Deep in the woods of Minnesota, a sleepy CHRIS NOVOSELIC is just finishing a major magazine article on the Bosnian/Croatian conflict, while Steve Albini helps NIRVANA produce their next great punk rock album. Croat Chris talks to EDWIN POUNCEY about his own experience of the war, and the state of mind of the world’s gnarliest rock trio…
NIRVANA FANS who make a visit to London’s Royal Festival Hall on March 2 are in for a big surprise.
Chris Novoselic, the band’s bass player, will be making a guest appearance as part of a special benefit concert for War Child, an organisation that has been set up to send aid to children and young people trapped in Bosnia, Croatia and other war-torn parts of the world.
It is a project that is especially close to Chris’ heart, as part of his childhood was spent in Croatia, and his family have since moved back there after emigrating to the United States.
Fascinated by what Chris might be preparing for his slot (alongside the likes of Robert Plant, Denny Laine, The Bhundu Boys and, er, Lindisfame) a phone call is made to Pachyderm Recording Studios in Minnesota, where Nirvana’s third, as yet untitled, LP is being recorded with producer Steve Albini.
The line is as clear as the cold Minnesota morning air — but Chris is asleep after burning the midnight oil trying to put together his article on the Bosnian situation for Spin magazine.
“I’ll tell him you called and I’ll get him to ring you back,” drawls a familiar sounding voice on the other end of the line.
It turns out to be Steve Albini, who is also waiting for something to stir in the Nirvana camp in order for him to press on with Operation Third Album. Yo Steve! Wanna chew the fat for a while? Like, how’s the new record shaping up so far, for instance?
“We’ve only been here a couple of days and we’re almost done with the music,” he reveals.
That’s quick… Is it turning out like a real punk rock record?
“Oh exactly! Everything about it is like a punk rock record… except that we’re making it out in the woods. I’m very pleased with the way it’s going.”
So this will be quite a feather in your trilby then, Steve.
“Naw… not really,” he growls. “What it means is that I’m gonna have a lotta loser, asshole industry scum calling me on the phone next year. Other than that, it won’t change my life at all.”
He’s only kidding, I can tell. In fact, Albini’s pretty excited about the way Nirvana’s latest is turning out.
“I think it’s going to end up being an excellent record, actually,” he enthuses. “It’s certainly a record that no-one in their position would expect or want to make, and I’m really pleased that’s the way they’re making it.”
Has it got a working title yet?
“Nope! Most of the songs don’t even have titles yet. It’s going great guns, though, and I have no reservations.”
Steve returns to his knob-twiddling and promises to get Chris on my line as soon as he is up and running.
TWO HOURS later and Chris is still a-slumber. Again, Steve promises to give him my message. Soon after this conversation, however, the phone goes. It’s Chris, sounding bleary-eyed, apologising for running late and explaining that he was busy recovering from his all-night writing exercise.
So what’s that all about, Chris?
“I’m doing this feature for Spin on the situation in Croatia and Bosnia,” he explains. “I guess it’s a major story because it’s over 3,000 words. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. I’ve written a few silly things here and there for magazines, but this is the first time I’ve ever written anything serious.”
I remind Chris when last we met — way back in November ’91 in Muggia, a small town in Northern Italy that acts as the border with (then) Yugoslavia.
At that time, the rumbles of civil war could be heard from afar and the gig that night was packed with as many Yugoslavian Nirvana fans as Italians.
I particularly remember Chris being concerned about his father, who was living back in Croatia, but since then they have been back in touch and Chris visits his family regularly… Not, however, without the occasional incident.
“I went back in July for a holiday,” he explains. “My wife and I stayed on this island where my father is living. It’s really safe and the ceasefire was pretty stable then… except we had this one experience. We were camping on the edge of the island, it was evening, and all of a sudden we heard this machine gun cackling. We thought, ‘What the f— is that? What the hell is going on?’
“We thought we were safe, and it just got closer and closer. We grabbed all our camping gear, crumpled it up, threw it in the boat and took off. We were backing out from where we’d moored the boat, and this bullet goes ‘SHOOSHH!’ right over my head.
“I thought, ‘What the f—!’ It turned out it was some stupid soldier who had probably had a few drinks and was f—ing around.”
