Twenty years after Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ exploded, the bassist talks about the album, the hype, the lessons learned, the re-issues, and what losing Kurt Cobain meant to him.
Born to Croatian immigrants in Compton, Calif., in 1965, Novoselic’s family lived in Southern California until relocating to Aberdeen, Wash., in the early ’80s. It was there that he met Kurt Cobain, who was impressed by Novoselic’s passion for punk rock. After numerous invitations, Novoselic agreed to form a band with Cobain. Nirvana recorded its Sub Pop debut album “Bleach” in 1989 for $606.17 with Seattle producer Jack Endino. After several lineup changes, Cobain and Novoselic eventually partnered with drummer Dave Grohl and Nirvana released two studio albums on Geffen – “Nevermind” (1991) and “In Utero” (1993) — before Cobain’s suicide in 1994. The most famous band to emerge from the grunge movement, Nirvana has sold 25.6 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. An avid political activist, Novoselic is helping put together the 20th-anniversary reissue of “Nevermind.” It’s due Sept. 27 on Universal Music Enterprises.
What role did “Nevermind” play in shaping the Seattle scene?
Seattle music got a lot of attention, like in the late ’80s, with bands like Mudhoney. There was a period when there were stories in the English press about the “Seattle sound” and they were hyping it up. Either Nirvana was never mentioned or there was a brief mention. And we were like, “Wow.”
Rock music wasn’t really happening. There were these beachheads — Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction — these alternative rock bands that weren’t the Sunset Strip look and sound. They had songs on the radio and videos on MTV. They broke the ground, but “Nevermind” was in the right place at the right time, and the right record. It blew the whole lid off of what was called “alternative music,” which is a label I never liked. Even “grunge” was way better [of a label] than “alternative” music. There was no alternative; it was the new wave of rock. That was a new interpretation and style of rock music.
Does it seem like 20 years ago?
I think so. Twenty years is a long time and a lot has gone on. But Nirvana for me personally has been prominent the whole way. It’s been so enduring. First you’re 16, then you’re 18, then you’re 21 and then you’re 40, then 63, or whatever retirement age is. So there are these milestones. But regardless, the music lives on. People are listening to the music, talking about it and thinking about it. It’s really neat. I never thought it would be so enduring.
How business-focused was Nirvana during that time?
We didn’t have any business experience or knowledge of anything like that. Sub Pop was going to sign a deal with [Warner Bros.]. So by proxy, we were going to be on a major through Sub Pop. Kurt and I talked about it and we also looked at the environment around us. Every week there was news of another independent band signing with a major label. Then you had Kurt, who said, “I want to get on a label and get promoted and be huge.” But he didn’t want to. You know what I mean? So there was this conflict. And I just said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s get an advance. They’re going to pay us money.” I thought we were going to have all this cash in shopping bags. But it didn’t work out that way when you do your taxes and professional fees. Then you have to pay for your own record out of the advance. I don’t even remember; it was like $250,000. But we spent it. Half of it goes right out the door with income taxes and other obligations.
You sign with a major label, and you’re doing these standard contracts . . . I don’t know. There are two sides to every coin. They’re taking a risk. Nobody had any idea that “Nevermind” would be this blockbuster. In fact, the label printed up like 40,000 copies, which is, like, indie gold. And that was supposed to last us for a long time. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was in heavy rotation on MTV. It was added to FM radio stations. And people wanted to buy it, but they’d go to Tower Records and they’d say, “Sorry, we don’t have it.” So that just added to the phenomenon . . . But I don’t have any complaints. There are bigger regrets and bigger issues with Nirvana than those financial business deals.
What other regrets do you have?
Kurt died. That’s it. I’m not going to downplay that. It’s all I can really say. It never should’ve happened. But it did . . . It was heartbreaking, to say the least.
What’s the biggest impact Nirvana had on the Seattle scene overall?
We actively promoted bands from the underground. We were on “Saturday Night Live” and I made sure I wore an L7 shirt and a Melvins shirt. We’d talk these bands up because we were idealistic that music would turn people on to a different way of seeing the world. It’s like the underground ethics of the world we came out of — punk. I was probably pretty naive. We were accused of being sellouts because we were on a major label. But we could say that we were out there promoting a revolution [laughs]. So it gave us something to talk about in interviews, like, “Oh, we love Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth or the Vaselines. You don’t have to accept what’s pushed on you. There’s a whole underground.” There were values that we grew up with.
How hands-on were you in putting together the upcoming 20 thanniversary reissue of “Nevermind”?
I worked with our management, Silva Artist Management. They were working with the label. So we were discussing different concepts. The idea was to have a DVD and package that shows how “Nevermind,” which I’m told is a seminal record, came about. So you can watch a concert of the band. We had this concert that we never really did anything with. It was filmed in 1991. So we worked on that — mixing it and editing it. And then we collected documents.
We recorded with Butch for the first time in Madison with Chad Channing on drums. Demo tapes on a BoomBox with sketches of the songs. The first mix of “Nevermind” before Andy Wallace came in. So you can look at it and see that it took some time. And the band that is playing on the DVD had been playing for quite a few years. I think it was a good live band. We represented those songs on “Nevermind” very well. It wasn’t all taped together, or cut and pasted on computers. It was a pretty good representation of a band.