Krist Novoselic rose from the Pacific Northwest’s 1980s underground punk rock scene to earn global fame as bassist with Nirvana -- the most impactful rock ‘n’ roll band of his generation. In that Aberdeen, Washington-based grunge band’s brief span of activity -- from its formation in 1987 to the production of several multi-million-selling albums (including 1989’s Bleach, 1991’s Nevermind, 1992’s Incesticide, 1993’s In Utero, and 1994’s MTV Unplugged in New York), to its demise with the tragic suicide of the band's guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) -- Novoselic won a reputation as a formidable musician, a kind and winsome individual, and a socially aware and active citizen. Born to Croatian-American immigrants, Novoselic is a well-read and -traveled, multilingual Renaissance man who has also contributed to his culture and community as an author, filmmaker, newspaper blogger/columnist, radio host, rural Grange member, political activist, and futurist.
Straight Outta Compton
Krist Anthony Novoselic inherited a venerable old Croatian family name from his father, Krsto Novoselic (b. 1935), who came from Iz Veli, Yugoslavia, and fled in the mid-1950s to Köln, Germany, where he worked as a machinist. After eight years in Germany, Krsto emigrated to the Croatian enclave in San Pedro, California. He had relatives in the Pacific Northwest town of Aberdeen, Washington, and relocated there in about 1963. Soon after, he moved back to San Pedro, where he met and, in 1964, married a recent émigré, Marija (“Maria”) Mustac, from Privlaka, Yugoslavia. The young couple then moved to Gardena, and finally to Compton, California. Krist was born in Compton on May 16, 1965. The family expanded with the addition of his siblings, Robert (b. 1968) and Diana (b. 1973).
Krist was raised speaking Croatian as his first language. He attended kindergarten at Los Angeles’ Leland Street School, where he struggled a bit to pick up English. "[G]rowing up speaking Croatian, and all of a sudden in kindergarten I have to speak English -- I guess my brain was just like 'OK, what’s this new thing here? I might as well pick it up and learn how to do it.' And my parents were different culturally too. ... [W]hen we lived in San Pedro, all of our relatives were Croatian people. We didn’t really associate with mainstream American people, so I was always kind of an outsider, or at least kind of different” (Hughes, oral history, p. 38).
Early on, Krist developed an interest in music and he was given an accordion along with private lessons from a local teacher. But in time he also fell hard for the wide variety of music broadcast on the radio and on TV shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train. Along the way he fell for hard-rock and proto-Heavy Metal bands including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith. Still in San Pedro, Krist -- who had taken to adopting an Americanized version of his name -- “Chris” -- began attending Dodson Jr. High School.
Aberdeen to Zadar
In 1979 the Novoselic family moved to the small logging town in Washington to start anew. The money they raised from selling their California home bought them a much better home (at 1120 Fairfield Street, on Aberdeen’s Think-Of-Me Hill) and the Croatian-American man they bought it from -- Pentti Koski -- offered Kristo a job at his Harbor Machine fabricating plant.
“Chris” enrolled at Miller Jr. High School (100 Lindstrom Street) and soon experienced a bit of culture shockwhen he sensed that the local kids seemed behind the times, musically. While they were satisfied with the Top-40 pop radio offerings of Aberdeen’s KGHO radio station, he preferred the hard rock broadcast by the giant Seattle station, KISW. Not exactly fitting in, “Chris” was unhappy and in the summer of 1980 -- at the age of 15 -- his parents took him to Zadar, Yugoslavia, and by fall he had moved in with an aunt and enrolled in the local Gimnasium Juraj Barakovic school. One major upside of being in Europe was that he was exposed (via a short wave radio) to a good amount of punk rock and New Wave music -- including that of the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Elvis Costello, and Madness. Krist would record cassette tapes of those broadcasts and take them to play at parties.
Back to Aberdeen
After a year in Yugoslavia, Krist returned home to attend J. M. Weatherwax High School (e.g.“Aberdeen High School,” at 410 N G Street) in 1981. The local school district, however, refused to grant Krist credit for his year of study in Zadar, so he fell behind one year. To help catch up credit-wise, he began doubling up and taking evening classes at Grays Harbor College. He also took on a maintenance job buffing floors at the college -- before hiring on at the local Taco Bell fast-food restaurant.
