Nirvana: Smells Like Chlorine Spirit

IT’S 9AM IN Tacoma and Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic has just got up. He’s got things to do, cats to feed, a house to move and an early morning international call to make. Hope this isn’t too early for you, Chris.

“No, I wanted to get up this morning. So what’s this story going to be?”

Oh, probably something like, Nirvana: The Calm After The Storm.

“Uh-uh. I’d say the waters are still pretty choppy.”

Right. But when you go for a surf and somehow start a tidal wave, it can take a little longer to come back down again. Six months ago, Nirvana were happy enough with their lot. The American underground’s best and brightest were supporting their heroes and mentors Sonic Youth, limbering up for a mid-afternoon slot at the Reading Festival and eagerly anticipating some cheeky mainstream record industry entryism, care of their imminent Nevermind album and its dollar-friendly patrons at the David Geffen Company.

Maybe they’d sneak some daytime radio play via one of their virulent heavy pop classics, perhaps get a subversive video image on to late-night MTV, sell a few thousand records and make enough money to trash as much equipment as they wanted. Just what any self-respecting, genius alternative rock outfit would expect from their first foray into the corporate jungle – not much.

Six months later, and Nirvana are still happy with their lot. Only the thing is, it’s a different lot. A lot of records, a lot of gigs, a lot of press, a lot of aggro and now – inevitably – a lot of money. From being the coolest band on the planet they’ve become the hottest, and, by some yardsticks, the biggest, too. Nevermind is heading for worldwide sales of six million, while ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the MTV smash that syringed a nation of blocked ears, has only just made its graceful exit from the US Top Ten.

After touring virtually non-stop since last August, Nirvana gracefully closed this most unlikely chapter in their story three weeks ago with a show in Hawaii. From there, the newly married Kurt Cobain went to LA with his wife, Hole’s Courtney Love, and Dave Grohl returned to his old stamping ground of Washington DC. Chris, meanwhile, along with his wife Shelley, headed back to Tacoma, where they got ready to move into their recently-purchased house in Seattle.

THOUGH WEARY of the constant demands of the press, Chris is still willing to do interviews, if only because of the fact that people are going to write about Nirvana anyway. Also, despite the band’s stated intention to take at least two months off, their record company has released ‘Come As You Are’ as the second single from Nevermind, and have two more scheduled stops to coincide with the annual summer lull and the expected Reading appearance in August. Vacation or no vacation, everyone still wants a piece of Nirvana.

And when I say everyone, I mean even Tori Amos. The whips ‘n’ cleavage rawk bimbo turned kooky sensitive artiste has recorded a version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for her new EP. It’s slow, it’s sombre, it’s shite. It’s also news to Chris.

“How the hell did she do it?! Wow, I guess we gave her permission. That’s frightening. Y’know, I think there’s another guy who does a cover version of it too and I haven’t heard it either, and I don’t even care anymore, ‘cos I’ve heard that song so many times. I think I even played it in a dream last night. It’s the truth! I like the song and stuff, it’s a good song, but I’m just trying to get away from it. At our last show in Hawaii we didn’t play it, and on the radio the next day they were saying Nirvana didn’t play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’!”

At the moment you must feel like you never want to tour again.

“Yeah, that’s how I feel right now. Nobody seems to have been talking about tours, nobody’s bringing it up. We’ve toured ever since Reading, and we’re just sick of it, really. Soundchecks, travelling…I mean, the show’s are fine. That’s the thing that keeps you going, the satisfaction and excitement of playing in front of people. It was fun to go to Australia and Japan and New Zealand. We even went to Singapore, though we didn’t play there, we just had a press day. That was interesting, to go to some places you’d never been before. But everything else that goes with touring, being in a band, airports, interviews, restaurants…it just gets a little much after a while.”

Is playing live sufficient compensation?

“Yeah…it is,” he sighs, less than convinced. “But y’know, it only lasts for an hour. After the show, though, is a nice period, ‘cos I think, alright, another day’s done. But it’s not like a proper job, because it’s so exciting what’s been happening with the band, everything just kind of blowing crazy. And you can still cruise around, you can be late for a soundcheck, or you can just blow a soundcheck off. You’re not gonna get fired.”

