“I’m happy with where I am,” Cobain says earnestly, as he moors a boat and leaps off to greet me at the boardwalk. It’s one of three vessels he operates with his charter tour business, Seattle Family Cruises. Cobain was – for a brief 18-month stint in the early ’90s – one of the most successful musicians in America, frontman of Northwestern hopefuls Nirvana, who scored an unlikely #1 album with 1991’s Nevermind, a hooky collection of rock songs that owed as much of a debt to groups like The Cars and The Knack as it did to the grunge sound that was all the rage back then. Interest from MTV during a prosperous time in the network’s history coupled with glossy videos that showcased Cobain’s flaxen, kicked-puppy-dog looks saw them quickly rocket to the top of the charts. From there it quickly collapsed.
The quick-fire release of Incesticide – a collection of earlier tracks – and record label pressure to push out a Nevermind follow-up as quickly as possible, saw critics turn on the band in spades. The release of an acoustic set, recorded at the studio of early champions MTV, saw Nirvana receive a savaging by the press. The session was meant to be electric, but as Cobain had accidentally left his guitar in Washington, the band quickly borrowed instruments from acoustic rockers 4 Non Blondes and improvised, dropping their newer, heavier tunes for a selection of covers and already-released songs. According to the press, this further compounded the sense Nirvana had little let to say, and with three failed albums in less than three years, the band quickly fell out of favor. “We knew we needed to release something great at that point”, Cobain recalls. “So, we went back through our old video tapes and compiled our most fierce-sounding live recordings to put on a CD – we were always a better live band, so we wanted to show that off. But I guess, by that point, we’d straight used up all our chances.” The resulting record, From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah didn’t trouble the charts, and the band was dropped by their record label, Geffen.
Nowadays, Cobain is still actively involved in music, touring with fellow ’90s rockers The Spin Doctors and Soul Asylum as part of the ‘Entertain Us’ summer tour, which hit twelve cities last year. But his true passion is building his booming tourism business, which Cobain and third wife Molly built from the ground up, with $150,000 worth of royalties Cobain had squirreled away. “Most bands you see hit the big time get caught up in the Hollywood side of things, and find themselves broke before they know it”, Cobain warns. “I was lucky enough to never let my head get too big, or to succumb to the temptation of that lifestyle.”
It’s 4:30pm on a picturesque, but windy Sunday afternoon, and Cobain is about to take out his third tour group of the day. He rises at 5am every morning, except on Sundays when he allows himself the luxury of a 7am rise. “I know it’s a little naughty”, Cobain tells me, eyes glinting, “but I’m getting older, and I need those few extra hours if I’m gonna keep up with the young groups we get on Sundays. I’m not getting any younger.” Today’s group is a mixed bag: seniors out for a harbor cruise, families visiting the popular port region, and various couples on romantic day-trips. Cobain is clearly energized by the group. “Young love everywhere”, he notes to nobody in particular. Despite his 48 years, Cobain looks great for his age. The once-famous mop of blonde hair is now neatly trimmed, with faint flickers of grey throughout. Molly walks down the boardwalk, wheeling what appears to be an industrial-sized cooler. “We offer a seafood platter and wine on Sunday”, she tells me. “The visitors love the local catch, and the wine is always a bit of a treat, a bit of luxury.” Cobain is straddling the boat and the pier, chatting to a group of students from Australia. “We played Australia in ’92”, he tells them. “I enjoyed it a lot, it reminded me of Seattle. Has it changed since then?”, he asks, before quickly noting, “What am I talking about? You kids would have been in diapers.”
After the cruise, I ask Cobain if he misses the days of rock and roll, and chart-topping albums. “I don’t at all”, he says firmly. “After a few years of living in tour buses, doing interviews, and eating junk food, it starts to get real old. It was a blast being on TV, but even that fades.” Does he feel the band blew it when they were at their peak? “We made a few silly decisions,” he admits. “But what young band hasn’t? I feel very grateful for the success we had, it allowed me to start this business, and I still get to play all the old songs to a whole new generation of kids that weren’t even born – that still blows me away. I’m like, ‘How do you kids even know Teen Spirit, let alone all of the words?!”
When not working, Cobain keeps busy with his Fantasy Football Leagues: he is in five different ones – “Molly hates it,” he confesses, “but it’s a passion of mine, so she puts up with it.” – and by raising his three children: Frances (from his first marriage to actress Courtney Love), Chester, and Angela. “It’s a great life,” he says, looking out at the harbour. “My office is a boat, my boss is my wife, and I still get to strap on the ol’ guitar and make a bit of noise with the boys a few times a year. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”