Krist Novoselic: “We Weren’t Just This Spooky, Heavy Gang. We Could Be Light, Too. Maybe That’s What Made Us Different”
“The whole American political system needs shaking up,” says Krist Novoselic. “It’s like, prog rock was good, but in the ’70s certain bands became institutions. They needed the Sex Pistols to come along. That’s what American politics needs right now.”
On paper it may look like a facile analogy, but in reality, Krist is not prone to sounding off. His are the reasoned arguments of a man of action.
When Kerrang! rings him on a January morning, Krist is – in his capacity as chairman of electoral reform organisation FairVote – about to travel to the city of Olympia, in Washington, to attend a hearing at which he will state his case in an attempt to amend local legislation.
“We’re advocating proportional representation in the United States,” he continues, outlining FairVote’s overall aim. “Instead of a two-party state system, we want more freedom, more choice. But maybe that’s a whole separate interview.”
Krist’s interest in politics harks back to his discovery of punk’s libertarian principles at the age of 13, and precedes his time in Nirvana – the band he formed with his friend Kurt Cobain in 1987, and whose ideological outlook did much to change the attitudes of the so-called grunge generation. When Nirvana ended, following Kurt’s suicide in April 1994, Krist struggled to come to terms with his acute sense of loss. In that same year he formed Sweet 75 with Venezuela-born singer Yva Las Vegass, releasing one album before splitting in 2000. Then came the short-lived Eyes Adrift, dubbed a supergroup and featuring Meat Puppets legend Curt Kirkwood on guitar and vocals, and ex-Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh. Further collaborations include The No WTO Combo, the band he assembled with Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil to play a one-off show in Seattle during the protest-strewn World Trade Organisation meeting in 1999, and a stint with his heroes Flipper, the San Francisco slo-core outfit with whom he made two albums in 2009.
Today, he lives in Wahkiakum County, Washington, on his farm with his second wife, Darbury, and is the master of his local Grange – a social order designed to deal with local matters. His involvement with Granger culture – which he describes as being “co-operative” and “anarchist in principle” – has led to the formation of Giants In The Trees. In the wake of the release of their self-titled debut – produced by Jack Endino and originally only available digitally, and latterly as a homemade, signed CD via the band’s site – the four-piece have already been labelled “forest grunge” due to their agrarian aesthetic, their rootsy, psychedelic sound and dark-hearted pop melodies.
A self-confessed rock scholar and record nut, Krist cites the pastoral breadth of Led Zeppelin III, the dishevelled glory of Flipper’s Generic, the mischievous sensuality of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, and the psych-pop magnificence of Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 long-player, Surrealistic Pillow, as touchstones for his current band. Oh, and there’s Nevermind, too…
How did Giants In The Trees come together?
“There’s this really cool building in Skamokawa, a Grange hall, which was going to close. We didn’t want that to happen, so we organised a jam session to support it. I took my accordion along and only three other people turned up – and they were Ray [Prestegard, guitar], Jillian Raye [vocals and banjo] and Erik Friend [drums]. When we started playing it was so compelling that we just kept at it.”
Were they in other bands?
“Yes. They’ve all played music for a long time. Ray is a great singer-songwriter in his own right who plays locally. He plays slide and box guitar, too. He had a great song called Moving Target that he’s done for years but we reworked it for the album by adding things to it.”
A song like Pretend is earthy, but it also has big pop hooks.
“I like ’70s rock that’s quite light and that’s what we wanted this band to do. That song’s an old song by Laser Trash, the band that Jillian and Erik were in. She’s our secret weapon. She’ll come up with a compelling vocal phrase that changes everything, but a song like Sasquatch [the first single, released in July 2017] is really collaborative. The whole album is.”
You unleash the accordion on there, too…
“Yes. There’s a lot of variety on the album, but the accordion has to be played as a fun instrument, otherwise it’s dreadful! The In-Between is actually a song from the sessions I did with [Nirvana friends and mentors] the Melvins for their Basses Loaded album. They didn’t use it, but we re-recorded it and Jillian added a vocal that turned it into a pop song.”
You’ve said Nevermind was an influence on Giants In The Trees. How so?
“Nevermind is a very song-orientated record. That’s the same with Giants In The Trees, the songs switch gears. Nevermind did that too. The songs had very individual personalities, but there was also a cohesive whole. That’s what we wanted to do with this album.”
How do you feel when you listen to Nevermind now?
“It’s pretty loaded for me, in a lot of ways. I think it sounds really good. It’s nice to remember Kurt, but a lot of things pop up when I hear it. It was, like, 25 years ago too, which is strange.”
Had you been in other bands before Nirvana?
“No, never. It was Kurt’s first real band, too. We were just disciples of the Melvins. When we could, we would just listen to their rehearsals. They had a very disciplined work ethic, so we learnt that from them.”
What made you decide to finally form a band with Kurt?
