I thought Creem folded sometime in the 70s, but
here it is
slicker than ever in 1987, jumping belatedly on the Hüsker bandwagon.
[Photo: Daniel Corrigan/Artist Pub.]
by Mark Dery
and industrial din. A wood chipper eating an electric
guitar. A muddy combat boot to the groin. Critics have called their
music "trebly fury," "auricle-bending clatter" and "disciplined frenzy,"
but Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton simply call it Husker Du.*
Retaining hardcore's trademark speed and volume, the Minneapolis- based trio have taken the genre where no skinhead has gone before, adding two- and three-part harmonies, vibraphone, slide whistle, acoustic guitar and piano. From early records like Land Speed Record (their first LP, on the Minutemen's New Alliance) and Everything Falls Apart (on Reflex, the band's own label), through the SST years Metal Circus, Zen Arcade, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig to their Warner Bros. releases, Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs And Stories, they have refined their jittery jangle into
caustic pop best described as "barbed-wire Byrds."
They got together in 1979, when college student Mould recruited local record store workers Norton and Hart to thrash out Ramones covers in his basement, and the band soon took the Twin Cities area by storm. Since then, critical accolades and packed houses of headbangers have followed the Huskers' progress, hurrying to keep step with the group's frequent releases.
Throughout their career, Husker Du have placed a premium on gut-level honesty, solid tunesmithing, and seething live sets. On that count, the Huskers have played 20 separate tours in the last four years. They keep the formula fresh by spindling, folding and mutilating their songs as the moment demands, expanding them into long, psychedelic jams or contracting them into shrieking buzzbombs.
|The Price Is Right... Husker Du... board games both. Of course, in addition to being a fine board game, Husker Du is also a fine band. They're the missing link between Lennon-McCartney|
As Mould puts it, "It really depends on where you want to take a piece. If
you want to stay in the ballpark with it, you just stay in the key; if you
want to take it outside a la Norman, Oklahoma, playing the same note for
45 minutes you can. We don't have a quota system set up for when
we're going to take something outside or keep it close to the belt. It's all
cause and effect with the crowd, what the crowd sends out. Sometimes it's a
very aggressive thing for us to do, sometimes it's a defensive thing. It's
really a matter of chemistry, as opposed to a matter of writing it into the
As for the infamous Norman, Oklahoma gig, Mould seems genuinely puzzled. "I'm not sure why it happened it was just a wig. It was like, 'OK, let's see what the threshold for two notes is.' People were either pinned to the wall or they left.
And then there was the Cologne, Germany date, where bassist Norton who doesn't play guitar took an extended guitar solo. "All of a sudden," recalls Norton, "Bob walked over, and was like, 'Hey, I got a guitar, you got a bass, let's change some roles here.' So he played bass and I swung on his guitar for awhile. It was a
"You turn the volume up on the guitar past '1' and it just starts letting off steam heat all over the place," chuckles Mould. "Greg turned it up and we started doin' all this stuff and it's goin' 'Wheeee!!' Grant and I will switch occasionally, too Grant's a pretty good guitar player and I can somewhat keep a beat. If I could get my right foot to slow down and get together with my right hand, I'd be all right."
Occasionally, the band's former reputation as dentist's drill speedpunkers casts a shadow over current shows. Ever since Husker Du's ascent to major label status, there have been nasty letters and mutterings of discontent from the purists; the inevitable charge of "sell-out" has been leveled. "It's never the entire audience being negative towards us," says Hart. "You get your odball situation where somebody will finish his beer and hallucinate you being the wastebasket. And that's always unfortunate, because it results in three very pissed-off dudes with a height advantage."
To tip the scales, there are many more who enjoy shaking loose a few brain cells to the new and improved Husker Du. Mould recalls a recent set at San Francisco's Fillmore,
"listening to people chant the chorus of the last song over
'Greensleeves' which is Bill Graham's outro music so loudly
that it ('Greensleeves') was inaudible. People would not leave."
