The fall of 1993, when grunge was king


Al­most ex­actly 25 years ago, pop cul­ture was at Peak Grunge.

Nir­vana and Pearl Jam re­leased their block­buster sopho­more ma­jor-la­bel al­bums (“In Utero” and “Vs.,” re­spec­tively) within weeks of each other in fall 1993. Kurt Cobain and Ed­die Ved­der be­came the re­luc­tant voices of their gen­er­a­tion. Seat­tle con­tin­ued to be un­der siege by record-la­bel scouts look­ing for the next batch of long-haired dudes play­ing gui­tars cloaked in dis­tor­tion.

For the only time in their ex­is­tence, grunge’s Big Four (Nir­vana, Pearl Jam, Soundgar­den and Alice In Chains) shared chart space with much-mocked ri­vals Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots and Can­dle­box. Flan­nel-wear­ing Gen X-ers pop­u­lated ads for Subaru and Pepsi (sales re­sults were mixed) and in­spired Marc Ja­cobs’ spring ‘93 col­lec­tion for Perry El­lis (he was fired). Things would never be that glo­ri­ously mis­er­able again.

More than 20 peo­ple who were there as things were hap­pen­ing – mu­si­cians, man­agers, la­bel reps, jour­nal­ists – talked about what it was like when grunge was king.


Nir­vana recorded “In Utero” in early 1993 and spent the lat­ter part of the year on a se­ries of in­creas­ingly chaotic tours. Dave Krusen, Pearl Jam’s orig­i­nal drum­mer, spent the year read­just­ing to civil­ian life af­ter part­ing ways with the group. Soundgar­den, the first of the Big Four to grad­u­ate to a ma­jor la­bel and the last to be­come su­per­stars, worked on what would be­come their 1994 break­out, “Su­pe­run­k­nown.”

••• Krist Novoselic (bassist, Nir­vana): You be­come re­ally fa­mous, right? Then you have dreams about be­ing naked in pub­lic, like, “Oh my God, I’m in the mid­dle of a store, and I don’t have any clothes on. Why didn’t I re­mem­ber to put my clothes on?” And you feel ex­posed: “I wish I could find some pants or some­thing.” Dave Krusen (drum­mer, Pearl Jam): I had a lot of stress in my life and just stuff go­ing on, and I couldn’t quit drink­ing, and they gave me ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to get it to­gether. Like, “Dave, maybe try and slow down.” I was like “Yeah, yeah, I’m get­ting it to­gether.” I was such an al­co­holic then. To this day, I wish I could’ve got­ten it to­gether and stopped drink­ing, and said some­thing like, “You know what? I’ve gotta go to re­hab for a few weeks and get my (life) to­gether.” Su­san Sil­ver (man­ager, Soundgar­den and Alice In Chains): With the suc­cess came a pres­sure that is re­ally dif­fi­cult for a young per­son, es­pe­cially a very artis­tic per­son, to deal with. That his­tory is well doc­u­mented, that drugs be­came a big­ger and big­ger cop­ing mech­a­nism. A great por­tion of our lives were fo­cused on that. Krusen: ’93 was ex­tremely rough for me. At that point, they’re the big­gest band on the planet, and I’m just strug­gling to make it through the day. The last gig I played with them, I was com­pletely blacked out. I did go into re­hab, ac­tu­ally. It did not last. Kim Thayil (gui­tarist, Soundgar­den): A lot of things go through your head, be­cause you’re happy for the suc­cess of your peers. At the same time, you’re won­der­ing, “Well, gee.” I guess it’s like be­ing on (the play­ground), wait­ing around to get picked by the soft­ball team. You’re won­der­ing, “OK, what is it about this that is par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful?” A lot of things (go through) your head.


As grunge got thor­oughly ab­sorbed by the main­stream, record la­bels scram­bled to sign Seat­tle bands as tro­phies, al­though they were of­ten un­will­ing to pro­vide the nec­es­sary in­fra­struc­ture and artist de­vel­op­ment. On the other side of the spec­trum, the Big Four bands strug­gled with their mon­u­men­tal suc­cess.


