I first met Yva on my birthday a few years back, at a surprise party at my house," says Krist Novoselic, describing the chance encounter with Venezuelan street singer Yva Las Vegas that led to the formation of Sweet 75. "A friend knew Yva from having heard her sing outside Pike Street Market in Seattle and hired her to perform traditional South American folk songs at the party. I thought she was really talented so I got her phone number."
"I was just planning to go over and sing 'Happy Birthday' and split," Las Vegas remembers, "but I ended up playing Venezuelan folk songs all night. Believe me, I had no intention of starting a band when I walked into that birthday party - it was just another gig, you know?" Initially, Novoselic considered producing an album for Las Vegas, but after their first meeting yielded a completed song ("Oral Health"), the two decided to form a band. Las Vegas explains the origin of their name: "It's a line from a poem by Theodore Roethke. He got a poem published and was paid $75. He thanked the publisher by sending another poem in which he expressed his gratitude for the 'sweet 75.'"
Sweet 75's self-titled debut (DGC Records) showcases a singular musical hybrid: equal parts raging rock - a hallmark of Novoselic's work with Nirvana - Latin folk, and the big-voiced blues Las Vegas unleashed on Seattle street corners.
"It's been interesting to see the response to this band," says Novoselic. "The people who first came to our shows were mostly Nirvana fans. It had been a long time since I'd played for an audience who didn't know every word of every song. Playing for people who really didn't know what to expect - and seeing them come away pleasantly surprised - has been great."
Comments Las Vegas: "I know a lot of the world would love nothing better than for Sweet 75 to be 'Nirvana - the Sequel.' It's been an eye-opener for me to see how little some of the fans want Krist to grow as an artist. Having never played in an iconoclastic rock band before, I couldn't understand the pressure to repeat oneself."
Sweet 75 has, in fact, allowed Novoselic to grow and rock. And despite the exotic flavor Las Vegas brings to the band, she states emphatically: "I'm a rock musician and this is a rock band. I know that calling oneself a rock musician in 1997 is not necessarily that hip - oh, well. I grew up listening to Janis Joplin, and my favorite singer of all time is Nina Hagen." Hesitant to overstate this, though, she adds, "My experience in salsa bands and playing Afro-Cuban music is nonetheless bound to permeate our work as well."
Las Vegas left her hometown of Caracas, Venezuela on a 1979 family trip to visit a brother who was living in Seattle. Enthralled by the U.S., she went from Seattle to a boarding school in Tennessee (from which she was later expelled for burning incense). As fate would have it, she eventually ended up at San Pedro High School, just outside Long Beach, Calif. - which is also the alma mater of Novoselic (their paths never crossed there, however). In 1983 Yva finally ended up back in Seattle, where she took her music to the streets.
She relates: "I was playing guitar and cuatro [a four-stringed South American guitar that can be heard on Sweet 75]. I got to play all of my Venezuelan music, but also a lot of blues, and Talking Heads and Circle Jerks."
Busking, of course, proved to be an excellent lesson in winning over a crowd. "When you're a street musician, you can't be self-indulgent - if you don't play things people like, you don't eat," Las Vegas attests. She soon found herself proficient in Top 40 songs like Don McLean's "American Pie" and the entire Cat Stevens catalogue, but she nonetheless managed to put her own stamp on these standards. "I used to be called 'Brillo' back then," she recounts, "because my delivery of those pretty songs had a really abrasive edge."
While Las Vegas holds fast to her identity as a rock musician, Novoselic knew right away that Sweet 75 would never be "just a rock band." He illuminates: "Though it all came naturally based on the divergent influences Yva and I brought to the table, we were especially conscious of breaking out of the traditional 'rock album' mold. We have a horn section on a few songs ("La Vida," "Dogs"), for example, and we also included a traditional Venezuelan folk song ("Cantos de Pilon")."
When Novoselic and Las Vegas began working together, Novoselic exclusively played 12-string acoustic guitar. But hearing The Sporting Life, Diamanda Galas' collaboration with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, led to an epiphany: "I heard that record and immediately thought, 'Why am I playing acoustic guitar? I wanna rock.'" So he went out and bought an electric 12-string guitar, which became a cornerstone of Sweet 75's sound. Moreover, Novoselic's years as a bassist provided a fresh perspective to his approach as a guitarist. "Basically, I wouldn't allow myself to do anything on guitar that didn't challenge my abilities," he says. "That made a big difference in how this album turned out."