I was skeptical when I first heard about KEXP's newest podcast, The Cobain 50. The series, hosted by Dusty Henry and Martin Douglas, is a weekly look at the titles featured on Kurt Cobain’s handwritten list of “Top 50” albums. Cobain wrote the list sometime in the early '90s (it includes PJ Harvey's Dry, which was released in 1992) and it was published posthumously in 2002 in Journals. Since then, it has been featured, dissected, and discussed in Spin, Kerrang!, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Brooklyn Vegan, and countless Tumblr and Reddit threads.

Now a podcast? In 2024? What’s the fucking point? 

Dutifully, I listened before casting my final judgment (it’s called ~*maturity*~) and I'm not too proud to admit that my inner critic shut right the fuck up.

In the first episode, dedicated to Raw Power by the Stooges, Martin focused on the history of the Stooges and how, when Raw Power was released in 1973, it was... not immediately embraced. Sure, we know it today as a groundbreaking, explosive moment in the advent of punk rock, but, as Martin points out, Iggy Pop and the Stooges weren't always idolized examples of fearless boundary pushers. (Though they were critically acclaimed by some music journalists at the time, including Lester Bangs.) It can be easy to lose sight of their early controversy decades later, after we've seen the band be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and heard Iggy Pop voice a cartoon satanic dog on cable television.

In the episode about Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, Henry takes a closer look at how Puerto Rico influenced singer/guitarist Frank Black's songwriting. Black lived there for a short time in the 1980s, not long before forming the Pixies. There are references to the island all over the record, a fact that has only lightly been touched on in mainstream music criticism. 

Henry and Martin approach each installment as Nirvana fans, yes, but also music journalists and historians. And they're well aware of how polarizing the theme may be to some.

“I feel like the idea of starting a Nirvana podcast in 2024 could be kind of cringe,” said Henry with a laugh over a Zoom interview. “Martin and I are so attuned to cliche in things, and my cliche opinion is I think Nirvana is one of the top five bands of all time. That's a cliche I'll own. But there’s a way to have a different kind of conversation.”

Read on to learn more about their thought process behind the podcast, how they approach researching and discussing different records, and how they got into Nirvana in the first place.

I'm gonna be honest, when KEXP first announced the podcast, the cynic in me was just like, “Why?” Why is this list worth taking a closer look at?

Dusty: That’s a great question, and I think something we continually asked ourselves when we were first coming up with the idea and thinking about it, like, “Does this make sense? Is this relevant and new?” What we came back to was, it is. It feels relevant and new. One of the first things [Martin and I] bonded about as friends before we were coworkers, was this list and how pivotal was for us. We loved Nirvana, but you find this list and it's like a gateway to a bunch of different areas in music and bands and sounds. And I think people are still discovering this list. And if the list was milquetoast or boring, I don't think we’d consider it, but there's so much great shit on this list. You know, there's obviously the big stuff like the Beatles, and then you have stuff like MDC, the Shags, you know, where you're getting into these deeper cuts. That was the stuff that got me excited and opened up my mind. 

Martin: I mean, aside from bands like the Beatles and Aerosmith, I think that even the bigger bands on this list aren't exactly canonized. Like, I'm working on the Bad Brains episode as we speak, and even though they are pioneers of punk and they practically invented hardcore punk, they’re still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They got nominated, I think, like eight years ago? Maybe even a decade ago? And they're not canonized. So the idea of exploring this list not only as fans but historians was particularly appealing to me. [A lot of these bands] you hear by name, hear by reputation—you don't really know their stories. And personally, as a journalist, as a historian, I've learned a ton about these bands through the research I've had to do for this project.

Have you seen any of these records or any of these artists in a new light, in a way that you didn't think of before?

Martin: Absolutely. I actively strayed away from Bad Brains because I thought it was kind of the cliche, Black punk thing to like. I ended up finding a lot and not necessarily regretting, not, you know, being a contrarian back in the day and not being a fan, but looking at the history, I do see how I could have been a fan sooner. And I think that the cool thing for me about this podcast is being able to really get the historical context and find those things that you don't know about bands that you've actively listened to or you've heard cellularly throughout your entire life.

