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INTERVIEW: Nirvana's Nevermind album turns 20

When Nevermind was released 20 years ago, even the members of Nirvana didn't foresee its massive success nor the incredible influence the rock album would eventually have on the wider music scene.
Canadians musicians look back at Nirvana's landmark album, released 20 years ago, and discuss its enduring legacy. Deana Sumanac reports 3:09

When Nevermind was released 20 years ago, even the members of Nirvana didn't foresee its massive success nor the incredible influence the rock album would eventually have on the wider music scene.

"We had no idea what Nevermind was going to achieve," bassist and co-founder Krist Novoselic told CBC Radio's cultural affairs show Q in a recent interview.

The album's initial print run of 40,000 copies was already a coup for the Washington state-based rock trio comprised of Novoselic, singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl.

"That's indie gold. That was supposed to last us a year or so," Novoselic recalled of the sophomore record (the band's first was Bleach, released by Seattle indie label Sub Pop).

Former Nirvana members Krist Novoselic, left, and Dave Grohl, centre, pose with Butch Vig, who produced the band's landmark 1991 album Nevermind, in Los Angeles on Sept. 6 (Chris Pizzello/AP)

After the music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit began getting heavy play on MTV and rave reviews of Nevermind spread beyond the trio's devoted, grassroots fans, record stores couldn't keep the album in stock.

Songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come As You Are had crossover appeal and quickly become cultural anthems that helped kick off a mainstream thirst for alt and grunge rock that continued through the 1990s. To date, Nevermind has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

"It was a new era. The world was changing" and moving away from the '80s definition of rock music, Novoselic recalled.

Ultimately, Nirvana's appeal lay in its melodies, the strength of its trio of musicians and the diversity of its songs, which were inspired not just by punk but a wide variety of rock predecessors, according to the 46-year-old.

"We had a pretty broad knowledge of music. We weren't dogmatic punk rockers, even though we came out of the American hardcore scene. We loved the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Flipper, punk rock bands," he said.

"It all came together and that's what we have. The document of that is Nevermind."

Tributes, remastered album for anniversary

According to Novoselic, it was Nevermind's producer, Butch Vig, who first recognized how good — and how big — the album could be.

"The album holds up really well. It's timeless. I think part of that is because the songs are really good. The production isn't gimmicky. It's just bass, drums and guitar. There's not any sort of trendy sound," Vig told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

"There's a feel on the record that you can't really manipulate. These days, I love computers and moving stuff around and [messing] with the sound. I feel technology would somehow get in the way of the kind of record we made back then. I know it wouldn't make it better. It's impossible to imagine that happening now."

For album's 20th anniversary, Universal Music is reissuing several special editions of the remastered album on Sept. 27, with extras to include obscure tracks, live recordings and alternate mixes.

Various exhibits and tribute concerts celebrating the album and Nirvana itself have rolled out in the U.S. and Canada, with more scheduled over the next few weeks — something that's inspired bittersweet feelings for Novoselic.

"I know about the power of music. When I was a teenager and I heard [certain] bands ... that spoke to me, so I can relate to that [from fans]. When somebody expresses that sentiment [to me today], that's when I remember Kurt Cobain," he said of his former bandmate, who committed suicide in 1994.

The wild success of Nirvana and other grunge pioneers spawned a multitude of imitators, but Novoselic welcomes their existence.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just listen to Nevermind," he said. "It's like the Bay City Rollers, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, the Beatles — it's all there. It was this recipe of rock and roll and our experience with it."