Tim Som­mer (for­mer A&R ex­ec­u­tive, At­lantic Records): It was a ma­nia. You could’ve been a crappy Sun­set Strip hair-metal band, cut your hair, slapped on a flan­nel shirt, put a Tad sticker on your gui­tar, and you could’ve got­ten signed in 1993. Tyler Will­man (front­man, Green Ap­ple Quick Step): I re­mem­ber peo­ple af­ter shows giv­ing me their cards, big A&R rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Peo­ple would cor­ner you. We had a bid­ding war with Madonna’s la­bel, Mav­er­ick. We had meet­ings with Madonna. We had grown up on punk rock. Madonna was kind of the devil. Matt Dres­d­ner (bassist, the Gits): In ’92 and ’93, it felt like a new com­pet­i­tive­ness, which was dif­fer­ent. Prior to that, it felt like every­body was look­ing out for each other, bands would go to other bands’ shows. Through ’93, I wouldn’t say (it was) cut­throat, but more com­pet­i­tive and less sup­port­ive. ... Some of that pu­rity was dis­si­pat­ing.

Krusen: (Suc­cess) cre­ated more of an in­fight­ing kind of vibe. A lot of re­sent­ment, a lot of bit­ter­ness ... not only to­ward the la­bels, but (the bands), like, “Well, you didn’t grow up down the street.” It’s lit­er­ally, like, if you’re from the other side of Lake Wash­ing­ton, you’re from out of town. It con­tin­ued for years. It prob­a­bly took a decade for it to turn around again. Room Bar­rett Stu­dio): Jones At (owner, that point, Laun­dry all these were like, bands “Well, had jeez, blown if I up. can Peo­ple do it, I’m get signed gonna do and it.” then I saw get a lot com­pletely of bands crushed by the sys­tem, and then fall apart. Will­man: We were very close to be­ing suc­cess­ful. At that time, it seemed like ev­ery­one got a record deal, that’s just the way it was. If you’re in a band, you went on the road, you went on tour. At 23, that’s what you did. I didn’t know any dif­fer­ent. Tad Doyle (front­man, Tad): We were on the road a lot, so I didn’t know what was go­ing on back home, but it got to be an­noy­ing when you started see­ing ads for cloth­ing com­pa­nies do­ing grunge looks, and you had the grunge guy ad for a phone com­pany. That was per­vad­ing ev­ery­thing. It was the hip and hap­pen­ing thing. Sil­ver: Things cer­tainly be­came more com­mer­cial­ized. The me­dia turned it into a fash­ion state­ment, which was prob­a­bly the fun­ni­est thing to all of us. Janet Bil­lig Rich (man­ager, Nir­vana and Hole): You just don’t as­so­ciate (Nir­vana) with fun. But they weren’t fun even pre-fame. ... It was all heavy. Ev­ery­thing with them was al­ways heavy.

Novoselic: I would drink al­co­hol. A lot of pres­sure, a lot of things go­ing on ... but we got on re­ally well and had this very solid con­nec­tion. I still have it with Dave (Grohl, Nir­vana’s drum­mer), we had it with Kurt. We would all just work to­gether, just have a lot of fun, and know what to do mu­si­cally. There was fun times.

Sil­ver: It’s hard to say you don’t want (su­per­star­dom). Soundgar­den, philo­soph­i­cally they weren’t in­ter­ested in the ex­cess.

Thayil: I think we al­ways had pretty good heads on our shoul­ders. Or we be­lieved we did. Lance Mercer (pho­tog­ra­pher):

(Pearl Jam) def­i­nitely be­came more guarded, like any band would when that much no­to­ri­ety hap­pens that fast. The crit­i­cism Ed­die was get­ting, I even was crit­i­cal to a cer­tain ex­tent, but then I stepped back, like, I don’t know how I’d be af­fected if there’s that many peo­ple stalk­ing you. The fan­dom was sky­rock­et­ing, and every­body wanted a piece of him. Who’s to say how you’d be af­fected?


As Nir­vana and Pearl Jam pre­pared for their al­bum re­leases, the press con­tin­ued to play up the prob­a­bly barely ex­is­tent Cobain/Ved­der ri­valry.


