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All hail Veruca Salt: The oral history of American Thighs

Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images
Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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There are bands that find success relatively early—and then there’s Veruca Salt. Within the span of their first half-dozen shows in 1993, the Chicago foursome—singers and guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post, bassist Steve Lack, and drummer Jim Shapiro, Gordon’s brother—were signed to a label. Six months later, they had recorded an album. Before 1994 was up, they’d be signed to Geffen; have a massive hit in their first single, “Seether” (also a staple on MTV at the time); and be well on the way to American Thighs, the band’s debut LP, going gold and spending 23 weeks straight on the Billboard charts. Time-wise, it was less like experiencing quicker-than-expected stardom, and more like being strapped to a booster rocket and launched into the stratosphere.

Although the original lineup only released two full albums before breaking up (the band reunited in 2014 and released the excellent Ghost Notes), they remain one of the defining bands of the mid-’90s alternative rock era, defined by the indelible harmonies of Post and Gordon’s dual-vocal magic. Rolling Stone has listed the album as one of the best records from “alternative’s greatest year” while Spin named “Seether” one of the best alt-rock songs, nestled comfortably between Soundgarden and Blur.

For the 25th anniversary of American Thighs’ release on September 27, 1994, we spoke to the key players behind the landmark record: Each member of the band, along with producer Brad Wood and Minty Fresh label head Jim Powers, weighed in with their thoughts about the heady time when a young Chicago band just starting out found itself in a maelstrom of excitement.

“We did a really good job of flyering the hell out of Chicago.”

The band was still finding its sea legs when it was approached by Jim Powers, who had just started his own label and was looking for bands when he happened upon the first show by the then-unknown quartet.

Louise Post, singer/guitarist: Until Chicago and that Chicago scene, I thought musicians came from Planet Rock. They didn’t come from anywhere. I grew up with classic rock. I went to these huge stadium shows and saw The Police and Fleetwood Mac on the Tusk tour when I was 11 and I saw Prince three times in the stadium. And here I was in blue-collar Chicago and, all of a sudden, Nina and I, over the course of starting this band and playing out—and, certainly, I had grown up a little bit in that I had seen local bands in small clubs—but still, it was a shocker to become part of the scene.

Nina Gordon, singer/guitarist: By the time we started playing, and also because it was, you know, early-to-mid-’90s or whatever, there were so many good bands. So we would see a lot of Red Red Meat shows, a lot of a band called Menthol, they were great. There was Hum, who were from Champaign, and we were obsessed with them. They were like good, good friends with Triple Fast Action, who I still think are one of the greatest bands. My boyfriend’s band was called Fig Dish. Louise’s boyfriend’s band was called Loud Lucy. We would go see them. I mean, we basically lived at Lounge Ax and Empty Bottle.

LP: [Smashing Pumpkins’] Gish had come out and that was a huge record for us—for me and Nina anyway. I remember I would go to this coffee shop where D’Arcy [Wretsky, Pumpkins’ bassist] was waiting tables and James [Iha, Pumpkins’ guitarist] would come in and they would play checkers and she’d show him a painting in the bathroom. I thought they were so cool. Then I saw the cover of the Illinois Entertainer, which was a monthly rag there, and they were on the cover, and I was like, “Oh, shit! Those guys are in a band.”

NG: I think we played like just a few shows, and there was this guy in Chicago who had started a little indie label, Minty Fresh Records. And he had some Liz Phair 7-inches—or maybe it was like Girly Sound 7-inches—and he came to see us. He really liked us. He took us out to dinner.

LP: I mean, we’d just done maybe three shows.

Steve Lack, bassist: We had a four-song demo at that point that didn’t include “Seether.” That was what we were using to get shows. To get the two shows that we’d done so far.

Jim Powers, owner, Minty Fresh records: I was booking an arts festival on the side in Wicker Park and was asked to find some musicians, a variety of bands on a few nights to perform, and a band had dropped out at the last minute. So I was kind of in a scramble… within an hour Louise Post came by. I was at the label—my office was basically my house—and [she] dropped off the four-song cassette they had made. Something pretty raw. I listened to it and first song, I thought, wow, that’s really good. Second track, same. Third, fourth, they were all really engaging, melodic, it sounded cool. They played the festival, and [I] thought we should record them.

Brad Wood, producer: I was strapped for cash and trying to renovate the recording studio [Idful Music]. And Jim Powers gave me a chunk of money up front to record seven singles for his label, Minty Fresh, or for 14 songs. In the process of helping him get his label up and running, I told him, “Hey, you should check out this band Veruca Salt—they’re amazing.”

LP: Jim had been at Zoo Records, had tried to sign Liz Phair at Zoo and they rejected the record. So he went off and started his own label, which is Minty Fresh. Whose name we never liked, by the way. Still don’t.

NG: Jim Powers sat us down and said, “I think you should record something. I’d like to pay for it.” And we were thrilled. So I think we started just with the idea of just recording “Seether.”

JP: Every artist I worked with, I wanted to do a single first, for sure.

LP: He wanted to do a seven-inch. And we had just demoed “Seether” at Gravity Studios on Division. So we had this version of “Seether” and Jim Powers had made a deal with Brad Wood that Brad was going to cut all the Minty Fresh seven-inches. Originally, Brad was just going to do a seven-inch for us—it was going to be “Seether” backed with “All Hail Me.” But we quickly decided to do a full-length, that was part of the contract.

BW: Jim said, “I’d like to use the 14 credits for the 14 songs. I’d like to put them all towards one band.” And I had, at the time, said, “That wasn’t really the deal. Our deal was to do seven singles.” And he said, “Or 14 songs. And this is how I’d like to have it done.” So I made an album for Veruca Salt very, very inexpensively, even by the terms of the money of the day. It was a hell of a deal. [Laughs.]

JP:Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right.

