Nirvana In Utero with Brent Sigmeth

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By David Garrett

Minnesota, the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’, and it’s an appropriately cold day in the depths of winter. Yet in the modern wood-cladded studio overlooking the plentiful trout stream in Cannon Falls, the temperature is toasty.

Brent Sigmeth is at the controls today, where he’s been employed for the past two decades. However, it was as a studio-hand that he started his employ exactly 20 years earlier, delivering tobacco and sandwiches for the alt-rock heroes of the day, Nirvana.

They had come to the quiet backwater to lay down tracks for their follow-up to Nevermind with soundman Steve Albini, and so as to not attract unwanted disturbance, the band booked in as the Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble. “Steve had recently worked at Pachyderm with P.J. Harvey and The Wedding Present, so even though the name was a bit goofy, we assumed it would be something really interesting and cool. No inkling whatsoever that it would be Nirvana. Steve had faxed a pretty detailed set-up sheet for the studio a week or so beforehand, so the studio owner also assumed it would be something big.”

Brent and another colleague didn’t find out the band’s true identity until a truck filled with all of their equipment showed up a couple hours before he was to retrieve them at the airport. “One of the flight cases in the truck had “Nirvana – Seattle” written on it. We wondered if it was actually them, or even a band that might be borrowing some of their equipment. Steve had been working with some pretty big names, but Nirvana was pretty much the biggest at that time, so we were still sceptical.”

So, fresh out of engineering school and in at the deep end, Brent was trying to soak up everything he could from Albini and Messrs. Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. “I hadn’t really experienced a full-on professional recording session from start to finish, so it was pretty incredible to see how Steve approached it all.” says Sigmeth, being a fan of his from his days fronting Big Black. “I was very into raw punk-rockish “realistic” recordings, and Steve was the best. It was very apparent when the band started rehearsing and microphones were being moved around, but it still sounded bigger than life. Of course, hearing and witnessing Nirvana run through a song or two blasting through the main control room monitors was kind of earth shattering for me.”

Albini was of course the man who had recorded the Pixies’ first long-player, Surfer Rosa, and that was one of the defining reasons why Cobain placed his trust in the producer to record In Utero, in an effort to distance themselves from the perceived commercialism of their 1991 breakthrough. “It was obvious to me that he was a scientist with a firm grasp of his trade, not just a punky sound nerd. It had a big effect on me, but I was also just pretty overwhelmed. Most of the experience is foggy in my memory, probably because of nerves and age. It went by very fast.” Although it was all a bit of a blur, Sigmeth can hold his head very high in admitting his place on the album. “I think it’s a timeless record… it’s not just a 1993 time capsule.”

In an effort to put further distance from Nevermind, it’s been said that Cobain used some cheap guitars to record In Utero. For instance, in the ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ video you can see him toting a white Univox, rather than his usual favourite Fender Mustangs, Jaguars, Jazzmasters or Strats. “I’m not sure if it was as much distancing from Nevermind as much as just wanting more fucked up guitar tones. I believe he had a Silvertone guitar – a really cheap department store guitar made in the 60′s.”

Sigmeth pauses for a moment as he’s struck by a sudden realisation: “Funny. I’m so busy right now that I didn’t even realise it was actually 20 years ago exactly that I was sitting in the studio with them. Wow.”

So, as it is indeed 2013, Sigmeth ponders a question over the anticipated 20th anniversary re-release: “I think it would be excellent if Steve’s mixes were released as an entire package, maybe mastered by someone he trusts. After all, it’s all the Nirvana I listened to between the recording and the actual release later in ’93. A cassette tape of Steve’s mixes had fallen behind the tape deck at Pachyderm and I found it while cleaning up after the boys and Steve had left. It had all the Steve mixes on it. I’m proud to say that we protected that cassette with honour. We made no copies. Sometimes, it was brought out of its secure hiding place and played for trusted fans through the same speakers it was mixed through. I loved the original Steve mixes of the remixed singles.” Oh, to be one of those trusted fans!

Of course, we can only speculate as to what Cobain would make of such a project. Having met the man, Sigmeth reckons “he’d be okay with however it is released, as long as Dave and Krist are down with it. I got the feeling that he really really trusted those two. It was pretty obvious; you can’t travel around the world, bare your soul, stand nearly naked in front of the universe without the support of a couple genuine and down-to-earth guys like Dave and Krist.”

Strangely, for such a seminal work of audio art, there are no details in the album liner notes of the two weeks spent in the Minnesota woods: “myself and Pachyderm Studio were not given credit or thanks on the In Utero release. We were disappointed, of course, yet somehow humbly okay with just having been there.” Perhaps they will get their reward soon.