To be sure, tearing loose from their slam-dunk roots in search of a bigger sound has cost the band a few fans a misfortune the Huskers chalk up to growing pains. Although they can still slash and burn with a vengeance, the hawk-and-spit furor of their hardcore days has matured into the jagged ballads and pensive poetry of Warehouse: Songs And Stories. Sure, your average Husker Du tune still sounds like an appendectomy with a hacksaw, but the melodies have the winsome sweetness of folk songs, and the lyrics eschew punk politics for something that cuts deeper: the sweet-sad soul-cries of humans struggling to make sense of it all. As New York Times critic Jon Pareles put it, "Husker Du's songs are about being overloaded with bad news, with uncertainty, with frustration, with rage."
Warehouse has all that and more. The Huskers offer a few insights. "'Bed of Nails' wrote itself," says Mould. "It took very little thought; it just happened. It's just a weird analogy to having a difficult situation with someone you care about, having to deal with an immediate problem." Other Mould tunes, he suggests, are equally philosophical. "'Friend, You've Got To Fall' is not directed to
anybody in particular. It's just an observation. It can be read a number
of ways. I don't know if moderation is a good word, but when the warning
signs are there, you have to pay attention. It could be a literal song
about alcoholism, or anything."
Similarly, Hart's contributions deal with soured friendships, dashed hopes, romances squashed flat. "'Too Much Spice' is about the way you feel about your friends their lifestyles, and what they do. It's 'spice' as in having the spice, and not the life." Another Hart-penned song, "She's A Woman (And Now He Is A Man)," is, he says, "hopefully the last break-up song I'll ever write. People get themselves in situations that they really can't get out of and save face. You're responsible for the outcome of your decisions, responsible for yourself, your life.
"Shoo...I make-a you nice anna
spicy pizza right away."
and the way you affect the lives of others."
But Husker songs aren't all tears and beers. There are bagpeople "turning garbage into gold," ("Charity, Chastity, Prudence, And Hope"), the ragtag and bobtail of modern living, Dylanesque bums who scrounge in society's dumpsters for diamonds. There are the lighter-than-air sirens who rise above life's muck and grunge, girls who "don't give a damn what the other girls say" ("She Floated Away"). And there are the black light fantasies of a man who burns his fingers "on the pages of the sun," a man who sees "men and animals floating through the sky" ("Tell You Why Tomorrow").
One thing the band does not plan to write about, however, is being in a rock 'n' roll band a subject that has been fodder for countless boogie groups. They
avoid the topic, according to Hart, by taking time off. "If you stop and smell
them once in a while, you might come up with a song about roses. Soon as you
find yourself writing songs about bags of dirty clothes stashed under the
back seat, then you'd better re-evaluate your aims and needs. Being in a rock
'n' roll band is simultaneously the most and the least important thing about my
life." Mould echoes those sentiments: "You've gotta know when to get up and
walk around the block and catch your breath. You've gotta know when to kick
back and do a crossword puzzle, when to just divorce yourself from the
frustration, try a different outlook." Hart looks back on long hours spent
inthe studio, trying to wring blood from a rock. Some days are a total waste.
Some days you go in there and it's like, 'God, we really didn't accomplish
anything, but we learned." Says Mould: "It's like getting the car
trashed on the best vocal day I've ever had in my life, getting creamed on
the way home and showing up the next day in a neck brace, like, 'Uhhh,
I really don't feel like singing today,' junked out on codeine pills."
Even so, the band toughs it out. More than a group, Husker Du is a concept, what Mould calls "a matter of living life to the fullest. You don't hide your emotions. We don't hide behind much of anything, really."
Not hiding includes keeping a foot in the hometown dives, despite their Warner Bros. status. "It's like a renaissance in Minneapolis," enthuses Hart, reeling off his picks of the local litter Run Rusty [sic] Run, the Cows, Widgits, TVBC, Peas Porridge, Processed Blue, and BKV, whom he compares to Throbbing Gristle "the guitar player's blubberingly incompetent, but it works out great."