“We got along really well. He played guitar so I switched to bass and borrowed an amp from somebody. But Kurt was always artistic. That was obvious. He was always writing songs, or drawing or painting or doing sculpture, and it just came together. He had great songs from the start because he wrote from such an early age.”
You also shared a certain supportive punk aesthetic.
“Yes. It was the basis of the whole ’80s underground punk rock scene. People just found each other. There was this support network. It was quite a unique time.”
For all your punk rock attitude, you still wanted the band to be successful.
“We did. We enjoyed playing together. That was our salvation, really. Loving pop music, not being dogmatic and trying to have as many different types of songs as we could was important to us. And trying to have as much fun as possible. We had a sense of humour. The music could be dark, intense, menacing and, at times, light and melodic. Maybe that was the key to it all. We weren’t just this spooky, heavy gang. We could be light, too. Maybe that’s what made us different in the end.”
When we met in 1989 you both said you wanted to be in the biggest band in the world. Is that how you actually felt?
“I think Kurt felt that more than I did. He got there and then he hated it. But he was always like that. He would spin things around a lot. That happened all the time.”
In the wake of the success of Nevermind, was it a case of be careful what you wish for?
“Yeah. It really was. There was so much pressure, too. And of course what happened was really hard to deal with for everybody.”
When you wrote a tour diary in 1992, you described Nirvana as playing with “all the passion of a wet fish”. Did you feel lost as a band?
“I remember that. It was when we went to Argentina. I suppose I could’ve put that better. There were good times and bad times. When Richard Nixon resigned as president in 1974, he gave a speech to his staff – and I have this on LP – which was off the cuff. He said, ‘Sure, I’ve been knocked around, but until you’ve been down in the valleys, you don’t realise how glorious the peaks are.’ That’s a good line. And it’s true, but sometimes it was just such a blur.”
When Kurt died in 1994, how did you end up coping?
“That’s a good question. I took a long time. It was so traumatic. I was depressed from it. It had terrible effects. I had other things in my life at that point that held me back, too. But in the end, time healed it and you end up dealing with it. Then, eventually, you come to terms with things… but I don’t know, really. You just have to try to be positive.”
Why do you think people still discover and gravitate towards Nirvana?
“It’s the melodies and the hooks. There’s also the power and the diversity. We didn’t just beat one idea over the head. I was listening to [In Utero song] Milk It the other day. That is a really sinister song. Actually, ‘menacing’ is a better word, but there’s a lot to capture the imagination in different ways. Kurt was also so intense and it all came together on the records. That song is a good example of that intensity and because there’s no video for it, it’s all about the imagination.”
There seems to be an ideology from that time that you still carry, and that still resonates with new audiences.
“I hope so. It’s anarchism. We came out of this punk rock scene, then we signed to a major label and that was really nice too! To get plugged into that centralised system, we got into the beast, on to MTV and FM radio. We justified it by saying we put the ‘anarchy’ A on cheerleaders’ shirts in the [Smells Like] Teen Spirit video! That was our way of washing our hands of what we did. We were trying to say, ‘We hope that if we get this exposure then we can espouse these values and we can change the world.’”
When Nirvana ended you formed Sweet 75. How do you view that band now?
“It was way different from Nirvana. In the end it didn’t turn out very well. To be honest, it was totally derided. Some of the moments on that record were self-indulgent, but there are some good moments, too.”
Fast-forward to 2002 and Eyes Adrift. The band only lasted a year. What happened?
“I think it was my fault. I wasn’t into touring. There was also the business side of it. We weren’t on a major label and we went to this radio station one time and we had to record a snippet for their Sunday-night alternative show. They were never going to add us to their playlist. I’d already seen all of that in the ’90s with so many bands. The music industry was deteriorating at the time. I really didn’t feel like playing that game, but I do think that album still sounds pretty good.”
The show you played with The No WTO Combo was documented on the Love From The Battle Of Seattle mini album. How was that experience?
“Basically, we played in the middle of all this chaos. Originally, I thought all these people were just expressing themselves, then it got dark. I wrote pretty extensive sleevenotes on the record about that. The National Guard were shooting tear gas. That’s when I split because the gas does get into your nose. But someone did throw a gas mask onstage that they’d got from an army surplus down the street. And the gas mask actually worked!”
On a personal level, what has the experience of Giants In The Trees taught you?
“To count my blessings! But I’m going for it. And I’m aiming to have fun every day and I like being in a band right now. In fact, we’ve just written another three songs and it feels really good.”
At this stage in your career, is there anything left to aspire to and achieve?
“That’s a good point. What is there left to achieve? These days I deal with things with good cheer. I do countless selfies and I’ll sign Nirvana records – although I guess I’m advertising that now by saying that, but I do that anyway so it doesn’t matter. At the start people were coming to see us just to see me, but they’re staying to watch us. The shows are good so, right now, I have to say I’m pretty happy.”
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