Did You Know the Wisconsin Connection to Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’?

The initial recordings for the seminal grunge album were recorded at Madison’s Smart Studios – and one track persists in the record’s final cut.

In 1989, Kurt Cobain, Krist Noveselic and Chad Channing released their first album Bleach, a hard-hitting punk rock record, under the band name Nirvana. The term ”grunge” was yet to enter the cultural vocabulary, but the wave of loud, distorted, punk-influenced rock was beginning to slowly grow in strength and popularity.

The album received some attention and made waves in the underground music scene, especially in Seattle, near where the band was from, according to the Cobain biography Heavier than Heaven by Charles Cross. But unfortunately, their label Sub Pop was dead-broke and could barely afford to help them distribute Bleach, much less record the second album Cobain was growing increasingly restless to make. 

By early 1990, the band was looking at options for new labels, when Sub Pop finally set up a recording opportunity with producer Butch Vig. Nirvana agreed to work with Vig, who had recently opened Smart Studios in … Madison, Wisconsin.

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The band traveled out to Madison and stayed there from April 2-6, recording eight songs that Cobain had written beforehand: “Breed,” “Sliver,” “In Bloom,” “Lithium,” “Stay Away,” “Sappy,” “Polly” and the Velvet Underground cover “Here She Comes Now.”

On April 6, Nirvana did a show at Club Underground in Madison, and Cobain strained his voice, and they decided to stop the recording sessions. Two days later, the band drove to Milwaukee and played a show at The Unicorn. After that, they embarked on a tour of the Midwest and East Coast, fresh territory from their native Washington, and by the end Cobain decided to drop Channing from the band.

Over the next year, they added Dave Grohl to the lineup as the new drummer, and they continued to shop around the recordings they had made at Smart Studios. As interest was drummed up in the band off of these recordings and their electric live shows, they left Sub Pop and signed a major-label deal with DGC Records.

DGC set them up to record their next album in May of 1991. The band still wanted to work with Vig, but the label had them go out to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, to record the final cuts off what would eventually be Nevermind.

Most of the songs from the Smart Studios recording were recorded again and freshly mixed for the new album, but the song “Polly,” a disturbingly melodic tale of rape and torture, widely considered one of Nirvana’s best tracks, remained the version recorded in Madison – with Channing on the drums.

Most everyone knows the rest of the story. In September of 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind and its lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” would dominate the billboard charts for two years and go on to become one of the most influential albums ever recorded.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.