Dusty: Yeah, for sure. I think in some ways, [researching] the more, to pull a word from Martin, canonized records and bands is almost a little more difficult. Doing the Pixies—I know the Pixies, I know this record, what more is there to say? But that gives a challenge of, “Well, I gotta find another way.” Because who wants to rehash the same things over and over again? And that's exciting—I like to challenge myself as much as I can. That Pixies one was really fun in that way. I already loved that record. But it had been a long time. Some of these records are like that, I  feel like maybe I took these records for granted. It’s the Stooges, it’s the Pixies, yeah, it’s 101. But when you go back and dig deeper… I had been working on an episode about the Clash, Combat Rock, what’s fun with that one was the Cobain element gives you something to go off of. Where was this guy at with this? Why was he listening to this record? And the first thing I found about it was Kurt hated the clash. He thought they suckd they were lesser Sex Pistols. Like, “Okay, that's weird. Why are they on your list?” I won’t give it all away but we ended up finding some cool parallels in there. I'm finding ways to surprise myself. I love digging into the deep cuts on the list, but it's been fun with those bigger records to find a new way in.

We don't have context for this list other than what was on that page. There are no footnotes, like, “This record is here because I especially like the drumming” or whatever. Where are you finding the balance in matching it to Nirvana, matching it to Kurt, while also leaving room for the mystery and not putting words in anybody's mouth?

Dusty: Firstly, archive.org is my best friend now. And stuff like The Rocket getting digitized. Big shout out to print publications. There’s so much history that needs to be preserved and I’m thankful there is a lot out there. So you find one little kernel, like, “Oh, Kurt mentioned this about the Clash or this about Bad Brains,” but sometimes you just don't find anything. And I think in those cases we try to put a focus on just telling the story of the album. I think Martin and I are mindful of not speaking for Kurt, because that's just not appropriate, but giving our observation or critique of what we think it could be.

Martin: I will take you behind the scenes a little bit. On this Bad Brains episode, our producer was like, “Okay, well, there's not all that much about how it ties into Kurt.” And I had the same sort of hurdle when it came to the Stooges episode. I had to tell our producer that, well, there's not a direct tie-in. Kurt didn't have active advocacy for all of these bands. That's what he's known for, bringing bands up from the underground or bringing bands from the past into the present. But I think the cool thing about it is that he wrote this list as a fan. And some of these albums are listed purely from a fan's perspective. So you have to bring the lens back and get a wider view and say, “Oh, the Stooges influenced fuckin’ everybody! Bad Brains influenced everybody! The Pixies, influenced everybody!” And so that's the cool thing about some of the albums on this list versus others, is that with some of them, there's a direct tie-in, and then others, there's nothing. It's just Kurt really loved the record and something about it was super influential to him as a musician. And moreover, he enjoyed it as a fan. 

I like that you mentioned that he was just a fan, too. He could have put them on the list as a fan, he could have put them on the list as an influence he wanted to explore more of in Nirvana’s music. It's just impossible to know. And that's part of the fun, maybe.

Dusty: I feel like the idea of starting a Nirvana podcast in 2024 feels like it could be kind of cringe [laughs]. Martin and I are so attuned to cliche in things, and my cliche opinion, is I think Nirvana is one of the top five bands of all time, that's a cliche I'll own. But there’s a way to have a different kind of conversation. This is the music that made him, the music he wanted people to hear, he championed, and it's also a chance to just celebrate all of these artists. A lot of these artists are still underheard.

Martin: I think the thing about the list is that that's how a lot of people of our generation, or Dusty’s generation because he's a little younger than me, found a lot of this music. The Raincoats! I wouldn't have known who the Raincoats were if not for this list. And that's another wrinkle of doing this podcast, we're also fans of these groups. And it's because of this list.

I want to know how you both individually got into Nirvana. What were your initial thoughts? Because I'll be honest, when I first heard ‘em, I didn't like them, but I was also 12, 13 years old and I couldn’t relate to any of it. What was your first Nirvana experience like? 

