Chad Channing is the gentleman of grunge. Spurning the rock-and-roll clichés, the former Nirvana drummer kept close ties with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic long after his time with the band was up. To Chad, they were never just his band mates, they were his friends. Ahead of his Lahinch gig with his new band Before Cars, Andrew Hamilton spoke to Chad about how his music was shaped by the Seattle scene of the 1980s and his lasting friendship with Kurt, Krist and even his Nirvana replacement Dave Grohl.
April 17, 1991. Chad Channing sits at a bar at the OK Hotel in Seattle. As he orders a drink, he hears a familiar voice from over his shoulder. It’s Kurt Cobain, his old band mate and already one of the most recognisable musicians in the world. It had been almost a year since Chad and Nirvana parted ways. In that time, Nirvana had gone from being an up and coming grunge band to a group on the verge of changing music forever.
It would have been easy to be bitter, to spurn his former band mates and their new drummer Dave Grohl. But that just isn’t Chad.
“The difficult part [about leaving Nirvana] was that we were always really good friends. It wasn’t like we couldn’t stand each other, had words, and that was that. It all boiled down to musical differences. We wanted to do different things. We were all feeling like it [Chad leaving the band] really sucked but it had to happen. We all continued to remain friends long after that,” he says.
“I remember Nirvana playing at a club called the OK Hotel here in Seattle and that’s when I met Dave [replacement drummer Dave Grohl] for the first time. I was sitting at the bar and I heard someone say ‘hey Chad’ and it was Kurt, Krist and Dave walking into the bar. It was great to see them, I hadn’t met them for a year at that stage. It really great to meet Dave as well. I liked him immediately, he was a great character.”
After Nirvana, Chad joined a number of bands such as The Fire Ants and The Methodist before coming out from behind the drum kit and fronting his own band including Before Cars.
“When I was playing in Nirvana the drumming was really straight forward. But then in The Fire Ants, there was a lot more for me to do. There were a lot more places that I could go. It was a lot of fun. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always wanted to drum to the music that we were playing at the time [as opposed to imposing his drumming style on a song]. It was the same in The Methodist, that was more of a pop sort-of band so I just played to what that music was. That’s what’s important to me, I play to what the music is and the bottom line is always the song. If I’m playing a song and I don’t think it needs a bunch of drum solos, then I wont put a bunch of drum solos in it,” continued Chad.
“It [becoming a front man] started happening slowly when I was on in The Methodist. I had written sings for that band and when we performed them live I got out from behind the drums and played guitar and sang. When we were mastering The Methodist album I remember Jack Endino [Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney producer] was there. I remember him listening to one of our songs and saying that it was cool. I remember saying to him ‘ya, that is cool, because I actually sing it’. He helped spur me on to write and record my own music and that’s really where Before Cars came from.
“It took some adjustment. When you go and see a band the focal point is always the guy singing or playing guitar. I couldn’t hide behind the drum kit anymore. It took some time to get used to that. There were a lot more eyes on me.”
For Chad, the acoustic guitar driven songs of Before Cars are a truer reflection of him as a musician that anything he played with Nirvana, The Fire Ants or The Methodist.
“The first record with Before Cars was almost an anthology for me. It was songs that I had written before Nirvana, during Nirvana, after Nirvana – up until 2005. It was just stuff that I wanted to get off my chest. I think our second record, ‘How We Run’ almost feels like my first record in a way. That was when I tapped into what has always influenced me most, which was 70s music and singer songwriter stuff. I’m really at home with what I am doing now. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and now I’m finally doing it,” continued Chad.
“I don’t often write lyrics right out and then say ‘yes, I have to put music to this’. I’ll usually be playing something on guitar and I’ll start saying things off the top of my head. More often than not there would be two or three lines in what I say that would be good. So I will take those lines and base the song around those two lines. I like to piece things together in that way.”
Chad prefers a communal approach to songwriting, sharing the creative experience with the other members of Before Cars.
“I usually come up with the basic idea for the song and play that for the guys and let them come up with ideas. They are very much a part of the songwriting process for me. The people I work with are really good and talented people. There is a lot in the songs that each of them write. It’s a big thing and it’s fun. I like sharing the songwriting process in this way,” says Chad.
“It’s never like I come to them and say ‘here’s the song, let’s go’. I like it when everyone fells that they have a big part in the songwriting. Then when we play the songs, especially live, it adds a really good feeling to the performance. It [the songwriting] was different in Nirvana. Kurt usually had everything that he wanted right there, ready to go. But with every Nirvana song I would listen to it and then still come up with the drum parts. It is something that I enjoy, the whole family feel [of songwriting with Before Cars] is really great.”
This family feel is something that Chad also felt during the emergence of grunge music in Seattle in the 1980s.
“At the time I don’t think that anybody knew that anything big was happening. We were just playing our music and happy to be a band. It had a really family sort of feel to it. All the bands supported each other. We [Nirvana] would head out to a Tad show or a Mudhoney show and they would come to our shows. I didn’t think that we were all latching onto something big at that stage, it was more that we were having so much fun,” he said.
“I remember our first European tour in ‘89 and ‘90 and we didn’t know what to expect. There had been a lot of press about us but we didn’t know what to expect. All of a sudden we were playing at all these packed venues and signing audiences and we were like ‘woo, there is something happening here’. It was a lot of fun. We were definitely riding a wave at that point.
“For me personally things stayed the same [after Nirvana became famous]. I just kept rolling on, being me, and doing the things that I always did. I just concentrated on the music. I’m a pretty humble character, I always have been, so I just took this in my stride and kept on having fun.”
Before Cars play Kenny’s in Lahinch on July 2.