The image is on endless repeat in one of those grainy video loops that click to life every time Krist Novoselic's name is mentioned. The lanky former Nirvana bass player, woozy from admittedly tying a few too many on, jacks his bass into the air after his amp overfeeds, takes his eye off the instrument for a split second, and it comes screaming down onto his head. The late Kurt Cobain playfully kicks Novoselic in the ass as he stumbles off the MTV stage.
Debut album from Krist Novoselic's new band.
Staring at the impossibly tall man seated at the far end of a clean, neat conference room table in the Los Angeles Geffen Records headquarters, however, no such image from his storied past could be less representative.
Novoselic is crammed into a too small swivel office chair, with a blow-up poster of the cover of Nirvana's breakthrough 1991 album Nevermind strategically propped on a filing cabinet over his right shoulder. His new band mate, Yva Las Vegas, sits across from him looking every bit as rock 'n' roll in purple nail polish, vintage leather jacket, checkered pants and blue hair as her partner looks hip investment banker.
"I was just looking to have fun," says Novoselic of his reason for forming Sweet 75 two years ago. "We're not the Monkees. We don't have an identity or a gimmick. We're a real band."
Sober both physically and mentally, dressed in an impeccable, pricey black suit, no tie, dark green oxford shirt, sensible black shoes, short hair thinning on top, Novoselic is the picture of professionalism and calmness.
He's also wary of journalists, since most seem much more interested in his past than his future. And for good reason. A recent L. A. Times story mentioned Kurt Cobain's name before it mentioned Novoselic's.
|"We're not the Monkees," says Novoselic. "We don't have an identity or a gimmick. We're a real band."|
Rockin' live with his old band. What were they called?
Novoselic is serious in an unthreatening way, but when he stares into your eyes and answers a question he's likely heard before, he seems both intensely focused and utterly detached. Asked about his long silence, he says cryptically, "There's lots of booby traps and potential for injury whenever you talk about things, whether it's me or a concentration camp guard."
Novoselic spent much of the past three years making appearances on behalf of the anti-censorship group he helped found, JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee). The organization has led the fight against a pair of Washington State bills, SB5466 and HB1448, that threatened to severely limit the sale and distribution of music considered "obscene" by a government committee.
But now it's time to rock again.
That Novoselic chose to come out from under the impossibly large shadow cast by Nirvana with Sweet 75's low-key self-titled debut says a lot about where his head is at these days. The 14-song album is neither as brash, nor nakedly self-exposed as former band mate Dave Grohl's two Foo Fighters records. "I started back in very slowly," he says, like Grohl, wary of discussing Cobain's April 1994 suicide, or much about Nirvana's rocket ride to fame for that matter.
"I was just so blown-away at the time...there were days when I would just hang around in a bathrobe," he says quietly. "There was so much to think about...I just emptied my mind out."
The last sentence hangs in the air for a moment and then Novoselic executes an almost imperceptible shift in his chair that sends a clear message about that portion of the interview being over.
If Novoselic is the quiet, reserved veteran weary at the end of a solid week of 12-hour press days, Las Vegas, a former street singer, makes up for it by throwing off kinetic sparks of personality and stepping in when her partner's attention is waning. "Whatever identity we have just happened," she says. "I've had some of these songs since I was 18 years old and Krist came into it with some of the melodies already, so it was pretty organic."
"Krist's wife called me to sing 'happy birthday' at a surprise party for him in May of 1994," Las Vegas explains.
"And she showed up with a friend and sang it and some other Venezuelan music and I was really shocked," Novoselic interjects. "I was so stricken and impressed that I called her soon after and asked her to record some songs for me."
Searching for a singer. Oh, what's that? Hmm. Could that be Yva Las Vegas? Maybe she'd be...
Novoselic had been hanging around a local Seattle studio at the time and Las Vegas' eccentric charm was just what he needed to get him jazzed about music again. The pair quickly produced a demo for Geffen Records with Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin and faster than he imagined, Novoselic was drawn back into "the only thing I've ever really wanted to do," i.e., making music. "Me, Bill and Yva were compelled to rehearse four hours a day," he says, labeling the sessions "fun and exciting," as if still amazed.
Preferring to remain just off-center stage, Novoselic, like Grohl, who came out from behind the drums to play guitar and front the Foo Fighters, laid down his former weapon-of-choice, the bass, and picked up a guitar in his new band. But not just any guitar. Novoselic chose the sometimes unwieldy 12-string. "I'd always plinked around on the guitar, but around the time Sweet 75 started," Novoselic says, "I took a lot of time to develop and switch over from bass, trying to develop at least a bit of proficiency."
Novoselic says the way a 12-string guitar is cut made it easier to make the switch -- that and its "fat sound."
