Krist Novoselic on Kurt’s Writing Process and the ‘In Utero’ Aesthetic

‘There is symbolism on there that I would never express to people, ‘ he says

“I listened to a lot of Nirvana recently, ” bassist Krist Novoselic says one morning in early September. This is a couple of weeks before the release of a luxurious 20th-anniversary reissue of that band’s 1993 album, In Utero – the last studio room record Novoselic made with his past due 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 initial LP, a new mix by its producer, Steve Albini, and earlier 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 songs. ”

Novoselic spoke to Moving Stone for a major feature about In Utero and Cobain’s final, convulsive year before his suicide in April, 1994. The particular setting for the interview was much removed from rock madness: the little one’s reading room in a public collection 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 level in social sciences.

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He still plays largemouth 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 used Nirvana on the In Utero tour – and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Novoselic is proud to be, as he describes, “the Nirvana guy” – a web link, for fans and newcomers, to the songs and history he made with that band and his friend. “I suggest, what a privilege. ”

But when asked about the downside – that he and Grohl are forced to transport that weight and memory in Cobain’s absence – Novoselic replies, firmly, “Kurt carries the music still. All that music is a testimony to his artistic vision. Dave and I not necessarily carrying the music now. It’s Kurt. ”

You’ve talked about the difficult condition of relationships in the band at the end of 1992. Did you wonder if you should ever get to make a followup in order to Nevermind ?
Things were not like they used to be. But one thing we enjoyed to do – we liked to play music together. And that’s what it had been all about anyway. We were a music group. We did those Laundry Space sessions [on the In Utero reissue] with Barrett Jones, at his house. We never had our own rehearsal studio. We were always bumming studio room time from the Posies or somebody. We rehearsed on Bainbridge Isle, in Tacoma, in Seattle, wherever we could find a spot. Barrett a new multi-track recorder. If we had something like that, there would have been so much more music.

How did song ideas enter into rehearsal?
There were music that Kurt would woodshed. He would come in with it, and we would work it out, build it up. There were music that were made up on the spot, coming out of jellies, 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 or she 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 music.

Once we satisfied on an arrangement, we never changed anything. You can see that in different variations of songs we recorded [live] over the years. We never ever changed the arrangement. Once it had been done, it was done: “Let’s play it. ”

Would it be fair to say Nirvana was Kurt’s band? This individual was the primary voice and article writer. And the band was his link with the world.
That’s completely fair, totally correct.

And you and Sawzag were facilitators, helping him make that connection.
Sure, I did my thing. I understood what I wanted to do with the music group. [ Pauses ] Can I tell you a story now? I think I’m responding to your question. Dave, Pat and am hadn’t played together for two decades, until last year, when we were within the room with Paul McCartney, of 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 begin playing, trying to catch the grooved, in drop-D tuning with the old Rat distortion pedal to get several growl in there. Dave’s playing, there may be 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 with each other in an hour. I looked at Sawzag and Pat and kind of did not remember about Paul. I was like, “We haven’t done this in such a long time. ” It’s like we strolled out that door 20 years ago, we walked back in and it had been all still there. In the movie, when Paul says, “I didn’t know I was in the middle of a Nirvana reunion… ” [ Grins ]

Right after Kurt’s death, people started reading through clues into the lyrics on In Utero , when in fact some of the songs were composed over a long period of time and moods, going back to before Nevermind . What did you hear in those songs, before or even after his passing?
I never interpreted any of his songs. Kurt never did. This individual was cagey about his words. You could read into them whatever you want. I get these tales from people: “Man, when I was in recovery, I was listening to Nirvana daily, and it helped me get through. ” Which great. I’m not going to tell you the actual 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, as they 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 had been just playing with words – the puns and combinations – inside a lyric.
Kurt declared that he never liked literal matters. He liked cryptic things. He would cut out pictures of meat from grocery-store fliers, then paste these types of orchids on them. What does it suggest? What is he trying to say? And all this stuff on [ In Utero ] about the body – there was some thing about anatomy. He really enjoyed that. You look at his artwork – there are these people, and they’re many 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 however made something cool, and however be happy about it. He would think he was a blowhard if he or she 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 certainly Kurt say to Steve Albini, “Hey I want this on that track”? Was he more specific about his music?
Yeah. Just for “Heart-Shaped Box, ” there was a guitar solo. We had the longest conversation about it. It was Steve plus Kurt against me. They put this weird effect on it, and I believed it was repelling [ laughs ]. “You have this great guitar solo. What makes you putting this on it? That is 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 tune and ballad writer, but he previously this urge to scar the background music.
That was the aesthetic, like the beautiful orchids, and then there may be this raw meat around them. It’s the same thing. “Dumb” is a wonderful song. “All Apologies” is really wonderful. And then there are songs like “Milk It” that are completely wicked. There is certainly something for everybody on that record. Although it’s not for everybody [ laughs ].

Due to the aftermath, most people hear the record as a eulogy. What do you hear?
It is a haunting record. We are not haunted by it. But there is imagery on there that I would never convey to people. I would blow it if I stated, “This song means that. ” I might 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 personal interpretations. But none of them are the conclusive one. He’s the only one who can give that – and he’s long gone. And he never gave one while he was alive.

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