Earlier this summer a little American band called Before Cars played an intimate, stripped back little gig in the Sugar Club. The three-piece band on the night was made up of a guitarist, bassist and violinist, playing gentle, acoustic, folksy songs to a rapt audience.
Before Cars may not be much of a household name, but their bassist and lead singer has a bit of a history.
In the late ‘80s Chad Channing – then a drummer – was living in Washington state, where he met a couple of dudes called Cobain and Novoselic, who asked him if he wanted to join a little band called Nirvana.
Channing spent two years with Nirvana, touring and playing on their genre defining debut album Bleach. Although Channing departed the group just before they started recording Nevermind, he’s seen as a formative member of Nirvana by most fans.
When he gets asked about Nirvana, he tries to play down any notion that it was a big deal at the time. “Nobody knew [that grunge was going to take off the way it did], we were just hoping the record sold. We weren’t going, like, ‘This is going to be the biggest thing ever, we’re going to take over Poison and all those other hair metal bands.’ That just kind of happened.”
He plays down any notion of a Seattle grunge scene as a concept people were aware of at the time, frequently referring to it as, “just a bunch of people hanging out”. “It’s like looking back at ‘67 and ‘68 and San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury, and you’re like, ‘God, what a trippy time it would have been.’
“But nobody was thinking that back then, they were just hanging out. If you have a memory of something, like hanging out at a friend’s house for a summer or whatever, at the time you don’t think about it, but years later you look back and go, like, ‘God, that was a really cool special time.’ That’s exactly what that’s like.”
But maybe that modesty is just who Channing is. In person he’s quiet, soft spoken and laid back. He doesn’t brag about his past, and when he’s asked about Kurt Cobain, there is a certain reluctance on his part to even talk about it. “You can imagine I get asked this a ton,” he says, laughing gently.
“If he’d never gotten famous, nobody would think two cents about it,” Channing says finally. “He’d be just another guy, which he pretty much kinda was anyway. He was quiet sometimes, and sometimes he wasn’t quiet. I’m the same in a way, lots of people are. The only difference in people’s eyes is that he was hugely talented, which he was. He was a talented songwriter, you know?”
Channing and Cobain maintained a friendly relationship, and by all accounts Channing’s departure from the group was what both parties wanted. Even then Channing was writing his own music, and what he really wanted was a group where he could express himself.
When asked about the recording sessions for Bleach, he explains how Cobain had, “this total idea of the things that he wanted, and everything was really, really simple, whereas I was always very non-simple up until then. Kurt was like, ‘Keep it really simple. No drum fills, none of this, none of that,’ so I was like, ‘Oh, okay, so what do I do now?’ So I thought, ‘Well maybe I can sneak this in here, and maybe I can get away with that in there.’ It was tricky.”
While he has fond memories of Nirvana, Channing seems far more keep on taking about what he’s doing now, far more so than being asked about Nirvana over and over again. “I’m the kind of person who likes to look forward, not backward. But obviously you gotta get used to it at some point. So I’m used to it.”
But the Nirvana question came up for Channing all over again earlier this year when the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, without Channing.
“I figured I was going to be in because they were buying me tickets and all that kinda stuff, and I had a table, so I said, ‘Oh I must be getting in.” But I don’t give a shit about any of that so I don’t know what the deal was.”
It was only later that Channing found out that his inclusion had only been a rumour, that while he was invited to the ceremony, only the lineup of Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl would be officially inducted. “They didn’t even get a hold of me, they got a hold of somebody else, but I found out that I wasn’t actually going to be in the ceremony, I was only invited to go along and watch.”
But Channing isn’t somebody who gets hung up on accolades, for him the music is more important. He’s not the kind of person to hold a grudge over something like this, and he still has a friendly relationship with Novoselic and Grohl. And he has nothing but good things to say about the actual induction ceremony, recalling a certain excitement at seeing Hall and Oates inducted on the same night – a reflection of where he is now musically.
So does he think there is any chance of a Nirvana reunion?
“Nope, that’ll never happen.”
And as for Before Cars, Channing has finally found the group that allows him to bring together songs he’d been writing since before he even joined Nirvana. “I’ve always been a songwriter, and I’ve always wanted the opportunity to sing the songs that I’ve been writing.”
This writing process also prompted the gradual shift from drums to singing and playing bass (and occasionally acoustic guitar). “I was in an earlier band called the Methodists, and when we used to play live I’d step out form the drums for a bit and play guitar instead, and then I’d go back and play the drums…” Now Before Cars sees Channing assume centre stage every night, but there is a real sense that the band is a collaborative union rather than a group defined by one person.
Before Cars’ first album, ‘Walk Back’, released in 2009, consisted of, “songs I’d written before, during, after Nirvana. There’s a song called That’s My Guess, which was a song that… the opportunity never really came up for me to write songs for the band, but had that opportunity come up, that was one of the songs that I was going to pull out.”
The follow-up album, ‘How We Run’, meanwhile, is a far more of unified affair, as opposed to the variety of ‘Walk Back’. Channing admits that this is more what he had in mind for Before Cars, and hopes to continue in this direction. “I’ve been writing a lot of material. I’m hoping that more late fall or winter we’ll get an opportunity to start recording again. I don’t know where, but, somewhere.”
The rage and chaos and noise of grunge has been left behind, and Channing has settled into a very different mould, with very little trace of his roots remaining. “Most of my inspirations in terms of writing would be singer-songwriter stuff from the seventies… When I think about singer-songwriters like Jim Croce or Carly Simon, I’ve always been a big fan of stuff like that.”
There is a sense of Neil Young about Before Cars too – but that’s Neil Young the folk balladeer, not Neil Young the Rockin’ in the Free World grandfather of grunge.
This tender, intimate style seems to sit perfectly with what Channing is looking to achieve musically. Not trying to shake things up, just play some lovely tunes that might just speak to people. “We’re not very well known as a band, so if I can connect with even a small portion of the crowd I know that I’ve done my job. In Cork [in Cyprus Avenue] there wasn’t a big crowd but they were all just glued to what we were doing. That was great.”