Mould chimes in: "It's really cool living there because people outside have a perception that there is a certain Husker Du-Replacements-Soul Asylum groove, when actually there's a lotta different stuff goin' on." And Hart agrees. "We've helped people, but that doesn't make them less talented... we're there. We don't hide in our castles." The way Mould sees it, "What there is is a real sense of evenness, a pace that people work at that is very unlike media centers, where there's a helluva lotta people fighting for the gig. In Minneapolis, you have the freedom to do what you want. Maybe in New York or L.A. there's an inclination for people to attempt to set precedents, whereas in Minneapolis it happens all the time, but it's just because those people are doin' what they wanna do."
Nonethess adds Hart the Huskers have an ear open for new sounds
from other cities. Boston's Moving Targets* and Sydney's Died Pretty get a
thumbs up, as do New York racketeers Sonic Youth. "I've just begun to get into
Swans," he says, as an afterthought. "They're real... spooky. I'm not a fan
of spookiness, obviously, but they have a certain amount of distortion in their
perceptions and in their execution of them."
The band likes to keep their hand in by signing promising bands to their own label, Reflex, which Mould says is currently "on hold." Independently, Hart has put his monetary muscle behind a few ventures "Without any kind of involvement other than my financial backing," he stresses. "Right now, it's probably easier for us to produce something for someone else. There's a lot of ways of helping bands. I hate to say it, but our names on a record don't hurt a band. But that's not why we do it. It's a learning experience."
Mould seconds the motion. "It's real good for bands walking into something that looks like the cockpit of a 747, freaking out when they see all these bells and whistles going off, if there's somebody in there that can speak their language and say, 'That was a pretty fuckin' ripping guitar solo, why don'cha try it again?,' instead of just an engineer who will sit there. In that sense, I think we can put people at ease,share a little bit of the knowledge, debunk the mystery of the whole thing."
The Huskers lend a hand in other, more important, ways as well. After contributing a track ("Won't Change") to John Giorno's compilation LP A Diamond Hidden In The Mouth Of A Corpse, the band decided to add some oomph to the war against AIDS. Hart remembers: "There were royalties that were coming due, and me and Bob were sitting around the office and we said, 'Well, what if we donated this money to a charity for AIDS and challenged the rest of the artists on the album to match it?'"
"The main reason, for me," Mould points out, "was, y'know, I'm a human being and I sure as hell can't cure it, and I feel an obligation as part
"Har, laddies!" Let's hoist a few
and talk some manly talk!"
of the human race to try to give a hand to people who are afflicted and
have little time left with us. The money goes to a hands-on project where
they're feeding people, getting things for them. I think it's something
that a lot of people are afraid to deal with because they think it's gonna
peg them as having a certain persuasion but, hey, this thing transcends all
And when the hat gets passed, the band expects their fans to show a little social consciousness as well. Hart tells a story about sifting through Husker Du correspondence. "We got a letter some months back from this guy and he has every one of our records except for these two that he can't get. I sent him the records, and as I was putting his address on, I noticed that it was a Park Avenue address, and so I enclosed a little note saying, 'This record here books in Goldmine for $25 and this other one is beyond that**; why don't you make a suitable donation to a charity, or take somebody out to lunch who is hungry?'"
In some ways, it seems, Husker Du have out-punked the punks, sidestepping shopping mall
anarchy for a lusty bellyflop into the muddy waters of real life.
Propelled by swatting cymbals, pedalling bass, and guitar that will make green
fur grow on your palms, Huske Du send out a clarion cry for private
revolution within each listener. Their message is a clangorous variant on
the Golden Rule. Goodness, they seem to say, need not be the sole province
of echoing Irish guitars. "I don't think (our) rawness can be classified as
either a love or a hate thing," claims Hart. "It depends on where it's
coming from. If you love to rock, that's gonna shine out. Says Mould:
"It's a matter of being genuine in what we do, really enjoying it and letting
people know that."
Asked what effect Husker Du wants to have n their audience, Hart asserts, "Recharge them, invigorate them, love them, let it shine out for them." Mould sums it thusly: "Try to get some positive energy going." Maybe the band's cover of "Love Is All Around" The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, written, oddly enough by Sonny Curtis, the author of "I Fought The Law" wasn't all irony, after all.
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