Longtime Nirvana Sound Engineer Craig Montgomery Shares Stories About the Band: “There Was Lots of Laughing. Those Guys Were Hilarious”

When you talk with longtime Seattle-based sound engineer Craig Montgomery a few things become clear quickly. He’s a sweet fellow, gentle-hearted. He’s not out for fame, fortune, or any of those two ugly cousins. Instead, he cares about music, his friends, and the truth of his memories. This is all significant when one considers who Montgomery worked closely with during much of his time in the Emerald City in the ‘90s—Nirvana.

Montgomery began working with the legendary grunge band after the group released its debut LP, Bleach, and he worked with them through the Nevermind release up until In Utero. Montgomery, like others who worked with the famed label Sub Pop at the time, worked quickly, focused, and got along with bands Mudhoney and TAD at the time.

American Songwriter caught up with Montgomery to talk to him about a slew of topics, from his initial meetings with Nirvana and touring across the country in a van to working with them during the height of their popularity as well as what it was like when frontman Kurt Cobain was with his then-wife Courtney Love, and much more. Montgomery will be hopping back on the boards and doing sound at the upcoming 30th-anniversary celebration of Nevermind on December 12 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle.

American Songwriter: How did you meet Nirvana? How did you become their live sound guy?

Craig Montgomery: I had been doing sound for other bands in town, so I was known around the local bands as a sound mixer. I had done some playing, too. But when I first met the Sub Pop sphere was when I got a job at the Muzak Corporation [in Seattle] in the tape duplication department. Working there was Jonathan [Poneman] and Bruce {Pavitt] from Sub Pop and Mark Arm from Mudhoney and Tad Doyle [from TAD] and Ron from Love Battery, who I had known for a long time.

So, when those bands were starting to play live, we got to talking at work and we all knew each other from seeing each other out at shows. So, I said, “Hey I’ll come and do sound for you!” I don’t think Mudhoney really cared that much. They were like, “Yeah, whatever.” But I just showed up and did it anyway. I hit it off more with TAD. So, I was doing a lot of shows with TAD. And the first time I ever went on tour was with TAD.

But also in town, Nirvana would come up from Olympia [Washington] and be the opening band on some of those shows with TAD and Mudhoney. And Jonathan Poneman asked me to take care of Nirvana, too. So, I did. And out on tour with TAD, we would cross paths with Nirvana and play some shows together out at random places around the country. And then there was going to be a European tour of TAD and Nirvana together and I got asked to go on that.

So, we all quit our jobs at Muzak and went on this really grueling nine-week European tour, TAD and Nirvana. So, that was the first time I really spent a lot of time with Nirvana. After that, I was splitting my time between TAD and Nirvana. But it just evolved that I ended up sticking with Nirvana. So, I did most of their touring on the Bleach album and almost all the shows on the Nevermind album.

AS: That’s pretty incredible! I mean, right? I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to start now. But maybe I’ll just start at the beginning. What were those early days like, how many gigs did you do with the band?

CM: In the earlier times, it was really just the three band members and myself and, you know, sometimes one other person in Krist Novoselic’s old Dodge van and we weren’t even pulling a trailer. The equipment was in the van with us. And you’re just driving from city to city. You’ve got a road atlas trying to figure out how to get where you need to go. And you’re just grabbing gas and food on the road, navigating around the country that way.

AS: How would you pass the time in the van for long stretches? Games, music, the radio?

CM: Well, just whatever cassettes you could find to put in the cassette player. Kurt would make these mixtapes of all the stuff he liked. Other than that, I don’t know how much radio we would listen to. Some of those drives were so long. You end up sitting in silence a lot of the time because you’re tired of everything until you find something new to play on the cassette player.

But yeah, there was lots of laughing. Those guys were hilarious. That’s the biggest thing I tell people about Nirvana is that whether it was just getting through the day or especially when they were on stage, usually what was on their mind was what could we do that would be funny? They were constantly taking the piss out of rock and roll.

AS: Would that translate to each other? Were there pranks, that sort of thing?

CM: It wasn’t the pranking each other kind of humor. But it was just a lot of in-jokes. Just a lot of being silly, making up silly characters and voices, and meta-humor. But as far as the way it felt to be around the band, like, it was pretty apparent to me and I think a lot of people very early on that there was something special about them. And it was mainly because of the catchiness of the songs and Kurt’s singing ability.