Thayil: There’s def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent ways that a band like Pearl Jam man­aged their suc­cess com­pared to how Nir­vana did. What came out of that was our un­der­stand­ing of how well Pearl Jam man­aged their sit­u­a­tion, to keep it within the bounds of where they would like to be in their ca­reer, to not let things get ahead of them, or let the sit­u­a­tion be­come un­man­age­able. Steve Turner (gui­tarist, Mud

honey): (Nir­vana was) al­ready kind of strug­gling when we toured with them. There didn’t seem to be any­body in charge. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween man­age­ment, band and the im­por­tant peo­ple in­volved. It just seemed like it was kind of hap­pen­ing, re­gard­less of what the guys wanted.

When we went on tour with Pearl Jam, it was kind of night and day. Pearl Jam was re­ally or­ga­nized and re­ally friendly and fun, and they were re­ally stoked with what was go­ing on, and they sur­rounded them­selves with good peo­ple. It made me look at the Nir­vana thing even more like, “Man, it’s a shame they can’t get their (act) to­gether like Pearl Jam.”

Bil­lig Rich: Every­body thought they were like, against each other, and there was neg­a­tiv­ity, and that’s so not the case at all. They were all cut from the same cloth.

Novoselic: I don’t know if there was a ri­valry. We just kind of did our own things. Mercer: (Pearl Jam is) very hum­ble, that’s the thing that was re­ally in­ter­est­ing. You never re­ally got a sense of how large they were based on their be­hav­ior. I would only no­tice it when we left Seat­tle.

Novoselic: 1991 to 1994, for me per­son­ally, what was that, three years, but it seems like a 10-year span, be­cause there was so much go­ing on, and then it ended in a disas­ter. I think of 1993, and I was in this bub­ble.


The suc­cess of the Big Four smoothed the path for the com­mer­cially vi­able al­ter­na­tive bands that came af­ter, in­clud­ing Stone Tem­ple Pi­lots, who hailed from Ved­der’s adopted home­town of San Diego. Seat­tle band Can­dle­box is­sued their self-ti­tled de­but in July 1993; the Smash­ing Pump­kins would re­lease “Si­amese Dream” the next week. Each sold over 4 mil­lion copies.


Kevin Martin (lead singer, Can­dle­box): We were kind of like the red­headed stepchild. We’d come around a few years af­ter every­body else, we were about three to five years younger than most of the guys. I didn’t re- ally get to be in the mix with all those bands. I wasn’t in (grunge fore­run­ner) Green River, I wasn’t in Mal­funkshun. I think every­body kind of looked at us like, “Who are these kids who moved to Seat­tle to get signed?” To re­lease a record at the height of all that, it was a lit­tle nerve-rack­ing.

Krusen: I re­mem­ber peo­ple giv­ing them (trou­ble) be­cause they were from the east side. I felt like, if some­body dissed on them for that, then that’s pretty weak. You didn’t grow up down the street ei­ther, dude.

Mercer: Peo­ple get pro­tec­tive, and camps are formed. Plus, let’s be hon­est, Kevin’s voice, that style of singing, they got a lot of flack for that. They weren’t su­per orig­i­nal. They did it well. What­ever they did, it worked.

Will­man: Madonna’s la­bel was court­ing Can­dle­box at the same time (as us), that was one of the rea­sons we didn’t go with them. We didn’t want to be as­so­ci­ated with that.

Martin: (The Big Four) are the var­sity team, and I’m the JV. It was clearly like that. Even though the guys were re­ally cool, none of them were about to step out and say, “Hey, give Can­dle­box a shot.” It just wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen.

Mercer: You had all these bands pop­ping up ev­ery­where, just mim­ick­ing that for­mula. I pho­tographed so many kids that just had the uni­form, and we’d go out to the train tracks, or brick walls. Ev­ery­thing was for­mu­laic.


On Oct. 25, 1993, Time mag­a­zine put Ed­die Ved­der on its cover, much to his band’s un­hap­pi­ness. The cover fur­ther in­flated the myth Pearl Jam had spent years at­tempt­ing to tamp down, and Ved­der hated the ac­com­pa­ny­ing photo. The next month Nir­vana filmed its tran­scen­dent and fu­ne­real “MTV Un­plugged” acous­tic spe­cial.


