Lori Barbero: 'I don't tell that story very much because stuff's really sacred'
Alexandra Pollard

14:27 18th June 2015

If you're a Nirvana fan, you're probably already familiar with the strangely beautiful, twisted aesthetic that's carried through the artwork for In Utero to the video for 'Heart Shaped Box' - plastic foetuses at various stages of development, mannequins with exposed muscles and carefully arranged internal organs, all starkly sprawled on a bed of flowers.

What you might not be familiar with though, is how this now iconic aesthetic came about - and the instrumental part Babes In Toyland's Lori Barbero, who was friends with Kurt Cobain before his suicide in 1994, played in it.

When we talk to Barbero ahead of the band's comeback show at Shepherds Bush Empire, she talks happily and eccentrically of her love of touring, her new-found passion for hypnotherapy and her relationship with feminism in music. Such is her energy and loquaciousness, in fact, that it's no surprise she fixes us with a look of puzzlement when we ask if she worried returning to touring after 20 years might be too physically draining.

Lori Barbero playing at Shepherd's Bush Empire - Photo: Thanira Rates

When we bring up an article we read about her trip to a shop called Barebones with Kurt Cobain though, her face falls slightly. "Where'd you read that?" she asks. Is it not true? We reply, starting to apologise for poor research, before she interrupts. "No it is true... but I don't tell that story very much. I mean, it's OK that we talk about it, but there's just a lot of things that I just have never talked about, because stuff's really sacred."

Just before we can offer to change the subject though, she's started telling the story. "When [Nirvana] recorded at Pachyderm, I took them to the Mall of America - it was Krist and Kurt and I - and I took them to a shop that I knew Kurt would love, with a bunch of anatomy stuff and foetal stuff. It was just a science store called Barebones - it had skeletons and foetuses and wombs and all kinds, it was all about science and bodies and babies and bones. It was really, really a great store; it was my favourite store out there, and I knew that Kurt would love it."

She continues, "So we went there and he dropped, I think it was over $4,000, and he wrote a cheque and then, he told me later on, they never cashed the cheque because it was his autograph! So he got all of that for free."

Watch the video for 'Heart Shaped Box' below

"I didn't even see that 'Heart Shaped Box' video until after he had died," she adds quietly. "I saw it in a shoe store in Europe, and I lost it. I was bawling, by myself, I was curled up. Then I saw that stuff that he bought and I was already... Yeah. It took me many years to be able to listen to them again. It still hurts a lot."

Next time you dig out your copy of In Utero then, picture Kurt Cobain pouring through shelves of plastic babies and internal organs like a toddler given free rein in a candy shop - and the store manager who forwent $5,000 when they noticed the name 'Kurt Cobain' on the cheque. 

  • Fall Out Boy: Speaking to NME ahead of In Utero's anniversary, guitarist Joe Trohman said "I'm a big Nirvana fan, like in the 90's - it's definitely an era when we all grew up. That record - lyrically it's one of the most raw Nirvana records and sonically because Steve Albini engineered it. It definitely sounds like a loud record, it sounds like three guys playing in a room together."

  • Flaming Lips: The band started out as a much grungier outfit that the psych-rock space mentalists we know today, and even toured with Nirvana as far back as 1989. In 2007, Wayne Coyne told The Guardian that In Utero was "far superior" to Nevermind. You can hear the love and respect for the band in Flaming Lips' cover of the In Utero classic 'Pennyroyal Tea'. Youtube it, it's awesome.

  • Manic Street Preachers: The depression, troubles and disappearance of Richey Edwards are often mentioned in reference to the demise of Kurt Cobain, while their cult classic The Holy Bible is held in the same league for raw emotion and bleakness as In Utero. Bassist Nicky Wire has often spoken of Nirvana's influence on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, while the impact of the band can certainly be heard on their cover of In Utero's 'Pennyroyal Tea'.

  • Everything Everything: That 'Heart-Shaped Box' is still one of their favourite songs and play it every time before they go on stage: "We're huge fans of Nirvana's In Utero. I actually prefer that album to Nevermind, which some people find perverse but I really prefer the sound of it. Nevermind has this amazing streamlined pop quality to it, but In Utero feels like the true essence of the band ought to be."

  • Lana Del Rey: Explaining her cover of In Utero's 'Heart-Shaped Box, the 'Video Games' star told Sirius FM: “When I was 11, I saw Kurt Cobain singing 'Heart Shaped Box' on MTV and it really stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Even at a young age, I really related to his sadness. She added: I never revisited his music again until I was about 17 or 18, and then when I did, it still meant just as much to me then. It's continued to be my primary inspiration – in terms of not wanting to compromise lyrically or sonically."

  • Feeder: Another band who came to be in the heyday of grunge around the time of In Utero are Feeder - who have often cited Kurt Cobain and co as influences and covered their tracks.

  • 30 Seconds To Mars: Jared Leto cites Nirvana as one of his biggest influences, telling Q Magazine: "Nirvana were a great band, Kurt was a genius songwriter with an unstoppable voice and they were three musicians that made a really unique sound - but there was something else that Nirvana gave, and that was the gift of permission for all of us to have the right to pick up an instrument and create."

  • Placebo: Any three-piece band formed in the mid-90s with a heavy emphasis on riffs, unrelenting vocals and emotive lyrics is going to get Cobain comparisons, and Placebo were plagued by the tag 'the glam rock Nirvana' for years. However, they do admit the band's influence and have even covered them.

  • Frank Turner: The alt-folk hero has never shyed away from love of Nirvana. He's covered their classics and even paid tribute to Cobain by controversially coming on stage at Reading & Leeds in a wheelchair.

  • Weezer: Rivers Cuomo has been very vocal about the impact of Nirvana when Weezer first formed. Kurt Cobain was even mentioned by name in the original draft for the lyrics to 'Susanne', but upon Cobain's death, the line was altered. When the song was brought back into the band's setlists in 2010, the original line ("Even Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose/When I call, you put them all on hold.") was restored.

  • Biffy Clyro: Beyond the beards, occasional blonde hair, blistering vocals and insane stage antics, Nirvana's impact on Biffy is well-documented. When they first formed just after In Utero's release, The Biff admit that they sounded 'like every other band who'd ever heard Nirvana'. Speaking to FaceCulture in 2007, frontman Simon Neil said: "A band like Nirvana comes along and they're normal guys making music. Guns 'N' Roses were very close to my heart but Nirvana felt a lot more real, so when I saw them I thought 'I can play music, I can do this."

  • Muse: The Devonshire trio were met with many Nirvana and Radiohead comparisons when they emerged with debut album Showbiz. Speaking to NME in 1999, frontman Matt Bellamy said: "We take our influences from lots of American bands, like Nirvana." Bassist Chris Wolstenholme added: "We were into Nirvana when we were younger, when we were in previous bands we did covers of their stuff, it was what got us into bands really, it was what made us want to be in bands."

Photo: Artwork