Chad Channing (Nirvana, Before Cars)

by Greg Prato

Although Dave Grohl will always be Nirvana's best known drummer, it was Chad Channing who laid down the beats on the group's debut full-length, Bleach, and appeared on odds and ends that later turned up on various compilations, including Incesticide and With the Lights Out. Additionally, it was Channing who demoed several songs with the group which later turned up in re-recorded form on the group's landmark recording, Nevermind.

And like Grohl, Channing is more than just an ordinary drummer - he's a singer, guitarist, and songwriter as well, and is set to return with the second full-length release with his group, Before Cars, titled How We Run (the first release from the group's own label, Pocket Star Records).

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Chad several times over the years, including a lengthy chat for my 2009 book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, which also included memories/opinions of the grunge era from members of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney, among many others.

Channing recently took some time out to discuss Before Cars and How We Run, along with some stories from the Nirvana years, including how he turned Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic on to classic David Bowie, and how he helped title an early Nirvana classic.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about your new label, Pocket Star Records. Are you going to be signing other new artists, or is this primarily just for your music?

Chad Channing: We decided that we wanted to go ahead and just release it ourselves. Because it's kind of a pain trying to actually latch onto another label. My first record with Flotation Records that I did [2008's Walk Back], it was fun working with Rob Daily, but he's like a one man crew trying to do all this stuff. It was difficult trying to work in promotion and all that, so we thought, "Well, this time around, let's just do it ourselves." And Justine [violinist Justine Jeanotte] actually did a whole bunch of homework. She looked into it and was like, "You know what, guys? This is a good idea. A lot of bands are actually doing this." Some bands that were on big labels, when their contract was up, decided they'd just release it on their own. And so we decided to do that and we created Pocket Star Records.

And we've got a website that's near completion being built. At this time it's just an outlet for us to put Before Cars out on. And another band called Paundy, that I also play in, we're going to release some of that on there. And also a friend of mine, just goes by the name of Derek Burns, he's a pretty talented character, and we're going to do some releases on there.

And then we're just going to see how it goes. I mean, who knows? If things really go well for everybody, maybe Pocket Star Records will turn into something a little bit bigger. For now, we're just going to keep it mellow and use it as our personal outlet.

Songfacts: When you say that "we" started the label, I take it you mean you and the other Before Cars members.

Chad: Yes.

Songfacts: In addition to you supplying lead vocals, guitar, and bass in the band, who are the other members of Before Cars?

Chad: Justine Jeanotte [violin/keyboard], Paul Burback [guitar/bass/vocals], and Andy Miller [drums/percussion/keyboards].

Songfacts: What exactly can fans expect from How We Run, and how would you compare it to the previous Before Cars album, Walk Back?

Chad: Well, it's definitely very different from the very first record that we did. This record focused more on a lot of music that influenced me when I was a kid. Because my dad - he was a disc jockey - he would always be on the radio. This is mostly through the '70s. And so I've kind of drawn from a lot of influences I've had of a lot of '70s type of music. Anything from David Bowie to Jim Croce. Kind of a mix of '70s singer/songwriter, with a little bit of maybe late '70s, early '80s pop stuff. But the album heavily draws off that. So it's a lot mellower compared to the first record. In short, there's definitely quite a bit of distance between what I do now and what I did way back in the day.

Songfacts: It's interesting that you just mentioned Jim Croce, because when I was listening to How We Run, I definitely picked up a '70s soft rock vibe, like Jim Croce and Seals and Crofts.

Chad: Yeah.

Songfacts: I'm not sure if you know, but there was an interesting Jim Croce book that came out last year, called I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, which was written by Jim's widow, Ingrid.

Chad: Wow. No, I was not aware of that.

Songfacts: It's a pretty revealing book. It shows there was a good side to him but there was also a dark side, as well.

Chad: That doesn't surprise me. I'd love to check that out.

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs off of How We Run?

Chad: Well, one of my favorites is a song called "Catch You When You Fall." And another one is the last song on the record called "Gas Stop," which is the one song on the album that I actually wrote about that was a real event that happened to me when I was six years old at the time.

