The following article appeared in the July/August issue of
a slick music magazine out of Chicago.
WILL THESE GUYS BE THE YEAR'S TOP POP WIMPS?Story and photo by Dave Riley
The crowd might have been confused, but Hüsker Dü wasn't.
Most of the kids who'd stopped by the record store to get their autographs didn't even seem to know the band members were until a salesperson pointed to them and announced, "By the way, this is the band." It was hard to tell whether the kids were just shy, or bewildered by the absence of leather and spikes.
Between signing arms and shoes (the band's new single, a cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," hadn't made it to the store on time) All-Star Wrestling fan, guitarist and girth person Bob Mould passed the time by playing tic-tac-toe with his roommate. I happened to be wearing a shirt with two purple handprints on the back, and he offered to scrawl, "I Survived the Hüsker Dü In-Store" below them. Mould is likeable but intense sometimes even cryptic.
DRUMMER GRANT HART had a great time taking over the Northern Lights turntable and dancing to his favorites, among them the Hollies and the Bobby Fuller Four. His hair was braided, he wore white-framed, rose-tinted glasses, and he didn't have G.B.H. spray-painted across his back. But there's probably a little streak of anarchy in everybody, and as soon as the gentleman who kept coming out to turn the stereo down would return to the back room, Hart would crank it up even louder than before.
Bassist Greg Norton spent as much time peering around the store from behind the counter as he did signing his name. He sports a neatly trimmed mustache, drives a Camaro, lives with his folks in the suburbs, and has a cool girlfriend who doesn't mind running out for twelve-packs of Stroh's during interviews. I guess nobody ever told him that you have to be offensive to play loud and fast.
This is the band that plays faster-than-light punk thrash they call "ultracore?" This is the band that virtually redefined the limits (or lack of them) for American hardcore? These regular guys? Naaaaah.
No self-respecting hardcore band would be caught dead at an autograph session. Granted, Hüsker Dü don't like giving people what they expect. But they've also got a knack for accepting the challenges of such potential ordeals and coming out of them all the more credible. Probably because they're not a hardcore band at all.
THAT MAY COME as a surprise to those who've heard of the band's reputation as HC "gods." Or anyone who's seen Hüsker Dü live and not looked beyond the stage diving audience and the decibel level.
Few bands can muster up the wide, white hot noise that Hüsker Dü can. Mould's guitar churns out acres of swirling buzz, Hart drums like some paisley-set hippie with a ton of dex in him, except good, and Norton throbs abd swings as much as he thumps his bass.
It's not at all surprising that Hüsker Dü is thought of in hardcore termsall of the elements are there. But beyond the fact that these elements were developed independently of any other trends, it's more a question of how they're tied together. Mould knows that a guitar doesn't have to sound like a garbage disposal to be heavy; Norton's bass lines are inventive as well as solid; Hart learned some time ago how to count past four. All three Hüskers are very fond of jerking around traditional song structures, but not ashamed to settle for three chords if a song so dictates. They don't think of themselves as a hardcore band.
Hüsker Dü is a pop band from Minneapolis that will probably never be produced by Mitch Easter. Like all great pop bands, they write great songs. Like all great rock 'n' roll bands, they have an edge. Like all great bands in general, they don't dick around. They're continually pushing forward, branching out.
At one time, Mould spoke of "doing something bigger than rock 'n' roll," and
watching Hüsker Dü, you get the feeling they're trying. "I don't
know about the bigger than rock 'n' roll thing," Mould says now. "Maybe
we wanted to try to go around it. But it's funnywe change our
attitude every two weeks about things. One week we'll feel real
experimental, like 'fuck the world, we're so avant garde you'll never figure
it out.' Then two weeks later we turn around and write like five pop songs."
While all members dabble in other kinds of music, Hart says, "Pop is the most common influence."
In many cities where they play, the Hüskers are dogged by the band-most-likely-to-wreck- your-club tag, but Mould proudly points out that they're able to play such pop shrines as Hoboken's Maxwell's and the late Music for Dozens series in New York City. "I don't know how many hardcore bands play Maxwell's," Mould says. "I feel it's a privilege."