The very musical way their songs were arranged. It wasn’t arranged like metal. The bass and guitar played a melody together. So, the whole band was really just a rhythm section. From the very beginning, he had songs that would immediately hook you. Even if you were hearing it live for the first time. And that’s not easy to do when you’re just a bunch of guys playing drums and guitars.

AS: When you were on the road, how do you notice fans react? Were there times you played to two people and that grew to 200 and 20,000?

CM: There could be times if you were playing somewhere weird where the word hadn’t gotten out and you might be playing to a really small crowd. But Sub Pop I think was pretty good at creating a buzz in the independent music scene. So, almost everywhere we went, it might have been a small crowd but they were almost always really enthusiastic. It was always really obvious how much the music was connecting with people and how much the band was connecting with people and people were connecting with the band.

So, there was just this feeling that Nirvana was a happening place to be. You always had that. You never felt like you were toiling away in obscurity for nothing. When it grew, it was fairly slow and organic at first. But you would see the amount of people wearing Nirvana shirts at the record stores. So, if anything, they did get frustrated later. Like when Nevermind first came out and things were getting really big, in a certain sense.

The shows had been booked before anybody really knew what was going to happen. So, sometimes we would be playing the same place we had been last time but now there are twice as many people who want to get in and they can’t get in. There was some tension in that period where things hadn’t gotten caught up to where they should be.

AS: When you spend a long time with people on the road, you learn little things about them. Do you remember anything you discovered about the trio during your time traveling?

CM: Yeah, sure, it’s inevitable when you spend that amount of time with people you get to know them more as people. And we got along pretty well. We were all about the same age, we’re from the same area and have the same sensibilities. But it’s hard to come up with something specific about that. But I mean, for me, the reason people liked having me around was because I was pretty easy to be around and pretty respectful of people’s boundaries.

I wasn’t one of those people who’s probing you and nosing in your business and trying to get to know you if it looks like you’d rather just sit quietly and be alone [laughs]. Some guys in the band were super extroverted and funny and liked to drink and party a lot and other people are more introverted and quiet and really need their alone time. So, you just learn what everybody needs and respect that hopefully!

AS: How do you feel about it today—like, are you protective of the band, of the time you spent with them? They’ve grown to be so mythical at this point and you were so close to it.

CM: Well, I try not to include myself in it. It’s really not my story. I mean, I was around it but—when I was younger and especially when I was in it, I will admit that I did have a lot of my ego and identity tied up in the group I was working with. But as I matured as a person and gotten more distance from it, what I realize and appreciate is really that Nirvana was really Kurt’s artistic vision and the whole thing was really his and Krist’s journey. I’m glad I was able to help and I feel fortunate they liked having me around for the time that they did. And I feel good about the contribution that I made when I was making it. But I try to be really humble about that now. You work in media, so you understand the term “work for hire.”

AS: Yes I do.

CM: What I did for them was work for hire.

AS: For so long, though.

CM: Well, it’s amazing how not long that whole period was if you look at the whole career arc of Nirvana. It was really—I mean, my part was I think three and a half or four years, that’s all. Their whole career as a recording act I think was five years. So, it’s pretty remarkable actually how short of a period of time it was.

AS: How would you mix them, how would you dial in Nirvana’s sound? How did you think about the amps, the equipment, getting the album’s sound, or not getting it?

CM: Well, the equipment is just equipment. So, the important part to me was just—what I want as a fan of music is I want a connection to the people on stage. And the biggest part of that, obviously, is the text. The vocals, the lyrics, the melody. That’s what makes the song the song. If anything distracts from that, then you’ve got a problem.

So, for me, the most important part was that the song—it doesn’t necessarily have to duplicate the record in this case. Because the band isn’t really doing that anyway. But for me and, as an aside, that was so long ago and what I’ve learned about my job since then is that if had I known then what I know now, I could do a ten-times better job [laughs]. But we were all happy with it at the time, so I don’t beat myself up about it.

AS: It seems like you did a good job, from all accounts.

