Courtney Love: ‘A Hole reunion? We are definitely talking about it’

As Live Through This turns 25, the band discuss the trauma and pop tactics that charged its release – as well as their comeback

Raw, beautiful and extremely angry: 25 years ago the grunge movement birthed its most powerful album. A raging takedown of body fascism, self-doubt and sexual assault in pre-#MeToo America, Hole’s Live Through This was weaponised feminism with frontwoman Courtney Love as its seething general. Yet the release was marred by tragedy, going on sale just four days after the body of Love’s husband Kurt Cobain was found at their home in Seattle and two months before Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff died of a drug overdose.

“When it came out, there was so much horrible other stuff happening in my life that I didn’t even think about it,” Love says of just how commercial a record dealing with brutal personal trauma came to be. Across the album’s 12 tracks, Love was dealing with her experience in the only way she and her non-college educated community knew how. “We were from the kick, punch, scream, yell until they leave us alone and/or a combo of that with a guitar kind-of generation; we didn’t have language for that kind of stuff,” she explains. Even so, ideas for lyrics came thick and fast. “It’s really about: ‘Do I have something to say?’” Love says of her approach to songwriting. “And when you’re young you have a lot to say.”

If the content on Live Through This was gritty and rough, then its sound was surprisingly tuneful – a sonic quantum leap from their scuzzy earlier material. Here there were lush nods to 1970s classic rock that would become even more overt on its Fleetwood Mac-worshiping 1998 follow-up, Celebrity Skin. “We had been flirting with pop from the beginning, but needed to get out a lot of angst before refining our sound,” explains Hole’s guitarist Eric Erlandson of their musical makeover. “Soon after we had recorded [1991 debut] Pretty on the Inside, the tide began to shift. Not just for us, but for everybody in the so-called underground at the time.”

The clatter of Sonic Youth and Steve Albini’s Big Black – artists that Love had referenced in a newspaper advert when forming Hole in 1989 – made way for the slickness of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. These bands were still loud and confrontational but also deeply melodic, favouring traditional song structure over noodling experimentation. Erlandson recalls a pivotal night at Los Angeles’s underground coffee shop Jabberjaw, when they saw Nirvana play songs from their then-unreleased album Nevermind. “This was the first time we began to understand how the dynamics of the Pixies and tight Beatles-y pop song construction could be married with punk and noise,” he says. When touring Pretty on the Inside they wrote two key singles for Live Through This: the caustic but glossy Billy Corgan breakup song Violet and the harmony-laden self-examination of Doll Parts. “This melodic germ had taken us,” says Love. “I was very happy about it.”

In October 1993, Love, Erlandson, Pfaff and drummer Patty Schemel went from LA to the Triclops Studio in Marietta, Georgia, to record their second album, and their major label debut after being signed to David Geffen’s DGC Records in 1992. Love was happy because the studio was close to the home of her idols REM and even happier that they had made the decision to fully commit to the two weeks of recording time. “We didn’t do any drugs, which was great, because we liked drugs,” Love explains. Well, that was the idea. “I was on drugs, but I didn’t bring them into the studio,” confesses Schemel. However, when Cobain visited, an associate who was not in the band started to bring illicit substances into the room. “All of sudden there were drugs, [brought in because] Kurt came down … and alcohol and there hadn’t been much of that, so I got really mad at that guy,” says Schemel. But Cobain made himself useful and sang backing vocals on a couple of tracks. Kinda. “It was a side note and not taken seriously,” adds Erlandson. “He obviously didn’t, when you hear what he actually sang and mumbled!”

When it came to nailing their revamped sound, Love knew that how the drums were recorded would be vital in getting the tone she wanted. “That was one thing where I really did lean on Kurt, because he understood drums,” she says. “So I made him make me a little map. Somewhere I still have Kurt’s little map of drums. It is so cool.” Schemel joined the band in mid-1992, replacing Pretty on the Inside-era drummer Caroline Rue and adding her own stamp. “Caroline’s style was a little bit more tribal but was amazing and so worked for those [early] songs,” says Schemel, “but when I came it was more about dynamics and putting the drama into those [new] songs.

The drummer also remembers how powerful it was to hear Love’s previously private thoughts surrounding her relationship with Cobain and daughter Frances Bean come out in her music. “[I was] hearing her feelings around what was happening to them and what was happening in her life through the lyrics. She didn’t really talk about that at all … It would come out in a song.” These related to the battle Love and Cobain went through to maintain custody of Frances Bean (following a child welfare investigation in 1992) on I Think That I Would Die (“I want my baby / Who took my baby?”) and self-image on Plump (“They say I’m plump / But I throw up all the time”). They also referenced her doubt around the early days of her relationship with Cobain on Doll Parts (“I love him so much it just turns to hate”) and, on Asking for It, the time she was sexually assaulted when crowdsurfing. “All lyrics I’ve ever written are from a realistic place,” explains Love. She also nixed plenty for being too outrageous. “Some were too vulgar, which was a big thing for me back then, because I was all about vulgar and I didn’t give a shit.”

From left: Kristen Pfaff, Patty Schemel, Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson
Whole lotta live... from left: Kristen Pfaff, Patty Schemel, Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson. Photograph: Erica Echenberg/Redferns

Also integral to the new sound was Kristen Pfaff, who joined the band in early 1993. “The first time I saw her play, I was blown away by her mastery,” remembers Erlandson of Pfaff, who was the only classically trained member of Hole. “I knew she would bring something special to the party.” However, a layer of tension was added to recording as Erlandson and Pfaff’s romantic relationship came to an end during the sessions. “It was the 90s version of Rumours,” says Erlandson. “I was stressed constantly, trying to hold it all together, breaking up with Kristen while rooming with her, and continuing to move the record along and make it as beautiful as I knew it could be.” This affected Erlandson’s diet as well as his mental state. “I was probably eating a lot of granola spiked with Eeyore self-pity.”

But a good time was had, too. Towards the end of the sessions, Hole tested the new material out at a secret gig in local venue Heaven and Hell. Love and Cobain also went into Atlanta one night and hung out with Carrie Brownstein of the proudly independent band Excuse 17, and later Sleater-Kinney. “She’s really cool now as a woman, but she was just a girl back then,” remembers Love. “She said this really funny thing: ‘Don’t tell my band that I hung out with you guys because they might kick me out.’ I was like: ‘Why?’ ‘Because you guys are sell-outs!’” When Pfaff and Schemel finished recording their parts they decided to spend their downtime at the local branch of Blockbuster Video. “They had every single episode of The Prisoner so we watched it all. Kristen was fascinated by it.”

Aside from playing Miss World with Pfaff’s successor Melissa Auf der Maur at a 2012 screening of Hit So Hard, a documentary about Schemel, the 1990s lineup of Hole has been on hiatus since 2002. So what then are the chances of Hole re-forming and touring Live Through This for its anniversary? “We are definitely talking about it,” says Love. “There’s nothing wrong with honouring your past; I’ve just kind of discovered that. If you don’t, people will rewrite history and you will become an inconvenient woman.” Courtney Love inconvenient? Never.


Leonie Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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