Hairy… But that hasn’t stopped Chris going back for more. His soon-to-be-published article on the conflict has sent him scurrying around for facts from the front line.
“I went back there about three weeks ago,” he reveals, “I took the angle of the story of the war from the perspective of youth culture. I interviewed a lot of young people and put in their perspectives, how they’d used music as escapism and how they’d used it to hearten them, because it’s an emotional time for everybody out there right now.
“I give a background of the situation from World War Two to the present, I try to point fingers at those currently responsible and I get into the atrocities too which is kinda… gnarly. Hopefully it will open up a lot of eyes. I try to be graphic with the atrocity accounts. I came up with a quote that goes, ‘It’s one thing to believe that these things are happening, it’s another to comprehend them.’ I did that at one point, I actually comprehended what was happening and it was terrifying.”
Do the other members of Nirvana feel as deeply about the situation as you do, Chris?
“Oh yeah! But because of my background and because I spend a lot of time over there with my family, I have a special connection.”
Do you keep your feelings about the war separate from your work as a musician, or do you try to incorporate it?
“I keep it separate, but it’s weird, because the very time when this thing started, the band started to explode insanely. I think if I was at home and I had a normal job, I would dwell on it a lot more. But I have so many demands from the band, I have just been caught up in this whirlwind. I was always following the situation, but in the past five months I’ve been getting really vocal about it.”
So just what will you be doing for the War Child event in London next month… Any big surprises?
“It’s too bad that we’re in the studio or maybe the band would play,” he sighs. “I’m just going to go there and kinda show my support, maybe read some observations I wrote down.”
How do you feel about sharing a stage with Robert Plant, Denny Laine and Lindisfame?
“I don’t care who’s there! There’s no time for any pretensions or attitude. I’m full of pretensions and attitude but I think it will be fine… I get along with anybody.
“I don’t know any of these people,” he freely admits, “but wasn’t Denny Laine with Wings?”
He sure was, Chris. Are you going to jam with any of your fellow artistes, perhaps?
“No! I made it clear that I wasn’t going to jam with anybody. I was going to do my powerful, explosive, spoken-word piece and leave.”
TALK INEVITABLY turns to how things are going in Nirvana- ville. While the new album is being slammed joyously together by Mr Albini and the boys, fans can get a quick fix of their favourite group on the recently released Nirvana/Jesus Lizard split single that Touch And Go have just pumped out. How did this project manage to break from a dream to reality, Chris?
“We were just hanging around with the Jesus Lizard, we played a few shows with them, and we said we should do a split single together. You know how those things are, you talk about it — ‘yeah! cool!’ — but this one actually materialised. We got on the ball and made sure it was seen through to the end.”
Nirvana’s side, entitled ‘Oh, The Guilt’, is certainly worth snapping up; it’s a song that echoes the band’s early Bleach days and is an indication that a more back-to-basics approach is on the cards.
“Yeah it is,” agrees Chris, excitedly. “We recorded that last year in Dave’s room-mate’s basement. We just hammered these songs out and said, ‘That’s a good one for the split single!'”
Is the new record a return to your Bleach attitude?
“Yeah! Back in that sort of direction, but not all the way back there. It’s kinda stuck somewhere in between the two records but it’s a lot more natural-sounding. I mean Butch (Vig) did a good job on our last recording, but he brought in another guy to mix it and it was, like, glazed over. That’s not going to happen this time. The energy’s there, that’s the important thing. There’s a lot of spirit in these songs. I listen to hear how much spirit is there and then I listen to the technical proficiency. I think spirit is more important.”
And how is the band getting on with Albini? Does he make you do strange things to get in the mood?
“No, we hit it right off,” laughs Chris, “we just joke around for a while and then go right in and record. I think because we’re playing so well there’s no tension. There’s nothing worse than when you’re playing shitty and you end up playing the same song six times because you can’t get it right. You get frustrated and then things start to get tense. The whole mood just goes down the f—ing shithole. That hasn’t happened at all. When we’re rolling it just happens.”
So you sound happy to be back in the studio.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s cool. A kind of a break. Maybe we’re absolving ourselves from Nevermind now. Nevermind is way behind us now and there’s a new era looming up ahead for us.”
© Edwin Pouncey, New Musical Express, 27 February 1993