Before you produced Nevermind for Nirvana, they demoed eight songs with you – including Lithium, Polly and In Bloom – at Smart Studios in April 1990. What was your first impression of those tracks?
"Sub Pop had sent me the first Nirvana record, Bleach, and I thought it was a good record, but overall, kinda one-dimensional. Except for the song About A Girl, where I heard a real Lennon/McCartney sophistication in Kurt’s songwriting. But they had more melodic, hookier songs in reserve – In Bloom could have been on the Sub Pop record – and I could tell that Kurt was really expanding his writing, melodically, and in terms of what he was doing with his voice, and the arrangements were getting a lot more sophisticated. So I was excited to work with them. There was some tension with Chad [Channing, drums], I sensed some frustration on Kurt’s part with Chad’s timing. Chad was a good drummer – you can hear that session and it sounds good – but when Dave Grohl joined the band, that brought a whole X-factor that no-one saw coming. He took Nirvana and put them on steroids."
Didn’t you get the call to produce Nevermind really late, like in the same week that the band were due to start recording at Sound City?
"Yeah, it was maybe 10 days from when we started recording, or maybe just a week. I’d been in the studio with Billy Corgan, because we were finishing some B-sides after Gish, and he kept asking me, ‘So, are you gonna work with Nirvana?’ because he knew I’d done that Sub Pop session, the Smart Sessions. And then I got a call from [Nirvana bassist] Krist Novoselic and he said, ‘Hey Butch, we really want you to do the record, but because Geffen doesn’t know who you are, would you be interested in engineering it and we’ll work with a big name producer?’ I asked who they were thinking of working with, and he rattled off names like [Ramones/Living Colour producer] Ed Stasium, and [R.E.M./Smithereens producer] Don Dixon, and other guys I knew, and I was thinking that it’d be great, I was sure that I’d learn a lot.
"So then I didn’t hear anything for three or four days, and then Krist called back and said, ‘We want you to do the record. We met with a bunch of those guys and we don’t like any of them.’ He was like, ‘Okay, so can you be in LA a week from Sunday and we’ll meet you there?’ I asked if I could hear the songs, and he said they’d send me a tape. A couple of days later, a cassette showed up in the mail, with a handwritten latter, and I put it on and heard Kurt going, ‘Hey Butch, it’s Kurt, we’re excited to come and rock out with you. We’re going to play a couple of new songs, and we’ve got Dave Grohl, and he’s the greatest drummer in the world.’ And then I hear the guitar intro to …Teen Spirit, and when Dave hit the drums, it just completely destroyed everything. They were recording on a boom box, and so there was unbelievable distortion, but I could sorta hear the song underneath the white noise static, like the ‘Hello hello hello’ part in …Teen Spirit. And then they played a bunch of other songs that ended up being on Nevermind, and I thought, 'Wow, these songs are great,' even though the recording quality on that cassette was horrible."
You’d met Kurt and Krist when they came to your studio in 1990, but what were your first impressions of Dave?
"He seemed kinda funny and goofy. We went into a rehearsal space in North Hollywood, a way bigger room than they were used to, and the first thing I noticed was that Dave didn’t have any mics on his drums, which was unusual. So I said, ‘Play me that first song that was on the cassette.’ And they started playing …Teen Spirit and it just exploded, it was so fucking loud and Dave was hitting the drums so hard. I remember just pacing around the room going, 'Oh my God, this is incredible.' And when the song ended Kurt said, ‘So what do you think, Butch?’ I was like, 'Just play it again!' I was blown away by how tight they sounded and how powerful Dave was and that they all seemed really, really focussed."