Krist Novoselic's Alternative Politics
The Nirvana bassist on voting, farming, anarchism, heroin, and Kurt Cobain.
Krist Novoselic is best known as the co-founder and bassist of Nirvana, one of the most influential music groups of the past quarter century. The release of the band's albums Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero not only mainstreamed what became known as grunge but helped to forever end what was once known as the mainstream. After Nirvana it seems there is only alternative music and alternative culture, a transformation that is both liberating and anxiety-producing.
Born in 1965 in Compton, California, but raised in Aberdeen, Washington, Novoselic (pronounced know-voe-selitch) embodies the forces Nirvana helped to unleash. Since the 1994 suicide of band leader Kurt Cobain, Novoselic has continued to play with various groups, including a stint with the legendary post-punk band Flipper and sporadic collaborations with former Nirvana bandmate Dave Grohl. But the bass player is also pushing to create an alternative approach to electoral politics.
In 2004, Novoselic published Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy (Akashic), and these days he's chairman of FairVote, a nonprofit that lobbies for electoral reform such as instant runoffs and proportional voting. After serving as chairman of his county Democratic committee for several years and supporting Barack Obama early on, he has broken with the Democratic Party, in part because "it's a top-down structure" impervious to change from the grassroots.
Like Nirvana's music, Novoselic's politics cannot be easily categorized: He has donated money over the years to Ron Paul's campaigns, and he speaks in favor of the liberal-loathed Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which ended limits on non-coordinated political spending by corporations in federal elections. He's active in his local chapter of the fraternal farmer's organization, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, proving you can go from grunge to Grange.
Novoselic spoke to Reason TV's Nick Gillespie in May. The video version, produced by Meredith Bragg, is here:
reason: So let's talk about FairVote. One of the goals that you and the organization have is to get more people more involved in politics. What are the voting reforms that you champion and how do they accomplish that idea?
Krist Novoselic: I'd like to see a new paradigm in our election system. There's so much cynicism and people are angry. Things are really out of whack and the lawmakers, they've circled the wagons.
We want proportional representation in the United States. We're calling it fair representation voting. These are systems that are in use in the United States that are constitutionally protected and they have an American flavor. They speak to American values. Like in Europe, you vote for a party. In the American version, you vote for the person.
reason: Walk me through this.
Novoselic: For the United States House of Representatives, we have a plan where we would take three districts and combine them into one district. So you'd have three representatives representing you. Then we would just change the ballot a little bit. The simplest way to do it would give voters one vote to elect three candidates. So what does that mean? It means it takes 25 percent of the vote to get elected. Everybody votes. You count the votes and then basically the top three vote getters win.
reason: As long as they cross a minimum threshold?
Novoselic: Well, the threshold is fluid because it depends on how many candidates and how many votes they get. The system's kind of a plurality system. It's semi-proportional.
reason: And candidates could be independent?
Novoselic: Absolutely. You can have parties nominate candidates. You can have independents. It's candidate-centered. This system that I'm explaining right now is called the single non-transferrable vote and it's used in school board elections in the United States in some places.
Somebody still has to draw these multi-member districts. In Europe, it's one big district. Israel is one big district. We're saying with FairVote there should be these independent commissions—that keeps the politicians out of the process—that draw these multi-member districts.
reason: Who are the people on your side?
Novoselic: I've been doing this since 1997 and we've made so much progress. What's happening right now is with our dysfunctional Congress, gridlock, all the cynicism, people are looking at FairVote reforms. There was a book out last year, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Norm Ornstein [of the American Enterprise Institute] and Thomas Mann [of Brookings]. They're promoting ranked choice voting, a type of proportional representation. Editorial writers are giving it a look and writing in favor of it. It's just getting the message out and people start thinking maybe this is a viable solution.
reason: Talk about the Grange. This is a type of political organization or social organization you're involved in very heavily that seems to get away from cynicism and it also seems to get away from gridlock, because it's doing stuff despite whatever politics is going on.
Novoselic: The Grange was established in 1867. William Kelly was the founder of the Grange and he was tasked by President Andrew Johnson to tour rural America. He did the tour and came back and said, "Yeah, rural America's hurting." Farmers are isolated and they're getting exploited and we need to do something. Johnson really didn't do anything, so Kelly got some other folks together. They were Masons and they started this fraternal order called the Patrons of Husbandry. They had this radical idea that not only are we going to allow women members but a woman can hold any office in the Grange. We can have a woman Grange Master because the family is a big part of the Grange life and the farm life is what they do. So they started these Granges up.
reason: What does the Grange do?
Novoselic: It's very inclusive and kind. I feel connected to history because we do this ceremonial work and I really love history and I'm, like, living it. I'm living post-war, Civil War United States. It's a community group and we raise money to give it away. We have a farmers' market. There's a thread in the Grange also that's activist. It doesn't do partisan politics. It's a big no-no to endorse candidates or to get behind a campaign.
