Seattle resident Craig Montgomery is the former longtime live sound engineer for the legendary grunge rock band, Nirvana. For years, Montgomery toured the world with Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic. He spent time in the back of vans and, when it came to showtime, enlivening thousands of music fans as Nirvana played.
Here, as we celebrate music festivals this month on American Songwriter, we wanted to connect with Montgomery to ask him what it was like to work with Nirvana for some of the biggest festivals they ever played. Here, we get the inside scoop from someone who was on the ground floor with one of the biggest bands of all time.
So, sit back and enjoy these stories of the road and of big music festivals, dear reader. Without further ado, here is what Montgomery had to say about those epic years.
American Songwriter: How many festivals did you do with Nirvana?
Craig Montgomery: How many? I would have to look back through the calendar and count them up. But I’d say probably six [to] twelve [laughs].
AS: And which ones were they, which do you remember?
CM: I know there was one in Belgium called Pukkelpop. There was Roskilde [in Denmark], there was Kalvøyafestivalen, which was in Oslo, Norway. There was one in Turku, Finland called Ruisrock. There was one in Stockholm, Sweden. There was the Reading Festival two different times—those were the only English ones, the two Reading Festivals. They didn’t do Glastonbury.
And then some festivals, I can’t remember which band I was there with. I was at Glastonbury but it wasn’t with Nirvana. Oh, and there was some other festival in Rotterdam. But that one we played indoors. Oh, and there were some other smaller ones in Germany that were kind of borderline whether they were just large gigs with a lot of bands! Some of those were on the tour with Sonic Youth.
AS: How did you and Nirvana approach a festival show, was it different than a traditional venue show?
CM: Well, as far as myself and the band? I felt like we were just kind of, like, passengers. The tour manager says, “Today, we’re going to this festival!” So, that’s what we did. We just showed up and tried to do our thing. So, we would get the band set up on stage and they would play and I would go out into the festival grounds and find the mix tower. And get up on the mix tower and introduce myself to the technicians out there and do the sound.
So, yeah, the band just played and I did the sound. But everything else about the day would be different than a typical nightclub day because—especially earlier on, we would be playing earlier in the day, you know? Maybe we had to get up early in the morning and drive from, say, Amsterdam the night before to this little place out in the country in Belgium where there’s a festival.
And we’re playing during the day and, you know, you stumble out of the van and go into catering and find the dressing room and maybe find some coffee and a bite to eat. Then suddenly we’re on at noon and we have to get to work. So, that would be a little unusual. I don’t mind it, myself. I like daytime and morning shows. But some of the people might have found that a bit jarring, I don’t know.
I think one of the earliest ones we did was Pukkelpop in Belgium. And I think that was part of the run of dates with Sonic Youth, even though Sonic Youth would have been playing much later in the day because they might have been headlining that day. But I remember that day quickly became a lot of fun because we were done playing but we still got to hang out there all day. So, we got to eat food and drink beer and hang out with people from other bands and other crews, and stuff.
Kurt and I went down into the photo pit, like right in front of the stage behind the barricade when Black Francis was playing. I remember that. He and I were both pretty drunk. I had a camera hanging around my neck and he just grabbed the camera off my neck and was just taking pictures with it. Even with it still, like, strung around my neck. So, we were excited to see Black Francis and I think the Ramones played that day.
Part of that was also one of my favorite pranks [laughs]. So, Black Francis was just traveling with, like, two people. But the Ramones had a big touring party band and crew. And in catering, they had these tables set up for each group with placards on them. And they switched the Black Francis placard with the Ramones placard. So, Black Francis had this giant table for 20. And the Ramones had a small table for two. Somebody probably figured that out before too long, but that was a funny prank.
AS: When you approach a festival, the band is at work. As you said, you’re driving from some other city the day before. But given that, was there any desire expressed about trying something new, physically or musically? I remember Kurt showed up in a wheelchair as a stunt for one of the festival gigs at Reading?
CM: Yeah, and that all pertains to the second time they did the Reading Festival. And there were a lot of other factors that went into that because that second Reading Festival, the band hadn’t played for a long time. So, there was kind of a lot of hype and external pressure about that show. So, that one didn’t really fit into a normal run of shows. We all flew over there just to do that show.
But yeah so that was the show where he did the wheelchair stunt with [English music journalist] Everett True. It was in response to a lot of tabloid speculation about whether the band was going to be able to play. And speculation about [Kurt’s] health, and things like that. So, that was a joke about that. Like I said before, the main thing that was on their mind was “What could we do that was funny.” Even in some pretty trying circumstances or pretty trying times, they still had a sense of humor.
