The extraordinary stories behind Kevin Kerslake's greatest rock videos
Director Kevin Kerslake reveals the secrets behind Nirvana, Faith No More, Green Day and Stone Temple Pilots' videos
You might not know the name Kevin Kerslake, but you’ll certainly be more than familiar with his work.
He’s an American music video director responsible for some of the most iconic music videos ever made by Faith No More, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots.
“I grew up with an eye and ear towards the arts,” says Kerslake. “My grandfather was a composer, so I was exposed to music from a very young age, and my parents gave me a Super 8 video camera when I was still in junior high. I started out shooting all my stupid grade school activities, which basically consisted of skateboarding and surfing.”
During his teens, Kerslake appeared in a couple of Warren Miller films, and it was at this point that his interest in filmmaking began to develop.
“I remember looking down the mountain at him and thinking to myself, ‘That guy’s got a cool job.’”
Indeed, with over 60 years of ski and snowboard film experience to his name, Warren Miller is probably the most iconic figure in the history of extreme sports films, and a young Kerslake was instantly inspired by his work. He spent his youth shooting Super 8 surf, skate and ski films, and after graduating from high school he enrolled in film school in LA, where his assignments drove him into more narrative and experimental work.
“Once I did that I just got sucked down that rabbit hole and I continued to make experimental films throughout the rest of my time in college,” he explains.
After graduating college an art patron approached the budding director and offered to give him some money towards a feature film. One of the actors he cast in said film just so happened to be Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, and they ended up using the footage to help compile a music video for the band, which they then sent off to MTV. According to Kerslake, “it became an instant cult classic.”
From 1986 to 1988, he directed three music videos for Sonic Youth (Shadow of a Doubt, Beauty Lies in the Eye and Candle), after which one of his friends took him into a production company meeting, and they asked him if he’d be interested in making music videos full-time. His response was “Fuck yeah,” and that was it.
“It was still the early days of music videos,” Kerslake adds, “and formulas hadn’t necessarily set in yet. I just thought it was a really cool opportunity to get involved and do something different. Nobody had any idea what was going on. And I really liked music, so it was definitely a gift to make movies that went along to those songs.”
Seemingly by accident, Kerslake became one of a small handful of directors that helped shape alternative rock on MTV.
“It was sort of like this crazy playground where you got to do whatever you felt like doing,” he explains, “and I was always interested in the entire spectrum of possibilities when it came to what a video ultimately looked like.”
“There wasn’t any calculation in terms of where I wanted to drive the medium,” he adds. “I was definitely reacting to some of the other work that was going on with the hair bands during the tail end of the 80s. That wasn’t the world that I knew, and those videos weren’t resonating on a level that I really appreciated. So on the outside that was the particular context that I was reacting to, but on the inside I was really just going where the songs took me, and sometimes that would be abstract imagery.”
Early on, Kerslake developed a body of work characterised by a distinct visual style (Noodles from The Offspring has praised his videos for being “off the wall”), and he soon evolved from music video to feature film director. During the ‘90s, he directed notable feature length documentaries for Nirvana (Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!), Soundgarden (Louder Than Live) and the Ramones (We’re Outta Here).
In recent years, he’s also made music videos for Papa Roach, Rise Against, The Used, Anti-Flag and Atreyu. In 2013, he directed a feature length film about Bob Marley (Bob Marley Legend Remixed Documentary), and last year he completed a documentary about the late DJ AM, entitled As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM. But it’s the groundbreaking videos that he made during the boom of grunge and alternative rock that he’s perhaps most celebrated for.
Here then, are the stories behind eight of his most iconic videos...
FAITH NO MORE – Midlife Crisis (1992)
Kevin Kerslake: “Oddly enough, I grew up with Billy Gould and Roddy Bottum. We were neighbours and our parents actually went to school together, so I had a life long relationship with those guys. I was also a big fan of Faith No More. We never talked about the root or the theme of this song, so I have no idea what it’s about, but the overall flavour of the video is torture. There are some lyrics in the song about somebody who’s lost all four limbs, so that’s where the idea of having somebody being quartered came from. When we started putting the shoot together, one of the things we quickly learned about horses is that they’re pack animals, so when you face four horses in opposite directions their instinct is not to go forward. Typically, there’s a lead horse and all of the other horses follow him. So we had this guy attached to all four horses and one of the horses reared up as another horse started charging forward. The effect of that was that one horse was actually pulling the other horse on its back, and the stuntman was right below him. Thankfully, he was very agile and he got out of the way in time, but it was pretty hairy for a minute there."
NIRVANA – Come As You Are (1992)
“I did four music videos for Nirvana. They used to open up for Sonic Youth a lot whilst I was working with them, but we never actually met during that time. But I’d known Courtney [Love] for a while, because she was really good friends with Roddy from Faith No More. She was always the puddle that you stepped over at the party, and she was always sort of a mess. One day she said to me, ‘Let me play you some music by my boyfriend’s band,’ and she played me Bleach by Nirvana. She was like, ‘Oh my God, you know Nirvana,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I don’t think she even knew Kurt at that point, but time passed and they eventually hooked up.