Not everyone in the band was convinced they were ready for the full-steam-ahead recording plan that was rapidly taking shape, after just a handful of shows.

SL: I think “a handful” is generous.

Jim Shapiro, drummer: The way I remember it, my feeling was like, “There’s not a chance that we are ready. Like, we are absolutely not ready.” [Laughs.] You know, like we had been playing—that was really, like, we were like five shows into our career or something. We’d done nothing. And we were really inexperienced. I mean, I had played guitar and bass in bands for a while, but I never played drums with anyone before. I just picked it up just because they needed a drummer.

NG: We weren’t thinking on any kind of big scale, and the idea of making a 7-inch was enough. That was huge. I mean, I can speak for myself and my brother, Jim—he and I were always very kind of sheepish about it. Like, “Eh, we’re not really that good. We don’t deserve this. What’s going on?” Whereas I think Louise always had a lot more confidence and belief in sort of what our destiny was, you know? Jim and I were kind of like, “Yeah, I guess? I mean, we should probably spend the next three years inside, not playing for anyone and getting good at our instruments.”

LP: I was, yeah. I definitely was. Nina was always, like, “No, I don’t want to go.” We have that song “Volcano Girls”: “Leave me lying here/’Cause I don’t want to go.” That’s just her to a T. That’s her right now. [Laughs.] I mean, it just doesn’t stop. But, the rest of the band call me the quarterback, because I’m always sending the ball downfield, you know?

JS: I think of Louise as being sort of this driving force. Any time there’s a choice, like, go forward or hang loose and see how things develop? She’s always go forward. You know, that’s a remarkable thing to have in a band, is a person who is always going that way.

NG: I was not the greatest self-promoter. Louise was really good at that kind of stuff, and she didn’t mind just handing people cassettes and asking people for shows and asking to record. I was always very kind of modest in that way.

LP: We did a really good job of flyering the hell out of Chicago for [those early shows]… The first time, Nina and I knew we had something really special, and I had this sense that we could do something big straight out of the gate the first time we sang together. I felt that we had better songs, too. I felt like they were this unique contribution to this flow of music that was happening at the time. And I had a lot of confidence about it.

SL: I think a week had gone by before they were talking about making an album. So it was like, wait a minute, what happened to this little seven-inch? It was crazy. But we had the material. And it’s possible “Seether” was still in, you know, infancy—like Nina was still holding onto it. She hadn’t shown us everything yet. 

Nina Gordon, 1994
Nina Gordon, 1994
Photo: Jim Steinfeldt (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The band may have been relative newcomers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t ready for their first official studio session, music-wise.

NG: We agreed that we had a bunch of songs—and in our eyes, we were ready to make an album.

SL: We had a four-song demo at that point. I think we may have been making tapes in our space.

NG: I think only two of the songs on the demo made it onto the album. Those were “Get Back” and “All Hail Me.” And so those would have been the only recordings we had done, except for like four tracks that we did on our own in our living room. But really, all the songs that we ended up recording—with the exception of those two—never even had demos because we just went into the studio and recorded them for the first time.

JS: The obvious assets that the band had were: The material was really strong and really interesting, and they could both sing like crazy.

LP: We were very detailed about songs and had pretty much finished the songs down to the detail by when we first went in. That said, there was a lot of time between the studio sessions—and we were growing as a band every time we played a show and every time we did a soundcheck. So there were things that happened, like, the intro to “25” happened at a soundcheck in Milwaukee. I think Nina was playing this chord progression and then Jim started playing the drums and so on and we were like, “Holy shit, that’s cool. That sounded like Zeppelin.”

Deciding what songs went on the album was a process of equal division of labor, made easier by the close-knit relationship between Gordon and Post, the group’s songwriters as well as the singers.

NG: Whatever was in our set list, I think we all agreed were our strongest songs, and I think we definitely tried to balance how many of Louise’s songs and how many of my songs, and I say “Louise’s” and “mine” because, at that time, we wrote individually and then brought our songs in and collaborated on the arrangement. But whatever she had written, she would sing lead on, and whatever I had written, I would sing lead on. I think we tried hard to keep them in balance, that there were going to be six Louise songs, there would be six Nina songs.

Louise Post performing in 1995
Louise Post performing in 1995
Photo: Frans Schellekens (Redferns via Getty Images)

LP: We were so in synch and still are—generally speaking, we know which ones are the good ones and which ones are going to make it. We don’t bother with ideas that aren’t going to be something that we’ll see through to fruition. So it’s not like there’s a bunch of crappy songs kicking around… But we were still pretty new, so we didn’t have a ton of songs to choose from. There was one song on the demo called “Halloween Day” and we decided not to put that on the record.

JS: Nina and Louise had been making these demos together that were like weird, super cool demos. I wouldn’t say they were more advanced than what we wound up becoming, but they were certainly unconventional in a lot of ways that were an important element in how we were developing.

LP: I remember sitting in my car with Jim Powers playing the demo of “Victrola” and thinking it was kind of this silly riff and this silly verse, and he was like, “You have to record that song.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yep. You have to do it as a band.” That pushed me to focus on it.

JP: I remember speaking really highly of it with her, because I didn’t think she’d given herself enough credit for was that song was about—like, “Oh, no, Louise, it’s really hook-y and fun, and why not?” I found it great.

LP: Did Nina tell you about logging?

NG: We communicated endlessly.

LP: I was waiting tables at the time at this jazz bar in downtown Chicago called Andy’s Jazz Club and between everything, from dropping off food to my down moments, I would just grab my little book and log what we had done in rehearsal the day before, and what songs we were working on, because that’s what I really cared about, obviously. So that’s what I did in all the cracks of my life: just log. I always had a running record of what we had done and what we were doing and so—in terms of us discussing things, we talked so much about everything constantly. Nina and I were on the phone around the clock. We had band meetings constantly.

NG: About everything.

The band learned Brad Wood would be producing, and the relationship quickly proved to be a harmonious one.

