeks before by the then-upstart, Seattle-based Sub Pop Records. The show was booked by O’Cayz manager, the late Tom Layton, who was making a name for himself locally by booking touring underground bands through his company Lamebrain Productions. Layton remembered booking Nirvana as a favor. The band had an open Midwest date and Nirvana’s booking agent had begged him, “Please throw ’em on any bill you have that night.” Although Layton had already filled the headliner slot at O’Cayz that night, he added Nirvana to the schedule anyway; they opened for The Tragically Hip.

On the night of the Madison show, Nirvana’s lineup consisted of Kurt Cobain (vocals and guitar), Krist Novoselic (bass), Chad Channing (drums) and Jason Everman, who was the band’s second guitarist and newest member. Dave Grohl wouldn’t join the group until the following year, but he’d already graced the O’Cayz stage back in 1987 as an 18-year-old playing drums for the Washington, D.C., hardcore band Scream.

Nirvana blazed through its catalog for the handful of people at O’Cayz that night, predominantly performing tracks off “Bleach” and sprinkling in new songs as well, including a slowed-down instrumental version of “Even in His Youth” (a song that would eventually be released as the B-side to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and a fast, heavy-on-the-distortion-pedal version of “Polly.”

The band members bantered with the sparse crowd throughout the set, with Everman at one point asking, “So you’ve heard of us in Wisconsin?” The question garnered a few halfhearted replies of “yeah” before someone sarcastically shouted, “You guys are famous around the world!” to scattered chuckles and even a few wry smiles from the band. The guys took some friendly jabs at Wisconsin, with Novoselic proclaiming that he “worked with a guy from Wisconsin once. He was proud of Wisconsin and always talked about cheese and stuff.”

Following the set, Channing and Everman lumbered into the nearby Black Bear Lounge on North Frances Street for beers with Gary Newgord, a UW–Madison student who had been at the show. Novoselic stayed behind, ostensibly to watch Tragically Hip, but really because he could keep drinking free beer at O’Cayz. Cobain, meanwhile, sat in the back area of the venue next to the band’s now stacked-up instruments, not wanting to socialize or risk having any of their gear stolen.

Sleeping arrangements on that first tour were often limited to the inside of the van itself or, if fortunes were smiling, a floor or couch offered by a generous fan. That night Nirvana struck gold. Newgord let them crash in actual beds at his rented house at 114 E. Dayton St., since his other roommates were all away for the summer. Cobain still chose to sleep on the hardwood floor. “I remember waking up the next morning and saying, ‘Dude, why didn’t you sleep in a bed?’ ” says Newgord.

Before heading out of town the following morning, Cobain and Novoselic took a walk around the isthmus side of Lake Mendota, discussing the state of the band and the rigors of the tour. Both concluded that their newest member wasn’t long for the group. They were right: Everman would be out of the band that same month and Nirvana would resume as a three-piece group.

Nirvana drove away from Madison with $100, payment for their O’Cayz show. It was just enough money for a case of beer, some food and a full tank of gas to make it to their next gig. “We were totally poor,” recalled Cobain to Michael Azerrad, as quoted in Azerrad’s 1993 book, “Come as You Are,” “but god, we were seeing the United States for the first time. And we were in a band, and we were making enough money to survive. It was awesome.”

Nirvana’s experience in Madison up to that point wasn’t terribly unique, as other cities on their first tour (such as Fort Worth, Iowa City and Santa Fe) played host to similar tales of the band getting paid peanuts to play to nearly empty clubs. But those histories usually end there, as they never returned to any of those cities again. Not only would Nirvana be lured back to Madison, the city and one Madisonian in particular would soon play a pivotal role in the group’s breakthrough success.

