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TALK: Michael Azerrad

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A few months ago I had the opportunity to interview music author and journalist, Michael Azerrad, about the Kurt Cobain documentary he helped to create, About A Son (which was released on DVD earlier this year). The film centers around the audio recordings of the series of interviews Azerrad shared with Cobain in the early 90’s, which produced the first–and same say the best–Nirvana biography, Come As You Are.

Because Azerrad is usually on the other end of the tape recorder, he couldn’t resist teaching me some tricks of the trade during our encounter. While sitting in a Greenwich Village bar with lots of background noise, I followed my TV instincts and held the recorder close to Azerrad’s mouth. Having a few Rolling Stone and Spin cover stories under his belt, Azerrad quickly folded a drink-coaster in half and propped up the tape recorder with it. Genius.

More recently, Azerrad stopped by IFC and participated in the IFC News’ Indepdendent Music Panel: The Future of Music Journalism.

Jim Shearer: You had these interview tapes of Kurt Cobain sitting in a box–tapes that you hadn’t listened to since you wrote the book, Come As You Are. What made you want to make a film?

Michael Azerrad: For years I heard people talking about Kurt as if they knew him personally. I would just kind of sit back and not chip in, and say to myself, “Well you know, I actually knew him and that’s completely wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There is a scene in Annie Hall where Woodie Allen is standing on line listening to a guy pontificate about Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist of the 60’s and 70’s, and he grows increasingly upset about this guy’s totally off-the-mark assessment of Marshall McLuhan. Finally, he gets really exasperated and says, “What a minute!” He walks out of frame and pulls in Marshall McLuhan himself, and says, “Will you talk to this guy?”

Marshall McLuhan says, “You’ve completely misinterpreted what I’ve said.” The guy shuts up. I wish I could do that with Kurt when I hear those people in bars or concert lines. It just seemed time to make a movie that would shoot down a lot of these ideas, and maybe teach people something about the nature of celebrity–and the nature of celebrities.

Jim: Was there one moment that set you off while overhearing conversations about Kurt?

Michael: No, just the usual “he didn’t love [Courtney]” type stuff. I’ve heard that a bunch of times, but how can anyone possibly know if someone really loves someone else? It’s one of those fundamentally unknowable things that only one person knows.

The other thing that really began this movie was the fact that I appeared in a film called Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns). I was impressed with [Director] A.J. Schnack. I thought he was a smart, thoughtful guy, and the movie turned out to be really innovative and fresh. After that movie I had lunch with A.J., and in passing I mentioned I had these tapes. I could see the light-bulb go on above his head. I kind of did that on purpose, because I had the idea in the back of my mind for this movie that would just involve these tapes of Kurt talking, ambient music of some kind, and ambient visuals. I knew it would be an art film–it wouldn’t be a very popular film–but it could be really cool. It was just a matter of finding a director who thought it was a good idea.

A.J. seemed interested, so I said, “Come on over.” I played him part of a tape and we were both kind of amazed by the clarity of it–it was a pretty decent stereo recording of Kurt talking, and I was just really struck how happy I was to hear his voice. It wasn’t an upsetting thing at all–it was a joyful thing. At that time Kurt was in pretty good shape, so to hear him talking reminded me of the guy that I really grew to like. That’s the guy that made all the music that everyone loves. It was just so nice to hear my friend again.

Jim: When I first saw the trailer for About A Son I didn’t think I was going to like it–it just seemed like a whole bunch of well-thought-out beauty shots. But when I actually saw About A Son, it all made sense to me. Midway through the film, my mind actually lost track of the visuals and I started to mentally picture all the people and places I remember from that time period.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, it’s weird. Everything coalesces to the point of almost disappearing, because you’re so caught up in the film. It takes a little period of adjustment when you’re watching and all of a sudden it snaps in and you get it, because it does have a different approach and a different pace from just about any other documentary film. It has its own language, but you can master the language pretty quickly.

