Artist Spotlight: Sweet 75 (or; How To Tank Major Label Expectations)

I don’t know how to break this to you, but Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994.

Yet, two years on, three years on, journalists are still asking Krist Novoselic about Cobain’s suicide. In 1996, Novoselic did an interview with Rolling Stone, which was primarily about his political ambitions to stop censorship. He discusses at length the problems with the censorship laws in Washington State in particular. He then explains, emotionally and eloquently, the democratic process surrounding bringing Lollapalooza to Washington State, and how it was allowed to come there because business owners could see the financial benefits, and the kids also got up to speak and told the legislative body to just give the kids a chance.

Then there it was, the specter of Cobain’s suicide looming large over everything. The interviewer asks why neither Novoselic, nor Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, have addressed the suicide in the press. Novoselic said, “There’s nothing to say, really. It happens every day in America. Dysfunction, drugs — it was compounded by the fame, but it’s nothing romantic. It’s just tragic. It’s real emotional pain, and it’s nobody’s business. Who cares?”

The interviewer continued to press, and Novoselic replied, “The emotional stake that Dave and I have in it is a lot more invested than the person who got to know Kurt through his music. There are things that are private and nobody should know. You can’t go through life tragedy-free. Your parents die, and one day you or your spouse is gonna die. Life is heavy, and it still hurts a lot.”

The same interview has a tiny blurb about what Novoselic was doing musically, but if you weren’t paying attention, you’d have missed it.

What exactly had Novoselic been up to (as of 1996)? We all know that Grohl started the extremely successful Probot and drummed occasionally for Queens of the Stone Age, and then did absolutely nothing else of note. Ever. But whatever became of the guy who dropped a bass on his own face from twenty-five feet high on MTV in front of 300 million viewers? He started a band with the Venezuelan lesbian who sang at his birthday party, of course.

Yva Las Vegass was born in Venezuela, but moved to the United States in her teens when she got sent to a boarding school after she had a long history of misbehavior (“I had just seen Porky’s, so I was ready to come to the U.S.”). After getting kicked out of a series of schools, she ended up in Seattle where she became a street performer. While busking in 1994, she was hired by Novoselic’s wife to perform at his birthday party. Novoselic was blown away by Las Vegass, “She started singing these South American folk songs, and she’s a real powerhouse; she has a lot of raw talent. I had guitars lying around and started pounding away on them and came up with a few ideas.”

With a newly sober Novoselic on guitar and Las Vegass on bass and vocals, the band added drummer Bobi Lore, and soon played a few shows. A bootleg of one show (Trucked Up Fuck Stop) found its way to a Geffen Records A&R exec, and the label signed Sweet 75 in 1995. The band replaced Lore with former Ministry / Revolting Cocks and Future R.E.M. and King Crimson drummer Bill Rieflin (who also played piano), and the group entered the studio in 1996.

Sweet 75’s self-titled album sat in the vault until August 26, 1997. The album had guest appearances by Herb Alpert (?!) and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. The album is about as far from Nirvana as one could get, while still being considered “alternative rock”. The reviews were… rude, at best. Look at this review from Entertainment Weekly:

Poor Krist Novoselic. It’s bad enough that he had to spend the early ’90s riffing in Kurt Cobain’s shadow (as Nirvana’s bassist), but now he’s got to play catch-up with former bandmate David Grohl (already on his second big album with Foo Fighters). The self-titled Sweet 75 is no way to do it. Not only is Novoselic’s first post-Nirvana outing a surprisingly tuneless affair, but he’s saddled with the wail of a singer named Yva Las Vegas. Oh, please.

Drop-D Magazine had this to say:

Given his musical pedigree, you just know that Krist Novoselic could have looped the sound of a three-year-old shitting his pants and gotten a $125K advance for it… at least Krist took a decent amount of time to really figure out what he was going to do. Unfortunately, it’s not good… Ultimately, Sweet 75 sounds like any number of sub-standard local bands that will never get signed, and just because Krist Novoselic used to play for the most important band of the 1990’s doesn’t mean that Sweet 75 is any more worthy.

The album is far from perfect, and sometimes it feels too long, but to its credit it’s not really like anything else. It’s part rock, part folk, part lounge, part blues, part country swing, but the real star here is Yva Las Vegass’s voice.  There isn’t really anyone who sounds like her, and she just belts it out at every opportunity while Novoselic (who has some great guitar parts) and Rieflin hold it down. The album takes chances, and it should be rewarded for that, instead of being punished for not being Nirvana.

“Lay Me Down” was the first song I heard, it was on a CMJ New Music Monthly sampler, and I was immediately struck by how dark the song was, and the vocals of Las Vegass make you snap to attention. Upon getting the album from Columbia House (there they are again), I listened and it didn’t really connect with me at that time. I listened to it a few more times, but then it sat on the shelf for a long while.

While working on ripping all of my CDs to digital years and years ago, I was shocked by how good I found most of the album. The songs all shift wildly in tone and scope, but that voice is the thing that holds it together, and makes it one cohesive unit, instead of a slapdash soundtrack… the type that were all the rage in the 90s. “La Vida” with its Herb Alpert guest spot, “Ode to Dolly”, a country(-ish) song praising the Goddess of Big Hair, and the speed of “Bite My Hand”, they all feel like a part of a bigger whole, despite being vastly different.

After the release of Sweet 75, Rieflin was out and his replacement was Adam Wade (Shudder to Think, Jawbox). The band had a few tours under their belt opening for Dinosaur Jr. and L7, but the album was not selling. Wade left the group, and Rieflin returned to the fold. Work began on the second album, but the band split by early 1998. Later that year, they reformed again, but only lasted to mid-1999. In 2000, the band tried for the final time to work on the second album, but split for good in August of 2000.

Since the ending of Sweet 75, Novoselic has of course been inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also plated accordion on Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light, and played bass as one of many bass players on Melvins’ Basses Loaded. In 2002, he played in Eyes Adrift with Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets, and Bud Gaugh of Sublime. He joined punk legends Flipper from 2006 to 2008, but quit because of home responsibilities. He also launched his new band, Giants In the Trees, in 2017.

Las Vegass returned to busking, and somehow a documentary was made about her in 2007 called The Life and Times of Yva Las Vegass. There is one copy for sale on Amazon for $100, but it does not exist anywhere else, and I don’t need to see it that badly. There are some clips on Vimeo, and Las Vegass apparently has a real reputation for being difficult (She’s apparently the reason the first drummer quit). In the reviews for the documentary, they explain how she is bitter and creates a lot of her own issues. I didn’t find anything concrete, but there was a lot of blame that Las Vegass placed on Novoselic for the failure of the group, and the rift was so bad that Novoselic refused to be interviewed for the documentary, and pretty much never spoke of Sweet 75 again, with one exception. He told Kerrang! in 2018, “It was way different from Nirvana. In the end it didn’t turn out very well. To be honest, it was totally derided. Some of the moments on that record were self-indulgent, but there are some good moments, too.”

Las Vegass released a mostly Spanish language funk-punk solo album in 2012, titled I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine and The Smell Of Ripe Mangoes. She also did an accompanying NPR Tiny Desk Concert the same year. She is semi-active on twitter, and took time out of her busy schedule to do a customer review for Sweet 75 on Amazon in April 2019.

L to R: Bill Rieflin, Yva Las Vegass, Krist Novoselic