Nirvana are obviously now in a position to take such liberties. How aware are you of the change in your fortunes?

“Everything’s totally changed. I bought a house! I can go out and get furniture. And when I go to Safeway I can get the butter and cheese and not worry about if I’m spending too much money.”

What about when the first royalty cheque arrived recently – a memorable experience?

“Not really, because it went to our accountant, and I never actually saw the cheque. The accountant calls up, goes ‘OK, half of this money is going to taxes and fees and expenses’. Half of it just flies out the window. Whatever’s left you divide by three, and you pay taxes on top of that, you have to pay your personal tax. So money goes, man, let me tell ya.

“People always ask in interviews about the big sell-out question. And I’m like, well just because you make some money doesn’t mean you’re selling out. Now, if I started voting Republican because I know they take care of rich people – that would be a sell-out. I still vote on the left, even though they wanna put a massive tax on the upper tax bracket. My conscience won’t let me change that. I don’t care – I got a house, that’s all I care about now. I can be comfortable. I’m just gonna buy a toy here and there.

“All this means I don’t have to work anymore. If you live modestly you can always have money and not worry about it. So Shelley and I can just be comfortable and smooth off for the rest of our lives!”

You said earlier you were excited about what’s happened to the band. Is that your main emotion concerning the past six months?

“No, because although I’m pretty surprised at what’s happened, and excited, a lot of the time I’m just sick of it. Like people walking up to me and asking for my autograph, people see you and they start whispering, I get sick of stuff like that. Here in the United States there’s always articles about the band in magazines and people writing letters, putting their perspectives on the band. Y’know, all we did was put out a record last September. Jeepers! I get sick of these people trying to paint a picture of it, trying to dissect it. Sometimes it’s kinda positive, sometimes it’s negative, sometimes it’s saying we should jump off a bridge. Whatever.”

Nevermind.

CHRIS EXPRESSES particular resentment at the US music media, who didn’t go near Nirvana until Nevermind started turning various shades of platinum but who now can’t find enough space to accommodate them. The recent Rolling Stone front cover featuring stars from Beverly Hills 90210 – “that awful TV show”, crackles Novoselic – had ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as its cover line.

“And in Sassy magazine, on what to wear at the prom, it says, ‘Smells Like Prom Spirit’ – man!”

Erm, seen any NME headlines in the last six months? You’ve added words to the cultural vocabulary.

“Well, sometimes I think we’re just a fad, y’know? God, who are we? We’re a band.”

One of the many memorable Nirvana moments on the recent world stage slog occurred when the band ended their Euro-tour in December at the Transmusicales Festival in Rennes. Obliging the organisers with the regulation press conference, Chris and Dave sat under TV-compatible spotlights surrounded by approximately 30 European journalists quizzing them about all the problems of the world like these were the spokespeople for a generation. Didn’t it strike you as odd that you were expected to have opinions on all these issues?

“It’s probably because we’ve shot off our mouths a lot over the last year. Y’know, people are so apathetic, the planet’s dying, all the governments are corrupt, just basic left-wing ranting. It’s nothing to do with music, it’s just exploiting the opportunity we have to maybe start a dialogue, and if they can read about something we bring up it’s just another reminder. Other people distribute flyers or put up posters – it’s just a reminder, here and there. Maybe it’ll sink in. But to take the helm, yup, I’m the leader…man, I’d just be buried by somebody that was really good and gifted at it. Plus I don’t like the whole thing of leaders and the cult of personality.

“People ask Kurt about his lyrics and he just never gives any straight answers about what a song means. I listen to the lyrics and that’s what they mean to me. And I apply that back to politics, people should be out trying to improve themselves, every day trying to do something better and better. To just go out and follow somebody in some stupid band thinking he or she is spokesperson for a generation – hey, you should try harder, man.”

In an attempt to justify their success – to themselves, as much as anyone else – Nirvana hope their breakthrough will have beneficial effects for like-minded bands, and already the majors are frantically flinging their money at almost any American band with a roughed-up guitar sound. As Chris acknowledges, it could all go horribly wrong.

“Well, what’s good is a lot of really good underground bands are gonna get really good distribution and some money. In a best case scenario, a lot of these bands’ attitude and values can rub off on mainstream culture. But I’m not holding my breath.