In 1929, the Grange nationalized electricity in Washington state. They started public utility districts but the Grangers being decentralized, instead of having a Washington state department of public electricity, they made these public utility districts on the county level.
reason: In a lot of your writing, you talk a lot about the virtues of decentralization versus centralization. Let's talk a little bit about that. Why is decentralization a virtue in cultural matters or in political matters or in social matters?
Novoselic: I think it just goes back to the values that I grew up with in the punk rock world because it was this decentralized world and so we just made our own way. We'd be anti-government but we really didn't complain a lot. We were more action oriented. People were publishing fanzines, we were setting up shows, we were getting in vans and touring around and we were associating with other people, so I just like that idea.
You just make it happen. I don't think that corporations are these big bogeymen that a lot of people paint them to be. But instead of complaining about it, what I did as Grange Master, I started a farmers' market. We're a nonprofit and so our farmers' market is cool because we don't take any percentage from anybody.
reason: Do you eat corporate vegetables?
Novoselic: All the time. Beautiful vegetables from Peru and California in December and January.
reason: You gave money in 2007 to Ron Paul.
Novoselic: I did. I was in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and there was a sign in the lobby: "Ron Paul Speaking at 2:00." And I'm like, "It's 1:30." And so I went and I sat down and there was a suggested donation, so I gave like a hundred bucks or whatever because I thought it'd be the decent thing to do instead of just like bumrushing or crashing the party. I asked the first question.
reason: What is it about Ron Paul's message that you think is pulling people in?
Novoselic: I think it's just more about a phenomenon. Sometimes it's just trying to figure out how you're going to catch the cat by the tail. And he did it. With the Internet things go viral. Things that you would never imagine would take off. This character, this obstetrician from Texas, is this huge political celebrity.
reason: Do you see other people on the national political scene that are following up on his appeal or his message?
Novoselic: I think Barack Obama did it in 2008 with his Obama for America.
reason: What do you hope happens in 2014? We've got mid-terms coming later this year and then 2016. Does it make sense to even be talking about Democrats and Republicans in this context?
Novoselic: I was a Democrat for about four or five years. Active Democrat. And I thought I could reform the party. Maybe I wasn't going about it right. Maybe somebody can and somebody will. I don't see it. It's a top-down structure. It's a money conduit. [California Rep.] Nancy Pelosi, she's going to lose the election again and it's like the definition of insanity—doing the same thing, the wrong thing over and over again.
Republicans, they have a real big demographic problem because they're the party of old white people and they're not reaching out to folks. Their strategy is just to circle the wagons. There's all these barriers to voting and ballot access and this gerrymandering. That's their solution, but there's just so much tension.
I believe what's going to happen is that somebody's going to find that sweet spot between social networking and political association and capture the imagination. And people are trying it.
reason: You've been talking a lot about people having ownership and being part of a group in the political process. It's one thing in the Grange, because that's a voluntary association, or a band. Unless you're managed by Ike Turner, membership in a band is voluntary. Are there certain things that should be out of the political arena? Where a majority doesn't get to vote and this is the way it should be?
Novoselic: We elect these representatives and they do nuances. We have initiative and referendum in Washington state and it's a good thing and I support it, but it can be a rather blunt instrument. Populism, sometimes we vote for things that maybe should've been thought through a little better. So when you go through the republican representative democracy, small "r," there's these lawmakers and they have staff and they can consult with experts and try to make some good legislation.
reason: In an interview, you once said that the Republican Party should really have been embracing anarchy if it was true to its rhetoric. What did you mean by that?
Novoselic: You have people making their own way and making these structures, and there're these megachurches and they have their own day care, they have auto repair, they offer people benefits, insurance, and so they're making these structures. They're collectives is what they are. It's anarchism.
reason: That's a good thing.
Novoselic: That's their business. Whatever the megachurch wants to do and you want to believe. Whatever your values are and your beliefs, that's your business. You can do whatever you want to do. You build these structures, your day care. People want public day care. Couldn't you, as a mommy or a daddy, couldn't you do some kind of co-op? I'm sure they have those.
reason: Well, now you're veering dangerously into small "l" libertarianism.
reason: Speaking of anarchism, in 1999 before the big World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle you played in a band called The No WTO Combo with The Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra. Yet you've also said that you were really disappointed with the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, specifically mentioning the destruction of a McDonalds as pointless and ridiculous. Talk a little bit about what you mean by that.