BW: I was learning how to make records that sounded like they should be on the radio. There’s a difference between making a Shrimp Boat [Wood’s previous art-rock band] record and have that sound cool, and working on a Veruca Salt record and having it compete with, like, Metallica [Laughs.] on the radio.

NG: He was from Rockford, Illinois, so he’s a big Cheap Trick fan, and we were, too. And we had many of the same musical references and loves. We totally connected. He got it. He knew what we were.

LP: I don’t think we even discussed what we wanted it to sound like or be. He recorded Sunny Day Real Estate and I loved their drum sound, and he recorded Seam, and I was like, “Let’s do that.” We listened to all his records as we went, and other records—we’re constantly referencing other bands—but there was no, “Let’s shape this to sound like this.”

JS: Even then, we had this kind of proto-arena-type grandiosity. We were going for something bigger, anyway. The records we liked were somewhat bigger than that—we weren’t naturally inclined try to make sort of a spare, utilitarian sounding record.

SL: Brad had some good sonic ideas. I don’t recall Brad ever trying to be a producer. He was more in the style of the classic Chicago indie rocker, like, “Let’s let these people do their thing.”

LP: Brad was more of an engineer. He had a lot to say—he was very helpful when it came to the artistry of the record without question, and the sound of the record was all Brad, but we were very specific about our likes and dislikes, all across the board, from start to finish. Every little moment: from sounds, to snare sounds, to guitar sounds, to solo tones, to the mixes themselves, to every single harmony, to the mix of the harmony. It was all really detailed. There was nothing about it that wasn’t in our grips.

BW: Their creative abilities far outstripped my ability to fuck up the record. [Laughs.]

LP: Brad recently called us—as we were mixing Ghost Notes, he referred to us as “professional listeners.”[Laughs.] And I was thinking, it’s so true, you know? The way we listen to music and, specifically, our own music and our mixes. It’s like surgery. I think of Brad as the surgeon of music, and he was doing it back then. He’d go in there with all of your tools, and you pick apart all these tracks, and then you put them back together. It’s really, really detailed work.

NG: He had a really good sense of how everything should sound. Definitely was really good at getting good performances out of us and knowing when to push, and when to just let something sit. And I don’t recall a lot of input from him in terms of actual writing or arranging, per se, in terms of song structure. But definitely in terms of, you know, “Oh, I think you should put some sleigh bells on here. Oh, this one doesn’t need a solo,” or “That solo is a little too dissonant. Let’s try something a little poppier.” That kind of thing. And he was great when one of us was in the vocal booth. It was the first time really either of us had ever worked with a producer. So you know, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We knew when we liked our voices and when we didn’t, but he was really good at getting good performances out of us, and that’s an art, because you’re very vulnerable when you’re in a dark, isolated vocal booth with headphones on, and everybody’s in the control room listening to you.

“Nina and I had to keep the ship afloat.”

Veruca Salt entered the studio for the first time to begin work on what would become American Thighs on January 1, 1994—the day after playing a New Year’s Eve show at the Metro with Liz Phair and Hum.

NG: We were in our early 20s and we were, you know, staying up late and sleeping late.

JS: I was living down in Pilsen at the time, so I must have driven up to Wicker Park and parked in the strip mall lot. I guess I remember… late morning. The kind of grey, Chicago winter days.

SL: I don’t think there was any real whip-cracking going on. We all understood that there were time constraints—you know Brad only had so much time.

BW: They would show up in the morning, because I’m a day worker. I don’t like to work late at night if I don’t have to.

NG: What I remember is it was freezing cold, you know, Chicago winter. Icy, miserable, depressing weather.

LP: Freezing outside. But we were just really excited the whole time. We couldn’t believe we were going to record our songs like this. It was incredible! We were flying high during the whole recording session for this.

NG: it was all of our first experience in the studio with kind of like this casual pace. You know, not ridiculously casual because we didn’t have unlimited funds, but I remember hanging out, ordering food, laying around. We actually have this amazing video footage from that time, because we had like a hi-8 video camera. And so there’s lots of footage of us, listening to playback, mixes, and dancing around the studio and just being goofballs and laughing a lot. It was just fun, and there was zero stress, zero pressure—everything was gravy because we couldn’t believe we were even in the studio, you know? There was no label-pressure because it was just this little, indie thing. It was great.

JS: I think I was in sort of a defensive mode. I think generally speaking, the other three of them clicked pretty well with Brad, was my recollection, but I felt sort of defensive and isolated because I was worried about the recording, and I kind of didn’t know if I bought the aesthetic, but I was, again, reserving judgment. And so I may have been kind of hunkered down. And I mean, I will say that when we started recording again with Brad—a few years ago, you know, 2013 or whatever that was—it was super fun. It was far more fun than I remember it being the first time. I was like, “Wait, was Brad great the whole time, and I just didn’t remember?”

BW: Jim Shapiro’s role in the studio was to try to decide what kind of drum fills he wanted to attempt. The guy’s an eager drummer with a lot of chops and a lot of enthusiasm. He just literally explodes on that record, you know? The energy level is insane. Just coming off that guy. It was pretty amazing to witness.

SL: This would kind of become the theme of recording with this band: Jim and I would get our stuff pretty early. And there might be some editing we had to do—a little bit of fixing a bass part or whatever—but basically Jim and I would record live. 

BW: If anything, once they started recording those songs in the studio, it was an effort to try to winnow it down. There was never a lack of really creative arrangement ideas going on in that band. And Steve as well—Steve’s task as bass player was to anchor some of these more extreme flights of fancy with the amazing bass playing, Still, I think, my favorite bass player to ever record after all these years.

NG: You know, I always downplay our musicianship, but the fact is, we’re all like really, really musical people who know a ton about music, and about pop music, and about rock music, and my brother practically has a musicology degree.