In short, we traveled around a lot, moved a lot. We had just stopped by some small town junction and gas stop, and everybody got out to go to the bathroom. Anyway, I got back outside, our truck was gone! We were traveling in this old Ford truck that had a camper on it. It was gone. I was like, "Well, where'd they go?"

I didn't know what to do, so I just walked down for maybe about a block or so and I sat down on the curb next to this telephone pole and sat there wondering what I was going to do next.

And what had happened is usually one of us kids - I had two sisters with me at the time - would sit up in the cab in the front with my parents, and the other two would sit in the back. So my mom was like, "Is everybody in?" And my sisters were like, "Yeah, yeah." My sisters assumed that I was up front in the cab and my parents thought that I was probably in the back with my sisters. And so hours down the road they realized that I wasn't in the car at all. And my mom about had a heart attack. I don't know how long I was there, but the sun was setting by the time I saw them.
And I was still sitting in the same spot.

Songfacts: Is Before Cars planning on playing shows in support of the new album?

Chad: We are planning on it. We're going to start off by doing a couple of shows locally, a CD release party, and then a few other shows. But what we want to try to do is just connect together some kind of mini tours, like maybe take a couple of weeks and head down the West Coast and come back, and then at a later date try to shoot out to the Midwest. And then at some point maybe see if we can get to the East Coast. And eventually, if possible, like we did back in 2010, get back over to Europe. So we definitely do want to play to support this record, we're just going to have to do it piece by piece, I guess.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Chad: Oh, wow. Let's see. Well, I guess an easy one right off the bat is I've always thought that all the guys in The Beatles were great songwriters. So, to go far back, they've always been one of my all time favorites. I love the songwriting of Portishead. I think the stuff they do is just fabulous. I've also always been a big fan of the songwriting from Radiohead. Also Björk. When I listen to groups like that, it's like I really feel that these guys, they're just going to write the record they want to write and that's that.

And speaking of cars, I've always thought The Cars were great songwriters, too. Gosh, there's a lot out there. Crosby, Stills & Nash are great songwriters, I've always thought.

Songfacts: And you mentioned David Bowie before. Would you say that Bowie's also one of your favorites?

Chad: Oh, yeah. Love his stuff.

Songfacts: Bowie and Neil Young are two people I could think of that wrote a wide variety of styles.

Chad: Definitely. They really reached out there to different boundaries.

Songfacts: And Queen I always felt wrote a wide variety of stuff.

Chad: Yes. I would totally agree with that. Led Zeppelin, too.

Channing left Nirvana in 1990 - one contributing factor was lack of songwriting input - and was initially replaced by Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters. The Peters era of Nirvana was brief, as it only lasted for a single show (September 22, 1990, at the Motor Sports International Garage in Seattle) and a single ("Sliver"). Shortly thereafter, Dave Grohl signed on, and served as the occupant of Nirvana's drum throne for the remainder of the group's existence.
Songfacts: And while we're talking about songwriters, how would you compare Kurt Cobain's songwriting to some of the songwriters that you just mentioned that are some of your favorites?

Chad: Well, I would honestly say that Kurt would be up there with one of my favorite songwriters. I mean, that was the thing that appealed to me from day one when they came up to me asking if I wanted to be their drummer. When I checked out a few shows they did, that was probably the first thing that just caught my eye. Heavy guitars and all that kind of stuff wasn't anything new to me by that time, but the way he wrote his vocal melodies and made these heavy songs into heavy pop songs, I just thought was very intriguing. So it was like, "Oh, that's really a cool avenue to take it." Not like going, "Okay, well, we're playing this really heavy rock band stuff, so we have to make sure that every song is really heavy with screaming and all this kind of stuff." We'd say we can take this another direction, too. Especially a song like "About A Girl," for example. It's kind of heavy, but it's got a total pop sensibility. I always thought he was a great songwriter.

Songfacts: And I'd put Kurt in the same category as someone that wrote songs in a wide variety of styles, too.

Chad: Oh, yeah, definitely. He can get as mellow as "Polly," and then to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I mean, a wide range.

Songfacts: I agree. And something I remember that we discussed a while back that I thought was interesting was that you came up with some song titles for Nirvana, and then I guess Kurt would take them and put them in a song.