Then, while a high school senior – he graduated in 1984 -- Krist’s mother bought him a cheap electric guitar at Kathy’s Attic, a shop on Heron Street, and he started taking lessons with Warren Mason at Rosevear’s Music Center (224 E Wishkah Street). Working his after-school hours away, Krist basically avoided Aberdeen’s party scene “because it just wasn’t interesting to me at all. I didn’t like that slick heavy metal music of the moment. It wasn’t compelling” (Hughes, oral history, p. 39).
But as time went on he crossed paths at the Taco Bell with a few local characters -- most significantly, with some punk rockers from nearby Montesano High School (303 N Church Street), Buzz Osborne and Matt Lukin. Finally Krist had found kindred musical spirits in Aberdeen -- spirits at the core of the area’s grungiest rock band, the Melvins -- and soon he was invited to drive over to Montesano and hang out at their rehearsals. In time the Melvins got a new drummer, Dale Crover, and they held their rehearsals in Aberdeen at Crover's parents' home on 2nd Street.
It was at these jams that a new guy -- one of Robert Novoselic’s pals -- started showing up around 1985. As Krist recalls, sometimes various local teens would drop by to have a listen and “there was this one kid who started hanging out there. Kurt Cobain. He could play guitar, and he was interested in music. Like me, he was not interested in, like, sports. He was maladjusted or wasn’t interested in the mainstream culture ... searching for something. And so I started hanging out with Kurt. He was pretty compelling ... always drawing, always doing this expressive work. And he had a guitar and an amp” (Hughes, oral history, p.40).
Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), he recalled, was just “this pretty sweet dude with a nice temperament, and he was just pretty mellow and easy to be around ... . He had an open mind about things” (Hughes, oral history, p. 33). It turned out that Cobain had a job cleaning motel rooms in the nearby beach town of Ocean Shores -- but also he had a keen love of rock ‘n’ roll and at one point he handed Krist a cassette containing some home recordings of his original compositions. One song in particular, "Spank Thru," caught Krist’s ear and by 1987 he and Cobain agreed: "Hey, let's just start a band ourselves."
The guys' first notion was to try to assemble a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover-band -- replete with Krist on guitar and vocals and Cobain on drums -- with a goal of making a few bucks playing at a local tavern, but that idea crumbled quickly. In 1986 Krist and his girlfriend, Shelli Dilley (they would marry in December 1989), moved to Phoenix, Arizona, seeking new opportunities. But after six months the couple returned home and Krist hooked up with Cobain again.
Reunited, Cobain and Krist -- who would take on a succession of menial jobs including working for Root Painting and as a warehouseman at Sears at the mall on Aberdeen’s South Side -- recruited a drummer named Aaron Burckhard. In this new band, not yet named, they played their first gig: a beer-bash house party just outside of Raymond, Pacific County, in March 1987. Soon after, now using the name Skid Row, they got a chance to play live on KAOS radio at Olympia’s Evergreen State College. After messing around with another band name or two, the group finally settled on Nirvana.
Before long Burckhard had been replaced with a new drummer, Chad Channing. It was in 1988 that Seattle’s Sub Pop Records signed the band. Its debut 45, "Love Buzz"/"Big Cheese" was used to launch the label’s bold marketing ploy -- the Sub Pop Singles Club -- which convinced music fans (“we’ve just started a special club for lonely record collectors like yourself”) to pay in advance, sight unseen, for a series of limited-edition records that the company would deem worthy. (That original $3 Nirvana single is worth considerably more than $1,500 in today’s collectors' market.)
In 1989 Sub Pop issued the band’s first album, Bleach, and Nirvana was sent to tour Europe, along with two other bands being hyped by the label as the new “grunge rock” uprising -- TAD and Mudhoney. Among the exciting incidents they experienced was that of arriving in Berlin, Germany, only days after the Berlin Wall fell. “It was amazing. It’s just one of those moments when history is in the air, and you can just feel it. There was a sea change going on, and things changed for the better. That whole crony, crappy communism of Eastern Europe just went away” (Hughes, oral history, p. 63).