BW: Jim Shapiro is an encyclopedia of rock, so he’s got a guitar in his hands, and you reference almost any pop-rock or rock song from the last 45 years, he’s going to play it. [Laughs.] And he’ll know it. It was really great to have, because he was our version of Google, I guess. He was the internet in 1994.

JS: I remember like, late morning, showing up, going to cold live room, and just trying to get drum tracks. And yeah, not fun. I might as well have had a kick drum head that just says “not fun” on it.

NG: We just knew exactly what we wanted to sound like. So we weren’t naive in any way. We’d been preparing for that moment our whole lives. It’s just that we hadn’t been playing live and honing our craft as actual players for very long. And so in that way, we were like deer in the headlights. But in terms of our knowledge and vision of what we wanted to sound like, we were super, super strong, and we knew what we were doing.

LP: We fought a lot in terms of decisions about songs. People were very precious about their own personal aesthetics. We were all going toward the same goal, but we all had really strong opinions, and there was a lot of butting heads and it was exhausting. But we all really loved each other and respected each other, so in that sense, it was very much a united front.

There was another Chicago artist whose success was hanging in the atmosphere of Idful Studios: Liz Phair, whose Exile In Guyville had just become a word-of-mouth sensation, an album Wood had not only produced, but played drums on, working closely with the musician to craft the record. So the explosion of that album’s success was often on the producer’s mind.  

NG: Brad was kind of hitting the big time, so he was feeling his oats and excited about Liz, and we spent a lot of time listening to stories about Liz.

SL: He may have gone on a little too much, but I was fairly fascinated by the whole thing. Nina and Louise were more like, “Hey, can you focus on us here?” It didn’t bother me nearly as much as it may have bothered them.

LP: We were really recording in the shadow of that album. And we happened to love it, so that was the easy part, but as much as Brad was fully in it when he was there—you know, we had to record sometimes with other people because Brad was out of town or whatever, maybe he was on tour or making a record somewhere else. When he was there, he was fully in it, but his mind was on Exile In Guyville.

NG: I’m not criticizing, but I just remember like standing in the vocal booth with headphones on like wanting to sing my part and hearing about some story about Liz in the vocal booth, and just being like, Liz… you know, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

LP: I remember the day it [Exile In Guyville] hit 250,000 in sales. He got the call, he was riding high—it was a great number. It was a huge day. And I remember saying after he told us this, “Brad, that’s incredible. What do you think our record will sell?” And he said, “I don’t know, 10,000?”

NG: We were also intimidated, slightly threatened, and very, very, very impressed with how well that album was doing, and we couldn’t even imagine.

BW: A lot of the music I recorded prior to Liz Phair’s record was fairly typical of what was going on in Chicago at the time, so literally a lot of loud guitars; really loud, well-played drums; and vocals that were either an afterthought or almost nonexistent or shouted. So working with Liz was a real change of pace for me in that the guitars weren’t very loud and her vocals were more important than the music in a lot of ways—the words she was singing were really important. Working with Liz has helped me more to think about the role of the vocals… What I struggled with was trying to get female voices that had lots and lots of harmonies to not just ride on top of this maelstrom of music behind them, but to actually sound integrated. That was really challenging, and I was still learning how to do that when I made the Veruca Salt record. Because they’re a vocal-heavy band—lots of harmonies.

While the group very much considered themselves a democracy, there was always a clear distinction between Gordon and Post as the songwriters, singers, and the ones who were upfront, being more vulnerable lyrically and physically, and the other two members. There was a clear, if sometimes difficult to navigate, point at which they would have final say in disagreements.

NG: I think unless somebody else had a really strong argument or felt really passionate about something, the songwriter definitely got final say.

LP: It was at least a dual ownership with me and Nina. And the guys absolutely had opinions and we cared very much, but we were always the ones who had the final say. But ideally the guys would agree with us. [Laughs.] It’s been a really hard balance to strike in our band—I mean, forever.

JS: It’s a tricky thing. There’s always been a sense of yes, it’s ostensibly democratic, and everyone’s inclination, including Nina’s and Louise’s, before there’s anything on the line, is to be democratic about it. And then, when the stakes get high—they wrote the stuff, it’s their voices out front, whatever. It stands to reason, and I don’t know what bands have ever really successfully negotiated that sort of built-in tension. I would defer somewhat in the early going, knowing that, yeah, it makes sense for them to have more opinions about the vocal take than I do.

SL: There was argument. I mean, there was always debate. They did not want it to be a situation where they were calling all the shots—they wanted a band, you know? In as much of a sense of that word as [can be]… but also, they sold it to me like, “We write these songs, and these are our songs, and we’re singing them… and we want help arranging, we want help coming up with parts or whatever, but we basically got it.” So I was happy with that. I was like, I’m kind of busy, but I want to play. I want to get in a room with you guys and play, but I don’t necessarily want to be that involved either. And that morphed over time. 

LP: I remember when we were doing a song for [second album] Eight Arms To Hold You and it ended up on a B-side. That was a tough one, because I really thought that should go on the album and it didn’t end up making it. I remember doing something vocally and Steve just going, “Gross.” He didn’t like the way that my voice sounded—I did something guttural or something. [Laughs.] That’s a nice word. I’ve never forgotten that, because I cared very much what those guys thought, you know? It was ongoing. If Jim and Steve liked something, it was sort of like they signed off and we were all happy. But Nina and I had to keep the ship afloat.

With starts and stops to account for touring and other interruptions, tracking took several months. Mixing, however, became an even more intense experience, because something significant had happened in March following completion of tracking: The band’s massive national exposure at that year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas.  

LP: What we wanted to do initially, as I said, was put out “Seether” on a seven-inch. And we did that. We did “Seether” and “All Hail” and we mixed it and we pressed it. Jim Powers put it out. And then we went on tour. We carried that seven-inch down with us to SXSW—Jim had connections in England, so he was also getting that out over there. There was a buzz about us at that time already, some giant buzz.

