Tony Fletcher
Krist Novoselic
Publisher Title Transcript
Sky You Don't Have To Be Mad To Be In Nirvana, But It Helps! Yes

Nirvana are the Guns N' Roses you can like. They smash up their instruments and swear constantly, but their amplifier-busting songs are peppered with social commentary and raw punk rebellion. They left a trail of carnage on their tour fast year. Now they're back with their new single Come As You Are and threaten a stadium assault in Britain this summer. Tony Fletcher talks to them.

On the final date of their tour last year, in London's Kilburn National Ballroom, Nirvana drummer David Grohl trashed his drum kit and, finally, lifted his bass drum above his head for singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain to puncture it with his guitar eight times. On their appearance on The Word Cobain announced that his girlfriend, Courtney love of the girl-group Hole, was "the best fuck in the world". And when they appeared on Top Of The Pops Nirvana doctored the lyrics of their Top 10 hit Smells Like Teen Spirit to say: "Load up on drugs and kill your friends".

America's latest rock 'n' roll export came from nowhere, or at least as near to nowhere as you're likely to get, to become the new rock 'n' roll saviours. They started life in a small logging town called Aberdeen on the American Pacific north west coast, 100 or so miles from Seattle. But they were loggers with attitude, and the rock 'n' roll rollercoaster has propelled them to number one in the American album charts. Nevermind, their first album for a major record label (Geffen), forced Michael Jackson off the top spot to make way for their no fuss rock 'n' roll. 

Having been propelled to this state from minor cult status in a matter of mere weeks by forces even they and their record company don't fully understand, the trio are now desperately trying to slow the chaos down. 

Last year ended with a European tour that frequently saw them toy with the self-destruct button as Smells Like Teen Spirit became a teen anthem, and Nevermind was the success story of the year.

Early 1992 finds Nirvana trying to enjoy some time at home, but that has already been interrupted by a typically irreverent east coast headline slot on the prestigious Saturday Night Live, the shooting of a new video, and an impending tour of Japan. Now Nirvana's towering six-foot-six 26-year-old bass player Chris Novoselic is giving up his Sunday to conduct yet more interviews. He has a very good reason for wanting to keep a grip on Nirvana's runaway success during 1992: he has been sober for a month, sticking with a new year's resolution that he would rather not think about. 

"It's like the booze brochures say - one day at a time," he says, explaining that the strains of instant success found him dangerously close to alcoholism by the end of last year. "You're around the same people twenty-four hours a day," says Novoselic, "and you get drunk every night for two and a half months, and it just drives you crazy. So I quit.

A sober perspective has given him the chance to reflect on Nirvana's hectic, heady rush to the top, particularly the decision by various media forces to crown the group as leaders of a previously unheralded generation. It's a title that has scared 25-year-old vocalist and lyricist Kurt Cobain away from interviews, and one that Novoselic is equally unwilling to pick up.

"We have ideas and opinions, and they're just as available for somebody to consider as anyone else's," he says. "But I don't think any of us feel qualified to be a spokesman for a generation. You need to be sharp, an intellectual, a visionary… I'm just a person."

Even so, the subject gets him thinking. "Every generation's had a spokesman, seems like, but in the late eighties and early nineties there's not really been anybody. Everyone's like, 'I want to sell records and do my thing and play it safe'."

And there lies a key reason for Nirvana's popularity explosion. Call them what you like, but "safe" is not among the options. Nirvana's sudden success is largely attributable to an en masse public reaction against the carefully manipulated and, above all, safe pop and rock music that dominated so much of the 80s. When Smells Like Teen Spirit comes crashing out of the nearest speakers these days, it is not so much the sound of three angry young men from Seattle as that of millions of angry young people around the globe.

Novoselic and Cobain's lives were changed forever when punk finally found its way to their hometown in the early 80s.

"It was musically and culturally dead, like living in Siberia," says Novoselic, refuting comparisons to Twin Peaks ("It's not that romantic at all. It's economically depressed"). Along with a handful of like-minded friends, the pair would travel to cities - Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma - to catch live shows.

Punk had been dead for some time, but in America its roots had burrowed their way into an underground movement. There it was reborn as "hardcore", where its uncomplicated noise and anti-authoritarian message struck a chord with thousands of alienated kids, among them the duo from Aberdeen.

"It was a reinforcement of our identity as being non-conformist," says Chris. "We totally loved the music, and we liked the ideals - in the early eighties it was really charged with a political and social conscience and we identified with that to our surroundings."

Determined to use music to escape those surroundings, the pair formed a partnership, and began working their way through a succession of drummers. Aberdeen being a musical cul-de-sac, they cut a demo, which quickly landed them at Seattle's cult label Sub Pop, home to the likes of Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Tad.