Dusty: I was alive when Nirvana was happening, but I was like, more into like, you know, Mr. Rogers, or whatever…

I mean, very similar outlooks on life. Very similar.

Dusty: Yeah, the cardigans, there are a lot of parallels. [Laughs] I remember I was staying up really late watching MTV, or one of the MTV channels, and there was some Best Albums of the 90s show that was hosted by will.i.am., I remember specifically. So thanks to Black Eyed Peas for introducing me to Nirvana. [Laughs] But they played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and I was like, “Whoa, what the fuck is this?” And they mentioned Seattle and all that, and I grew up in Bremerton. I went out, I didn’t know what to buy, I probably should’ve picked up Nevermind, but I bought the greatest hits, the black one [Nirvana], and I remember putting it on and the first song on it is “You Know You’re Right,” which is the last song Nirvana ever did. And it was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had listening to music because it was so dark and he’s literally screaming “Pain! Pain! Pain!” It was a really intense experience listening to that and finding out he’s from Aberdeen, too, growing up in town outside of Seattle.

Similar to Bremerton, in a lot of ways.

A lot more conservative, a lot more good ol’ boys, at least at that time. And him feeling kind of like an outcast, I was a teenager. Even the twang in his voice when he talks and when he sings, I feel like is a Washington accent that people don’t notice outside of Washington. Sort of that rural Washington. I was like, “I get this guy.”

Martin, how did you get into Nirvana?

I am 40 years old, so I was seven when Nevermind came out and I believe I was also seven when the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out, which I watched on MTV as a child in a town called High Point, North Carolina, which is the same town that John Coltrane grew up in. So I'm sort of near the outskirts of the city. On Section Eight with my mom—we’ve got food stamps, but somehow we could afford cable. [Laughs] And this is a time when MTV is playing the “Teen Spirit” video several times a day. Aside from listening to rock and roll music at the grocery store, or hearing people talk about the Stones, the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, I'd never had personal experience with rock music. My parents were first-generation hip-hop fans. I listened to R&B. I lived with my uncle for a spell who only listened to R&B and gospel. No experience with rock music whatsoever. Until the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And it was like, “Oh, this is… this is what punk rock is. I like this!” It changed my entire realm of taste, it changed my worldview. I've used the word “foundational” several times in the past few weeks [laughs], but it was a truly foundational record and song for me. I don't think I'm exaggerating at all when I say it changed my life. 

I grew up in the Northwest, and I'm 43, so I'm just a little bit older than you, Martin. And when I hear people hanging something on Cobain's name, I get protective over Seattle's reputation, I think, and of that era of music being the only thing people ever give the city credit for as far as music goes. But I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to the first episode. I was like, “Oh, okay. That's why they're doing this.” Who do you see this podcast being for? Do you have an audience in mind? 

Martin: To add a little to your comment about being protective of Nirvana’s legacy, Dusty and I have both contributed to KEXP’s local music column, I’m sure you know, and we also want to be protective of the musical legacy of Seattle. But when you really get into it, 30 years after Kurt's death, Nirvana is still the chief musical export of Seattle. We kind of talked it over, Dusty talked it over with others in the organization, and there was the classic aversion to cliche, but once it was finalized, once it was like “Oh yeah, we’re gonna do this,” it was like “But we’re not gonna make it the cliche thing.” And I think, to answer your question, there's something for everybody in this podcast. That feels like a cliche in and of itself. But working on things like 50 Years of Hip-Hop, I knew that the general audience of KEXP aren’t dyed-in-the-wool lifelong second-generation hip-hop fans who had been listening to hip-hop in the womb like I had. But with Nirvana, it's such a homegrown thing, especially because the base of our listener audience is from Seattle. And they already know so much about Kurt, and the bands that influenced Kurt, that to bring it from a 101 so-to-speak perspective of trying to appeal to complete outsiders… People who listen to KEXP know their shit. They know a little something about music. We have to appeal to that. We can't insult our audience's intelligence. It's a good way to provide historical context, but also give something for the graduate-level music fans, as I like to call them.