Chad: Yeah. Well, the first one was "About A Girl." I remember we were rehearsing the song not long before we went in and recorded the record, Bleach. Kurt was just playing the song and we were working it out. I asked Kurt what the song was, and Kurt was like, "Well, I don't really know." And then I said, "Well, what's it about?" And he says, "It's about a girl." And I said, "Well, why don't you just call it 'About A Girl'?" And he just kind of looked at me and smiled and said, "Okay." We went with that.

And then the other song that comes to mind is a song called "Big Long Now." I think we might have even been in the studio recording, because that was like, "Okay, so what's this one about?" And he goes, "Well, I don't really have a title for it," and so I just off the top of my head, "big... long... now?" I was trying to think of something how the song felt. Because it was slow, heavy, and something that we were doing now. So I thought, "big long now?" And once again, Kurt was like, "Okay, let's do that."

Songfacts: And looking back, were there any Nirvana songs that you had a hand in writing but didn't get credit for?

Chad: Not really. I mean, aside from putting together and writing the drum parts to it, there really wasn't a lot of input like that. And mostly because there really wasn't a lot of opportunity for that, because there was rarely any time where we would sit down and write songs together. Usually what would happen is we'd come to rehearsal and Kurt would have these songs already. He may have spent some time and worked with Krist on the song ideas. It's like, "Oh, here's a song." And so they may have worked on some stuff like that together. And then when they hooked up with me, then we'd rehearse the songs.

But also, those guys, they were living within close proximity to each other, where I was always at least an hour away, because I lived on Bainbridge [Kurt and Krist lived in Olympia at the time]. So I wasn't really readily available, like, "I'll just drive down the street and let's work out some new songs."

Songfacts: Did you ever witness Kurt write a song from beginning to end, whether it be in the van, at sound check, or in the studio?

Chad: A song called "Blandest." That might have been something that he just pulled out the riff and started playing. The first time I ever heard that song, we were sound checking for a show. I hadn't heard it before, and I got the feeling he was still working it out. So that was probably the closest I've ever heard something that he was writing from the ground up, was that song.

But most of the times it wasn't that way. There were a few occasions, like I remember when we were recording Bleach, he had his notepad out and would sit in the van. We'd be driving to the studio or something, and he'd be like, "Okay, I'm trying to get these lyrics out. What rhymes with monkey?" or whatever. Sometimes he'd ask stuff like that. We'd just shoot out words or things.

Songfacts: I remember when I interviewed you for my book, Grunge is Dead, you told me a pretty cool story that you were the one that turned Kurt and Krist on to David Bowie.

Chad: We were in Boston and stopped by this record store, and I found this copy of The Man Who Sold The World. It was a cool copy - it had the poster in it and everything. And those guys weren't familiar with the record. And I inquired about, "What David Bowie do you like? Do you like David Bowie?" And they're like, "Well, the only David Bowie we're familiar with is 'Let's Dance.'" I was surprised. I was like, "Really? Wow." I was like, "You've got to hear some early David Bowie, for sure."

So when I got the opportunity, I made a tape of the record at somebody's house, and then while we were touring around I just went ahead and popped the tape in and let it roll. After a bit, Kurt turned around and said to me, "Who is this?" kind of like knowingly, just something familiar with the voice and stuff. I said, "Well, this is David Bowie. This is The Man Who Sold the World record." He's like, "Yeah, this is really cool." I said, "You should check out Hunky Dory and stuff." And so eventually, I'm sure he did. But he totally dug it.

Songfacts: Another interesting story you told me in the past was that it's you who plays the cymbal work on the song "Polly." What do you remember about the recording of that song.

Chad: It's funny, I never even realized that "Polly," that version, was from the Madison sessions that made it on Nevermind. I mean, it was, I don't know, almost ten years down the road before someone mentioned that to me. I was like, "Really?" And I listened to it, I said, "Okay, that makes sense."

They put me in this smaller room that normally has guitars and stuff like that. I sat there with my ride cymbal, and there were these certain parts where I was just going to hit it. And I thought, "Well, I'll just accent these things." Because they talked about having something really sparse in it. And I'm like, "Well, how sparse? I mean, are we just talking maybe a cymbal hit here or there?" And the consensus was, "Yeah, something like that. Really mellow."