The Smart Sessions

Bryan David “Butch” Vig was born in 1955 and raised in Viroqua, a small town in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area 95 miles from downtown Madison. The son of a family doctor and a music teacher, he was given his nickname as a child after receiving a dreadful home crewcut from his father. His hair grew back, but the name stuck. Vig’s introduction to playing music was through the piano lessons his mother gave him, but he knew he wanted to be a drummer at the age of 12 after watching the infamous The Who performance in 1967 on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

Vig started drumming for bands in high school and, while attending UW–Madison, joined the power-pop/new wave band Spooner, which grew wildly popular in Madison and the surrounding area but never achieved much notice outside the Midwest.

Ever since he was a kid, Vig had always had a higher-than-average appreciation for the production-value side of his favorite records, but his interest in recording grew noticeably stronger as Spooner spent more time in the studio. In 1983, Vig and fellow musician Steve Marker took a leap of faith and opened their own eight-track recording studio in Madison, dubbing it Smart Studios. It was more a labor of love for Vig in those early years, giving like-minded local bands like Appliances-SFB, The Other Kids and Killdozer a casual place to hang out and inexpensively record. When he wasn’t at the studio, Vig drove a cab around Madison to make ends meet.

As Vig’s production techniques and skills started to mature, word began to spread about “this innovative DIY studio in Madison.” Soon, independent bands from all over the Midwest were recording there, from Ann Arbor-based The Laughing Hyenas to Chicago’s The Smashing Pumpkins.

It was Vig’s work on Killdozer’s 1989 album, “Twelve Point Buck,” that first caught the attention of Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records. Poneman was particularly drawn to the sound of Dan Hobson’s drumming that Vig captured on the record. Vig and Poneman built a rapport, and soon Poneman was sending Sub Pop bands to record at Smart Studios. After Vig’s well-received sessions with The Fluid and Tad, Poneman reached out again around January 1990 to discuss their next project. “He called and said, ‘You gotta work with this band Nirvana; they could be as big as the Beatles.’ I just remember laughing and thinking, ‘Yeah, sure,’ ” Vig says.

Nirvana’s next tour was scheduled to start in the Midwest that spring, opening up a weeklong opportunity to record in Madison. Vig penciled them in for six days at Smart with the ultimate plan being to record the 10 songs that would make up Nirvana’s second Sub Pop album. Because Vig hadn’t heard much of their music, Poneman mailed him a vinyl copy of “Bleach.” “I wasn’t that impressed,” Vig admits. “I thought it had a cool heaviness to it, and I loved Kurt’s voice, but a lot of the songs were just so one-dimensional. They were sort of one riff, and they just kind of banged on that same riff for a while.” But one song off “Bleach” was noticeably different and appealed to Vig’s deep admiration of catchy pop hooks. “I loved the song ‘About a Girl.’ Just the melody and the chord structure and the arrangement to me was great pop songwriting,” he says.

Nirvana arrived in Madison on the morning of Monday, April 2, 1990, after driving up from Chicago, where they’d played the previous night. “The three of them just pulled up in their van and knocked on the side of the door,” says Vig. “They were looking pretty scrappy, like they hadn’t taken a shower for several days.” Because the session had been set up entirely through Poneman, it was Vig’s first chance to meet the band. “Krist was really funny and affable, and Chad was friendly too. Kurt was also nice and said hello, but then he hardly said anything; he was pretty introverted, at least at first.”

Vig helped them unload their gear upstairs, then took them across the street to the Friendly Tavern for a bite to eat. Novoselic did most of the talking (and beer drinking) during lunch, while Cobain sat quietly, eating a grilled cheese and making no attempt to join the conversation. When Vig finally turned to Cobain and asked for input, his only reply was, “Make sure we sound really heavy.”

Back at the studio, Vig and Nirvana set up their instruments to record with help from assistant engineer Doug Olson. Then Vig headed to the control room for sound checks. By 4 p.m., they were ready to record. Vig punched in the tape and signaled the band to begin. There was silence. “Krist was looking at me kind of funny because nothing was happening,” says Vig. “I look over, and Kurt had set his guitar down and was just sitting in the corner.”