"I remember being in San Francisco one day with Hole, Smashing Pumpkins and Primus, as I was working with all three bands around that time and all of them were in the room together, and Courtney said ‘I wanna introduce you guys to Kurt.’ So that’s when I first met him. He was really disarming. He said to me, ‘You made my favourite video of all time – Halah by Mazzy Star,’ and I was like, ‘Cool, I love that video too.’ He then asked me to make Nirvana’s next video, which I agreed to do, and that was Come as You Are.
"The band was on every newsstand in the country by this point, and Kurt was really sick of that fact, so he said the only thing he wanted was to not be in the video. I obviously knew that was sort of a hurdle, especially since this was still the introductory phase of the band, so I tried to create some motifs that allowed them to be in the video without really being in it. I tried to figure out all sorts of ways to obscure their identity, knowing that their record label was going to want to put the faces of the band in the video – they were the tube of toothpaste, and you have to see the toothpaste in the ad. So the whole video was this dance of how we could obscure them but see them at the same time. Dogs in Elizabethan collars were an obsession at that time, too!”
NIRVANA – In Bloom (1992)
“As far as I could see Nirvana was Kurt’s band, and he made all the decisions. But I got along with the other guys great. There weren’t any power moves or anything like that either. We all wanted the same thing in a way, and they trusted me completely.
“The original concept that we were going to shoot for In Bloom had to do with a girl who grew up in a Klu Klux Klan family, and it was a lot more overt in terms of the social message in the song. But sadly due to time constraints we couldn’t afford to do such a lavish video, so we decided on this concept after discussing The Beatles level of fame that the band was going through at the time. There’s something about the DNA of The Ed Sullivan Show and those performances that hardwires you into the way that America consumes its favourite bands, so it was a pretty organic decision to do a video that references those old shows in a tongue-in-cheek kind of a way. We got a hold of these big old cameras and basically mimicked the process of how those old shows were filmed, and we shot two takes in suits and two takes in dresses, where they come out and destroy the set. That was it. It was a pretty short day.
“We were actually in the middle of the Nirvana documentary [Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!] when Kurt died, but that project was complicated by the fact there was a law suit going on, which was rooted in the origin of the Heart-Shaped Box video. That sadly complicated our relationship. ”
SMASHING PUMPKINS – Cherub Rock (1993)
“This was Smashing Pumpkins’ first video for a major label, since the band had just moved from Caroline to Virgin Records. Whilst they were with Caroline I shot a New Year’s Eve live show at the Metro in Chicago, and I did various videos with them as well. So I’d spent quite a bit of time with the band before Cherub Rock. Billy and I had an old relationship, and he’d gotten back in touch with me when they started doing demos for that album [Siamese Dream] and asked me to shoot a video for the first single.
“Lyrically, the song is about kicking the indie music scene in the teeth, and I didn’t agree with his decision to turn that world into the villain because I felt like so much amazing music came out of that world. Yes, the major labels adopted it, but even Smashing Pumpkins themselves came out of that world, and flourished in it. So there was a subversive part of me that wanted to pay homage to that world, and the only way I could do that was to adopt the same style of down-and-dirty guerrilla filmmaking. For me, Super 8 film is pretty representative of that world, so I proposed shooting the video on Super 8 film even though the budget was a little higher. I developed the film in my bathtub too, so some parts of the image were ripped away and you don’t always see everything. I wanted it to be 100% experimental film, and not crystal clear or polished.
“I think there was ultimately a little buyer’s remorse on Billy’s part, but James [Iha] and D’arcy [Wretzky] loved the video, and it’s one of my favourites because I think there’s something really magical happening in it. A lot of that stuff really just happened by chance during the filming process, and I think everything transcended its circumstances and became something magical.”
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS – Soul To Squeeze (1993)
“I’d known Flea for a while before working with the band on this video. I knew his wife and his daughter as well. They’re all lovely people. The band were obviously icons in LA and we had a lot of mutual friends, too. They wrote this song for the Coneheads movie, and Chris Farley is in the video. He’d actually just gotten out of a fat farm, where he’d gone there to deal with his weight and substance abuse issues.
“Anthony and I had been wrestling with ideas for what to do with the video, since we weren’t just dealing with a record label but also a movie studio for this one, and the band was very concerned about not being seen as sell outs. So we wrestled and we wrestled, and Anthony finally had the idea to shoot the video in the style of the Tod Browning film Freaks. The light bulb went on then and there and it was almost like we didn’t even finish the conversation. That completely set the reference and from that point on we just took the video into circus world. That way we could actually put a conehead in the video as well, and we ended up just firing him out of a cannon. This was also around the heyday of body and performance art, and we pulled in a lot of characters from that world and really created our own circus. We shot for three days about an hour outside of LA, and we essentially became a family.