JS: That definitely changed everyone’s feelings. I mean, honestly, I’m not sure it would have done any good to have already had that sense earlier. I feel like the pressure was high enough—at least speaking for myself—back in January.

SL: Our time in Austin was a whirlwind. There were a lot of label people there. All the shows were so exciting, even the poorly attended ones. Everything just felt really big to me. And I felt very wide-eyed, very young, and the first year of our existence I was just like, “Whoa, what is this. I’ve never seen this before.” So I was very impressionable. I was trying hard to stay cool. But you know it was it was all very impressive to me.

LP: Our show, our club had burned down the night before. So they put up a tent and loaded it with equipment and it was jammed. It was the place to be.

SL: It was a tent, but the whole city felt like a tent. It was super fun but it was nuts.

NG: It was awesome. And there was also this feeling—as things progressed, there was more attention. And then with [coming back for mixing], you’re sitting there with editing tape, so it’s a super long process, but it was just the most exciting thing to hear: double-track vocals, multiple harmonies, sometimes like group harmonies with Jim singing, too. And to hear our voices and the guitars, everything starting to sound like what we had envisioned was just the most thrilling, magical—and we were giddy.

LP: I have very specific memories of getting into my car and listening to the mix of “Spiderman” and just listening so carefully, over and over, on the way home. Brad would burn us CDs and we’d listen in our cars. And then we’d come back the next day with mixing notes. And we were obsessive about it, you know? It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s mix.” We were very detailed and very passionate about every decision. We were not a band who turns over our art to a producer.

NG: We spent hours individually, in our cars, in the parking lot of Idful listening to mixes on our car stereos. And that was where we judged everything. It wasn’t like with headphones in the studio. It was, “Give me the tape”—on a cassette, of course—“I’m taking a cassette to my car. I’m going to sit in the parking lot.” We were going to sit in our own cars, because we know our own car stereos. We know what everything sounds like. We know what the radio sounds like. So we would just sit there all individually and then come back with notes and be like, “My vocal needs to come up on this. Oh, the harmony needs to come down on this. Oh, the guitar solo is too quiet. Oh, the—” you know.

BW: It can take a long time to get right. You might be working on a kick drum for an hour and it might just drive everybody out of the room because it’s annoying as hell to just listen to one instrument for a really long time. So I don’t remember if they showed up and would pop up for lunch or go back home or come back again. I do think that I did some of that mixing on my own because of their tour schedule. But I’m not exactly sure. It doesn’t really matter—it’s always collaborative. But I usually get the first stab at what I think is the right mix. And then, you know, we all have changes we want to make.

LP: It’s so intensely subjective. So it’s a big deal—it’s a challenge to discuss music with people, but specifically with bandmates, because everyone’s coming to the table with a different set of references, and we’ve got our likes and dislikes, and we try to convince people. And when there are arguments that are won or lost, it’s like bloody knuckles—people walk away hurt, and it’s really heightened emotions in the studio. For us, anyway.

JS: Having been diplomatic or whatever for a while, now I’m like, “Oh wait, actually, I don’t like how this is going, and now I’m speaking up,” and then everyone is like [Groans.] You know, like there had been some progress, we can see the finish line of a mix, and then—and only then—Steve or I would pipe up, going from thinking we could live with whatever they came up with to realizing that maybe we couldn’t, and then that creates a whole new unplanned round of further negotiations. Which, you know, morale-wise, that can be really backbreaking, when you think you’ve wrangled it out, and now there’s an extra wrangling session that no one had budgeted for.

NG: I think there was probably a lot of nitpicking about mixing and arguing about mixing, and probably copious notes and answering-machine messages between me and Louise saying, like, “You know, I really don’t think my vocal is loud enough, and I know that you think that, you know, it takes away from the lead vocal if my harmony is too loud, but I can’t even hear myself.” You know, all of that, because we were in our 20s and we wanted to be heard. And we thought—of course—everything we were doing was precious, and if it couldn’t be heard and magnified and amplified, then it was no good. So, I think there was probably a lot of arguing about that kind of stuff, and I think Brad had to field a lot of that and we would turn to him or turn to Jim Powers, or play it for our boyfriend. “What do you think?” And then have to come in and be like, “Well, Blake says he couldn’t even hear me on blah blah.” [Laughs.]

LP: We wanted to make a great record. And because “Seether” had been heard at that point, we were kind of getting a sense of the scope of this thing and how it could have a bigger impact than we thought, and could reach more people. I think it was a really exciting moment. I certainly felt pressure, but I do believe that we were putting it on ourselves. There was certainly nobody putting it on us.

“They were men, and they seemed powerful.”

With all the attention, day jobs inevitably fell by the wayside in light of the band’s growing popularity, and the prospect of getting signed to a major label seemed less like a pipe dream.  

JS: My recollection is that Louise and I barely had day jobs at that point, which meant we were the ones who were, you know, sitting at a coffee shop stapling flyers up and sending things to the mailing list.

LP: I don’t think I did [have a day job at that point]. I think Nina would have had to have quit at that point, because she was nine to five, so she wouldn’t have been doing her day job.

NG: I was working at the Art Institute, and I remember going in and, in some meeting, revealing to everybody, like, “Okay, I know you think I’m this like academic art chick, but really, that’s what I do by day, and by night I’m a rock chick.” So I showed them some pictures, in the Reader, of a show we played, and they were like, “That’s you?!” They couldn’t believe it, because I was wearing little Ann Taylor suits to work. I think I may have even given them notice, but they said, “Well, we kind of need you to finish this project.” And oddly, what I was working on was a Monet retrospective where I was translating all of Monet’s correspondence from French into English. They wanted me to go to Giverny, where Monet’s family was from, and go and talk to his descendants and try to get photo rights for the catalogue for the exposition.