Vig asked Cobain if everything was all right, but he didn’t get a reply. Unsure if Cobain was upset with him for some reason or just wasn’t liking how things were sounding, Vig went back to fine-tuning the drums and checking the levels. Novoselic soon came over to reassure Vig that, “He’s OK. He just gets in these funky moods sometimes. If you leave him alone, he’ll snap back into it in a little bit.” Sure enough, about an hour or so later, Kurt stood up, grabbed his guitar and said, “Let’s go.” Within a few minutes they were recording their first track.

A typical studio day with Nirvana that week began with Vig arriving in the morning to review the previous day’s work and prep for that day’s recording, with Nirvana arriving around 1 or 2 p.m. and tracking until around midnight. Accommodations for the band were at the Aloha Inn, a one-star hotel on East Washington Avenue. It was pretty close to the studio and, at $30 a night, cheap enough for a band with Nirvana’s budget to stay for the duration.

Nirvana recorded eight new songs at Smart, many of which were early versions of songs that would appear on their breakthrough album, “Nevermind,” including “In Bloom,” “Imodium” (later renamed “Breed”), “Lithium” and “Pay to Play” (later renamed “Stay Away”). “Polly” was the one recording from the Madison sessions that would end up on “Nevermind,” which locked in the album’s true start at Smart. For this stripped-down acoustic number, Cobain played a five-string Stella guitar he’d purchased at a pawn shop for $20. “I didn’t bother changing the strings,” Cobain recalled in a 1992 interview with Guitar World magazine. “It barely stays in tune. In fact, I had to use duct tape to hold the tuning keys in place.”

Hearing these new songs, it was clear to Vig that the band was moving away from the heavy, sludgy sound that dominated “Bleach” and gravitating toward something that, while still loud and angsty, included more hooks and melodic tonality. He encouraged Cobain more in that direction but was often met with hesitation. Cobain seemed at odds with the evolution of the band’s sound, as it was conflicting with his punk ideology. Vig persisted. “I told him, ‘You have an amazing pop sensibility and you shouldn’t ignore it,’ ” he says.

Cobain’s mood swings continued throughout the week and his frustration with their drummer, Chad Channing, was also a recurring theme. “Chad would be playing something,” Vig says, “and Kurt would go, ‘Stop, stop, stop, let me show you,’ then get on the drums and show him the fills that he wanted. I could see Chad looking at him, not particularly happy he was getting direction like this.” The fact that Cobain wasn’t a great drummer didn’t help. “I think Kurt heard things musically in his head that he just couldn’t always articulate, so he’d get really frustrated,” notes Vig.

Last Call at Club Underground

Toward the end of the week, Nirvana played its second, and what would be its final, show in Madison — this time at Club Underground, a short-lived nightspot located on the corner of Park and Regent streets that operated in the basement of the former Bunky’s Cafe. It was Vig’s first opportunity to see the band perform live. Sub Pop Records’ Poneman was also in attendance, after flying in earlier that day to check on the week’s progress. A hundred people crammed into the basement venue, paying a $5 cover to see Nirvana co-headline with their Sub Pop labelmates, Tad.

Nirvana was still touring in support of “Bleach,” and the set list reflected that, but they also performed a few of the new songs they’d recorded that week, including “In Bloom” and “Dive.” The club’s low ceilings and Novoselic’s 6-foot, 7-inch frame made for an interesting combination, with Novoselic often coming within inches of smacking his head as he bounced around during the set. Taking matters into his own hands, he poked a hole through the ceiling with his bass guitar’s head and later filled it with one of his socks.

Cobain sang with such a fiery intensity that he blew out his voice about 10 songs in, then struggled through the rest of the show. After playing the final note of their last song, he threw his guitar down on the floor and walked off the stage. “Those were probably the best live bands we had had in Madison for quite some time,” says Club Underground’s assistant manager Ray Rupprecht, “and no one had heard of them yet.”