CM: No, thank you for that. But for me, the biggest thing is an un-distracting connection between the person on stage and what the audience wants, which is that connection. It should sound like what you’re looking at. So, even though [Nirvana was] a loud style of music, it’s still going to be vocal up front, it’s going to sound like the music. The music all needs to have good pitch, tone, and melody.

And it makes me so mad when I go to a show and whoever is mixing thinks the most important thing in the world is the fucking kick drum! It doesn’t say kick drum on the marquee! It needs to be there, it needs to be powerful. But for me, if it’s distracting from my connection to that person on stage, then I don’t want it! Get it out of my face!

AS: Do you still do sound these days?

CM: Until a couple of years ago, I was working at [the beloved dinner-theater venue] The Triple Door [in Seattle] for 14 years, which is a long time. That’s the longest time I’ve ever done anything. I retired from that a couple of years ago. And then COVID hit. But I’m currently semi-retired, receiving freelance offers and stuff like that.

I’m just now starting to put out feelers and find things that I think would be cool and say, “Hey, I’ll do that.” I’m conscious of taking up space. When I was young, I didn’t have some, you know—what if when Nirvana started getting big, they had tossed me aside and gotten some old veteran guy instead. I’m lucky they didn’t do that. So, I don’t want to do that to people.

AS: Yeah, but you also have experience and you’d probably make any band’s day doing their sound—the Nirvana sound guy.

CM: I’m conscious of that, too. Mentoring is something I would be really interested in doing.

AS: As Nevermind was growing, did you work those bajillion-person gigs?

CM: Oh yeah totally. The Reading Festival a couple of times. A giant soccer stadium in San Paolo Brazil. Big festivals. There was a time when Nevermind was at the top that Nirvana was supposed to do a big arena tour, like all the big hockey rinks in all the major cities. And it was being booked and it was being gotten ready for. But that was the time that Kurt and Courtney were having all of their personal issues.

So, the band couldn’t play. There was a period—I was just looking at the calendar—there was a period of about I think six months in 1992 when that tour was supposed to happen and it didn’t happen. There’s a gap there. But other than that, all the big festivals and a few big stadium shows in South America, I got to do those.

AS: Are there any life lessons or stories that Kurt or Krist or Dave pulled you over to talk about that you remember?

CM: Boy, it’s hard to remember anything very deep. I mean, we did spend a lot of time together and we did have real conversations a lot.

AS: Was Courtney Love a topic of conversation?

CM: There was quite a bit of time when she was with us, especially on some of the European trips. Yeah, I got along well with Courtney. We were good friends. I actually ended up working with her for a while after Kurt died. With Nirvana, she was generally pretty fun to have around. I mean, very smart, very funny. Very witty. Kurt was head over heels with her and vice versa. So, it was actually, the times—the early times when Courtney traveled with us were pretty happy times.

I’m a Courtney defender, whatever people think about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. I think she’s a talented songwriter. It isn’t true, but a lot of people like to accuse Kurt of helping write her album, Live Through This. And my response to that is if you’re going to do that then you also have to acknowledge her contribution to writing In Utero. Her influence is all over that and if you can’t see that, you don’t know anything about Kurt and Courtney.

AS: What was it like to see Kurt head over heels for Courtney, what did that look like?

CM: Well just obviously being pretty inseparable with her. She could be kind of a provocateur sometimes in public settings. And he would just let her do her thing and be quietly observing her and just smirking at the spectacle she was creating [laughs]. And he would—you could see him sort of deferring to her and learning from her in a lot of ways. Because she was extremely literate in a way that maybe he hadn’t been yet. Stuff like that.

AS: It is easy to talk about Courtney like she’s Yoko Ono like she broke up the band or had this awful influence. But that’s also not fair and doesn’t take into account the real human, genuine relationship Kurt and Courtney had. What did you see between them in this way?

CM: The funny thing is when you mention Yoko Ono, a lot of what people think about her is probably not what it was really like either. When we see this new Beatles thing coming out, when you see a lot of footage of them interacting as people, you’ll see that it wasn’t really that way. It’s the same thing I’m always trying to tell people about Nirvana. Because of the way everything worked out, people think it was doom and gloom and depression and drugs and all this stuff.

