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Q&A: Krist Novoselic on Activism, Censorship, and Life After Nirvana

'Seeing kids testify before their city council was cool. That's democracy in action, man. If you feel disfranchised, just give it a chance'

Krist Novoselic with Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl of Nirvana in London, 1993.
Martyn Goodacre/Photoshot/Getty Images
February 8, 1996

Most rock fans think of Krist Novoselic as the former bassist for Nirvana, the impossibly tall and somewhat goofy guy who threw his bass up in the air at MTV's Video Music Awards in 1992 only to have it come crashing back down on his skull, knocking him senseless. But since then, Novoselic has awakened in more ways than one.

Drawing on the clout and cash that come from having been in one of the most successful groups of the Nineties, Novoselic entered the political fray in his home state of Washington, fighting music censorship. He linked up with the Washington Music Industry Coalition, a grassroots group dedicated to fighting the so-called erotic-music law, which would restrict minors from purchasing records with "adult" or "objectionable" content. He went on to co-found and fund the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee, which hopes to persuade politicians to view musicians and fans as tax-generating voters whose concerns deserve to be heard.

Novoselic remains reluctant to address the suicide of his friend Kurt Cobain, but activism seems to have helped him through one of the most difficult periods of his 30 years. Now sworn off drugs and alcohol, he talks about politics with the same infectious enthusiasm he displays when talking about rock & roll. He has returned to making music: Sweet 75, his new trio, is recording its debut album, slated for a spring release. Novoselic talked about JAMPAC during a long interview at a New York hotel. "Senator Krist, my friends call me," he says, laughing. "Haven't I emerged? I just hope I don't sound like a civics lecture."

Let's start with how you became politicized.
I was politicized in high school. I had an open mind and didn't really care for Reagan. I cut my teeth on radical punk rock – the Dead Kennedys, Maximumrockandroll and MDC. Those were the few anti-Reagan voices at the time, especially if you were in Aberdeen [Wash.] and were 18 years old. I didn't feel like reading dry political analyses. I needed something that spoke to me, that I could understand.

Still, MDC's sentiments weren't very sophisticated. How did "Fuck Reagan" lead to something more?
The state of mind I was in was just anti-establishment and feeling awkward. I realized that "It's not me, it's those people [who have a problem]." They totally bought into mainstream culture, and I disassociated myself from it. Republicans – even Democrats – it was like "What do I care?" But I did vote when I was 18. I voted for Walter Mondale, and I've voted in every presidential election since.

Mondale went down in flames. What did that say to you?
It didn't really break my heart. It wasn't like it was gonna change anything. Walter Mondale wasn't exactly a radical. But I voted, and I had my say.

What was the next step?
Well, Nirvana was always political. We talked about things and how we felt. There was Operation Desert Storm in early '91, and it broke my heart that people bought into that. I was living in Tacoma, Wash., a real meat-and-potatoes town, and it was scary and surreal, the hypocrisy of the government and people buying it. Six months later, the mainstream culture that was duped by Desert Storm was all over us. We were repulsed. We were like "Who are these people?" It took us a long time to deal with that.

How did you get involved with the Washington Music Industry Coalition?
Back in 1992, there was this broad piece of legislation in Washington state that was really scary. Say that you have a song and you make a reference to an ass, ass meaning buttocks. In the sponsors' definition, that was part of the human anatomy, and that could be considered adult material unsuitable for minors. Somebody could go to a county prosecutor and say, "I think this material is obscene." The prosecutor would decide whether to deem this material erotic or not. You could then challenge that in front of a jury. I was like "Jesus Christ, this is totally un-American. This is unconstitutional." But the legislature passed it, the governor signed it, and it was law.

The WMIC, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Recording Industry Association of America challenged it in state Supreme Court, and it was declared unconstitutional, but [the bill's proponents] came back again the next year. Now, if someone had a complaint against Nirvana, we could have afforded the $100 an hour for attorneys. But if you're a struggling artist or a mom-and-pop record retailer, you couldn't afford to go to court, so you're more likely to just not carry it.

