GRAYS RIVER, Wahkiakum County — “This is what I look like when I fly,” says Krist Novoselić, leaning back in his chair.
The Nirvana bassist and licensed pilot had already logged roughly 700 miles in his twin-engine plane by the time he sits down in the old creamery he converted into a studio near his Wahkiakum County farm. Not exactly aviators and a bomber jacket, his flying attire of a blue button-up and beige slacks that hang above a pair of Vans is more business-casual-skater than “Top Gun.”
Novoselić caught the flying bug roughly 20 years ago — about as long as he’s made rural Deep River his full-time home — when another Washington state rocker, Queensrÿche’s Chris DeGarmo, gave him an airborne lift from Seattle to Astoria, Oregon. It’s a handy means of transportation, especially living in the pastoral southwest Washington county along the Columbia River where it’s easier for Novoselić, a famous guy who’s not big on selfies, to lead a normal life, he says. Here, in what might be the greenest pocket of the Evergreen State about 70 miles south of his hometown Aberdeen, the 54-year-old seems to have found his post-Nirvana nirvana, growing cherry tomatoes and keeping a horse, alpaca and a goat named Vespasian.
These days, flying is just one of the accordion-squeezing farmer, election-reform activist, Grange master and recent college graduate’s myriad pursuits — not to mention his band Giants in the Trees, which plays the Sunset Tavern (Aug. 20) and Port Townsend’s THING festival (Aug. 24-25) next week.
“I’m privileged,” Novoselić says of his ability to chase his disparate passions. “I just try to take advantage of it; try to live a good life and try to be responsible, healthy and open-minded.”
Novoselić’s studio, where Giants in the Trees recorded its versatile sophomore album “Volume 2,” isn’t far from the Grays River Grange, a fraternal organization, composed largely of farmers, that Novoselić says works for the public good, maintaining a local cemetery and several parks, and running a farmers market. A member since 2004, Novoselić serves as the local Grange master, an elected position, leading the biweekly meetings and, along with his wife, Darbury Stenderu, helping to prepare the potluck-style premeeting feasts, according to Giants guitarist and fellow Granger Ray Prestegard.
Prestegard, who lives on a century-old family farm, describes Novoselić as an “old-school farmer” who is always working on something — building fences, fixing up abandoned cars — and regularly arrives at band practice with “a little bit of dirt on his boots.” Indeed, Novoselić’s eyes light up faster discussing some of his latest handiwork than last year’s big Safeco Field show with the Foo Fighters. “Did you see the kiosk at the park?” Novoselić asks excitedly. “Go to the covered bridge. I painted it.”
While some of his ventures, like those cherry tomatoes he planted this year, require a bit more premeditation, others have come on a whim. Several years ago, Novoselić’s nephew was heading off to community college in Longview when his rock-star uncle impulsively hopped in the car and enrolled himself. In 2016, Novoselić earned his baccalaureate in social sciences through Washington State University’s online program.
“I went on tour with [Dave Grohl-corraled supergroup] Sound City Players and I recorded with Paul McCartney, and I’d have to study. I couldn’t go out or anything,” Novoselić says.
Two decades earlier, the guy working his way up to college-level math was in front of 50,000 screaming fans at England’s Reading Fest delivering one of the most famous performances in a generation of rock history at the height of Nirvana’s fame.
“For the most part, that kinda goes away,” says Prestegard of the local cognizance of his bandmate’s fame. “He’s well-respected in this area. Well-respected within the Grange … by hardworking people, by farmers — by people who have never listened to a Nirvana song in their entire life.”
Novoselić joined the Grange after attending the organization’s centennial celebration, intrigued by the way the meetings were run, but even more so by the people — some of whom helped establish the community in the 1930s and 1940s. He’s since become an “armchair Grange historian,” he says, pointing to the shelf full of Grange books behind him that he’s read. The rural Renaissance man likens the sense of community and involvement with the Grange to the one he found growing up in the punk-rock scene, with its network of bands, clubs and fanzines. He enjoys meeting people from all walks of life and political leanings through his various endeavors, be it the Grange, music or his work with FairVote, a nonpartisan group championing electoral reforms that Novoselić believes would curb gerrymandering and push American politics back toward the middle.
“There’s something about the humanity of that I find really compelling,” Novoselić says of those face-to-face connections with people across the political spectrum. “I used to be really cynical and that was part of the whole Nirvana thing. One thing led to another and maybe I’m not as cynical as I used to be. Though I am very skeptical, I’m not very cynical. I’m just more laid-back now.”
“Uncle Krist’s Party Polka Band”
Prestegard, a talented guitarist and lapsteel player in his own right, wasn’t too familiar with Nirvana’s music until he watched Novoselić perform during the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2014. Liking the way Novoselić played, Prestegard decided he’d like to meet him. Soon he’d get his chance.
“I was coming back from a show, it’s like midnight, and I see his van on the side of the road. He’s putting up a farmers-market poster at an old store out in the middle of nowhere,” says Prestegard, who pulled over to introduce himself and offer some kind words about the show. “He looked down and he said: ‘Oh, that was one long day.’”
