MSN Music Blog - Reverb

Krist Novoselic on Kurt Cobain's writing process and the 'In Utero' aesthetic

'Dave and I aren't carrying the music now. It's Kurt'

By MSN Music Partners Oct 8, 2013 12:13PM

By David Fricke
Rolling Stone


"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.


Bing: More on Nirvana


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.


More from Rolling Stone:
Where Does Nirvana's 'In Utero' Rank on Rolling Stone's List of the 100 Best Albums of the '90's?
Q&A: Dave Grohl on Kurt's Last Days and the Making of 'In Utero'

Rolling Stone's List of the 100 Greatest Artists of all Time: Nirvana
The 100 Greatest Singers of all Time: Kurt Cobain


Photo: Dave Grohl (left) and Krist Novoselic at the premiere of "Sound City" earlier this year. Photo by Chris Prizzelo/AP

Oct 13, 2013 8:25AM
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Oct 8, 2013 9:12PM
So amazing!! Even after all of these years I still listen to Nirvana's music daily. All 3 members were freaking genius. The music is such a perfect mix of powerful bass, incredible guitar, the heaviest hitting drums ever, topped off with Kurt's powerful voice and mysterious lyrics that seem (IMO) to relate very closely to peoples insecurities and disappointments on a universal level. While I wish we had more, I am so appreciative of what we do have. I mean there are a lot of songs that we got in that little bit of time, including so many live variations. I think anyone who is not into Nirvana, and who blow them off because they didn't have as many hits as Britney Spears on the charts probably just "don't know what it means," so I think Krist and Dave and Nirvana fans are all fine with your disapproval.

On a side note, in that Unplugged session, I was thinking Kurt made the joke about "I thought we were a big rich rock band" to cover his joke about "I already have 5 cups of tea, but thank you" maybe sounding rude and not going over too well. I thought that might have caused him to feel a little uncomfortable.

Also, this is off subject, but after listening to Beeswax for over twenty years I finally looked up the lyrics the other day and got a kick out of it. That's one that could definitely have some different interpretations. Is he talking about a dog or a man? ha ha. Maybe a comparison, like the meat and flowers. I love this stuff! Great stuff Krist, thank you guys! Looking forward to the new, old stuff.
Oct 8, 2013 6:48PM
jimi hendrix cut his teeth in 50s rock bands touring the US, especially w/ Little Richard. and he got his break in England. He is only from Seattle, he didn't make his name there. That was NYC. get your rock history correct before you open your mouth. there was nothing one hit about nirvana.
Oct 8, 2013 6:43PM
lmfa @ 454bigblock336, you say Nirvana is a 1 hit wonder? They completely launched the grunge rock scene. Every cd they put out sold tons and 20 years later their music is still ALL OVER THE RADIO........ Sounds like a 1 hit wonder to me.

Oct 8, 2013 6:30PM
Where do you people come up with this one hit wonder crap... 
Love Nirvana~
Oct 8, 2013 4:39PM

could careless about nirvana they were a one hit wonder the rest of the garbage you couldn't understand Hendrix will allways be number one up here in seattle

Oct 8, 2013 4:22PM
I love Kurt Cobain .  I think he is/was a genius and appreciate what he created despite his suffering.  I wish he hadn't chosen to take his life, but we all have different ways of doing that very thing. He read the world his way through his music and I won't be forgetting the conversation.
Oct 8, 2013 3:46PM
Kurt Cobain is the LAST person musicians should look to for inspiration. I don't mean his music. Nirvana was damn near a one hit wonder but not for the reasons people think. They had the POTENTIAL to make greater and greater music. What cost them the chance was Cobains selfishness. I have little choice but to believe he CHOSE the early-out path. I can not recall his exact words but I recall an interview where he clearly stated his intention was to live fast, crash hard, and "...go the way of Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin...". He took whatever future talent he would have with him, and selfishly left his daughter without any sort of father in order to guarantee the fulfillment of his own twisted prophesy for his life.  Musicians need to consider longevity. Look at Bob Dylan. The guy sings like a penguin with strep throat, but his LYRICS become more genius with time. Why? Gee...I dunno...could it be because he's STILL ALIVE?
Oct 8, 2013 3:43PM

That was a really interesting interview.  Whenever I listen to the Unplugged album, I am still to this day struck by some of Kurt's odd mannerisms.  It is pretty clear he had a lot going on in his head.  When he says things like "I thought we were a big rich rock band" I really sense the discomfort he felt that came with fame.  I also think he really hated how popular "Smells like Teen Spirit" had become.  Another MSN commenter mentions them only having "ONE hit"... I think Kurt would of been embarrassed by what is perhaps something of the truth in that comment... even though they certainly had other well-known hits. 


God, I wish he didn't leave us.  Such an amazing vocalist.

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