Novoselic: Well, it seemed like it was violence. I went by some of the stores. I don't really eat at McDonalds, but a lot of people do. There're these people who say they're socialists but they hate people. So they go trash a McDonalds. I think it was just reckless violence and they weren't trying to accomplish anything. [A guy] was writing something on the wall, some kind of graffiti that was just stupid cliché. I said, "Hey, how would you like it if someone did that to your house?" and he yelled back, "Fuck you!" And these other people starting yelling "Fuck you!" I'm like, "Ohhh, I'm in trouble."
reason: So you hightailed it out?
Novoselic: I just left. Like, I'm done here. I played the show with The No WTO Combo. If people are fighting for better wages or whatever, environmentalism, the sea turtles, trying to save animals, I like that. I support that.
reason: Now it's 15, 16 years later, what do you think about the World Trade Organization? Is globalization a good thing?
Novoselic: Globalization's a great thing. The genie's out of the bottle. It's called the information revolution. It has a promise to bring opportunity and information to all corners of the world. It's a wonderful thing and it's happening. Marx espoused communism but he was off by a suffix. It's communication and people speaking. I'm optimistic if we can keep the Internet wide open.
reason: And activities like pushing back against the Stop Online Privacy Act is a way to that. An ad hoc group of people came together, crushed the legislation, and then disbanded.
Novoselic: They've disbanded.
reason: You lived for a year in Croatia in 1980. You're a Croatian American, but what brought you there and what was your experience like?
Novoselic: It was very personal. I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I was 14 years old when I moved to Aberdeen, Washington, and I wasn't functioning very well and so my parents were concerned. "Let's send Krist to Croatia for a year."
reason: Was that to scare you?
Novoselic: It was one of the best years of my life. I loved it. It was enriching. It was culturally satisfying. The school was really hard. I went to the gymnasia and it was pretty neat. I was 16 years old.
reason: What did it teach you about communism, the ideal versus the kind of lived reality of it?
Novoselic: It's not so much communism as it is a centralized state. People can be really cynical and corrupt because they look for ways around the state or they don't trust the state and you couldn't speak out against the state and so things could get kind of sketchy.
reason: Do you feel that the experience energized you to become part of a do-it-yourself movement? When you returned, did you recognize the greater space in America to be DIY?
Novoselic: I think the effect was culturally on me. When I came back to the United States, I had been immersed in this other culture. That might've had something to do with just feeling maladjusted or not fitting in, gravitating toward punk rock. I met Buzz Osborne [the founder of the influential band The Melvins], a very important person who turned me on to punk rock. I met Kurt Cobain and we gravitated toward each other and we found other like-minded people. Most other people didn't like music like Flipper. They thought Flipper was the most out-of-tune garbage noise and we were just like, "This is sublime beauty."
reason: Can we still be ecstatic in America today?
Novoselic: If you want to be, you can.
reason: How do we do that? It seems like every time we turn around, there's lead paint on the wall that's killing us. If we drink Diet Coke, it's destroying us.
Novoselic: If you hear a song you like, start dancing. That's what I do. I'll just start dancing and that's it. That's all there is to it. It's simple.
reason: You drove around together for hours. Did you and Kurt Cobain or Dave Grohl or Pat Smear, the great guitarist for The Germs who toured with Nirvana, share the same politics? Or perhaps a lack of interest in politics?
Novoselic: There was a shared politics. I think it was this lefty stuff, but not very deep. We grew up against Reagan because our punk rock scene was so anti-Reagan, "Bonzo goes to Bitburg" and "Let Them Eat Jellybeans," that whole thing. Kurt Cobain sent $200 to Jerry Brown for president in 1992. I'm like, Kurt, the rule is $100. He really liked Jerry Brown. Kurt wasn't a radical or into radical politics.
reason: In your book Of Grunge and Government, you talk a little bit about the difference between Kurt Cobain as an individual and then as a kind of iconic savior. What do you mean by that?
Novoselic: Apotheosis is a word. There's this human phenomenon when somebody dies. Che Guevara, there's that photograph, that iconic photo. It just captures the imagination. It's the most reproduced photograph of the 20th century. Alberto Korda was the photographer. People tend to do that, to create a deity.
reason: Is part of the appeal of Kurt Cobain that he was too beautiful, too sensitive for this world? Was that real or is it part of his myth?
Novoselic: I think he was sensitive. And then it was the drug abuse. That was a big part of his [1994 suicide]. He was under a lot of pressure and he made a bad choice. He was probably pretty ripped when he decided to do what he did. If he would've had a clearer mind, he wouldn't have done it.
reason: That's less symbolic. It's more just a chemical thing—he was probably drunk or high or tripping?
Novoselic: He was high on heroin.
reason: In terms of drug legalization, you've said you've never done hard drugs?
reason: I assume that you believe that drugs in general should be legal? Why is that if they're dangerous?