Sonic Youth were doing the same thing in New York, as were The Pixies in Boston, and all of them were selling records and packing out clubs. Nirvana were no exception once their debut Sub Pop album, Bleach, recorded for $600 and sounding like it, was released in June 1989. Settling down with drummer Dave Grohl, now 22, and for a while with a second guitarist, Nirvana toured America and Europe constantly.

With the major labels snapping at Nirvana's heels, the group opted to follow Sonic Youth to the David Geffen Company, where they hoped to sell maybe 200,000 albums at best. Instead, they have sold several million worldwide, rivalling Guns N' Roses as David Geffen's biggest money-maker. 

By the end of last year rock fans worldwide had grown increasingly frustrated at being force-fed neatly categorised, manufactured campaigns. Jane's Addiction, with music that appealed to both metal and alternative fans (the American music business labels anything it doesn't understand as "alternative") and with the ground-breaking Lollapalooza tour that brought Ice T, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Living Colour on to the same bill, offered huge potential but split up rather than be swallowed by the machine. Nirvana unleashed Nevermind, full of song titles as unsubtle as Territorial Pissings, just as everyone was looking for a rebellious and marketable alternative.

"If we hadn't come along somebody else would have, just as easily," says Novoselic. "We came out of left field a little, but not too far - our music's very accessible, but it still has this hard edge to it. It's just rock songs from the heart." Nevermind is a great album for many reasons - its melodies, its juxtaposition of ballads with punk thrashes, Cobain's infectious voice and his "screw you" lyrics (just as in yer face as the lyrics that brought Bleach to the attention, eg, "I'm a negative creep. I'm a negative creep, and I'm stoned," from the song Negative Creep), but mostly it's just because the passion seeps right through it.

Nirvana's fan base gave Nevermind the instant record sales that convinced American radio stations and MTV to take a gamble on Smells Like Teen Spirit; the public responded by buying a million copies of Nevermind in just six weeks. "It was kind of a people power," says Novoselic with a smile. "We're the Boris Yeltsins of rock 'n' roll!"

Beyond making an epic album, delivering many an apocalyptic live show and considerably livening up the charts this last six months, Nirvana have achieved a notable musical milestone: bringing heavy metal and "alternative" rock audiences together.

"We're not a heavy metal band," says Novoselic categorically. "If they're into our music and they like us that's great, because it just goes back to that 'opening doors' thing. But I think metal has pretty much exhausted itself; when metal enthusiasts claim us as the new metal I think they're just trying to cling to that label."

He is similarly antagonistic towards the "alternative" tag. "I always thought 'alternative' was just a scam by the major labels. Here this movement was coming up and getting bigger, and threatening their big-time money makers on top. So they set up this genre 'alternative', and instead of kicking the old guard out, it just grows off to the side. The labels can then say, 'This is alternative, this isn't the new thing'. But I think alternative came up to the top on the same level as the big stuff, and now hopefully it's going to move over sideways and crowd out the old junk."

Then he pauses. "We're not alternative any more. Maybe that label's dead. It's just a new incarnation of rock 'n' roll, that's all it is."

He's right. Nirvana are another progression in a 35-year-old brand of music that proudly refuses to die, and part of their charm is their refusal to conform to its supposed standards. They do, however, continue some rock 'n' roll traditions, like smashing their equipment to bits at the end of each show (they consider encores passé). On one infamous occasion, playing before a crowd of 900 in Ghent, Belgium, they even managed to smash up a member of the audience too. As Novoselic finished off the band's instruments with a particularly violent finale several sharp lumps of guitar and drum were catapulted into the front rows of the audience, smashing one surprised fan full in the face, dislodging his front tooth, covering him in blood and sending him into convulsions of shock. Backstage the concerned Novoselic did his best to console the fan before paramedics came to take him away. But although he regrets the incident, Novoselic is unapologetic about the group's uncompromising attitude.

"I wish our record was doing this well last year, around the time of the Gulf War," says Novoselic. "Because when all the other bands were either supporting the war or cowering away in fear of hurting their career, we would have been totally outspoken because we just don't give a fuck. We've sold enough records now, we don't give a shit."

This couldn't-care-less attitude has been welcomed by fans, but has also been misconstrued. "We've had an image in the media of just being a bunch of drunk destroyers - and on occasions, it has got out of hand - but it seems like it was the whole core of the band's image, and it really bugged us. It's not like we don't care about what's going on in the world, because we do. Now that we've got a big hit record, it's not like the next record we're going to play it safe and do some radio-friendly record, we're just going to do what we want."

© Tony Fletcher, 1992