Before there was a Nirvana, Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain were best friends. Born in Compton, California, in 1965, Novoselic moved with his family to Aberdeen, Washington, where he met Cobain in high school in the mid-1980s. The two would be roomies, confidants and band mates for the next eleven years, until Cobain took his own life on April 5th, 1994. “Krist was one of the only people who could make Kurt laugh,” says drummer Dave Grohl. “They shared a sense of humor. Krist could make Kurt start laughing, rolling and crying on the floor. Of course, I never understood what the fuck they were talking about.” After Cobain’s death, Novoselic made one album with the band Sweet 75, then founded the advocacy group Jampac to fight censorship and raise political and social awareness in the music community. He has recently started playing music again.
Is it hard to imagine that a decade has passed since the release of “Nevermind”?
The Nirvana ball keeps rolling. There’s always something going on, either in the press or internal issues. It will always be a part of me. Some of it was nothing less than traumatic. But I survived it — you interpret it and make sense of it later. Just Kurt’s passing: He turned into a deity. Dealing with that is pretty heavy.
How weird is it to hear people talk about him as a god?
There’s the icon, and then there’s the person. I separate the two. I don’t think I ever knew the icon. That’s a human thing, to deify someone who’s gone. He’s legendary now. It’s interesting for me to be on this side of it — to have known and remember the person.
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Do you find it hard to talk about him?
[Long pause] It depends on the context. We were down in L.A., Dave and I, dealing with some Nirvana stuff, and we were sitting around, talking about Kurt. It was fun, going back there. It makes you feel better.
What are the things about him that make you laugh now?
His weird sense of humor, which was kind of grotesque. The comics and drawings he did, because he was a good visual artist. Sometimes he would speak in these high-pitched voices, like a child Satanist. We were always laughing about something, being ridiculous — mostly dumb jokes.
How does “Nevermind” sound to you now?
It’s so strong. There are no weak moments in it. I don’t ever skip over a song. Each song has something to say. We were well rehearsed — we went in and just knocked it out. It wasn’t self-conscious. It poured out.
You did a lot of preparation for the record: writing, practicing, making demos, first playing some of the songs on tours. You were more task-oriented than punk bands are supposed to be.
We were always serious about recording and rehearsing. We would drive sixty miles to rehearsal. We would rehearse in Seattle, starting at eleven o’clock at night. I lived in Tacoma, Kurt lived in Olympia and [drummer] Chad Channing lived in Bainbridge Island. We all came together every night — do a lot of driving and crash in Bainbridge or Tacoma.
We also rehearsed in Tacoma. We found this barn — someone had made it into a studio. It was warm, and we weren’t disturbed. There weren’t other bands bleeding through the walls. We had the music to ourselves. And Kurt was always kicking songs around. He’d be in his apartment, cranking out riffs and vocal melodies, then bring them up: “Hey, check this one out.” We’d put it into the grinder and see what came out the other end.
Could you hear the change in his songwriting between “Bleach” and “Nevermind”?
Definitely. Like “In Bloom”: When we first started playing that, it sounded like a Bad Brains song.
On some early live bootlegs, you really hammered it.
But then Kurt went home and he hammered it. He kept working on it. Then he called me on the phone and said, “Listen to this song.” He started singing it on the phone. You could hear the guitar. It was the “In Bloom” of Nevermind, more of a pop thing.
We were listening to things like the Smithereens then, and the Beatles. We had one tape we listened to in the van — this was before we recorded Bleach. On one side was the Smithereens. And on the other side was this heavy-metal band, Celtic Frost. That tape was always getting played, turned over and over again. I think back now and go, ‘Yeah, maybe that was an influence.'”
Onstage, you were the talkative one, bantering with the crowd and chewing out the hecklers. Did you feel the need, as Kurt’s friend, to be his defense against the stress and weirdness of being in a popular rock band?
We’d talk if things were bugging him. I’d go, “Oh, things will be all right.” I had more of an outgoing personality. I had fun, talking with people on stage, drinking beers. But Kurt was really smart. He had his perception of the world. He knew how to deal with it. He knew how to be quiet. He had that Asian-wisdom thing — silence.
