Nirvana have just released a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of their iconic final album ‘In Utero’. We chat with Krist Novoselic as he reflects on making the record, with additional insights and memories from the next generation of musicians that it inspired including Neck Deep’s Ben Barlow and Evanescence’s Amy Lee.
Read Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ | The Album Story below:
(Click ‘View Fullscreen’ for digital feature or scroll down for text only version)
TEXT ONLY VERSION BELOW
“When I look at the time between ‘Nevermind’ and then Kurt’s death, it seemed like it was 10 years. There was so much going on. It was an intense time. But in the end, the glue that kept us together was just making music.”
Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic is in a reflective mood as ‘In Utero’, the band’s final studio album, marks its 30th anniversary. Having shot to worldwide fame thanks to the breakout success of singles ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘In Bloom’, the trio, completed by frontman and songwriter Kurt Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl, now found themselves in the unexpected position of following up a smash hit.
“So we went into the studio and we just knocked this record out. We love to play together, we played together well. And then there were songs we had that were from before ‘Nevermind’ that we finally captured. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, I remember when that came out, Kurt and Dave were in that apartment in Olympia, just messing around with a four-track cassette recorder. We’d rehearse a lot and we would crash other bands’ rehearsal spaces in Seattle and just play. Then when we had enough songs for a record, we just did our thing. It’s amazing how three people could make so much noise and in a way that affects the listener.”
As ‘In Utero’ receives a new deluxe reissue, Krist looks back on the development of the eclectic and exhilarating classic, alongside some insights from the next generation of musicians it paved the way for.
A step into new territory in places, critics and many fans at the time of release viewed ‘In Utero’ as something of a left turn for the band. Yet, as Krist points out, all the elements that made you fall in love with Nirvana in the first place remain present and correct.
“You can hear it, like with ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, that dynamic is still in there,” he explains. “It’s all subdued and it all just crescendos with the big chorus and then it goes back again. So that was like Nirvana, that’s what we did that worked so well. It just made sense. That intensity would come through and that’s how people connect with Nirvana. It was Kurt’s intensity, that’s just the way he did his vocal. He was very particular about how he presented his vocals and that’s the magic.”
From the all-out aggression of ‘Rape Me’ to the soft and delicate heartbreak of ‘All Apologies’, Cobain’s unique and varied songwriting ability is laid bare across the 12 tracks, opening younger listeners up to a whole host of new colours and tones.
“My oldest brother, who was a huge punk and by extension Nirvana fan, had a bootleg tape of ‘In Utero’ so that got played a lot,” says Neck Deep frontman Ben Barlow. “I was not understanding much of it when I was that young but I knew it was good. It was dark and aggressive – I remember bouncing between the single beds in mine and Seb’s room. Certain songs reminded me of The Beatles, like ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Dumb’ and so I think my young ears picked up on that in a way too.”
“It’s one the best records of all time” adds Sick Joy’s Mykl Barton. “It feels like the record they were building towards making the whole time they were a band. It has everything, heavy, aggressive, soft, beautiful moments.”
Lead single ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and its iconic music video provided Nirvana with another commercial hit, even reaching the Top 5 of the UK singles chart.
“I was obsessed with that song right around the time when I was like, 12, 13 and I discovered Nirvana,” recalls Evanescence’s Amy Lee, who would later cover the track around the release of ‘Fallen’. “I saw the music video, and It was just like when you hear a song and go ‘whatever this is, I want to live only in this world for a while until it stops possessing my mind’. I love that song. I have memories of standing in high school dances with my ear against the speaker when that song came on, and not dancing with people.”
“It had the dynamic, that loud-soft-loud-soft-loud,” says Krist. “And it had the big chorus. Kurt, when we would listen to music, I don’t remember any of the bands but he’d be like ‘Where’s the song?’ Because there’s a song and then there’s just noise, right? He had a real idea of what a song should be. That’s why it’s so catchy. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is a great song. It just clicks.”