Jim: For the About A Son soundtrack, I like how you explain in the liner notes why there aren’t any Nirvana songs included in the film. I’m sure some people were surprised to find this out.

Michael: We never intended to use Nirvana songs. It’s like a Kurt mix-tape. If Kurt walked into a bar and heard the soundtrack to this film, he’d be really comfortable. But the second a Nirvana song came on, I bet he would have turned on his heels and left.

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(right: Imagine if blogs had existed during the days of Kurt and Courtney.)

Jim: How do you think Kurt would have held up today? In the movie, at times, it seems like he’s talking about the internet age–with everyone needing to know every last detail about you. How would he have coped with blogs and an increasingly tabloid-driven culture?

Michael: It would have driven him bats. He was at the cutting edge of that. He checked out right before that really exploded. I don’t know how celebrities deal with it. That’s why the timing of this film was so good, because for a while people speculated about Britney Spears for instance. People thought they knew everything, “Oh, she’s spoiled and eccentric, she’s on drugs, she doesn’t appreciate what she has.” People were making fun of her, not thinking that there’s an actual person there who turned out to have a mental illness–no joke–she had a condition and that’s why she was acting like that. I think the same thing happened to Kurt, except it probably wasn’t nearly as intense as what happened to Britney Spears. Because of the internet and a 24-hour news cycle, all that kind of stuff is way more intense now.

Jim: Kurt wouldn’t have had a myspace page?

Michael: No, I don’t think. It’s funny though, because the more secretive you try to be, the more people will pry into your life. There’s a famous thing about R.E.M., they lived in Athens, Georgia–this college town–for years and years. R.E.M. were one of the biggest bands in the world, and you’d think if they walked down the street they’d be mobbed by these college kids all wanting autographs. What R.E.M. did was, every fall they would all go out to all the student bars on the main strip of Athens and hang out. That first year, freshmen kids would run up to them and pester them for their autographs. Next week, guess what? There’d be the same guy from R.E.M. again. After a while it would be like, “There’s the guy from R.E.M.”

If you make yourself really obvious and available then no one bothers you, but Kurt tried to maintain his privacy. When people put up a big wall, people want to see what’s on the other side of it. Also, he had a very controversial wife. I have this theory, bands with enigmatic lyrics attract crazies.

Jim: (laughs) Throughout the process of writing the book, how many times did you sit down and interview Kurt?

Michael: Maybe seven or eight times in person, and then a bunch of times on the phone. Typically I’d fly out to Seattle. [Nirvana] were between albums, they were done touring, and they hadn’t recorded In Utero yet. Kurt was a night-bird, so he’d say, “Stop by around midnight.” I’d get to his house and we’d sit around and watch TV or he’d play with the baby or play me some music he was working on. After a while he’d go, “I’m ready,” and we’d sit at his kitchen table and just roll tape and talk. We’d typically finish when the sun came up, and we’d just kind of look out the window and watch these biplanes landing on the lake across the street from his house. It was pretty fun.

Jim: What did you guys watch on TV?

Michael: MTV was almost always on in the house. There’s a very typical rock musician thing where the first thing they do when they walk into a hotel room is turn on the TV, but turn off the sound. It’s a very classic thing. I’m not sure why that is, but that’s what Kurt did at his house. The TV was almost always on, but with sound off. When Kurt turned on MTV it wasn’t like the channel suddenly started playing grunge 24-7. So if we were watching MTV, it was like C+C Music Factory, Boy II Men, and could have just as easily been Soundgarden.

Jim: Did you guys have any Beavis and Butthead-like moments, where you would sit back and critique videos?

Michael: Sure, there definitely were, but when you’re doing that kind of thing it’s not like, Wow, I should remember this cause an interviewer might ask about it 14 years later. (laughs) But yeah, there was definitely those kind of conversations, “Wow, that guy looks like an idiot” or “Oh look, he’s not playing the chord that you’re hearing.”