Christo­pher John Far­ley (writer of the Time story): There was a feel­ing that they both wanted the at­ten­tion, and didn’t want to have the at­ten­tion. They didn’t want to be seen as sell­ing out. Sean Kin­ney (drum­mer, Alice In Chains): For Ed to find him­self on the cover of Time mag­a­zine, where they’re try­ing to make him the voice of a gen­er­a­tion, and all Kurt’s go­ing through, it was kind of a con­flict­ing time. (I was) kind of re­lieved that that didn’t hap­pen to us. There was no jeal­ousy or any­thing. I just kind of felt for them.

Far­ley: I ac­tu­ally wanted to put both Pearl Jam and Nir­vana on the cover. I think I gave a thought to putting Smash­ing Pump­kins on there, too. But Time had a tra­di­tion of go­ing with one per­son. Back then, part of the power of Time was syn­the­siz­ing the cul­tural mo­ment and re­duc­ing it to a sin­gle face. I wanted the face to be Nir­vana, but their han­dlers had played a lit­tle bit coy as to whether they would talk to me or not. I sort of got the feel­ing they were draw­ing things out so I wouldn’t put Pearl Jam on the cover. Der­rick Bostrom (drum­mer, Meat Pup­pets): We were on tour with Nir­vana di­rectly be­fore those (“Un­plugged”) shows. We all had read that Kurt was talk­ing in a Spin ar­ti­cle about maybe do­ing some Meat Pup­pets songs. Rather than teach Kurt the songs, some­how my guys per­suaded him to let them on the show, which ob­vi­ously was a shot in the arm for us, and it took a lit­tle bit of the bur­den off of him. Plus, it played into his agenda to stick it to MTV by bring­ing a bunch of no­bod­ies onto the show. Alex Co­letti (pro­ducer, “MTV Un­plugged”): They said, “Hey, we want to bring some guests out.” I think ev­ery­one at MTV thought, Oh, they’re go­ing to bring Pearl Jam out, which was kind of funny, be­cause they weren’t re­ally that close. Then, when they said they wanted to bring the Meat Pup­pets out, ev­ery­one was like, “Oh. Re­ally? OK, sure.” Curt Kirk­wood (front­man, Meat Pup­pets): It was a straight­through show – I think they may have (re­cut) one song. It was odd by then for sure. There was, I wouldn’t even call it ten­sion, but this is prob­a­bly the most no­to­ri­ous band in the world, one of the most pop­u­lar. Ev­ery­thing was real guarded. It was fun for me, any­way.

Co­letti: Kurt came into the con­trol room and he said to (di­rec­tor) Beth Mc­Carthy and my­self, “You know, my wife says I don’t smile enough, so try to get a shot of me smil­ing.” At the end of the first song, he does this kind of gri­mace-y smile, which I guess was like, “Here you go.”

Novoselic: I don’t know if it was luck, but be­cause we had this mu­si­cal con­nec­tion, we chan­neled it, and it got us through it. I re­mem­ber Kurt be­ing re­ally re­lieved, and I was re­lieved, too. Some­how it just came to­gether. When it was re­leased in 1994, it was kind of a re­quiem for Kurt, and it turned out to be this huge hit record.

Co­letti: (Kurt) asked if we could get some stargazer lilies, and I wasn’t re­ally quite sure what kind of flow­ers those were. He said, “You know, like at a fu­neral,” and I said, “Oh, yeah, the white ones. Sure, we’ll get them.” Of course, he was not in any way fore­shad­ow­ing ... but it did strike me af­ter the fact that that was one of the few things he said to me. We ob­vi­ously didn’t know at the time what was to come for that show.


Cobain’s sui­cide in spring 1994 marked the un­of­fi­cial end of the Era of Grunge, which had al­ready been on the wane. Alt-grunge bands would con­tinue to rule the charts for years af­ter­ward, but Seat­tle was al­ready in the mood for some­thing less gloomy.


Sil­ver: Ev­ery­thing has its sea­son. With it came so much heartache that there def­i­nitely (needed) to be a re­group­ing at some point. Even Pearl Jam, who are by far the health­i­est, went through their own dif­fi­cult dance with suc­cess.

Martin: Prob­a­bly ’96, ’97 was when that shiny pol­ish on the car wears off, and you’re now hav­ing to wax it all the time to keep it shiny. It had a good five-to-seven year run of great bands. When the Pres­i­dents (of the United States of Amer­ica) re­leased their record, the city was start­ing to change.

DGC Records-Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group

Al­bum cover for Nir­vana’s “In Utero.”

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