Upon their return to America, Krist and Shelli moved to Olympia, one step closer to the center of the grunge movement -- Seattle. Meanwhile, Nirvana’s fan-base was growing -- just as Cobain and Krist were becoming dissatisfied with working with Channing. When invited to tour the country opening for New York’s Sonic Youth, they recruited the Melvins’ drummer, Dale Crover, as a temporary member. Later in 1990, Sonic Youth informed them that a fantastic drummer -- Dave Grohl from the Washington D.C., group Scream -- was suddenly available. Krist contacted him and invited him to audition. The band bonded instantly and Grohl’s musicianship solidified Nirvana’s promise of excellence.
As Nirvana rose through the ranks of top Seattle bands -- the local pantheon already including a few with early major label deals, including Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam -- the music industry began to circle around the band. Culling through various contract offers, Nirvana soon settled on signing to Geffen Records. Recording sessions commenced in the spring of 1991 and among the gems Cobain had penned was one song titled “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that would prove to be a world-shaking classic. But initially the band wasn’t all that impressed. As Krist once recalled: “I remember when we first did it, it was nothing special. But after it was recorded, I thought, ‘Hey, this is really good. It really rocks’”(Azerrad, p. 176).
The song made its live debut at Seattle’s beloved nightclub, the OK Hotel (212 Alaskan Way S) on April 17, 1991, and Geffen released the new Nirvana album Nevermind on September 24. To celebrate, a record release party was held at Seattle’s Rebar (1114 Howell Street) nightclub, where Krist and Cobain were famously ejected after starting a bratty food-fight. Almost instantly “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an international sensation and the sales of Nevermind skyrocketed. And thus began Nirvana’s two-and-a-half year run of massive success replete with countless magazine cover features, appearances on top television shows, and headlining concerts and major festivals around the globe. During this period Krist and Shelli bought their first Seattle home (755 S 40th Street).
Amidst the frenzy of activity that Nirvana was swept into, Cobain began to descend into depression and increased drug use, and his relationship to Krist and others suffered. The music Nirvana continued to produce -- while ever darker in both sound and lyrical themes -- was consistently excellent. Geffen released In Utero to rave reviews and commercial success in early 1994 and back on November 18, 1993, Nirvana performed “unplugged” (with mostly acoustic instruments, including Krist playing his accordion) for a television special that Geffen would subsequently release as the hit (and eventual Grammy Award-winning) album, MTV Unplugged in New York.
But on April 5, 1994, Cobain committed suicide in his Seattle home (171 Lake Washington Boulevard), an act that shocked the pop world and devastated his band. Krist did not resurface until September at the MTV Video Music Awards show where he accepted the Best Alternative Video for the hit “Heart Shaped Box” by giving a heart-rending verbal tribute to his departed friend. But mostly, Novoselic took a break from music and focused on other activities and issues that interested him -- including various political fronts.
Krist’s keen interest in political matters had helped establish Nirvana as a band with an enlightened socio-political sensibility -- among the numerous good public deeds they’d done was a Bosnian rape victim relief benefit show held at San Francisco’s giant Cow Palace in 1993. Krist was also aware in 1992 of the Washington State Legislature's attempt to pass a so-called Erotic Music Law aimed at keeping certain types of musical recordings away from young people. The Washington Music Industry Coalition (WMIC) arose to counter such censorious efforts, and that September Krist and the band spoke up against the law and even performed a fundraising benefit show in support of the coalistion and its ultimately successful oppositional efforts.
But three years later a similar “Matters Harmful to Minors” bill was reintroduced -- and this time Krist (who had moved into a new Seattle home (at 2253 N 54th Street) and then a bit later into another (at 2161 E Interlaken Blvd) -- led the founding of a new Seattle-based political-action committee, the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee (JAMPAC), which proceeded to battle proposed statewide legislation aimed at regulating music lyrics, and the Seattle City Council’s efforts to establish an impossibly restrictive Teen Dance Ordinance. As Krist has recalled:
“During Nirvana, I always read the newspaper and kept up on things. The punk rock in the 1980s was all very political; most of it was overtly political. I started to pay more attention in the early ’90s when the Washington State Legislature passed the Erotic Music Law, which turned into 'harmful to minors' legislation ... . I didn’t really care for the music, and I didn’t feel like defending it, but it seemed like it was going to affect me as an artist. And it was this crazy proposal where any prosecutor in the state of Washington could deem music harmful to minors” (Hughes, oral history, p. 48).