Jim: You got to see Kurt interact with Courtney and Francis Bean, how was he at home?

Michael: He was super domestic, he was a dad. Often Courtney would be off talking business on the phone or working out some music, and Kurt would be cradling the baby in his arms, feeding it and changing a diaper. He would coo and play with the baby just like anyone else.

Often when we’d talk, he’d just pull a–they had these pre-made meals, like someone would come by and either make the food at their house or drop off food. They had this fridge with very little unmade food, it was all these meals on plates with Saran Wrap over them. When they were hungry, they’d just pull out the plate and microwave it. That was the most kitchen oriented Kurt was.

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(left: I didn’t say anything about green M&M’s, I just said I wanted some mac and cheese on our rider.)

Jim: I remember hearing a story that despite all of Nirvana’s success they still had Kraft macaroni and cheese and loaves of white bread on their rider. Do you know anything about that?

Michael: No, but it makes sense. A lot of people just have comfort food on their riders. Riders are a very interesting thing. I remember Dave Grohl was really into Taco Bell, so on the tour book they have these specs for each hotel: Does it have a pool? Does the room have a king bed or two doubles? Spa? Etc. One of the other data points on this little spreadsheet was: Distance to nearest Taco Bell.

Jim: Speaking of Dave, back then did you ever think he’d turn out to be the rock star that he is today?

Michael: Well, the odds of anyone becoming a rock star are pretty slim so you don’t contemplate that, but Dave was already, clearly, a good musician. I saw him play guitar and he wrote songs. Chicks dug him. All the ingredients were there, and he’s clearly an ambitious, together guy. While I wouldn’t have predicted that he would become a rock star, if someone from the future said, “In 2008, Dave Grohl’s going to be a big rock star,” I would have said, “Yeah, that makes a whole lot of sense.”

Jim: What did you think about all the Nirvana legal issues that went on between Dave, Krist, and Courtney over the last few years?

Michael: It’s just classic music biz shenanigans. Whenever there’s a lot of money and a legacy involved it’s always messy. That’s par for the course. I don’t know why anyone’s surprised by that at all. It’s standard.

Jim: Have you read any of the other Nirvana books published after yours?

Michael: No I haven’t. I don’t know–kind of been there done that. I don’t need to. It just feels like rehashing–not that they’re rehashing, but it would feel like rehashing to me. I’d rather read about something I don’t know about.

Jim: Just curious, as a respected journalist, what are your thoughts on today’s media? Everything appears on the internet in a millisecond, fact-checked or not.

Michael: Well, I think people develop an antenna about that. Stuff that you read on someone’s blog, I would hope that people would give it a veracity discount, and hopefully from a more reputable source, they take things more seriously.

I think people are developing their bullshit antennae and understand that there are people who know what they’re talking about and people who don’t. I think journalists have always had that skill and it’s now spreading to the general public, because they are presented with so many sources of opinion. I say “opinion” rather than information, so they have to figure out who has the most informed opinion and who is most likely to have accurate facts. That skill is something we’re all going to have to learn, to be informed, productive members of society.

Ten percent of the American population thinks that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Those are the people that have not learned the skill of filtering information from the vast barrage of inaccurate information that we’re all faced with everyday. I think that’s a very 21st century skill.

Jim: Finally, are you still rockin’ out on drums with The LeeVees?

Michael: Yes, and I can’t believe I’ve sold out and become a major label recording artist. I’m supposed to be “Mr. Indie” and I played on a record for Warner Brothers–part of the WEA conglomerate. Because it’s basically a Chanukah band we only play in December. The LeeVees are on duty, you know, eight percent of the year.

When you’re writing, you’re only a brain and some fingers, but drumming, you’re involving all four limbs, and you’re hearing stuff and you’re converting your ideas into physical motions, getting physical feedback from things you are touching–it’s pretty cool. It’s a really a nice contrast to writing.

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