Novoselic: I've never done hard drugs because they never really appealed to me. Growing up and in my 20s, Will Shatter, bass player of Flipper, he overdosed on heroin. That was really hard on the band, too. We talked all about that. There were people in Seattle that I knew in the Seattle music community that died around the same time and I'm just like, "Who would ever want to do heroin? It's a killer."
reason: You are almost 50. You were born in 1965, so you're coming up on that. Clearly this music thing is over. Politically FairVote probably won't get anywhere. You are going to college now, so you still have time to work toward a pension. What are you studying in college?
Novoselic: I'm doing social sciences and I'm working toward the degree in social sciences. I'm doing my undergraduate degree. I really like it. I had the time to do it. I have the time. I only go half the time and it keeps me engaged, keeps me out of trouble, and right now, I'm studying geology and anthropology. Anthropology is really cool. It has to do with psychology and dreaming. Geology, now every time I'm in a park, I just look at a rock and think about it.
reason: How difficult is it to tell your professors, "I'm going to miss Thursday's class because I'm being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame"?
Novoselic: I go to school online, which is beautiful. That's the only reason I did it. It just made sense. I do some small-scale farming so we can grow our own food and sell some extra at the farmers' market, but I have people who help me to do that, plus I can afford to be a farmer. If I were a commercial farmer, that's a tough business. It's a luxury, so the luxuries that I choose are not necessarily a Lear jet or a Palm Springs second home. I can hire somebody to help with the garden.
reason: FairVote is being enabled by the Internet. Nirvana crested right before the Internet blew up the record business. What kind of effect is technology having on the music industry? Do you generally think it's a good thing or a bad thing?
Novoselic: Oh, it's a good thing.
reason: It's changed intellectual property law as much as practice.
Novoselic: It's changed attitudes about intellectual property, but I don't think it's changed the law. I think there are a lot of people who have a double standard. It's like: Music should be free, but computer software shouldn't. That really drives me crazy.
I don't want to take all the Nirvana songs offline. I think it's great that there's all this free Nirvana music out there. But if you want to buy the good stuff, then you buy the booklet with the great paper, the photographs, the DVD, the remix stuff.
We know how to make money online. I love going on YouTube and watching rare Rolling Stones or rare Nirvana. It's free and it should be. So there's a balance there.
reason: There's an adaptation going on?
Novoselic: There's an adaptation. But if I want to be a dipshit and say: "What I want to do is put out Nirvana on an 8-track tape. And I'm going to sell them on a corner here for $100," and nobody buys it, was it against the law to be a dipshit? You know what I mean? These people are like, "You've got to give your music away." Well, don't tell me what to do with my music. There's tons of other bands out there. You have a double standard. Microsoft could have intellectual property but a musician can't? It's the same old song and dance where the musician gets screwed.
reason: One of the odd things about rock stars is that oftentimes they're great capitalists but they're also explicitly anti-capitalism. They oftentimes have guns but tend to be anti-gun or anti-violence. You own guns?
Novoselic: I own guns. I think they're a good tool to have out in the country, and I should be able to protect my home and my family.
reason: What kind of guns do you have?
Novoselic: I have pistols and semi-automatic rifles, a shotgun. I have chickens. You need a shotgun.
You get a raccoon in there they'll wipe you out, so if I couldn't shoot a raccoon I wouldn't have fresh eggs.
reason: When people, especially in D.C., talk about guns, it's always either "nutjobs own guns" or "pure Americans don't." How big a benefit is it for you to have grown up and come out of a world where the lines aren't that clear?
Novoselic: Yeah. People in Croatia in 1992, 1993, a lot of people got caught without guns or on the wrong end of the gun, so it's really hard. You live in Washington, D.C., an urban area, maybe if you have some kind of local law that you want to have gun control, maybe that's the way to go instead of broad-based protections. But it's a really complicated set of constitutional issues. That sick kid who shot up Sandy Hook, those guns were legal. His mom was probably more to blame than him, and he had mental problems. There was a profile on him in The New Yorker, and that kid had a lot of issues. He had access to guns and oh, God, it's really hard. Some people want background checks and some people don't want to have background checks, or the gun show exclusion.
reason: But you like your guns?
Novoselic: I like my guns, yeah, because it just makes me more comfortable. I live way out in the country and what I would do, like if something was going really bad, what I would do is I would call the police, the first thing I would do, and just wait and see what my options were, but if a raccoon or a coyote is killing my goats…
reason: Are you a better shot than Ted Nugent?
Novoselic: Probably not.
reason: Are you a better musician than Ted Nugent?
Novoselic: Hmmm. Well, no, because I don't really play guitar. He's done "Stranglehold," that riff on "Great White Buffalo," and he plays those big open-body Gibsons. He's got his own thing going. I'm not going to put it down. But I don't like his reactionary politics.