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Krist Novoselic on Punk-Spirited Politics and His Accordion Obsession

Krist Novoselic / Photo by Getty Images

Since Krist Novoselic’s career as Nirvana’s bassist ended in 1994, he’s been working in various levels of politics, as put most succinctly by the title of his 2004 book Of Grunge and Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy. He’s worked mostly locally, combating retrograde music-censorship laws introduced in his home city of Seattle, but for the past four years he’s been the chair of FairVote, a non-profit organization whose goal is to help all Americans attain their Constitutional right to vote, as well as to pluralize the choices within a dual-party system. Just before Novoselic delivered his keynote speech for CBGB Fest last week, SPIN spoke with him about punk rock, politics, and being “obsessed” with the accordion.

Check out photos from CBGB’s big Times Square showcase.

What have you planned for your keynote?
A lot of finger-wagging and scolding. Just kidding! I’m gonna talk about how I came of age in the ’80s in the punk rock scene in American hardcore and CBGB was part of that network of people. And how we made our own social and cultural structure, our own networks, to meet our needs and values, and grunge-rock was another species of that. What I did after Nirvana, how networking with folks and associating, we fought for our music community in Seattle where we had a lot of regulations and laws that were anti-music. And today, how things are out of balance politically, but how social network and the communication revolution, people have the opportunity to make change today. We can’t wait around for that.

So you feel like you’re applying the tenets of punk rock to politics and political activism?
I think so, as far as the associations and structures go with making change. We were bored youth in the ’80s and we were looking for something different. We found each other as individuals and it was this punk rock scene that happened. Now with social networking, people have the perfect lifeline to other people as a group. That’s how people have always changed things.

So how is FairVote using social media to combat voter marginalization?
With FairVote, through structural change, we advocate proportional representation and sensible infrastructure to make things more inclusive. But I’m gonna give you an analogy about how there can be an archetypal online party, so whatever your political stripes or your values are, you can use this structure for people to come together. Whomever finds that sweet spot — we don’t know who they are, but. Like in the early ’90s, I invested in a search engine and lost $50,000 bucks. And these two kids come over and say we’re gonna start this thing called Google and it’s a search engine, I was like “Get outta here! Nah, I tried it, it’s not gonna work, get outta here.” [Laughs] Anyway, somebody out there’s gonna hit it, figuring out political association and social networking, and they’re gonna dominate politics for the next generation. Adios, Republicans and Democrats, unless they get on board with it too.

Are you worried about the push for voter ID laws leading up to the presidential election?
That’s what the Constitutional right to vote is about! These states are doing this voter suppression and it’s partisanship. Of all places in the world, we need a right to vote in the United States.

I know that you’ve mentioned examples of how ranked elections have worked. In your ideal world, how would we vote in the U.S.?
Ideally, Americans would share representation and there’d be a three-member district and there’d be Republican with two Democrats, or two Republicans and a Democrat, or independents or another party. We wouldn’t have insiders redistricting, it would be shared representation. We call it FairVoting, and it’s just basically these bipartisan, multi-member districts through some version of American voting.

What would you say to young people who are already cynical about voting in America?
I don’t blame them. It’s not balanced, it’s all tilted towards insiders, the usual suspects. And it’s just time to make change, and we can do it in the United States, there’ve been proven ways to do it, and if we give people more choices and make it more inclusive for people to vote, people will come. But we can’t even get past voter suppression in the United States. Change takes time, I’m not crusading, I’m not out there on the corner with a signboard. But I’m just trying to have some fun with it!

What keeps you hopeful? You’ve obviously been grinding it out for a long time!
Just the notion that I’m not crusading, I know I’m not gonna change things overnight, and it takes time, so until then, you just do what you can do. I’m not gonna save the world. Me? Hell no. I just try to advocate these changes in a non-partisan way.

So do you have any memories of CBGB? Did you ever go there?
Yeah, I went there a few times. I can’t even remember all the bands that I’ve seen there… but this one band the Hick Boys, they were from Austin, in like 1989 I saw them play there. They were pretty raunchy.

1989 was a pretty raunchy year for music in general.
’89: the raunch year.

You still sometimes play with Foo Fighters. How does it feel collaborating with Grohl all these years?
Oh, it’s amazing! We have so much fun. I’ve been playing a lot of accordion, and I am obsessed with some other things, it’s not political all the time. I’m obsessed with the accordion. It’s weird.

Yeah, the accordion is kind of a marginal instrument. How are you obsessed with it?
I just have to play it every day! There could be a lot worse exceptions, even though it’s kinda weird. Some people get in trouble, some people self-destruct. I could either be self-destructive, or I could drive other people crazy with the accordion, that’s not so bad!

Do you feel you are an accordion virtuoso?
Actually, I’m bustin’ out some tunes, you know? I play covers and I have my own tunes. I played the accordion on Foo Fighters. I recorded some the day before yesterday with this dude from L.A., we did it over the internet, and he was happy with it. Dale Crover’s on drums, so there’s a Melvins connection. But maybe I’ll talk to Dale and Buzz and maybe they’ll need some accordion on the next Melvins record. They’ll probably do it, you know how they’re so eclectic.

We look forward to the Melvins accordion collabo.