SPIN - October 2005
The Nirvana bassist turned activist talks about picking up the pieces after 1994, fashion tips for the '05, and the coming revolution
Was it isolating being into indie rock in the '80s?
I felt liberated. It came at a good time. I was burned out on hard rock and basically dropped out of the social scene I was in. I just worked in the evenings or went to community college, like trade school, to get credits for graduation. I had the great fortune of discovering people and this music that was so vital that really spoke to me, and it took a little bit of effort. If you had any interest you could buy a photocopied fanzine or some of the bigger publications. That was the time Spin started coming out. It wasn't as hardcore as some fanzines, but then it wasn't totally mainstream. I was like, "Oh, this magazine at the grocery store has these bands I like." It was kind of a milestone.
Did you feel that the things you had to go through in Nirvana had any parallel with what was going on politically at the time? Alternative rock and the Democrats had their moments at the same time, and almost immediately there were cultural forces there to stop them.
Yeah, by '94 the dream was over. It's an amazing parallel, where you had the total polar opposite of what's going on right now. You had the Democrats completely controlling the federal government. They did that tax increase in those first two years, which arguably set the stage for the prosperity of the rest of the decade. Which was amazing. And then after '94 we had this rabid media. We had an impeachment. We had Whitewater. You know what? Sometimes I think it's just as well Bush got elected because Kerry wouldn't have been able to budge, and then all of Bush's mistakes--Iraq--would be Kerry's. And they would've hung that around his neck like a millstone.
You've been able to transition into political work, dealing with electoral reform in Washington state. Did you intentionally choose a more low-key life after Nirvana?
I had to do that. I was never good at being a celebrity.
How did you detach yourself from the celebrity world?
I just went about my own life. First of all, I was in these bands [Sweet 75, Eyes Adrift] that nobody cared about. So it was pretty easy to be detached. And a lot of things I do just aren't very sexy, like going to a public hearing or having a meeting with some politician. I live in the middle of nowhere [rural Washington]. There's not a lot going on, and that works for me. I read the Internet to try to keep abreast of what's going on in the world.
Were you surprised at how good Dave Grohl is at being famous?
He's really good. He's never been a snob or an elitist. He's handsome. He carries himself so well. He's cut out for it and he's got something to offer. The thing with Dave is that he's always having as much fun as possible. And there you have the formula--you're good at something and you're having a lot of fun. I never see Dave doing horrible celebrity things. I've never seen his Cribs. And why is everybody's house the same on Cribs? Whenever I watch that show, everyone's always like, "Here's my beige house." And then it's, "Here are my big gas-guzzling cars." I might do my own Cribs just to make a point. "Here's my bike." Or, "Look at this wall in my living room; it's not beige."
Aren't you financially set for life?
If I live the way I do right now. I couldn't live like some of those people on Cribs. I actually live pretty modestly. If I do that. then I live in the land of luxury, because I live in a peaceful country with the rule of law, and there's abundance. But if you feel empty inside and you need to have three Hummers...You know, you can only drive one car at a time; no matter how many homes you own, you can only live in one at a time.
Is it hard not to splurge and, say, buy a plane?
I do have a plane. A little Cessna. I flew it yesterday. I use it for transportation. It's a good way to get around.
Was there a time when being in the biggest band in the world wasn't such a great thing?
It was an emotional roller coaster. It's just too bad it turned out the way it did. But what are you gonna do? You pick up the pieces. That's when you learn what things are important.
Considering all the bands that have ripped off Nirvana, do you ever wonder where that sound could have gone?
I don't know if they ripped us off. Music is like an art book. You cut pieces out. You can see where Nirvana came from. You gotta remember that Kurt was a really great artist. He could've gone into sculpture or painting. What he did will probably endure forever, which is really neat.
What's the worst trend to happen in 20 years?
[Laughs] Casual attire. What I do now to be really punk rock and different, you'll never catch me out in public with casual clothes on. No way. No baggy sweatshirt and shorts--I dress up!
You're always wearing a jacket?
Oh yes! I'm always wearing a jacket and a nice shirt. Everybody's so casual, I'm trying to be formal.
Well, they wouldn't be wearing that stuff if it weren't for your band.
we were beyond that--it was ragged. If you look at Nirvana in the later years, though, we started dressing a lot nicer. We had money to buy some decent clothes. But you don't have to spend a lot of dough to dress nice.
Okay, but there's gotta be something worse than casual clothes.
Reactionary politics, from the left and from the right. I don't care for Bush at all. But there are no specific policy proposals coming out of the left. It's "We hate Bush, we're against the war in Iraq." People are reactionary.
Well, pro-choice activists and environmentalists are for something. But they have no power.
That's why it's all about electoral reform. I'm working toward it; it seems like a long wait, but time flies. Twenty years since Spin started, boy, look what's happened.
So what's around the corner? How's this decade gonna shape up? How much longer are people gonna sit through this inertia?
What's the Who song, "Music Must Change"? When is the new paradigm gonna come? Something's gonna break through. What I wanna do is change the system so we can have more choices. I'm building it slowly, so a revolution can come and the paradigm will shift. I saw it in '92. It can happen again. Everything will change overnight. Suddenly, Clinton's president. Suddenly, this punk band from Seattle is No.1 on the Billboard charts, right? Change can happen so fast.