Graham Reid | | 6 min read
The front cover of the business section of the New York Times isn’t the kind of place you expect to read about rock musicians...especially not a somewhat scruffy bunch of torn-denim, straggle-hair alternative rockers like Nirvana. But a couple of weeks ago there they were.
Money talks – and it was positively screaming when Nirvana’s Nevermind album unexpectedly shot to the top of the American charts, sold almost four million copies in a couple of months and now looks set to almost double that.
Just this week Nevermind went back to number one again in the States, pushing aside country star Garth Brooks, pop rapper Hammer and the black-or-white Michael Jackson. Think of the audience that those artists, and Nirvana, are appealing to and you’ll see the truth of Paul Simon’s line, ‘every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”
Nirvana are for the generation which takes Mojo Nixon seriously when he says “Don Henley must die.” Maybe there’s a new breeze blowing and rock with attitude is where it’s at now.
Whatever, Nirvana are certainly coining it in and the business writer at the New York Times liked the notion of unexpected success, so the band got that front page.
“I heard about that story,” says Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic lazily down a phone line from Adelaide. “It was about all the money we were going to generate, apparently.
“There’s no way around that fact, so no use in barking on like some world reformer or socialist -- because we are going to be making money.
“But what are you goin' to do? Give it all away? For me it means I don’t have to work – although this is work, but not really. It isn’t like a life of no responsibilities where I can say I’m going off to the beach now.
“I get edgy just sitting around and have to do something. That’s why total big-time capitalists keep generating more money, they just want to keep themselves busy and what they are best at doing is making money.
“But this thing for us is only going to last a couple of years and so you might as well get and spend your money...although I try to live frugally.”
That kind of clear-eyed perspective has been the hallmark of this band, which began recording for the independent Sub Pop label before moving to DGC, the major label headed by David Geffen.
“We’re guaranteed two albums by DGC,” singer-writer Kurt Cobain told Pulse magazine late last year, “and then after that they can drop us any time. I imagine we’ll get dropped eventually and after that it doesn’t matter. We’ll start another band. I’m not really sure if I like the idea of the limelight – fame – that’s going on right now. I don’t like talking about myself every day.”
Novoselic feels much the same. Everything happened very fast and the change in lifestyle has become demanding: “It’s phenomenal in the sense of the word phenomenon. It just took off and we have to stand aside and watch it go. It’s getting bigger and bigger...another concert sold out, another thousand records sold...so it goes.
“We have to do a lot of business things now but that’s a pleasure to do because if you don’t do them yourself someone else does and it can be unsatisfactory.
“But we do too many interviews. I don’t mind if it’s only a couple of day, but at the beginning of all this there was a barrage of six a day – same questions – a photo session, another interview and so on. Days off would turn into a press day, too.
“When we were on an indie we never did any. We did a seven-week tour of America and only did two interviews. But signed to a major label, they schedule them in all the time.
“It’s okay and now we’re getting more days off than we were, maybe three on and one off. That keeps you fresh and your perspective clean. It could drive you insane because you are constantly analysing the band when any question is thrown at you. It’s like being on an analyst’s couch.
“It’s nice to have time off and walk around the places you are in.”
And while other million-selling artists sink into limos and slink into fashionable eateries. Novoselic talks enthusiastically about what he has been doing in Australia. His wife shops (“she’s crazy for it”) and he bought a boogie board and went surfing. In cities like London and New York, he says, he goes around museums to “get these experiences while I can.”
Along with Nirvana’s refreshing rock-with-attitude on Nevermind is the band’s candour at their sudden fame.
“Right place, right time,” says Novoselic.
The DGC label didn’t have a major investment in the band, he says and there was no high-profile marketing campaign, either, to account for their success. Over a series of indie releases they had built a good following especially in Europe, England and Australia, where Sub Pop had effective distribution. Long-time fans came out of the woodwork, the word went out on Nevermind and the album gained momentum by itself.
Novoselic sees that process as being an inevitable one as so-called “alternative” acts which have been deliberately marginalised by major companies eventually come in from the cold.
“Traditionally in rock ‘n’ roll new artists would come in and push old ones aside, but it became such a big business generating billions of dollars that the industry wanted to keep the big earners up there as a safe money generator.
“Now we’re matching those big sellers we have created an interest in the ‘alternative’ and those bands are now pushing in from the side.”
But coping with their success – and the sudden changes in schedules to appear in an equipment-smashing Saturday Night Live spot recently – has meant on the job training for the Seattle-area three-piece. Novoselic can barely disguise his enthusiasm for the time off they will have during March and April.
They will make home video full of wild ideas like the old Monkees movie Head. Novoselic launches into recounting favourite scenes in the cult movie which has cameo slots by Frank Zappa and was produced by a young Jack Nicholson.
It is easy to sympathise with some of the road-weariness he feels as he knows there's another interview coming up, a plane trip to another show in another town. Yet the band’s live reputation is awesome despite the fact that some of the material they play from Nevermind is up to three years old.
Much of Nevermind is rerecordings of an album’s worth of material the band and producer Butch Vig did for Sub Pop but which sat in the can – or slipped out on to shoddy bootlegs – while the DGC deal was waiting to be signed.
Novoselic says they keep that older material fresh by stretching it out live and making it different for themselves every night. They constantly drop and replace material as they feel exhausted by it. And they play loud.
“I don’t use ear plugs. I’ve tried but couldn’t and know we’ve all got hearing problems. We’re constantly saying ‘What? At each other. If I put one finger in my right ear, things sound all muffled.”
That’s the price the band is paying now just like the constant demands on their time for business decisions and interviews. And Novoselic is keeping himself busy rewriting the band’s biography which he says was a parody of a bio but which people believed.
“Time magazine fell for it,” he says with obvious disbelief and irritation. “There were just all these crazy stories of how we formed which were ridiculous so now I wanted to set the story straight.”
And the story so far is one of no compromise, indie guitar rock and an attitude which smells like teen spirit. Oh, and interest from business news writers trying to figure out how this trio slipped through the driftnet.