So they were like, “Please, please, we need you to do this. You’ve already done the groundwork. Can you go?” I said, “Yeah, but I want to bring my boyfriend.” [So] I took a break from recording, and I went to France to do this with my boyfriend, and while we were there, that’s when Kurt Cobain died, because I remember being in the hotel room and getting the phone call in the middle of the night from a friend who was like, “Oh my God.” And that’s what happened in April. So yeah, I think everybody was kind of letting go.

SL: When I met them I had three jobs. My dad and my uncle had a funeral home in the suburbs that I grew basically grew up around. So you know that was always a thing I could do. So there was probably 10 to 20 hours a week of that. There was a seasonal UPS loading truck job that I was doing. That was a four-hour-a-day job. At various points one of these jobs would feature more prominently than the others, but there was this job I had doing like low-voltage wiring. I remember quitting that job and I kind of did it in a spectacular fashion, in front of where we were working at this place in Geneva, Illinois. An hour and a half drive there, like crazy stupid far. And I’d been going there every day. So right in front of the client we’re working for at this hotel, I just quit. I was all angry about something that had been going on way too long and I just didn’t have the nerve to address. And so I was just like, well, screw it, I don’t need this job anymore. So I burned a bridge. I haven’t done that a whole lot in my life, but I really did it right there. I feel slightly bad about it at this point I guess but, you know, whatever. 

Veruca Salt performing at First Avenue in Minnesota, October 1994
Veruca Salt performing at First Avenue in Minnesota, October 1994
Photo: Jim Steinfeldt (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The summer before the album came out, another massive transition came, in the form of a major label feeding frenzy to sign the band. It was one of the most fiercely fought signing battles of the then-seemingly constant signing of indie rock acts following the alt-rock explosion.

NG: Every single show we played, there would be a bunch of label executives wanting to meet us, wanting to sign us. And it was fun. Honestly, it was. We had fun just, like, ripping the label execs to shreds afterwards, when we’d sit in our van and talk about what douchebags everybody was. [Laughs.] Of course, there were plenty that weren’t, and we ended up working with most of those people. But, mostly those people were.

LP: I remember touring Geffen—everyone had heard this four-song demo of ours, or a sampler. We met the people at the label—they were trying to get us to come to Geffen—and they all seemed [self-help group/cult] EST-ed to me. They all seemed really weird and woo-woo, and I remember saying to Nina, “They’ve all been to EST.” And, sure enough, they’d all been to Lifesprings, which is the current-day EST. It was interesting I picked up on that. Because they all said the same lines. They all said, “You guys are so good! You’re poppy with an edge.”

NG: It’s so funny now in retrospect. We were so young, we were women, and I thought of these people as like authority figures. These guys would come in, and they were like parental—like, I was intimidated by them. They were men, and they seemed powerful: “Oh, this is important. This is an important person.” And now I think back, and they were probably in their 20s or 30s. Who knows who they were, but they were kids, and we thought they were so powerful, and needed to be on our best behavior. Or not really best behavior, but impressed.

LP: I remember on the way to Capitol Records, we stopped at a gas station. I was tired and I took a vitamin pack—you know, like one of those vitamin packs in cellophane? It seemed very wholesome, but I took it on an empty stomach and I felt so weird walking around that circular building. [Laughs.] Talk about weird office spaces. I was like, “How can you guys work here? This is so weird.” I started getting dizzy and I had to leave. I couldn’t do all the meetings. I had to go downstairs. I remember sitting in the parking lot, looking at the mural of the Beatles, And sitting down, trying to be grounded, sitting on the ground.

JS: That day, Capitol Records… I can’t remember the name of the theater right across the street, or was right across the street from the Capitol building on Vine—we saw the marquee, and King’s X were playing that night. I love them. [Laughs.] I mean, no one loves King’s X. I’ve met like three other people in my life who also love King’s X, but they were playing, and I got the people at Capitol—like, my swag for the day was, “Can you just get me a ticket to that show?” And so, that night, the rest of Veruca Salt went out and were wined and dined by—I think it was Mark Williams, who was at Virgin at the time—and he took them out to some restaurant owned by a couple of the R.E.M. guys or something. A real, like, “Okay, now you’re in Hollywood, people,” kind of night, except I didn’t go along. I went to King’s X by myself. So I didn’t see myself as having exactly the same experience that they were having, even in the middle of it. But that first L.A. trip really did feel like, “Okay, there’s no two ways to spin this. We’re the kind of band that people are flying out to L.A. and acting nice to. That’s unmistakable.”

SL: We were talking to an ever-growing circle of music biz types. There were lots of discussions, lots of meetings with publishing people—and publishing people who had been in big rock bands back in the ’70s, like these old aging rock stars who were now label execs. I feel like the music industry has shrunk so much because there’s no real money in it any more. But at the time, it was like you could become a millionaire. Being a janitor at Geffen, even, it was, “Holy shit, there’s a giant bottomless pile of gold here.” It felt like we were entering this weird new world where everybody seemed to be flush, and talking a big game… you just had to be careful. We watched our friends sign deals and get stuck in these situations and not have their records come out or not get promoted.

LP: We went to lunch with David Geffen and he picked us up in his car, and he said, “Look, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know your music. I like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, okay? I don’t know your band and I don’t get it. I really don’t. But everyone at my label seems to really like you, so let’s go have lunch and talk.” [Laughs.] “They really want to sign you, so we’re going to have lunch.”

NG: I think we wanted to sign with Virgin because we loved this guy Mark Williams at Virgin, and we had made our decision and we were so excited. We felt like we were like prom queens or something. Like, “Oh, we’ve chosen our suitor.” You know, like it was Pride & Prejudice.

LP: Did she tell you about Mark Williams’ breath? See, this is the kind of detail that’s really important. We met Mark Williams and we really liked him, but we talked about what nice breath he had. That was the defining characteristic of Mark Williams that we both agreed we really liked. It was something like that detail that made him trustworthy.