A week later Prestegard got an email from Novoselić and the two began playing together, eventually forming their acoustic spoken-word group Butterfly Launches From Spar Pole with Grays River poet Robert Michael Pyle. It wasn’t until Novoselić put out a call for an open jam that all four Giants members, who had similar orbits in the neighboring Grays River-Skamokawa Granges, first coalesced. The group’s earliest get-togethers were held in the Skamokawa Grange Hall, a modest-looking building with a homey stage a few doors down from a local saloon and a patch of grass where an out-of-service RV and several old boats have taken up residence.
“When I walked in, I was definitely giddy and couldn’t believe that I would be in the same room as [Novoselić],” says banjo-strumming frontwoman Jillian Raye, 33, of that initial jam. “But he’s very cool and we all have a natural fit. As soon as you pick up the instruments everybody’s at ease, because that’s our connection point.”
Despite their different musical backgrounds — blues-rocking Prestegard; Raye and drummer Erik Friend, who have done folk and electronic-leaning projects together; plus arena-trained punk hero Novoselić — the chemistry was quick. And from the sounds of it, their connection extends beyond music.
“We all have a similar way of being,” says Raye, a Californian with a business degree who moved to Wahkiakum County for a fresh start making music on the farmstead. “We’ve all had these certain experiences that led us here to this same place. … We’re independent and bebopping to our own drum out here [laughs].”
Says Prestegard: “We’re all kind of old spirits. We all have a little bit of our ancestors or our grandparents in us.”
After two years of playing together around the Northwest — everywhere from Grange halls to baseball stadiums — the quartet sounds even more fully formed on their second album, “Volume 2,” which the band self-released this spring. An earthy mysticism courses through Giants in the Trees’ music, a rootsy, psychedelic strain of ’70s-indebted rock and pop that’s highly malleable from song to song. Showing their range, opener “Feel You Now” — one of the front half’s deeply groove-oriented tracks — is a heavy, trodding inter-dimensional love song, while the drizzly beach-pop of “Bright Side” could pass for a beefier, early Tennis single in higher fidelity.
The interplay between Prestegard’s canny guitar leads and Raye’s vocals makes for a few highlights, his space-dusted slide and lapsteel and her haunting, at times effects-laden, voice forming a chilling cosmic twang. Still, it’s Novoselić who often throws the biggest curveball when he trades his bass for the accordion — an instrument he learned as a kid.
“We always joke that Giants in the Trees is Uncle Krist’s Party Polka Band when I put on the accordion,” Novoselić says.
Full circle at the Central
Since ascending to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll mountain with Nirvana, Novoselić has had a number of musical projects, from Sweet 75 to Eyes Adrift with members of Meat Puppets and Sublime, to his stint with noise-rock greats Flipper. But in some ways, Giants in the Trees has been his most consistent band since Nirvana — or at least the first he’s cut a second album with (they’re already talking about a third). Living in the same area helps, he says.
Last year Novoselić had a full-circle moment when Giants in the Trees led an Upstream Music Fest showcase he curated at the Central Saloon, the long-running Pioneer Square bar that hosted some of Nirvana’s earliest Seattle shows.
“The first time we [were booked] there nobody showed up, so we didn’t even play,” Novoselić recalls. “We got a half case of beer and drank it underneath the viaduct.”
During the first show of a two-night stand at the Sunset last year, Novoselić looked like he was having more fun than an unknown 20-something who hustled for an opening slot — especially when he’s playing accordion, as Raye notes.
While Giants in the Trees has gigged steadily across Washington and Oregon, it doesn’t sound like wider touring holds much appeal for Novoselić.
“Nationally, I don’t know,” Novoselić says. “Every club is like the Central, if you’re in Pittsburgh or Buffalo or Atlanta. And it’s a lot of work. [When] you’re coming out of Aberdeen and you’re 22 years old, you’re like ‘Whoa!’ You’re seeing the world and sleeping on floors and you’re broke, you’re meeting people and drinking beer. You don’t have any responsibilities. The whole world is just exciting and new. I don’t know, do it again?”
As our interview winds down, Novoselić shows me around the back of his studio where he keeps a large model ship his father built. Along one of the walls is a colorful piece of Kurt Cobain fan art that “a Banksy-ish sort of dude” from Tierra del Fuego sent him. It’s flanked by a pair of newspaper clippings: One is a New York Times story from when Nirvana entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The other is from the Chinook Observer, a Long Beach community newspaper, which ran photos from a free afternoon concert Giants in the Trees performed in the town’s Veterans Field over Fourth of July weekend last summer.
“Look at that T-shirt,” he says fondly, pointing to a little girl with a pink bow in her hair, wearing Nirvana’s classic smiley face logo shirt. No more than 4 years old, she’s smiling giddily in front of a lawn-chair crowd that’s probably smaller than the bathroom line at Reading. “There’s, like, nobody there,” Novoselić adds.
He doesn’t seem any less content.
Giants in the Trees, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20; Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $13; 21-plus; sunsettavern.com
THING, Aug. 24-25; Fort Worden Historical State Park, 200 Battery Way, Port Townsend; weekend passes start at $249.50, single-day tickets sold out, kids 13 and under free; thingnw.org