They weren’t super production-minded, to be honest. They let us—I mean, [the] sound was the same. They pretty much let the lighting designer do her thing. So, if she knows she’s going to be working on a bigger stage, she’ll try to get a bigger setup going to try and translate the vision that we have onto a bigger stage. But when you play a festival, in a lot of ways you’re sort of locked into what they have in terms of production anyway. Unless you’re a super huge headliner, which we still really weren’t. We weren’t on the level of having, like, the Rolling Stones show up at your festival or something! [Laughs]
AS: Were the crowds different at festivals? More rabid? Did certain songs play better at festivals than, say, traditional venue gigs?
CM: Earlier on—yeah, festival crowds are rabid for whatever’s playing. They’re there to party and camp for two or three days straight. So, they’re pretty much ready to go. But they’re also there to see the bands they like and they know. So, obviously, if you play your hit song, it’s going to get a big response because those are the songs that people know.
But the type of band that Nirvana was, even early on if a lot of people weren’t familiar with them yet, Nirvana was totally capable of whipping the crowd into a frenzy just through the power and dynamics of their music. Nirvana never had trouble winning over a crowd, I will say that.
AS: Do you have a favorite story from a summer festival while working with Nirvana?
CM: That one I just remembered and thought of was actually pretty cool. The one about he and I down in the pit watching Black Francis because he and I were both big Pixies fans, so we were pretty excited about that. The catering tent shenanigans at Pukkelpop were pretty legendary because not only did they switch the placards around but there was a big food fight between them and Sonic Youth, which was really pretty disgusting.
The fun thing about—I mean, with festivals, it’s like a big convention. Dentists all go to a convention and have lots of fun partying and talking shop with other dentists. So, these festivals are kind of like a convention for people like us who do what we do, you know? Just all the other musicians and crew that you run into and hang out with. It’s pretty much a big traveling party. And all the other bands that you get to see.
It wasn’t a festival I was at with Nirvana, but one of them I got to see a whole Neil Young and Crazy Horse set. That was really exciting for me. I got to see Sonic Youth, the Pixies, PJ Harvey. You could go on and on about all the big artists that were playing back then that we got to see because we were at the same festivals. We got to see Teenage Fan Club a bunch.
AS: Did Kurt hobnob?
CM: Early on yes and then later when he got more famous probably not. But early when we were the young upstarts, yeah he was totally up for participating and seeing other bands. Yeah, he was enjoying himself for sure. But that was like during the early part of his relationship with Courtney, too. And she was super social and, you know, wanted to meet everybody and hang out with other musicians, too. So, that probably helped a lot, too.
AS: I know you were close with Courtney Love and maybe even worked together too. Any lasting memories of her on stage, or anything like that?
CM: I don’t have any memory of her—and I don’t think she did—get on stage with Nirvana. In retrospect, they really kept that separate. I think she was pretty protective of her independence. She wouldn’t have wanted to be seen as—she wanted to be seen in her own right. There were plenty of gigs that we did where she was there with us. But I don’t remember her ever getting involved with a Nirvana show, which might be a surprising thing for people to hear. But she was generally fun to have around.
I got along with her and I think she got along with most everybody. So, she was a pretty positive presence. Sometimes we worried about her band because I know there were times when she compromised what her band was doing because she wanted to hang out with Kurt. Like maybe she was late for some of her gigs or there might have been some Hole gigs that she might have missed or cancelled or skipped out on because she was traveling with us. I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s not good!”
AS: Is there anything else that comes to mind that we haven’t touched on yet?
CM: As far as Nirvana’s career—the festivals are kind of like, a lot of them, the most memorable shows that they did because they weren’t a band that played live a ton. So, a lot of those festivals are their landmark shows that I kind of use as mileposts to define where they were in their live career.
The first time we played the Reading Festival, they were up and coming. And people—not everybody was aware of them yet. But a certain segment of the hipsters were aware. So, they kind of made a big impression even though they were playing early in the day. And then when they went back the next year, they were the headliner. I think it was the very next year.
They also had a really big set in Roskilde in Denmark, which is a really huge festival. Before we played, we had to watch the Screaming Trees get into a big fight on stage and pretty much destroy everything. That was a pretty famous disaster. With festivals, it was really like lightening in a bottle, it felt like. Touring can be drudgery just night after night and club after club. They can tend to run together. But festivals are kind of the time you feel most alive.