Sunday 15 September 2019

Nirvana's Krist Novoselic on Nevermind's 20th anniversary

Nirvana, from left, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic
Nirvana, from left, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

'I miss Kurt and things shouldn't have happened how they did, but they did." Krist Novoselic is refreshingly blunt when it comes to the pained history of the band he co-founded and the tragic, self-inflicted fate of his best friend.

"Life goes on. You do your thing, but let's not forget that what brought all the attention to the band and sucked us in to this swirl and notoriety in the first place was purely the music and how it spoke to so many people."

The music spoke profoundly to more than 30 million people who bought a copy of Nevermind; their iconic 1991 album that was released 20 years ago this very day and spectacularly knocked Michael Jackson off the number-one spot. Nevermind was such a staggering success that Cobain was unwittingly daubed "the spokesman of a generation" and singer of the "flagship band" of the so-called Generation X. Coincidentally, Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture was published in 1991.

Nevermind was more than just an album, it was a landmark cultural phenomena. Set aside the pop culture theorising and you're left with a stone-cold classic and a modern masterpiece that's re-issued with a range of tantalising extras today.

"When it came out, I thought it was the most significant American rock'n'roll album since The Doors," says Ray Davies of The Kinks. "Twenty years on and it is still fresh."

Author Sloane Crosley maintains: "Nevermind was the first album of my generation that didn't feel like it was a loan from the generation just before us. I can still remember hearing the monstrous riff of Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time on Dave Fanning and instantly being completely captivated."

Bob Nastanovich of Pavement nailed it when he spoke of how Nevermind took off to absolutely stratospheric proportions. "Now we have Lady Gaga, people with entire staffs constantly manipulating situations to create monster-type famous person, but that wasn't the case with Nirvana. They made Smells Like Teen Spirit and, within 30 days, they were that big. It can't happen again. It won't happen again."

"The whole paradigm has flipped," Novoselic agrees. "When we were growing up the record companies and mainstream traditional media would be the ones pushing things. We were punk rock, so that pulled us into this subculture with fanzines and a loose, anarchic set-up compared to a corporate structure. Now, with the information revolution, you need to pull people in. We're trying to give people something. It was recorded 20 years ago and it seemed to capture the imaginations of millions of people. It's a phenomenon. I don't think you can stamp that on a piece of plastic or paper. It's up to the individual and how they find meaning in it and how they react to it."

Let's return to this month 20 years ago when they started to become the biggest band in the world. "We never thought it was going to be that big," Novoselic says. "Our record company printed up 40,000 copies, which was huge for an indie band at the time. To sell that would be to go gold. So Smells Like Teen Spirit is the single and we've done a video that's on heavy rotation on MTV. It then gets added to all these radio station playlists. It becomes a phenomenon and people want to buy this record, but it's not available for a couple of weeks, so that adds to it. There was nothing like digital downloading. As far as promotional activities went, our marketing guy said, 'We'd open the door and all these CDs would start flying out. We just got out of the way'.

A cultural shift happened. There was a new young president. There had been a significant timeframe where there wasn't even a number-one rock record before Nevermind. People thought rock was dead. The sociological imagination changed. Rock was not dead, it was just reinterpreted. You can hear it on Nevermind. It's a rock record with riffs and melodies."

Perhaps the phrase that sums up the changing of the guard 20 years ago in music is 1991: The Year Punk Broke, a documentary chronicling the Nirvana and Sonic Youth tour that visited two Irish venues that don't exist anymore, Sir Henry's in Cork and the Top Hat in Dún Laoghaire. The Year Punk Broke will also receive an anniversary re-release this year.

"There weren't a lot of people there to see Nirvana," Novoselic remembers of their Irish visit. "It was the calm before the storm. We were just this band from the north-west corner of the United States and we were playing in Europe, which was crazy for us. I always loved going to Ireland because there was good beer and no language barrier. Ireland is easygoing and I found other places really uptight. Culturally, the ethnic Irish have had a lot of impact on the United States, so I've always felt comfortable there. I go to Croatia and I feel pretty good [Novoselic was born to Croatian immigrants Kristo and Marija Novoselic], but I'm basically an American who grew up in the United States."

Let's return to Nastanovich's rather definitive statement, "It won't happen again." Will it?

"It's a different world now," Novoselic muses as he pauses for thought. "I'm really into MIA. She's Sri Lankan by way of London. You listen to the music and it's rap with an ethnic vibe and it's really modern. Who knows where in the world it will come out of, but if somebody is talented and compelled to be an artist they're going to capture that imagination.. They could be from Indonesia or Siberia, we just don't know. It could be a record made on a mobile phone by someone in a city that no one has heard of. The mix of global communication and technology will lead to something. My thing is that Marx was off by a suffix. It's not communism, it's communication that will bring the world together."

What's next for pop culture is exciting, unknown and mysterious, whether it be an era-defining album, a new musical genre or, as Novoselic contends, a merge with technology into something intangible we can't even begin to imagine. Whatever it may be or not be, there will only be one Nevermind.

"People come up to me and say, "Krist, Nevermind changed my life," Novoselic enthuses excitedly. "That's when I remember Kurt and how committed, focused and compelled to do things he was. I always chalk one up for Kurt when I hear that."

Happy birthday to one of the best albums ever made.

The 2011 Deluxe Edition and Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind is out today

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