NG: And then a really kind of fucked-up thing happened.

LP: It didn’t end up being about what we wanted at all.

The band had believed they were free to choose any label they wanted, but a distribution deal Jim Powers had signed with Geffen meant there were actually serious constraints placed upon the band’s options—unbeknownst to them.

NG: I guess Jim Powers at Minty Fresh had already signed a distribution deal with Geffen or whatever the Geffen distribution company was at the time, and basically what we learned the 11th hour after we already formed these relationships with different labels and made our choice… and then our managers called, and they were like, “Uh, you’ve got to go with Geffen. You don’t have a choice because you’ll lose the record—the record won’t come out.” And I think we looked into, like, could we re-record it? Is there a re-record clause? Is there… whatever.

LP: Once [Powers] signed to Geffen, we had to go to a label that used the same distribution arm that Geffen did. So both Virgin and Capitol worked through CMA, and Geffen was Uni, and that was that. It really decided our fate, his getting a contract with Geffen.

JP: Pre-orders for the record outstripped the first pressing immediately. And there was, oh God, I think almost one hundred thousand dollars of material costs to fulfill the orders, which, you know, there’s a bit of a cash flow issue since I was initially doing this out of my bedroom. So all of a sudden, there’s these huge cost pressures, and radio is already on it [playing “Seether”], and we had to move yesterday. I was considering loans, but in a business where barely 10% of the bands you sign even break even, no bank was going to touch it. So that was off the list.

And then you look at a number of things. Talk to some distributors that are doing something like this, and by then the labels are all calling, so I definitely ran all that out. And then decided we can really deal with Geffen.

NG: I remember Louise and I cried. Like, I remember being in Europe—I think we were in Germany—and we were in tears. Calling Mark Williams and saying [crying], “We can’t sign with you!”

LP: We were being made an offer from Capitol Records unlike the industry had seen before. An incredible offer. And we had to turn it down. So it was very bitter. We felt like our hand had been forced.

NG: I may be presenting it unfairly. I’m not sure. But something kind of shady happened, and it’s business. I mean, it was just business, right? But we thought we were making friends, you know? We thought we were making friends, and we weren’t. It was the music business.

LP: Jim Powers always claimed he explained the whole thing to us and that he never led us astray. But we felt led astray. So there was a big disconnect there and it caused a rift between us that lasted for years. We never really healed the waters there. We all kind of did, but it was a very sensitive moment for everybody.

JP: There was full transparency straight down the line.

NG: And it turned out okay, because we liked Geffen, too. We liked those people, so it wasn’t a tragedy or anything, but that was the first taste of like, this business is kind of dirty, and we have to pay attention. Otherwise, we’re going to get fucked over.

LP: The reason they picked him up essentially was because they wanted us. So, being on Geffen was a real coup and, ultimately, they were a great label. They were just as good as any other label would have been. We were lucky to have landed there. In the long run, it wasn’t some major loss. But it was a bad moment.

In the final weeks before the album was released, the nerves—and hopes—were high.

LP: People were waiting for the album. There was a lot of anticipation because “Seether” had come out. And that summer we were still touring and finishing the record—it was Karen Glauber sent it to the PD [program director] at [the influential L.A. radio station] KROQ, who played the heck out of that song. And that’s what started it, “Seether”’s ascent. And then it also, at the same time, hit in England. So, over the course of the summer, we were actually trying to get them to pull it back and wait until the record came out: “Is there any way you could not play that song again?” Which is hilarious in hindsight.

NG: What I remember is it all being like, “Oh shit, this is a reflection of me.” I think we all felt this—“We’re about to be exposed, and if we’re going to be exposed, we better really feel comfortable with what we’re putting out there.” It wasn’t about anything having to do with the business. It had nothing to do with money or, you know, albums sold or singles sold or whatever. It really felt like, “Oh God, I’m about to walk out there naked, and I better be happy with what I’m showing.”

LP: I remember walking to 7-11 and hearing “Seether” on the radio for the first time and being so excited and so happy and sort of that feeling of looking around, like, “Wow. Can people see me? Can they see right through me? Do they know the secret I have?” It was really exciting. And paired with this sense of, “Wow, things are happening so quickly,” and so quickly going from being the local darlings to being just reviled by the people in Chicago, by our scene.

SL: We were the most celebrated band in town for like 14 seconds, and then after that everybody hated us.

LP: Not among our close friends and the bands we hung out with, but there was a tone of dismissal because we had become successful and it happened so fast. So we felt dismissed by our own community—the scene that we admired and felt a part of kind of turned on us. Because we became national and international sensations. We became that. And that was not okay for blue-collar Chicago. Not acceptable. And that’s just how Chicago operates—it always has.

SL: I don’t know why it turned exactly; maybe just jealousy or maybe it was, “Oh, they barely know how to play,” because there was a little of that. You know, we were definitely not virtuosos. We were working hard. But nobody else were really virtuosos, either—it was just funny there was a lot of backbiting and a lot of people not getting attention and feeling like, “What did they do? How did they deserve this? We’ve been at this for years longer than them.” But everybody wanted to be our buddy still.

NG: I think we were very nervous. I don’t remember what the first review we read was, but by the time things started heating up, Chicago had kind of turned on us a little bit.

JS: I was getting this more secondhand. I wasn’t really reading the worst of it—I was being told at practices, like, “Oh God, like I can’t believe what these fucking people are writing about us,” you know, whatever that kind of brutal [Peter] Margasak piece in the Reader had been, in which he was dismissing us as—I think he actually used the word “chattel.” 

LP: I find I’m sort of contradicting myself: Things were going great, and they were terrifying. We were excited, and we were terrified. We got all this praise, and then we got besmirched by the press and all these people. Yeah. It was a full contradiction.

