Sweetness in Seattle
Since the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's former bass player Krist Novoselic has bided his time. Now he's back in the spotlight, with the post-grunge, latin-tinged, genre-hopping Sweet 75. Who said the party was over in Seattle? By James McNair
Friday 22 August 1997
It's been three years now since Novoselic's former band Nirvana dissolved abruptly. Singer Kurt Cobain's suicide stopped the alternative rock world in its tracks and, for a time, Novoselic devoted his energy to becoming more politically active and stopping drinking. Now he's making a comeback with Sweet 75, a gritty, inventive trio fronted by the Venezuelan-born singer Yva Las Vegas. Krist has switched from bass to 12-string acoustic and electric for this outfit, and Yva - who in her time has played everything from salsa to Afro-Cuban religious music - has brought a whole smorgasbord of influences to the band's eponymous debut album. Though the grunge legacy is still clearly audible, there's lots of latin brass and percussion on the record. There's also a country ditty dedicated to Dolly Parton, a track featuring trumpet legend Herb Alpert, and a version of the traditional Venezuelan folk-song "Cantos De Pilon". Suffice to say that Sweet 75 are the perfect example of the kind of genre-hopping, post-grungers that Novoselic alludes to above.
I meet Krist and Yva in Seattle's des res Capitol Hill neighbourhood. We have coffee at Krist's big purple house, then walk uphill through a nearby forest in the dappled sunshine. Yva points out a bluebird and Krist shows me the Douglas fir seedlings he's planted. We reach a plateau and sit down on a little marble bench to continue our chat. After a while, I feel relaxed enough to ask about Cobain. "When Kurt died, my wife and I had to build a fence around our old house to keep the reporters at bay," explains Krist. "We'd lost our friend, but our grief was compounded by this media thing. I'd walk into a 7-Eleven and see Kurt's face on a magazine cover, and I had to learn to deal with that."
It was on his birthday back in 1994, just a month or so after Cobain's death, that Krist first met Yva. Friends of his had seen her busking latin- influenced folk in Seattle's Pike Place market, and they booked her to play at a surprise party that Krist's wife had organised to try to cheer him up. He was suitably impressed by Yva's feisty vocals and, about a week later, he invited her back over to record some of her songs. "We got to know each other, one thing led to another, and we started writing together," he remembers. "At first, it was just acoustic stuff, but then we decided our mission was to rock!"
"Yeah, we had this ritual where we made an oath and drank chicken blood from a jewel-encrusted goblet," dead-pans Yva. "We wore capes and stuff, and we were playing Diamanda Galas and John Paul Jones in the background - perfect blood-drinking music!"
Though not a rags to riches story per se, Yva's sudden transition from street musician to signed artist took her somewhat by surprise. Did she feel intimidated at first, given Krist's illustrious past? "A bit," she laughs. "Obviously you're a little on edge when you meet someone and you know that they could be significant in your life. I eventually got over it, though, and actually sang in front of him in the studio."
"She knew I was famous for my mood-swings and moments of sheer, unadulterated brilliance, though," adds Krist drily. The pair are obviously totally at ease with each other, and switch in and out of this "double-act" mode throughout the interview. "It might sound unbelievable," continues Krist, "but it's only recently that either of us have thought of Sweet 75 in terms of Nirvana. I'm proud of what Nirvana achieved, but I was there at ground zero, and it wasn't all romantic and sexy. Besides, life goes on too, you know?"
They go on to explain how they developed Sweet 75's hybrid sound slowly, yet fanatically. Yva would hound Krist to rehearse for up to six hours a day, and they kept a comparatively low profile for a while, deciding not to put out any press-releases until they actually understood the nature of the beast they were creating. "What could we have said?" says Yva. "Nothing except Sweet 75 have written a couple of chords. They might be good or they might not - we'll just have to wait and see."
"But it was all so fresh and compelling", adds Krist. "I'd hardly ever played guitar before, let alone 12-string. Yva had played guitar for years, and here she was playing bass. Bill Rieflin, the drummer on the record, had played with Ministry for years, and here he was playing in a more open and free way. So we were all discovering our instruments and getting to know each other as people. It was a real healthy environment to work in."
Geffen records, Nirvana's old label, took on a nurturing role with the band. Initially, Krist and Yva wanted to put out a record last year, but the label advised them to spend another year writing and playing live. They weren't too happy about it at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Krist acknowledges it was the correct decision, and that the band still have everything to prove. "When we tour now," he says, "we go out in a van as a support act and we stay in hotels where you're afraid to put your foot down on the rug. We just want to be judged on our own merit, so we're not walking around screaming for a French chef and bowls of M&Ms with all the blue ones taken out."
Sweet 75 plan to play their first British gigs in October, and one imagines that, on stage, the visual contrast between Krist and Yva will be striking. He's 6ft 7in and she's about 5ft 4in. Krist's hair is black and Yva's is fuchsia. "When we're plugged in and rockin' it out it's a good feeling," says Krist. "Yva and I are like Sonny and Cher."
"Yeah, I'm Sonny, and you're Cher," she laughs. Watch out for a latin- grunge version of "I Got You Babe" at a stadium near you soonn
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