When did you jump in?
The first time I got involved in [the controversy], I went on this TV show, a sort of town-meeting forum, and I went up against this mother from Edmunds, Wash., who instigated all of this because her kids came home with a 2 Live Crew CD, and she thought it was terrible.

I was really nervous. I wasn't well versed on the legislation or anything. I just dealt my cards from my perspective. She thought that I was a nice young man, and she wouldn't go against Nirvana: "Nirvana's fine, but it's this crazy stuff, this 2 Live Crew." They always go after the extremes, and I'm so sick of that.

Where did the legislation wind up?
It keeps coming back because you have these people who are zealots who are worried about children losing their innocence. What happened was, we had a wonderful governor elected in 1992, Mike Lowry, and he vetoed the legislation in '93 and again in 1994. But last year was kind of funny because in '94, the legislature changed. This thing sailed through the House, so we decided we had to lobby the Senate. I stood back, and I looked at the system and said, "Well, if you can't beat them, join them."

So you formed a political action committee so they would take you seriously.
Exactly. I could have walked around with a petition or could have had rallies on the Capitol steps. But I said, "We've got to get in there, shake hands, develop relationships, make a few campaign contributions and become a part of the political culture." That's how it works if you want to be taken seriously. Over the last couple of years, Seattle bands have sold over 160 million records, and nobody's moved away. I thought, "Goddamn, look at us. We're the establishment now. We're making all this money." Microsoft has lobbyists. Weyerhauser, Boeing – they're all active on the political scene. You think state government is gonna move against those companies? No way.

OK, so I don't live in Washington state. You've defeated this legislation several times now. What are you all excited about?
Censorship is popping up all over the country. You have Bob Dole out there; he's never seen Pulp Fiction, never listened to Nine Inch Nails. George Will's wife writes him a speech, and he comes out a total crusader. These guys all want to wave the pro-family flag. They go to bed dreaming of Leave It to Beaver and this '50s ideal. But if you look at the economy of the '50s, there was a lot of opportunity. I think they're pissing up a tree. They want to mandate morality, but if you give people opportunity, that's all anybody wants: to live and prosper. What I say about these social problems is, it's the economy, stupid.

What did you think of the attack on Time Warner?
The whole thing with Interscope Records . . . what percentage of music is overtly sexual or overtly misogynistic or overtly violent? It's a very small percentage, 3 percent or 4 percent. But they want to regulate the 96 percent that's fine. It just doesn't make any sense. It goes back to economics. If C. Delores Tucker was real, she wouldn't be banging down the door at Time Warner shareholders meetings and demanding responsibility. She'd be banging down the doors of these corporations that invest overseas instead of investing in the inner cities in our country.

Do you think that some people in the fight against censorship go too far in defending objectionable material? I'm thinking of rock critic and activist Dave Marsh comparing N.W.A to Henry Miller. ''Yo bitch/Get in my pickup/And suck my dick up/'Til you hiccup" is not exactly "Tropic of Cancer."
I'm not gonna defend that material, but if you want to look at it with an open mind, it's like "Where are these guys coming from?" I think it's really immature, but I don't feel threatened by it. Maybe that's because I'm a white male, and I don't have to walk down the street alone and be afraid every time there's a guy standing in the shadows. As far as what Dave Marsh thinks, that's his interpretation, and that's fine. But I generally agree with him on the basic premise that rating records is censorship, and creating an adult section of record stores is censorship.

So how does a legitimately concerned parent deal with monitoring music?
If you're really concerned about your kids and you want to impress them, go out and get some rock magazines and see where it's coming from. Look at it as a parenting opportunity. If you were to play some really over-the-top thing for your child, and your child says, "This is really stupid," I think that would be great, because it shows that your values have really been instilled in your child.