I went in there and just rolled it. And they said, "Just put an accent here on this certain part each time it comes around." So I did. And it was like, "Okay, that totally works." So we left it that way.

Songfacts: I just read that they finally gave you credit for that when they reissued Nevermind as a 20th Anniversary Edition.

Chad: You know, I haven't looked. Maybe they did.

Songfacts: Another story you told me in the book a while back was how "Blew" was mistakenly tuned down. Was that tuned down to C?

Chad: Yeah, it was. It was tuned down to C. It was supposed to be just tuned down to D, and we were already in D. So it went down to C instead. And I always was kind of surprised that we actually pulled that off, because I imagined tuning way down in C, especially on a bass... it's like, how did the bass strings not flap? It must have barely hung there or something.

I don't know, I've tested that out before, and it's doable, it's a stretch. But somehow it managed to hold up.

Songfacts: Maybe for that session Krist put on heavy gauge strings.

Chad: It's possible. He may have always played with heavy gauge, too, though. I mean, big guy, big hands, you know. It's like heavy gauge would be like me playing a super light gauge or something.

Songfacts: And then a post-Nirvana project you were a part of that not too many people know about is Fire Ants.

Chad: Oh, yeah. Well, the Fire Ants, that was actually the first band that I did after Nirvana that actually recorded stuff. I messed around a little before that, but Fire Ants was the first group from that. And in the beginning it was me and Kevin Wood, brother of the late Andrew Wood [lead singer of Mother Love Bone], Dan McDonald played bass for us, and then the guy we had singing for us, I can't drop his name, but it didn't last very long. It was like maybe three or four rehearsals or something. And I guess he wasn't into it and he wanted to move on.

But anyway, we soon got Kevin's brother Brian Wood. And so it was me, Kevin, Brian, and Dan. And we recorded an EP with Jack Endino, which I believe we did at Reciprocal or whatever it was called at the time. And then we also recorded a single and played a lot of shows. And things were going pretty well for the band. It was actually a lot of fun and we were doing a lot of stuff.

But eventually, Brian just... I don't know, it's hard to explain, but he always rose to the occasion and was his best at shows that maybe one would say, "Oh, it doesn't really matter as much." But if some people came out in particular to see us, it would be the opposite. So I never really knew what was on his mind. Play a show or something and some execs would be out there, but he'd maybe not even come up on the stage or something. Anyway, that didn't really last very long. But it was fun while it lasted.

Songfacts: Something I've always wondered, have you ever met Dave Grohl?

Chad: Yeah. First time I met Dave Grohl was at the OK Hotel, and they were playing a show there. And I was just sitting up at the bar area and Krist had walked in and Dave was behind him. And he was like, "Hey, Chad," and "Hey Kurt, Krist, how's it going?" And them going, "Oh, this is Dave." And I go, "Hey, Dave, how's it going?"

I can't remember exactly the other places I've talked to him. One of them was, of course, at the wake that followed Kurt's funeral. But I think I've only ever talked with him in person maybe three times.

But a really, really nice guy. I just thought, What a great choice to take over the reins.

Songfacts: If the opportunity ever came up to play some shows with Dave or the Foo Fighters, would you consider that?

Chad: I don't know if they'd ever ask me, but I'd consider it, yeah. It would be fun.

March 7, 2013.
Greg Prato first spoke with Chad in 2009 for the book Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music.
Info about Before Cars [and to order How We Run]

Credit for Nirvana photos: Charles Peterson
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 4

  • Jaime. from Monterrey, Mexico.What a nice guy he seems to be. And what he´s doing with Before Cars, man, it´s genius. I love his style. I think that band should have more attention.
  • Chups From MdYeah, just your typical LA scenester from Northern VA. Chad seems cool with things. Fans take stuff too personally.
  • Eight Way from SeattleChad is real like Andrew Wood was real. Vedder and Groll...not so much. Typical LA Scenesters...
  • Ronald Van Selm from The NetherlandsChad is such a great guy. I love his drumwork on Bleach. Nice intervieuw too!
see more comments

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