He could read people really good, too; way better than I could. Now that I’m older, I’m getting better at it. You see that a lot of people are vampires. You see their agendas. I never used to see that. But Kurt was able to see that. He could take care of himself.
His thing was, build your own world. Wherever he lived, he’d have all this stuff on the walls, drawings or music or things he had collected. There would be ten statues of Colonel Sanders, which was kind of weird. One place, he had wood paneling, and he found this old magazine from the 1960s, with this woman in an ad, stroking wood paneling. He put that on the wall.
When Nirvana signed with Geffen, the band went from punk’s indie-label subculture into the money and madness of the corporate record business. Did you know what you were getting into?
We weren’t even paying attention. I’d be the one who’d talk to the attorney: “How’s the deal going?” Then, one day, we signed all the papers — and ordered sandwiches. We ate sandwiches and signed papers, and that was it.
We didn’t know what we were getting into. We got all this money for an advance, and we spent it all on studios, videos and taxes. It was all gone; a lot of sips between the cup and the lips. But I remember we were adamant about creative control. We got that.
What do you remember about making “Nevermind”? Your producer, Butch Vig, says there was little screwing around.
We knew that studios cost money. We were paying for accommodations. We were there to work. And there were no dramas or external things going on. It was like we were free; it was our last moment of that kind of life, when we could just go in and play.
As far as the days went, I remember sometimes bringing in a whiskey bottle in the afternoon. I’d take some straight shots to loosen me up. I remember hanging out in the parking lot, hanging out in the lounge. I’d never done punch-ins on a track before, in places where the bass was off a little.
As soon as you finished “Nevermind,” you went on a short tour. Could you feel excitement building?
I didn’t. I was like, “All right, we finished a record.” We played shows with Dinosaur Jr. and the Jesus Lizard. We left L.A. and drove straight to Colorado. We were just playing with these other bands in the subculture. But then people told me later that, at the Denver show, everybody bought Nirvana T-shirts.
Kurt later dismissed “Nevermind” as too polished. What was it about the punk aesthetic that was so important to him?
I don’t know how he could say that. That’s a cool part of that record — it has that slick sound. I don’t know if it was punk dogma. A lot of it was the attention. He was getting all this scrutiny, people putting their perceptions on him. He was a very private person. For being such an aggressive singer and musician, he really was a quiet guy. He never should have left that little apartment in Olympia. He would have been just fine.
It is hard to accept that a record that has meant so much to so many had such a different effect on the guy who made it. Do you wish Kurt could have enjoyed his acclaim more?
Of course I wish he had enjoyed it more. But he was just on a way-different trip. He made all his own decisions. What are you going to do? We’re all stewards of our own trip.
It’s hard to believe it’s such a revolutionary record — for people in the band, around the band, in the world. There’s a lot of power in the record, but it wasn’t a Sgt. Pepper with symphony orchestras. It was just a rock & roll record. Our record could have come out in the 1970s or 1980s. Maybe that’s part of its big success. You can chase after this idea or that concept, but this was stripped down, with a lot of feeling. That’s the magic right there. There was no pretension.
Do you hear “Nevermind” — any of that feeling or magic — in rock today, in Limp Bizkit or Blink-182?
I hear it mostly in the big-chorus thing, the loud-quiet dynamic. Some singers, you can hear they were influenced by Kurt. It’s cool, because Nirvana was influenced by all kinds of stuff.
I feel it maybe more with Slipknot. I went to see them — I didn’t know what they were about — and they had an intense show. I started listening to their music and was really drawn in. It brought me back to thinking, “God, I should be doing more music.” I’ve actually been playing more music. This last weekend, my friend Donita [Sparks] from L7 came up. We were jamming, putting some songs down. I’ve been cranking stuff out. It’s kind of wild to start again.
But as far as stuff on the radio — I don’t know. I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones. You remember that record Metamorphosis? I found it in a secondhand store in Oregon. That’s a fucked-up record — I like it.
If Kurt had any idea of how people would mourn and miss him, do you think he would have thought twice about leaving?
Kurt would say things, shoot his mouth off about people, get too critical or down on something. But he would always realize that he’d hurt somebody’s feelings. And he would feel terrible about it. I guess that’s the best way I can answer that.