“In a worse case scenario, the underground gets purged, and bands don’t develop, they’re getting signed right out of the garage. And in the worst case scenario, you get fabricated alternative bands, people who just don’t know what’s going on hopping on board the bandwagon.

“A band like Jesus Jones are like that. They were marketed as alternative but they’re just mainstream rock ‘n’ rollers. And that’s why I speak out against bands like that – to exploit the alternative world, bands that have worked so hard for so long and these jokers come around going ‘Yeah, we’re alternative’, it’s just like a slap in the face for the whole community.”

Another obvious example must be Pearl Jam, Epic Records’ trad metal hacks from Seattle; the subtext of the label’s marketing message is that, decked out in street gear and coming from where they do, these guys are just like N*****a, honest-kids-would-we-lie-to-you?

“Yeah! Those guys are not an alternative band! They’re a hard rock band.”

And a pretty bloody straight one at that.

“Yeah. I just don’t get it. They’re from Seattle, that’s it. If you were talking to Kurt he’d be totally slagging those guys, but I don’t like to. But yeah, they’re a classic case of what I was talking about. See, record companies are schemers, they have to have marketing strategies. It’s gross. But let’s wait and see what happens, ‘cos I’m Mister Naive Optimist – (adopts tone of breathless naive optimism) ‘Oh yeah, all these bands are gonna come up from the underground, it’s gonna be great, the music’s gonna be great and maybe it’ll reflect on culture, and maybe people’ll raise their standards musically, and then they’ll wanna raise their standards in other mediums like television and film, they’ll wanna watch better things’…When in reality what’s probably gonna happen is there’s just gonna be an alternative Vanilla Ice! You’ll see!”

Well, it happened with punk…

“Yeah, and rap too. Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch – there you have it! All those rappers from New York, bustin’ their asses on the total underground scene. And then look what happened.”

People just have to trust their ears.

“Most people don’t have ears (I think you’ll find they do – Medical Ed.). Y’know, for people like you and me, music’s a way of life. We watch bands, we listen to bands, we’re just engulfed in it. But to the majority of people, music is like anything else, it’s like the television. They just don’t care. But people do have an inclination towards enjoying rhythm and melody, everybody has that in them. Their standards are just so much lower. It’s like some people are into paintings, they totally know Van Gogh, they totally know Rembrandt, they know all that shit – I have no idea about that stuff. It’s an avenue I just don’t care to pursue.”

Presumably then, you can understand why so many people have taken to Nirvana – they hear the melodies first and foremost.

“Oh right. ‘He’s the one who likes pretty songs’ – there you have it. Nevermind is a very safe record. It’s not like Big Black or the Butthole Surfers, something totally left of centre. We’re just slightly left of centre. It’s pop. It’s just that the guitars are heavy.”

If it’s that simple, why hasn’t it been done before!

“I think it’s been done before. Husker Dü’s done it. People say The Replacements, but I never really listened to The Replacements. Y’know Sabbath did it, around Sabotage and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, later on, they got away from the riffiness and did more melodic stuff but still were heavy.”

ALTHOUGH HE has no desire to speak to, or see, either Kurt or Dave for a while, Chris estimates that after a couple of months rest from each other Nirvana will reconvene to jam and “see what comes up – usually what happens is songs just fall out of the sky.”

But any new material is a long way off. First there’s the possibility of another US tour, then some summer festivals. Summer should also see a retrospective compilation of early demos, out-takes, live tracks and Peel Sessions, a sort of ‘Bollocks To The Bootleggers’ package. And of course, more singles from Nevermind. How do you feel about that, Chris?

“Fine. There’s a lot of songs on that record that could be singles. I think we’ll try to poison the airwaves as much as possible! But not to the point of over-saturation, like with ‘Teen Spirit’. I mean, I got self-conscious about that. Like gee, MTV plays our song 20 times a day…Well, why don’t they play it ten times a day and show other bands that are cool in that time slot? If we didn’t want them to put out more singles then I guess we could rant and rave and not have them, but I don’t see why. Better our songs than anybody else’s.”

Mr Chris Novoselic of Nirvana – long may he waive the rules.

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 21 March 1992

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