Known for his work with Pixies, The Jesus Lizard and The Breeders to name a few, Nirvana knew that producer Steve Albini was the man to help them push into a new direction with their follow-up to ‘Nevermind’.
“Steve was notorious in the music industry just for being himself – being intense and no nonsense,” says Krist. “But then you get to know him and he’s kind of a softy actually. A really, really fun guy who is fond of pranks. I think what happened was we did that first song, ‘Serve The Servants’, in one take, and we won Steve over. He’s like ‘okay, these guys are a band that can play’. We all lived in this house together in the wilds of Minnesota and it was extremely cold outside so there were no distractions. We were just there to work and we had a work ethic. Steve recognised that right away. There was no real drama as we were well prepared. That’s something I’ve tried to share with other bands, or upcoming musicians, is preparation. You gotta rehearse all the time. Just play as much as you can. And that’s what we did. And we did it because we love doing it. That’s what kept us together.”
In addition to the original album, fans can also now hear the band’s hometown show in Seattle from the ‘In Utero’ tour as part of the deluxe edition. Working with new technology, Krist was impressed by how the producers managed to bring the January 1994 show to the listener in such an immersive format.
“These were digital audio tapes that were on the board so it’s a good basic recording” he explains. “Then we use artificial intelligence to make a two-track board recording into a multitrack. Somehow, you can separate the drums, bass, vocals and guitars and you can get a nice mix. You can buy the vinyl version of it, and you can hold it in your own hands, put it on your turntable and you could get transported away. There’s different packages where there’s backstage passes and a poster. So it’s immersive but not the way you think of it today. It’s basically your own imagination. It’s very old fashioned but, if you were a Nirvana fan, this is kind of what it was like. It is the closest you’re gonna get.”
30 years on, ‘In Utero’ continues to be devoured by new generations of rock fans and musicians. After three decades, why does Krist think it still manages to connect in this way?
“It’s very personal. It’s on an individual basis. There’s something about ‘In Utero’ that invites people inside and they accept the invitation. We had a style that you can hear with Kurt’s voice, the drums and the bass guitar. But also, we didn’t really stick on one idea. We didn’t clobber you over the head with the same idea over the whole record. So there’s a lot of diversity. It takes a lot of turns from just sheer beauty to menacing and everything in between. There’s that raw emotion and that was the magic of Kurt Cobain. He would articulate these things, express these things, musically. That was his art. He was even a great painter and he did sculptures. He did all kinds of comics too, and was more than glad to walk you through panel by panel on his comics. He was a true artist and that is something that people connect with.”
“I always loved how eclectic it was,” says Mykl Barton. “From songs like ‘Tourette’s’ to songs like ‘Dumb’. I always wanted to be in a band that could do both. Not be restricted to just one thing. It could express the gnarly anger but it has the best melodies and delicate moments that are heavy in an entirely different way.”
“I think songs like ‘Dumb’ maybe have had the biggest influence on me personally,” adds Ben Barlow. “That introspective character song is something we did on ‘ADAI’ a lot and then followed on, maybe in a more similar fashion, with ‘STFU’. Admitting you’re a powerless idiot, but that in itself being a powerful thing. Dumb but happy. It’s blasé and irreverent in regards to himself but also to the rest of the world and I think that’s powerful, especially today when everyone wants to be seen as the exception. Kurt had a way of flipping everything on its head.”
And as the reissue arrives, another wave of Nirvana fans can discover the genius of the trio’s groundbreaking swan song all over again – an honour and privilege that is not lost on Krist.
“Well, when I heard the Flipper album ‘Generic Flipper’ for the first time, I think it was 1983 and I was 18 years old. There was something about it. That was an epiphany for me like, wow, this is really good music, and it just touched me. So, I’m grateful and it is an honour that people like our music. That’s all you really want to do as an artist. That’s very gratifying.”