“I listened to a lot of Nirvana lately,” bassist Krist Novoselic says one morning in early September. It is a couple of weeks before the release of a deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue of that band’s 1993 album, In Utero – the last studio record Novoselic made with his late friend and Nirvana‘s leader, singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain. Novoselic worked closely with drummer Dave Grohl (now leading Foo Fighters) on the project, which includes a definitive remastering of the original LP, a new mix by its producer, Steve Albini, and early demos and rehearsals.
“There is a lot of baggage that comes with it,” Novoselic says of all that listening. “It brings back a lot of memories – good memories, painful memories. But it’s good music – good rock music.”
Novoselic spoke to Rolling Stone for a major feature about In Utero and Cobain’s final, convulsive year before his suicide in April, 1994. The setting for the interview was far removed from rock madness: the children’s reading room in a public library in Longview, Washington, an hour-or-so’s drive south of Aberdeen, where Novoselic and Cobain first met and, in 1987, started what became Nirvana. Novoselic, now 48, is active in state politics and studying for an online-university degree in social sciences.
He still plays bass, as well as accordion. Novoselic recently recorded with ex-R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck for the latter’s next solo album and describes, in this additional excerpt from our conversation, the eerie thrill that came during a session last year with Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear – who played with Nirvana on the In Utero tour – and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Novoselic is proud to be, as he puts it, “the Nirvana guy” – a link, for fans and newcomers, to the music and history he made with that band and his friend. “I mean, what a privilege.”
But when asked about the downside – that he and Grohl are forced to carry that weight and memory in Cobain’s absence – Novoselic replies, firmly, “Kurt carries the music still. All of that music is a testimony to his artistic vision. Dave and I aren’t carrying the music now. It’s Kurt.”
You’ve talked about the difficult state of relationships in the band at the end of 1992. Did you wonder if you would ever get to make a followup to Nevermind?
Things were not like they used to be. But one thing we liked to do – we liked to play music together. And that’s what it was all about anyway. We were a band. We did those Laundry Room sessions [on the In Utero reissue] with Barrett Jones, at his house. We never had our own rehearsal studio. We were always bumming studio time from the Posies or somebody. We rehearsed on Bainbridge Island, in Tacoma, in Seattle, wherever we could find a spot. Barrett had a multi-track recorder. If we had something like that, there would have been so much more music.
How did song ideas come into rehearsal?
There were songs that Kurt would woodshed. He would come in with it, and we would work it out, build it up. There were songs that were made up on the spot, coming out of jams, which took a few rehearsals to come together. But they would find form. That was another thing with Kurt – he could have a riff, but then he was so good at vocal phrasing. He would usually write the lyrics at the last minute. But he was so good at vocal phrasing [in rehearsals]. And voilà – you have a song.
Once we settled on an arrangement, we never changed anything. You can see that in different versions of songs we recorded [live] over the years. We never changed the arrangement. Once it was done, it was done: “Let’s play it.”
Would it be fair to say Nirvana was Kurt’s band? He was the primary voice and writer. And the band was his connection to the world.
That’s totally fair, totally correct.
And you and Dave were facilitators, helping him make that connection.
Sure, I did my thing. I knew what I wanted to do with the band. [Pauses] Can I tell you a story now? I think I’m answering your question. Dave, Pat and I hadn’t played together for 20 years, until last year, when we were in the room with Paul McCartney, of all people [for the session in Grohl’s film, Sound City]. I’m like, “Oh, my God.” I love the man. And he’s a left-handed guitar player, like Kurt. He’s playing this mean slide. I start playing, trying to catch the groove, in drop-D tuning with the old Rat distortion pedal to get some growl in there. Dave’s playing, there’s Pat. Paul shoots this riff at me, I pick it up. I shoot something back at him, he picks it up.
All of a sudden, this song comes together [“Cut Me Some Slack”]. It came together in an hour. I looked at Dave and Pat and kind of forgot about Paul. I was like, “We haven’t done this in so long.” It’s like we walked out that door 20 years ago, we walked back in and it was all still there. In the film, when Paul says, “I didn’t know I was in the middle of a Nirvana reunion . . . ” [Grins]
After Kurt’s death, people started reading clues into the lyrics on In Utero, when in fact some of the songs were written over a long period of time and moods, going back to before Nevermind. What did you hear in those songs, before or after his passing?
I never interpreted any of his songs. Kurt never did. He was cagey about his lyrics. You could read into them anything you want. I get these stories from people: “Man, when I was in recovery, I was listening to Nirvana every day, and it helped me get through.” That’s great. I’m not going to tell you what the music means.
Kurt – I would call him the Windmill. I told him that. I’d go, “Did you hear what you just said? You contradicted what you said a minute ago.” He’d laugh at himself, because he knew it. He would be like that. He wanted to be a rock star – and he hated it.
It was often hard to tell if he was just playing with words – the puns and combinations – in a lyric.
Kurt said that he never liked literal things. He liked cryptic things. He would cut out pictures of meat from grocery-store fliers, then paste these orchids on them. What does it mean? What is he trying to say? And all this stuff on [In Utero] about the body – there was something about anatomy. He really liked that. You look at his art – there are these people, and they’re all weird, like mutants. And dolls – creepy dolls.
Did he explain any of that stuff to you?
Oh, no, never. He would just laugh. He knew he’d made something cool, and he’d be happy about it. He would think he was a blowhard if he explained stuff. Maybe he just liked to keep people guessing. [Pauses] He’d have to tell you. I don’t know.
During the In Utero sessions, would Kurt say to Steve Albini, “Hey I want this on that track”? Was he more specific about his music?
Yeah. For “Heart-Shaped Box,” there was a guitar solo. We had the longest conversation about it. It was Steve and Kurt against me. They put this weird effect on it, and I thought it was repelling [laughs]. “You have this great guitar solo. Why are you putting this on it? It’s a beautiful song.” Speeches were made. Finally, it was, “Okay, take it off.” That was a discussion that went on way too long.
Was Kurt trying to de-prettify the music? He was a great melody and ballad writer, but he had this urge to scar the music.
That was the aesthetic, like the beautiful orchids, and then there’s this raw meat around them. It’s the same thing. “Dumb” is a beautiful song. “All Apologies” is really nice. And then there are songs like “Milk It” that are completely wicked. There is something for everybody on that record. Although it’s not for everybody [laughs].
Because of the aftermath, most people hear the record as a eulogy. What do you hear?
It is a haunting record. I am not haunted by it. But there is imagery on there that I would never express to people. I would blow it if I said, “This song means that.” I would rob people of their imaginations. And I would betray Kurt.
There’s my personal experience with him. Other people have their experiences with him. And we’re each entitled to our own interpretations. But none of them are the definitive one. He’s the only one who can give that – and he’s gone. And he never gave one while he was alive.