But it wasn’t that way day to day. And I wasn’t there for that part. But it was a big laugh [mostly]. So, yeah, it kind of goes back to your question of separating the myth from the people you knew. I can’t participate in the myth because, to me, it’s real people. But it also means that the music isn’t that mythical to me, either. Because just for being around the process of them coming up with a lot of it, there was a long time for me where—and I know saying this could be considered pretty controversial—but for me, it’s not like I’ve been listening to Nevermind constantly for the last 30 years.

There were decades and decades where for me, it wasn’t music that I go back to. I heard it. I heard it live a thousand times. For me, there’s different stuff from that era that stands the test of time.

AS: Like what?

CM: Well, if we’re just talking about guitar-based rock and roll, the stuff I’m really into is more like Teenage Fanclub and Screaming Trees and definitely like Swervedriver. But my musical tastes are really diverse and eclectic other than that.

AS: What was soundcheck like with Nirvana? A lot of people write new songs in soundcheck, how did theirs often go? Were you there when songs were being written?

CM: A lot of the time, songs would already be written by the time I heard them live. But also the whole time that we’re out playing live, Kurt would constantly be trying to come up with new stuff and it would almost always start with a riff idea on the guitar. So, it would start with a guitar riff and then the band would just improvise on that riff for what seemed like hours on end, even though it wasn’t.

Then a melody idea would come to him, but it usually wouldn’t include words. So, he would just sort of vocalize random syllables in a melody over this riff. And they would work out an arrangement of verses and choruses, loud and quiet. A song might even have two different riffs in it sometimes [laughs]. And then usually when it came time to actually record the song, that’s when he would try to cram some lyrics in.

AS: Ha.

CM: But and that goes back to what I was saying about Courtney. I think Courtney was a big influence on his lyric writing later. Just from the things that would come up in conversation. Just more literary and cultural references that she had. And it would, you know, inspire him to learn more and go into different subjects. If you look at songs on In Utero about Frances Farmer and about Pennyroyal Tea and that kind of stuff. He never would have known about any of that shit without Courtney.

But yeah, that was the most common—I think that was pretty much his writing process for everything. And it did get—because of others, because of the issues he was having, it started not coming as easily later on. A big thing—when the band got big and things got successful, the biggest thing was just that all the obligations that come with that, they were a huge problem. Because he just wasn’t interested in all those kinds of obligations. And it just really wasn’t fun anymore.

AS: I was going to ask, yeah, what was it like between Nevermind and In Utero—it sounds like it was fun and then quickly not?

CM: Well, it started during the Nevermind cycle. It would just, you know, he wasn’t—there are some interviews where he’s totally pleasant and genial. But a lot of the time, if you spend the whole day doing interviews, it’s obviously really grueling and if you have to do interviews with people where it seems like they haven’t done their homework or their questions are sort of glib and confrontational, it’s just not fun.

I think one reason people are artists is that being an artist is just about the most freedom you can have as a human being, right? But when suddenly—music is weird because if the art you make gets popular, then it’s really hard to hold onto that freedom. I mean, it’s such a cliché how that works out so many times. It’s really hard to—it’s a hard thing to navigate. Especially, when it happens to young people.

AS: Seattle knows that very well.

CM: Yeah.

AS: I wanted to ask about Dave. You know, Krist and Kurt were longtime friends. In fact, Krist always seemed to me to be kind of like Kurt’s bodyguard. But what was it like for the third member of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, from what you could see?

CM: Krist and Kurt were childhood buddies. Kurt—when I first met Kurt, Kurt was small and wiry. But he was surprisingly strong. If you saw him with his shirt off, he was ripped. He could do one-arm pushups. He was not like the wimpy little weakling that some people might think. So first, Krist, Kurt, and [drummer] Chad [Channing] had great chemistry. I mean, they loved Chad.

It’s funny, once in a while, Kurt would call me at home just to ask me something. Or get my opinion about something. And one day he called me and said, “Craig, we’re thinking about getting rid of Chad, what do you think?” And I was against it at the time. I thought the three of them had such great chemistry.

AS: I know Chad a little bit. We’re friends on Facebook.