“We decided to become proactive, and our proactive message was: ‘Our music community brings economic and cultural vitality to the city and to the state. We are an asset and not a liability.’ We took that message to lawmakers, to state agencies, to fans, to the music industry, to the media. We got a good response and we developed relationships, and we started turning this around.” That turnaround was a success due to relationships that the ever-earnest and polite Krist forged with various political leaders including: Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder, State Senator Bill Finkbeiner, House Judiciary Committee Chair Dow Constantine, State Senator Brad Owen, and Seattle City Councilman (and future Mayor) Greg Nickels. In time JAMPAC would win the battles it picked, because Krist maintains, “we were successful in turning the sensibilities around” (Hughes, oral history, pp. 49-50).
The Battle in Seattle
In late November 1999 much of the world was stunned by the events that unfolded in the midst of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) high-profile convention held in Seattle. Although all observers and participants anticipated a robust protest in the town’s streets that week, few could have foreseen the massive crowds, the destructive actions of a few anarchists, and the overblown police riots that occurred. For his part, Krist had arranged to perform one night in Seattle that week with a one-off protest band -- the No WTO Combo -- comprising himself, Jello Biafra (from the Dead Kennedys), drummer Gina Mainwal (of Sweet 75), and guitarist Kim Thayil (from Soundgarden).
Krist also walked the streets that week and was simultaneously impressed by the people’s revolutionary spirit and dismayed by the smatterings of vandalism that occurred.
“I was really disappointed. I was having a lot of fun. It was inspiring. There was this like carnival atmosphere. People were expressing themselves creatively. There was a lot of time put into that kind of expression, and just marching, organizing the demonstration. [But] ... this person was up on this awning of this hotel -- I think it was the Westin [Hotel, at 1900 5th Avenue] -- [writing] some stupid slogan with spray-paint. And I was just appalled by that, and I yelled at them -- I go: ‘How would you like it if somebody did that to your house?’ And these other people who were standing next to me yelled ‘F you!’ at me. And I’m like, ‘Man, you know this is supposed to be a non-violent protest, and that’s violence against property.’ So I just left in disgust. It's like, ‘There you go. There’s your anarchy, kids. Whoopee’” (Hughes, oral history, pp. 45, 51-52).
New Millennium / Museum / Music
Seattle’s new music museum, the Experience Music Project (EMP) opened to the public in June 2000 and among the major exhibits unveiled to the public was Northwest Passage which focused on the history of the region’s music-making. Within that exhibit was one section that would prove to be among the most popular of any at EMP: the first-ever museum exhibit to spotlight Nirvana and the local punk rock scene it emerged from. A robust and exciting display -- in great part due to Krist’s enthusiastic and invaluable assistance to this writer (full disclosure: then a Senior Curator there) -- Northwest Passage attracted more than one million visitors over the following decade.
Meanwhile, Krist -- who had stayed busy earning his airplane pilot's license; investing in a historic farm in the Willapa Hills at Deep River, Washington; producing and directing the 1998 film documentary L7: The Beauty Process, about the grunge era all-female band, L7; getting a divorce (in 1999) and eventually marrying a vibrant artist named Darbury Stenderu -- had not abandoned music-making altogether. Back in 1995 he’d publicly re-entered the rock ‘n’ roll realm with the Seattle debut of a short-lived new band, Sweet 75, who before folding issued its one eponymous album in 1997.