After the show, Vig and Dan Hobson, Killdozer’s drummer, took Nirvana out for drinks around Madison, starting at Club De Wash and continuing late into the night. It was a full-circle moment: Hobson’s drums, recorded by Vig, had started the chain of events that led Nirvana to record in Madison in the first place.

‘None of us Townies Knew’

Cobain’s voice was still shot the next day, so the band decided to scrap the final day of recording and get some rest before continuing the tour, which included roughly 25 dates over the next five weeks. With some time to kill, the guys headed to State Street. Colleen Cronin was working behind the register at Ragstock that day and immediately recognized them when they walked in. She was an early fan: In addition to being at Club Underground the previous night, Cronin was part of the paltry crowd that had attended the O’Cayz show the previous year. She happened to host a late-night alternative music program on 89.9 WORT, Madison’s community radio station, and after chatting with the band a bit, convinced them to meet at the station after her shift to record an interview.

At the station, Cronin was joined by another WORT DJ, Tyler Jarman, and engineer Dean Gein, who recorded the interview. The band members were slightly inebriated when they arrived that evening and gave a loose, hour-long interview, largely dominated by Novoselic. Rarely serious and mostly rambling, the guys told tall tales about recording a music video on the Great Wall of China and jokingly claiming their influences were Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw from Styx. At one point Cobain proclaimed, “If you like Faith No More, don’t buy our record!” During and after the interview, Jarman casually snapped a series of photos with his disposable camera; as of the publication date of this feature, these are the only known photos of the band during their time in Madison. “None of us townies knew where they were headed,” Jarman says.

A Change in Plans

Nirvana was happy with the Smart Studios sessions and planned to head back to Madison after their tour to finish recording the final songs for the album. In an interview a few weeks after the sessions, Cobain expressed his satisfaction, telling the interviewer that it “really worked out well” and jokingly saying they were “going for the ‘Madison sound’ this time as opposed to ‘Seattle.’ ”

Assistant engineer Doug Olson remembers Cobain calling the studio soon after they left Madison to say hello and ask how everyone was doing. “I remember it seemed strange how surprisingly friendly he was for what he’d been like during the session, when it seemed like he didn’t want anything to do with us,” he says. “It’s not that he wasn’t a nice guy … he’d just always seemed pretty quiet and introverted.”

But Nirvana never made it back to Smart Studios. Following its tour, the band parted ways with drummer Channing. During the same time, it was no secret in Seattle that Sub Pop was struggling financially, and after the band heard a rumor that the label sought to sign a subsidy deal with a major label that would, in a sense, negate their independence, Nirvana hatched a plan to cut out the middleman. Cobain and Novoselic dubbed copies of their Smart Studio sessions onto cassettes and sent them off to an array of labels, industry insiders and friends. Essentially bootlegging their own unfinished album to create some buzz. What had been the building blocks of Nirvana’s next Sub Pop album were sacrificed as a glorified demo tape and, soon, a major-label bidding war for Nirvana was underway.

The Rocket Ride Begins

Back in Madison, Vig was left in the dark about these new developments and was still expecting to finish recording the band’s album. It wasn’t until the owner of local retailer B-Side Records told Vig that a kid had come into his store with a dubbed tape of the Smart sessions that Vig started to piece together what was happening.

Come fall of 1990, Nirvana had found its sixth and final drummer in Dave Grohl and signed with the David Geffen Co., or DGC. By early spring of 1991, they were preparing to record a major-label debut when Vig received a call from Novoselic saying that the label was pressuring them to use a big-time producer, but they still wanted Vig to engineer the record. Vig jumped at the invitation. Two weeks later Novoselic called Vig back saying they “didn’t want to work with any of those guys” and asked him to both record and produce. It had been eight years since Vig first opened Smart Studios, and this was his first work on a major label record.