"There aren't a lot of bands that play 12-strings," he boasts, counting the Byrds among the only ones that come to mind. "I bought an acoustic one, I found it actually and I started writing on it. I was later inspired by this Diamanda Galas/John Paul Jones CD I heard, so when I saw an electric one in L.A. it was settled."
The resulting sound of the band, in which Las Vegas sings and plays bass and former Shudder to Think member Adam Wade plays drums, swings from the X-like punk rumble of the opening track, "Fetch," to the frenzied blues of "Red Dress" and the traditional Venezuelan strum of "Cantos De Pilon," on which R.E.M.'s Peter Buck adds some mandolin and Novoselic plays accordion. Along the way the trio take a stab at some punky power lounge in the martini nation "La Vida," mix some mariachi into the raving "Six Years" and get a visit from the legendary trumpet player Herb Alpert on the swinging Booker T-like song "Dogs."
One of the first songs the band completed was the oddball "Ode To Dolly," a punkabilly stomp that is a straight-faced homage to chesty country legend Dolly Parton. Aside from that song, however, it is Las Vegas' expressive voice and gut-check lyrics that climb out above the fray most noticeably. In the raw-throated train-track dirge of "Bite My Hand," she growls "Give me back my sorrow/ Save your love for tomorrow," anchoring the low-end sound of the track with a raw emotional honesty missing from many of today's pre-fab divas.
"I read a lot of perspectives on the band and people in the band and it left a bad taste in my mouth," says Novoselic. "It was a lot of pulp. A lot of crap. But it wasn't enough to not put myself in that position again because the music is always there."
Las Vegas, who later found out she and Novoselic went to the same L.A. high school (San Pedro High, where former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt is a fellow alum), says the L.A. punk scene of her youth was an influence on her singing style, but it was edgier singers such as Galas, Yoko Ono and Nina Hagen that really blew her mind. "The essence of what they do propels me," she says.
Sweet 75, named after a Theodore Roethke poem in which the author thanks an editor for paying him a "sweet 75" for a poem, made their live debut at Seattle's RCKCNDY opening for Tad in 1995, a gig Novoselic says wasn't as difficult as he'd imagined. "Life is a challenge," he says, his face fairly blank, his emotions hard to read at the end of a long day. "Anytime you do something in the public eye it's a challenge and you do the best you can to handle the pressure from within."
Las Vegas steps in, adding, "The pressure of Krist's history is out of my control, I can't worry about it. It will always be there because Krist was part of a band that was a phenomenon."
Both visibly cringe and get tense, if not downright angry, at the suggestion that some of the more explicit lyrics, penned by Las Vegas, might contain the kind of hidden references to Cobain critics and fans have foisted upon some Foo Fighters songs. Is it out of the question that a sampling of the provocative lyrics to the cathartic "Japan Trees" ("You think you're up, but you're only high/ You find your spoon and your spoon is dry/ You don't think Jesus really helped you out") could easily be mistaken for a veiled commentary on Cobain's widely-publicized battle with heroin addiction?
Novoselic spent much of the past three years making appearances on behalf of the anti-censorship group he helped found, JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee).
"There's no connection between the spoon..." Las Vegas finally says, after asking for a clarification of what exactly the writer thinks is being implied.
Novoselic doesn't dignify the question with a response, looking not so much disgusted as disappointed. "It's about my own life," Las Vegas adds after a tense silence. "It has nothing to do with whatever you're trying to say."
Another shift from Novoselic, another line of questioning brought to a close without anger but with finality.
"I always downplayed the Nirvana thing," Novoselic says, professing to never having bought into the "cult of celebrity" erected around the band. "I read a lot of perspectives on the band and people in the band and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was a lot of pulp. A lot of crap. But it wasn't enough to not put myself in that position again because the music is always there."
Las Vegas professes to being unconcerned with an "image" or a "look" or even a "sound" with which to define the band for sound byte-worthy packaging. "We just want to play the songs and have fun, you know?" she says.
"Our band doesn't have a front person," says Las Vegas. "We're both in front. If the drummer wants to say something, he's there too."
And, despite her engaging look and emotional delivery, she swears, "Our band doesn't have a front person. We're both in front. If the drummer wants to say something, he's there too. We just come to play and we play our set. We joke around. We don't have to be these serious, self-absorbed people. We just come to play, it's all we know how to do." She laughs, as if worse things could be their fate.
A Geffen publicist comes in to remind Las Vegas and Novoselic that they have a luncheon engagement. "Sure, it's a challenge to start over," he says, as he gets up. "Some of it I'm looking forward to and some I'm not. But I always knew I'd keep playing in a band. I probably always will."