Following that, in 2002 Krist founded a “supergroup,” Eyes Adrift, that included guitarist Curt Kirkwood (from the Meat Puppets) and drummer Bud Gaugh (from Sublime). Then in 2006 he joined as bassist with one of his personal favorite California punk bands, Flipper, and contributed to its Love album. In September 2008 Krist left Flipper in order to spend more time at his home -- though in 2009 he acted as a street-corner newspaper vendor in Robin Williams’ film, World’s Greatest Dad.
Of Grunge and Government
But politics -- and issues regarding the strengthening of America’s democracy -- continued to be of major interest to Krist. “[A]t the same time I was working with the music community and learning about political participation and how the Legislature works,” Krist once recalled,
“I started to recognize there were barriers to participation -- uncontested elections, uncompetitive elections. The system just didn’t make sense. Like, why are these people running unopposed for so long? And why are people not voting? I’m so enthusiastic about democracy; I’m discovering this process. Or maybe I’m fooling myself or I’m being idealistic or whatever. So I had this crisis for a while. At the time I was on the Internet -- it was 1997 -- and I was just rooting around and I discovered these election reforms, proportional voting, and instant-runoff, ranked choice voting. It was really fascinating. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is a really different way to do elections. And here are the benefits, this is how it would change things.’ Coming out of the whole alternative music world, I recognized these reforms and I was like, ‘Hey, this could really change democracy. It will shake things up, but at the same time it won’t tear things down’” (Hughes, oral history, pp. 52-53).
After several years of pondering such ideas, Krist saw the publication of his first book, Of Grunge and Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!, in October 2004. The book not only offered a telling of the Nirvana saga, but also wove in an explication of his thoughts on various desirable reforms for America’s electoral processes.
Meanwhile, he also stepped up and got more deeply involved, accepting the chairmanship of the Wahkiakum County Democratic Party -- and of an election reform organization, FairVote (following John C. Anderson’s founding stint). The objective of the latter organization, Krist believes, is “to speak to a lot of the needs of voters and a lot of the issues with elections and democracy in the United States. What we’re proposing is a fundamental change in the way we hold elections” (Hughes, oral history, p. 57).
The year 2004 also saw Krist publicly weighing a run for political office, that of Lieutenant Governor in Washington, but he ultimately opted not to. Two years later Krist made a speech about electoral reform at the Libertarian Party’s national convention, and at one point he also briefly declared his protest candidacy for the position of Clerk in Wahkiakum County.
Home On The Grange
Krist settled into his rural life as a gentleman farmer -- and as “K-No,” a volunteer weekend DJ (2003-2010) on Coast Community radio (91.1 FM) over in Astoria, Oregon, and eventually (2007-2010) as a blog columnist with the Seattle Weekly. And Krist also discovered profound satisfaction from a seemingly unlikely source for a world-famous grunge rock musician: as a member of his tiny community’s Grays River Grange.
In 2003 he was invited to attend a grange meeting as a guest -- “And as somebody who’s interested in politics and participation, I recognized the Grange as an institution and a leader on the west end in Wahkiakum County, and it was a good venue to get involved.” Joining, Krist easily befriended his neighbors there and soon became a “Master” of the Grange organization.
“I think that what I like about the Grange is -- again coming out of the punk rock scene in the 1980s and how decentralized it was -- if you look back at the Granges of the early 20th century it was decentralized. It was private association: people coming together because of shared needs, and shared values. It’s outside of the state structure. The Grange halls were the political and cultural center of the community, and they still can be. When Granges were thriving, that’s what was going on. So people are kind of looking for things in the modern world, you know, connecting with people” (Hughes, oral history, p. 43).
Looking back / Looking forward
Given the whirlwind that Krist experienced as a member of the most lauded rock band of its time, one might think that he invests a fair amount of time wallowing in memories of those times, both good and bad. But that’s not his style: “I was there, for better, for worse. I have great memories. I have some not-so-great memories. But that’s just life. ... I don’t want to go back when I could be doing things in the future, moving forward, trying to make things happen” (Hughes, oral history, p. 75).
“One of the fights I’m going to do,” Krist concludes, “is battle the nostalgia. I’m just tired of nostalgia; it’s just holding people back. And it’s like the good old days; they weren’t really the good old days. Let’s be modernists. Let’s embrace the future” (Hughes, oral history, p. 37).