Steve Albini reveals Nirvana's In Utero album features a happy accident with Kurt Cobain and a distortion pedal in the studio

Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana
(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

If Nirvana fans think all the stories of Nirvana's In Utero sessions have already been told, they might want to give the latest episode of the Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend podcast a listen. It features Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and the album's producer/engineer Steve Albini looking back for the album's 30th anniversary, and by his own admission, the latter reveals something for the first time in the press that earned a new level of admiration for Nirvana from him.

"Literally the first thing recorded in the session is the first song on the album, as recorded," Albini says of the one take that delivered Serve The Servants.  It wasn't an anomaly either – the trio were a famously formidable live band by this point and had entered  Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota well-prepared. But unexpected things could still happen.

"There's a thing and so far none of the trainspotters have mentioned this so I don't know if it's really known," Albini begins when discussing album opener Serve The Servants in more detail. "There's a quiet bit of the song and then it kicks into full monty, and we had done a soundcheck of the instruments before they did the take. But [for] the full monty Kurt kicked on an overdrive pedal that he hadn't used in the soundcheck. So when the first loud bit comes in the guitars were pining on the tape machine – like he was about 60db hotter than for the [soundcheck] session.

The first beat of the loud part, the tape machine is slightly overdriving, the channels are in the red and it's base engineering on my part

"So I immediately grabbed those channels and ratcheted them back, so the first  beat of the loud part, the tape machine is slightly overdriving, the channels are in the red and it's base engineering on my part," admits Albini. "By the second or the third beat it was back to normal, but there is this moment, there's this slightly… exploding. But in a conventional setting, just the fact that we went over on that first beat, just the fact that it was the first run-through, just the fact there was this potential scar would have been enough to say, 'Well let's just do it again, that was nice for a first take but let's do it again.' 

"But everyone heard it back and I mentioned there was an overload on this first beat because I wasn't prepared for the overdrive and got it back in line, but everyone heard it in playback and said, 'Fine'. So that's on the record now. Which is the sort of thing that when you're working in budget conditions in sort of grubby studio sessions, that s**t happens all the time and you just live with it, but for a band of their stature and their resources to say, 'Let's go ahead and use the first take it sounds fine – we're not that picky', I thought that was a remarkable display."

From what we know, Kurt Cobain's two pedals in the sessions were the Tech 21 SansAmp and Boss DS-2 Turbo distortion. As fan and musician Aaron Rash's diligent research has shown, these were used in different ways with a rare Fender Quad Reverb loaded with an even rarer speaker spec. So it may have been either pedal he stepped on for what Albini called 'the full monty' part. 

Check out more on that below, and the full Conan podcast episode on Spotify above which features more insight, prank calls to Gene Simmons and Albini even doing an impression of Cobain. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.