“I was shooting and editing all my own footage by that point, as well as directing it, and I had about seven or eight hours of footage by the end: I could’ve probably made a feature out of what we had. It usually takes a week or so to edit a video, but I actually edited the first draft in one night and that was basically the final cut that we used. I called Flea and Anthony over and I said, ‘I know it’s really early and you probably didn’t expect to hear from me this quickly, but just take a look at this. I feel like this could be the final video.’ They watched it and they said, ‘Fuck, I don’t know what we would change either – it’s kind of perfect.’ So I made a couple of minor adjustments and turned it in the next day. It was the craziest experience because it felt like everything just sought of fell into place naturally, and it was super organic. The family aspect of the whole shoot really resonated within every frame of the video as well.”
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS – Interstate Love Song (1994)
“Vasoline was the first music video I made for Stone Temple Pilots, and we actually shot three different versions of that, then Interstate Love Song came next, so we were a few videos into that album [Purple] by this point. Even then you were starting to see some of the effects of fame, and the tension between Scott’s private life and him as a public figure.
“I think Scott [Weiland] was born to be a rock star, and that whole group of musicians were so talented, but fame is a fucker and they all handled it with different degrees of poise. The tension was definitely most articulated in Scott, but he was still really playful at this time. We were shooting out in the desert during the dry lake bit one day and he hijacked one of the motor homes and actually tore one of the axels off it, so that was pretty funny.
“The root of a lot of the images was Pinocchio, since lying is such a prominent part of the lyrics, and that was a pretty natural way to go. So at the beginning of the video this guy gets caught out for lying and that sends him on this journey across various landscapes, and he weaves in and out of the video. At the time I was obsessed – I still am, really – with old school camera processes, and I wanted to go old school in terms of the effects of his nose growing, so we shot that with a hand crank camera, which I had to wheel whilst I was shooting. I really like some of the imperfections that doing it that way provided – even seeing the strings on the end of the nose.”
GREEN DAY - Brain Stew / Jaded (1995)
“My first reaction to Green Day was that they were more bubblegum than alternative rock. I like those guys now, and I think they’ve come up with some great songs that aren’t necessarily punk, but I was reluctant to work with them to begin with. I was offered the first two videos off Insomniac [Geek Stink Breath and Stuck With Me] and I turned them down, but I finally relented when Brain Stew/Jaded came up.
“What was funny about that time was there was a complete inversion of who came first, and a lot of people who didn’t necessarily have a sense of history would hear Sex Pistols or The Clash, or even Rancid, and they’d say, ‘This sounds like Green Day.’ That was pretty funny to experience, but also horrifying in its own way as well. And Green Day probably wrote the songs that they did because they grew up listening to Rancid, the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but those bands weren’t getting the credit for it at that time. So if I had any negative reaction to Green Day to begin with, that was why: I thought the corporate structure of the music industry was responsible for adopting these formulas that made some bands succeed, often at the expense of bands that deserved success a whole lot more.
“I’m sure every generation talks about the next generation down, and how they’re not living up to the standards that they held themselves to, but you look at all the guys that came through during the late ‘80s and early 90s, from Perry Farrell and Chris Cornell to Kurt Cobain and Scott Weiland, and I feel like they sit within a continuum of rock stars like David Bowie and Iggy Pop who broke the mould. But around the mid-90s was when the formula came in, and I feel like there hasn’t been anybody since that’s measured up to those performers. That being said, I enjoyed working with Green Day on this video. The idea we had was to drag elements of their earlier videos through the trash, and that’s what we did. We even managed to track down almost exactly the same couch as the one used in the Longview video, although it looked significantly different by the end of the shoot [laughs].”
VELVET REVOLVER – Slither (2004)
“Velvet Revolver was like the many Godzillas of rock getting together. You hadn’t seen anything of that scale in a long time. A lot of that had to do with the fact that Guns N’ Roses were larger than life, and Scott channelled both Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop, but somehow managed to ball them both up into one. I knew there was a lot of pressure from every corner as to how the band was going to roll out, and when they sent over the song one of the things that triggered in my mind, which probably had something to do with the title of the track, was this primal sense of getting into the engine room and coming to terms with why people make music, and where it comes from.
“I’m sure there was a lot of cynicism about all those musicians getting together to start a band, and capitalism was basically being labelled as the root of it all, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew all those guys had integrity and that cashing a pay cheque was never going to be enough for them. That’s why we made the decision to make a music video about going underground: we wanted to go back to the well and the source of why we enjoy music, and portray that sense of an underground community.
“I actually rooted the concept in an experience I’d had in Paris, where I went to a catacomb party. They have these networks of tunnels that stretch for miles and some of them are filled with bones, and then all of a sudden you walk around a corner and hit this wall of sound and light with hundreds of people having a party. The journey down there was so primal, and it was the perfect fit for this video.”
Kevin Kerslake's documentary As I Am: The Life And Times Of DJ AM will be released on May 25. For more information, visit his official website.