Even with the local reviews being a mixed bag, nationwide, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

NG: Local Chicago stuff could get a little bit snarky, but outside of Chicago, the reviews in England had been so positive, and we were feeling our oats. We were excited. And we believed in it, and we felt like, “Oh, people are getting it. This is amazing.”

LP: We were so thrilled to be embraced by the press. And we got used to it rather quickly. So that when we got anything negative, it was really jarring, like, “Oh, no, they don’t like us.” [Laughs.]… It’s hard to read about yourself. And it’s really hard to hear anything critical about your own art that you’ve put out there and you’ve laid yourself bare by putting your music out there. But it’s an incredible feeling when you feel embraced and heard.

NG: It also legitimized what we were doing in the eyes of our parents, which was kind of a big deal at that age.

LP: I grew up in a family where—especially with my dad—rock ’n’ roll was the devil. He was a classical music devotee and was not interested in rock ’n’ roll in the slightest. And so I grew up going to concerts—my mom would let me go, but it was, for my father especially, for me to have his approval and his acknowledgment that what I was doing was valid… I was at my stepbrother’s wedding in Boston, and my dad was there. I think it was the day after the wedding, and there was a wedding brunch—I walked into this room to all this applause, and I thought, “What’s going on here?’ And The New York Times piece had come out about my band—it was about women in rock, actually, it wasn’t about American Thighs. It focused on Liz Phair, and us, and PJ Harvey, and there was a picture of me and the band. It was total validation, because, up to that point, there was just this question, like, “What is she doing now?” And whether what I was doing was legitimate. And The New York Times totally legitimized my career in the eyes of my father, so that was a big moment for me.

JS: It sort of cuts both ways. The same mechanism that insulated me from the harshness from the local stuff also sort of muted the effects of the really positive stuff on the national level.

SL: Our world got a lot bigger right there, too. So we were suddenly, you know, on tour with Hole. It felt like, “Oh, now we’re doing this national tour, we’re playing all these places we’ve never been to, and we’re getting some love, and that’s really cool, and we’re the underdogs here. Hole is the one taking all the shit.” That was kind of a relief, that the world got bigger. I mean suddenly it wasn’t so much about what the guys at the Reader thought.

Reflecting back on the record now, the memories each member has of that time are varied, but warm, and sharpened by the passage of time.

NG: I don’t know if it’s just the power of melancholy in retrospect and thinking about that time in the ’90s and what music sounded like then, and how when in your teens and 20s, you’re so porous. Like, the music you listen to, and then if you’re a musician, the music that you actually make—is so much a part of your identity, and you feel it so deeply, you feel this kind of aching feeling. When I think back on it, it was so important. It was so important.

LP: [Nina and I] used to always sit in cars and talk endlessly. Talk about everything. Whether it’s the songs, pulling apart mixes, listening together, making plans, discussing all these things going on, like whoever the characters were in the play at the moment, the play of our lives. We were staying in all these hotels and I remember saying to Nina, “Do you think we can take things from the minibar?” The truth is, [Interscope/Geffen exec] Jimmy Iovine would have taken us shopping on Rodeo if we’d wanted him to. They would have spent anything on us. And I was worried about taking stuff from the minibar.

JS: When we got back together, I really hadn’t listened to that record much at all over the years. There were so many things about the playing that I sort of dismissed at the time, like, “Oh fuck, I can’t believe that’s me. I can’t believe that’s what we committed to tape.” And so I really put it away. It wasn’t until we started playing together again a couple years ago that I really listened to it for the first time. And, you know, I was listening to it in my house here with my wife and our daughter. And it was sort of strange how fresh it was. Like, it’s good. It’s a good record.

SL: Mistakes get made. And you regret them, but… I grew to love the mistakes. It depends. I mean obviously bad notes or whatever, you want to get rid of those, but sometimes mistakes are good. I’m into all of it. I mean the record as a whole. I was really proud of the way we came up with the artwork. Everything about it just felt like a band. You know, it felt like we all did this thing. It just felt bigger than...than it really was, sort of. Like it just felt like I was part of something great.

BW: I’m constantly wondering whether I’m good at what I’m doing. But one thing I’m convinced of is that these guys were great. They were so good that, with their very first record, they made that much of an impact.

NG: I guess it’s like the sound of my coming of age, you know? It just is so poignant, and when I listen to the album—which I don’t do very often—but if I hear it, like the song “25” or “Get Back”… certain songs just have the capacity to bring me right back to that kind of aching youth and coming of age where being a young adult and being on your own and independent and figuring out who you are and falling in love, you know, having your heart broken. And all of those things—it just is so powerful.

LP: I think about my band walking everywhere together in the snow, with our winter coats on, or across campuses when we were playing these college shows. And I picture us walking in a line or a row—it’s very Spinal Tap-y, always, you know? [Laughs.] The funny thing about Spinal Tap is that every band’s experience is that. You get lost in arenas and backstages and place. But really I thought of us more as the Scooby Doo gang. We were all just kind of finding our way, two girls and two guys on a mystery adventure. And we were very much all together. Very much a team, very much a band. And it’s really when we became a band, it was that time.

NG: I was still in my early-to-mid-20s. I was still kind of crazy in relationships, and I had a stormy relationship with my boyfriend. We were just getting together around the beginning of the album, and so while there was a euphoria, there was also like this feeling of… I don’t know. I think there was a lot of arguing… whatever. Drama in your 20s in relationships. So there was like personal drama, and then I would show up at the studio and feel really safe and protected. My brother was there. My best friend was there. We trusted Brad, we trusted Jim, and we got to do this amazing thing and hear our voices in a way we never heard our voices before and harmonize, and it was this really kind of euphoric, beautiful experience, and innocent.

LP: My daughter just started a new school, and someone introduced me to the head of the PTA the other day, and she’s like, “Oh! I have ‘Seether’ on my playlist. I work out to it every morning.” [Laughs.]