Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ At 30: Krist Novoselic Interviewed

A re-issue project fuelled by abiding friendship - and AI...

Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ is one of the most storied, mythologised albums in rock history. Transformed into globally recognised icons by ‘Nevermind’, the band sought to take their music – as Neil Young once termed it – back into the ditch. Recruiting none-more-underground Steve Albini to produce, the record peeled back the major label veneer, revealing the intensity of Kurt Cobain’s artistry in the process. What followed next was, ultimately, tragic; an unbearable period of loss, an inevitable break-up, and different paths.

But all that belongs to the history books. ‘In Utero’ has just been re-issued for its 30th anniversary on a number of lavish formats, and it’s with no small degree of trepidation that Clash is patched through to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. It comes as a relief, then, to learn that beneath the weight of grunge lore he’s actual person, who remains thrillingly engaged with both music and politics.

When Clash catches him he’s in Chicago, planning to drop by a Foo Fighters show later that evening. With both Dave Grohl and Pat Smear – who joined Nirvana’s touring line-up – in residence, it’s a kind of family re-union. “Oh we see each other as much as we can! When I’m close to LA I’ll pop by. Sometimes we’ll play music. We’re tight. We’re family. We’re relatives.”

The conversation will, naturally, turn to old times. The ‘In Utero’ anniversary is looming, an album that fosters mixed memories for those involved. “I’m grateful people are interested,” he insists. “It’s not like this thing in a used record store, that nobody cares about. New generations care about Nirvana. And 30 years is a great excuse to re-issue this package.”

Krist has been deeply involved in the new re-issue. It’s more than just a commercial product, it’s about fostering the memory of someone he was close to, and cherishing the art that the band created together. “The music is always there,” he says. “People connect to the music. There’s something about it that effects people. And that’s the success of Nirvana. I’m always looking for ways to remember Kurt Cobain, and this is a good way to remember what he did with music. There’s something about the way he approached art – his intensity. People connect to that. Dave, Kurt, and I would get in a room together… and we just loved to play. We’d play together well. We’d focus on the songs, settle on an arrangement, and that’s it.”

One of the facets of the release Krist is most excited about sharing are the previously unheard live concerts. Prised away from the original tapes, the studio have used state of the art technology – including, yep, AI – to enhance the audio, and unleash the performances underneath. He explains: “We took the original DAT recordings – which are obsolete, but still great quality – and used AI to remix the live show.”

“AI is controversial but in this case it was a good tool, and we embraced it. It made sense. It’s authentic. It’s just a tool, it’s not, like, inventing something new. In this case, it’s something that makes the tape sound better. It was a good show anyway, it was a good performance. This captures this through technology. If you’re a Nirvana fan, you can just put the record on and get lost in it.”

A passion for connection still runs through Krist’s art – it’s his outlook on life. Progressive in politics, he’s always looking for what unites people, and to open up new pathways in the process. Looking back on those times, he comments: “It was a lot different pre-‘Nevermind’. That album broke the band open. All of a sudden you’d get this world class band playing all over. And tickets were only, like, 20 bucks! Even if you adjust for inflation that’s pretty accessible tickets. Working family prices.”

“Things really changed after ‘Nevermind’. There are personal things, that are the stuff of legend. But in the end, you had three musicians who connected in this group… and we just did our thing.”

Ultimately so much of the process that produced ‘In Utero’ – the Albini sessions, the label pushback, the post-studio mixing – that belongs to the history books. In terms of sense memory, however, there’s so much that the books, for all their merit, can’t touch. 

“We went to Minnesota, this freezing town, living together in this house. We’d walk across the road and go to our studio. We’d do our thing. That was the glue right there, the connection,” he recalls. “I remember when we walked in there and Albini was really sceptical… because we were really normal. I remember walking in, and Steve was leaning on this amp, with his arms crossed.”

They looked at each other, and launched into ‘Serve The Servants’ – first take, first time, that’s what made the final record. “That’s when we won Steve over. He thought, OK they can play. They’re a band… a real band. That’s what you hear not only on the ‘In Utero’ recording but also with us playing live. It’s a document.”

The thrill of seeing his music on vinyl remains intrinsic to those experiences. “It’s a wire dragging across a piece of plastic, and somehow it touches people. But that’s the magic of Kurt, his appeal… he drew people to him. That’s a good way to remember him. That’s the essence of it.”

Famously, the original version of ‘In Utero’ drew criticism in some quarters due to its lack of low-end – put simply, Krist’s bass didn’t resonate enough. Remixed in 2014, they’ve opted to return to the original on this version. “It is what is is!” he laughs. “I hate to say it, but I guess we could have turned it up!”

Jocular and often self-deprecating, Krist Novoselic is a world away from austere, mythical rock god. But then, even Kurt Cobain was a human being, someone with flaws, but also someone with a wicked sense of humour. “Oh we laughed a lot. He had a great sense of humour. Kurt was not one dimensional. And you can hear that in the music. Some of it is raw emotion, and that’s what draws people in – it’s old fashioned music… it’s not gimmicks or clickbait, it’s just music. That’s why we listen to music, that’s why we make music. Everything else is technology.”

“People want to connect to Kurt. You know, people always ask me, what was he like? I wish he could have made it through that period… because the world needs Kurt. I miss him. He was multi-faceted. He was hilarious! But if Kurt got annoyed or upset, he’d shoot you that glare and… oh yeah. He’d turn like a windmill. He’d constantly contradict himself. But you’d point that out, and he’d laugh: oh, I’m busted!”

Even after the passing of decades, Krist retains a clear passion for what those musicians created. Discussing the live performances, he marvels at the physical attack the line-up – whether a straight three-piece, or with Pat Smear augmenting it – could achieve. “Dave is just a force on drums. And I’m the bass player, so the kick drum is my boss! I’m triangulating between the drums and the guitar. When Pat was up there, he would boost us as people, but also as musicians. The full package. We had a show – this big stage set-up, you’d get songs, you’d get the hits. Kurt was up there pouring his heart out, which was so demanding on him. That’s one of the keys to Nirvana, he was so intense. And he was able to express that.”

What those musicians created ultimately resonated around the world. For its ethos, its stark lyricism, and its incredible songwriting ‘In Utero’ seemed to stand for something. The cover art adorns a million t-shirts on every continent, the design constructed from “kitschy things Kurt could buy in stores for like, five dollars.”

“He was a great artist, like a painter. He’d made sculptures. I have one – this rising spirit, but it’s kinda off… really spooky and dark,” Krist says. “With ‘In Utero’ he went to a doctor’s meeting, heard the phrase and thought it sounded cool. That’s all it was. The art was the scope of his aesthetic. Ever since I knew him he was into stuff like that.”

“The cover of ‘Nevermind’ is a human body, but the cover of ‘In Utero’ is a human body. But what does it mean?” he exclaims with a knowing laugh. “Up to you, dear reader!”

Right now, he’s balancing political commitments with Third Secret, a kind of all-star grunge combo featuring members of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and more. An album was released independently this year, and – when schedules align – he wants to get back out on the road. “If you listen to that music, it’s just grunge. It’s just what we do! The band just came together. And I’m really excited about it.”

With time ticking down, we’re warn this is the last question. Shooting out shot, Clash asks: most underrated Nirvana song?

“Off the top of my head? ‘Even In His Youth’!”

‘In Utero – 30th Anniversary Edition’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Additional Research: Jack Wilkie
Main Photo: Anton Corbijn

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