You talk a lot about politics being fun, almost in the way that you talk about rock & roll. What's so much fun about it?
What's fun is the results you achieve and interacting with people. It used to be I would never sign autographs, and I was in a crisis and in denial [about my fame]. But now I meet people and I'm like "How are you doing? What's your name?" I try to be real with them. It's also fun because it's a contest. You put your heart behind this person, you want them to win, you work for them, you've got an emotional stake. You want to be with the winner. You've got to utilize a democracy. Otherwise it's like if you're a member of a club and you pay the fees, but you never go, and you never enjoy the benefits.

Cynics could say it's easy for you to talk about getting involved – you don't have to work.
Since I don't drink any more, I get up in the morning, and I drink my coffee-substitute barley drink and read the paper and evaluate what I read. I don't do anything unless I'm compelled. Otherwise it's a chore, it's a job – and you're right, I don't have to work. But if I didn't feel like doing the PAC or doing music, I could retire, live on my farm, grow potatoes and have organic goat-shit soil. I could do watercolors or macramé or cake decorating or whatever I was compelled to do. But I'm compelled to do this.

I remember going to a Hoquiam [Wash.] city-council meeting when they were debating whether to have Lollapalooza come, and I got choked up. Everybody had the right to speak. You had the chief of police, who thought it was a bad idea because he didn't have the manpower. You had business people, who thought it was a good idea because it would bring money into town. You had people who were concerned about the traffic, and you had kids testifying like "Hey, man, I just think you should give the kids a chance." And the council decided to do it. Just seeing those kids testifying before their city council was cool. That's democracy in action, man. If you feel disfranchised, just give it a chance.

A lot of people who are feeling disfranchised are turning toward the militia movement. Why do you think that's so appealing?
I hate to talk about that. I think there have always been militia movements – it's just that they're getting a lot of publicity now. I'm an advocate for the First Amendment, but I'm also for the Second Amendment, so you can't really call me liberal. The NRA makes a stink about Waco and Ruby Ridge – which it should – but I'm watching the NRA go off on Janet Reno and accountability. But where was the NRA in the early '80s, when the MOVE house and a whole block of Philadelphia was burned down? Where were they in calling for Edwin Meese's responsibility? I own firearms, but I'm not an NRA member, no way.

You've seen guns do damage in your life. Why would you want to own one?
[Deep breath] I wanna protect my family. There's a lot of stupid people with guns. The people who got caught without guns in the former Yugoslavia are more than likely lying in a mass grave somewhere. But I don't want to make this interview revolve around guns.

OK, tell me about how you met singer Yva Las Vegas and formed Sweet 75.
Yva's from Venezuela, so the band has an international vibe. She sang at my birthday party in 1994. She was a busker at Pike Place Market [in Seattle], and a friend saw her and thought she'd be perfect to serenade me for my birthday. She started singing these South American folk songs, and she's a real powerhouse; she has a lot of raw talent. I had guitars lying around and started pounding away on them and came up with a few ideas. I started collaborating with Yva, and these songs came together. It has a grunge element but a different thing as well, especially having a woman in the band. This is only the second band I've ever been in.

Are you worried people will expect the band to be great because you were in Nirvana?
We are good! I'm excited. If I wasn't, I wouldn't even be in the band. I don't have any problems about how to promote it, either. I don't have a celebrity identity crisis. I am who I am, and if people come to see the band because it's the ex-Nirvana guy, that's great. That's an advantage that I'll take, because I think people should really hear the band.

Neither you nor your former band mate Dave Grohl has talked publicly about Kurt Cobain since his suicide. Why?
There's nothing to say, really. It happens every day in America. Dysfunction, drugs – it was compounded by the fame, but it's nothing romantic. It's just tragic. It's real emotional pain, and it's nobody's business. Who cares?

A lot of people, because they were touched by the music the band made.
It's not proper to say anything. The emotional stake that Dave and I have in it is a lot more invested than the person who got to know Kurt through his music. There are things that are private and nobody should know. You can't go through life tragedy-free. Your parents die, and one day you or your spouse is gonna die. Life is heavy, and it still hurts a lot.

This story is from the February 8th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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