CM: So, you probably know the whole Chad story. And well, we did a tour in between with Dale Crover from the Melvins playing drums. And that was huge. And while we were on that tour, we were in San Francisco and we went to a show where this band Scream was playing. And that was the band Dave was in. At the time, Nirvana didn’t know who their long-term drummer was going to be. And I was standing with Kurt and Krist and we were watching this show and Kurt said something like, “That’s the kind of drummer we need!”

And then later that band, Scream, they kind of fell apart on tour and I think it was Buzz from the Melvins who hooked up Dave and Kurt. The first time I saw Dave was on a tour that we did I think in the U.K. But yeah he was like a new kid but he was a breath of fresh air, tons of energy, very positive, very funny. He could sing. He was really musical. So, it was pretty cool. It felt like wow, here’s a real strong contributor and a great fit for the band. Then they made Nevermind and, obviously, you know. So, he was the perfect guy at the perfect time and they were really lucky to find each other.  

AS: Do you remember any other significant phone calls from Kurt?

CM: One time—the only other time I can really remember well, it was sometime after Bleach was made. And it was a time when he and I had gotten really close. There was a time—oh, earlier you asked about a deep conversation and now I can remember one. There was a day—there was a time when we had just finished an English tour. And we had an extra day to hang out in London. So, a guy who was their publicist at the time, took the band around to meet with some English record labels.

And it wasn’t really his job to do that, but he took them around to English record labels and then he started trying to talk to the band about what his role was going to be. And I found it kind of weird. Then after that, we were, like, walking to the tube station. I was with Kurt. And I said, “Wow people are starting to see you as a meal ticket!” And I said, “Boy, I don’t want to do that.” And he said to me, “No, not you! You’re like another member of the band!” He really said that. And I was like, “Wow, that’s really sweet of you to say.”

But sometime before they had started the demo process of Nevermind and stuff, he called me at home and he said—keep in mind we’re like 23 years old and we don’t know anything about the music business—but he called me and he says, “Craig, will you produce our next record?” And I was like, “Well, of course, I will!” I had messed around in a studio a little bit, but at the time I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I thought, yeah, sure, of course, I’ll produce a record. We’ll go into the studio, we’ll record a bunch of songs and that will be the record. But of course, there is a lot more to record production than that. But what ended up happening is that we did go to a studio for a day and I was thinking, well, if this session really goes great, maybe I’ll get to work on the record. But that didn’t happen, of course, I didn’t produce Nevermind, they used a real producer for that. But some of those songs did end up coming out as B-sides.

AS: Nice.

CM: So, that was the story. But yeah he called me and he asked me to produce it. We talked for a while about what records we liked and what we thought they should sound like.

AS: Any come to mind?

CM: Well, he was more into—well, he had pretty eclectic tastes, too. But he was kind of more into the metal side of punk than me because I didn’t come up as a Stooges, MC5 kind of fan. For me, punk rock was the Clash and the Sex Pistols. So, the sounds I would have been talking about with him would have just been like fat-sounding, immediate guitars. Everything just sounds really natural but also so that it jumps out of the speakers in a direct way. That’s what I would have been talking about and he was liking that. He was liking what I was saying! So, that’s why he said, “Will you produce our next record?” But I don’t think he was signed to a major label yet. But of course, if you sign to a major label, they’re going to have ideas about who should produce the record that they’re spending all this money on.

AS: And now in Seattle, there’s a show in December at the Paramount Theatre honoring the 30th anniversary of Nevermind with a film screening and live performances and you’re going to be there doing sound for The Black Tones. What do you want to say about that upcoming show?

CM: When I saw that this film screening was going to happen, first I messaged [an organizer] and said, “Hey I want to come!” And he said, “Yeah, of course!” And then when I saw that The Black Tones are playing, they’re actually a band that I’ve been admiring from afar for quite a while now. And I’m a fan. So, just out of the blue, I messaged [frontwoman] Eva [Walker] thinking it would be a cool thing. Because I like the band anyway and also it would just be fun to be there again, mixing a band that’s kind of, you know—not a lot of bands give me that old feeling anymore. But The Black Tones, I think, is a band that will when I see them. So, it would be really fun to do what I can do for a band like that in that room. I think it’s going to be really fun.

All photos courtesy Craig Montgomery

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