“Nevermind” was briefly slated to be recorded in Madison, but, as a concession to their label for going with a then-unknown producer, the band agreed at the last minute to record at a studio closer to DGC’s Los Angeles home base. In April 1991 — a full year after the Madison sessions — Vig flew to meet Nirvana at Sound City Studios in the Van Nuys neighborhood in Los Angeles and spent the next four weeks recording and producing the album.

When Vig returned to Madison in June he was in high spirits, excited at what the collaboration had yielded and understandably unprepared for the mammoth, reverberating impact the album would soon have.

And it All Started in

As it turns out, the first time anyone outside the band’s inner circle ever heard “Nevermind” was likely during a happy hour in a dive bar in Madison.

Blunt Rupture, lead singer of the early ’90s band CattleProd, remembers Vig bringing in a cassette of early mixes of “Nevermind” to the Willy Bear Tavern one late afternoon shortly after he’d returned from California. Willy Bear, the future spot of Jolly Bob’s, was a bar on Williamson Street popular with local musicians. “Butch cranked the entire album through the jukebox speakers, and soon the whole bar started tapping their toes and nodding their heads,” Blunt Rupture recalls. “Everyone was blown away and also mad that all of our bands didn’t sound that good.”

As advance promos of the album started circulating within the music industry, Vig started getting calls at the studio, often from people he didn’t know. “There were just so many enthusiastic voicemails being left: ‘Hey Butch, this is Tony from promotions. Just heard ‘Nevermind,’ man. This album is going to blow the doors off everything!’ ” Vig remembers.

But Vig’s first true sense of the album’s magnitude likely occurred during a July 4 barbecue he hosted outside his east-side apartment on Morrison Street, roughly three months before “Nevermind” was released. About 30 friends were there that afternoon, including musician Billy Corgan, who was in town with The Smashing Pumpkins recording at Smart. “Everyone was hanging out and drinking beer and someone said, ‘Turn on that Nirvana record,’ so I got a little boombox and put it on a picnic table,” Vig says.

Once the tape started playing, everyone stopped what they were doing and huddled around the table, listening to the album in its entirety for the first time. When the last song ended, silence hung in the air. Five or so seconds went by before Corgan broke it, saying simply, “Play it again.”

“Looking at everyone just staring at that boombox, I realized there was something about that record that was really capturing that zeitgeist moment,” says Vig. “Everyone who even heard a little bit of it was having such an extreme reaction.”

DGC initially had modest sales expectations, hoping the album would sell 250,000 copies — comparable to the latest release by another alternative band on its roster, Sonic Youth. “Nevermind” was released on Sept. 24, 1991, debuting at No. 144 on the Billboard chart. From there, things moved incredibly fast. The lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” gained traction on radio stations nationwide and its music video was soon in heavy rotation on MTV. By the holiday season that year, the album was selling 300,000 copies a week, and on January 11, 1992, “Nevermind” overtook Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” as the No. 1 album on the Billboard chart.

That same day, Vig came home after work to his tiny, $400-a-month Madison apartment. He sat at his kitchen table, not knowing what to say or do. At just 36, he’d recorded and produced the No. 1 selling album in the world. “Nevermind” was on its way to selling more than 30 million copies and becoming one of the most influential albums in the history of rock music. “ ‘Nevermind’ profoundly changed my life,” admits Vig. “But the next day was business as usual, so I walked into Smart Studios to start that day’s recording session. When I arrived, I called my parents and told them the news and my mom said, ‘I’m really proud of you, Butch. That’s pretty cool for a kid from Viroqua.’ ”

For more never-before published photos of Nirvana’s visit to Madison, order a print issue here.

Learn about how this story came to be here.

Kurt Stream is a freelance writer and author born and raised in Madison and currently residing in Tacoma, Washington. A former sound guy at O’Cayz Corral, Stream had been fascinated with the Nirvana/Madison connection since his teenage years. When the pandemic hit, he used his sudden influx of free time to put together this detailed account.

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