Krist Novoselic Talks Kurt Cobain’s Writing Process
“I’ve been listening to Nirvana a lot lately,” bassist Krist Novoselic said one early September morning. It’s weeks before the release of a deluxe 20th anniversary reissue of this band’s 1993 album, In utero – the last studio recording made by Novoselic 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 from its producer, Steve Albiniand early demos and rehearsals.
“There’s a lot of baggage that goes 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 on In utero and Cobain’s convulsive final year before his suicide in April 1994. The setting for the interview was far from rock madness: the children’s reading room of a public library in Longview, Washington, about an hour 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 college degree in social sciences.
Where does Nirvana’a ‘In Utero’ rank on our 100 Greatest Albums of the 90s?
He still plays bass, as well as the accordion. Novoselic recently recorded with an ex-REM guitarist Peter Buck for the latter’s forthcoming solo album and describes, in this additional excerpt from our conversation, the eerie thrill that arose during a session last year with guitarist Grohl 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 alike, to the music and history he made with this 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 that memory in Cobain’s absence — Novoselic replies firmly, “Kurt always carries the music.” All this music testifies to his artistic vision. Dave and I don’t carry the music now. It’s Kurt.
You talked about the difficult state of relations in the group at the end of 1992. Did you wonder if you would ever be able to follow up on It does not matter?
Things weren’t like before. But one thing we liked to do – we liked to play music together. And that was what it was all about anyway. We were a group. We did these laundry sessions [on the In Utero reissue] with Barrett Jones, at home. We never had our own rehearsal studio. We were always hanging out in the studio with the Posies or someone else. We rehearsed on Bainbridge Island, in Tacoma, in Seattle, wherever we could find a place. Barrett had a multitrack recorder. If we had had something like that, there would have been so much more music.
How did the song ideas come to rehearsal?
There were songs that Kurt was logging. He would come with it, and we would fix it, build it. There were songs that were composed on the spot, out of jams, that took a few rehearsals to come together. But they would find the form. It was something else with Kurt – he might have a riff, but he was so good at vocal phrasing. He usually wrote the lyrics at the last minute. But he was so good at vocal phrasing [in rehearsals]. There you go – you have a song.
Once we agreed to an arrangement, we never changed anything. You can see that in different versions of the 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 that Nirvana was Kurt’s band? He was the lead voice and writer. And the band was his connection to the world.
That’s absolutely correct, absolutely correct.
And you and Dave were facilitators, helping him make that connection.
Of course, I did my thing. I knew what I wanted to do with the band. [Pauses] Can I tell you a story now? I think that answers your question. Dave, Pat and I hadn’t played together in 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 like the man. And he’s a left-handed guitarist, like Kurt. He plays this wicked slide. I start playing, trying to catch the groove, in drop-D tuning with the old Rat distortion pedal to get a little growl in there. Dave plays, there’s Pat. Paul throws this riff at me, I take it back. I shoot 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 for so long.” It’s like we walked through that door 20 years ago, we came back and everything was still there. In the movie, when Paul says, “I didn’t know I was in the middle of a Nirvana meeting. . . ” [Grins]
After Kurt’s death, people started reading clues to the lyrics of In uterowhen in fact some of the songs were written over a long period of time and moods, going back to before It does not matter. What did you hear in these songs, before or after his death?
I never performed any of his songs. Kurt never did. He was suspicious about his words. You can read anything you want there. I get these stories from people, “Man, when I was recovering, I was listening to Nirvana every day, and it helped me through it.” It’s awesome. I’m not going to tell you what the music means.
Kurt – I would call it the Windmill. I told him that. I said, “Did you hear what you just said? You contradicted what you said a minute ago. He was laughing 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 the words – the puns and the combinations – in a lyric.
Kurt said he never liked literal things. He liked enigmatic things. He would cut pictures of meat out of grocery store flyers, then glue these orchids on them. What does it mean? What is he trying to say? And all about [In Utero] on the body – there was something on the anatomy. He really liked it. You look at his art – there are these people, and they’re all weird, like mutants. And dolls – creepy dolls.
Did he explain all this to you?
Oh no, never. He would just laugh. He knew he had done something cool, and he would be happy about it. He’d think he was a knockout if he explained stuff. Maybe he just liked to keep people guessing. [Pauses] He should tell you. I do not know.
During the In utero sessions, would Kurt say to Steve Albini, “Hey, I want that on this 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 repulsive [laughs]. “You have this great guitar solo. Why are you putting this on it? It’s a beautiful song.” Speeches were made. Eventually it was, “Okay, take it off.” It was a discussion that went on for too long.
Was Kurt trying to de-embellish the music? He was a great author of melodies and ballads, but he had this desire to mark the music.
It 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 downright mean. There is something for everyone on this record. Although it’s not for everyone [laughs].
Due to the aftermath, most people hear the record as a eulogy. What do you hear?
It’s a haunting record. I’m not haunted by it. But there are images in there that I would never express to people. I’d blow it up if I said, “This song means that.” I would deprive people of their imagination. And I would betray Kurt.
There is my personal experience with him. Other people have their experiences with it. And we are each entitled to our own interpretations. But none of them are definitive. He’s the only one who can give that – and he’s gone. And he never gave one in his lifetime.