Norton goes even further. "I would venture to say that out of the majority of hardcore bands, we probably have a larger non-hardcore following than any of them."
"Which means," Mould interjects, "we're changing things." He laughs. "I'm being sarcastic, but I think it rings a little true. A hardcore band that can get a non-hardcore audience to come and see them all the timeif there's anything in all this talk of changes for realI think we're making inroads to changing people because we're getting the mainstream to see us. It doesn't take a lot of balls to play in front of your friends for three years."
Their new SST album, Zen Arcade, is their most adventurous effort yet. Not only is a double album, but an honest-to-God concept album as well. Relating the adventures and misadventures of a young man who leaves home to live on his own, Zen Arcade manages to be cohesive without becoming bogged down with narrative. As if that weren't enough, add acoustic guitar, piano, and more melodies and harmonies than on any previous Hüsker Dü albumand a long jam.
"WE'LL BE GLAD to take any grief that people have to dish out about that," Mould says. "That was a completely self-indulgent trip15 minutes of that at the end'cause we just felt like doing it. It sums up a lot of things."
"It's our record," Hart says defensively.
"It's our record and we'll do what we want with it," Mould seconds.
"In the words of Jello Biafra," Norton says, mimicking the holy one's tone, Ooooo, Hüsker Dü...the band that brought self-indulgence back to rock 'n' roll." They all laugh.
But make no mistake: Zen Arcade doesn't deal with excess, it deals with definition. The band members see it as a realization of what they started to do on Metal Circus, and as a reference point for the next project.
When they got together in 1979, Norton and Hart, who had known each other from working in a record store, had even played together in a band called the Electro Cutes. After watching the Ramones, Mould figured out it couldn't be that hard to play the guitar. After Mould joined, the trio became intent on playing punk.
Once they mastered keeping the music together, their main objective became playing as fast as possible. In the summer of 1981, after the release of their first single, "Statues," on their own Reflex label, they made their first trip to the west coast. The term "hardcore" was just making its debut and, oblivious to any trends, Hüsker Dü plowed through their set with no introduction and no fanfare. According to Norton, the question on everyone's minds was, "Who the fuck are these guys and where the hell did they come from?"
When they returned to Minneapolis, they played a now-legendary show at
7th Street Entry and a new Land Speed Record was set. Released on
The Minutemen's New Alliance Records, this live recording may have sold
close to 10,000 copies, making it their best seller to date.
Drummer Hart remembers, "We got Land Speed Record down so we could play it in twelve minutes, which we did. Oh man, we ate so much fucking speed."
All in unison, "Speed kills!"
"You can put that in the article," Mould says. "I wouldn't advise it to anyone."
Hart continues, "When we put out 'Statues,' everyone wanted to hear those songs live. When we put out Land Speed Record, everyone wanted to hear Land Speed Record. We tried to move farther and farther away from what our crowds expected."
IT WASN'T UNTIL their "In A Free Land" 45 and Everything Falls Apart, Mould says, that Hüsker Dü started getting in touch with what they wanted to do, as opposed to what people were expecting.
"We shook a lot of people between then and now," Mould says. "We weeded out a lot of people who've really gotten to dislike us, like mostly real hardcores. Thety're calling out, 'They're not doing "MIC" any more.'" Around that time they dropped from their set that song, "Tired Of Doing Things," "Bricklayer" and other hardcore "dog-pleasers" because they were tired of "beating every last fucking ounce of blood" out of them. It happened almost by accident.
"We'd been talking about the set," Norton remembers, "something we rarely doand someone said, 'Do we really have to do this?" and we all said, 'Oh, I thought you wanted to do thisno, I thought you wanted to do this....'"
Everything Falls Apart, released on Reflex, was again challenging. After being sucked in by the pop hooks, you felt like you were standing in the middle of a massive warehouse during a violent earthquake, surrounded by stacks of metal crates. The crates eemed as if they might topple over any second, but they never did.
Their next SST EP, Metal Circus, was a further departure, with big chunks of sound unable to obscure the real songs underneath. If it proved anything beyond Hüsker Dü's consistency and willingness to experiment with pop structure, it was that Hüsker Dü are prolific in a big way. In fact, Norton jokes about putting out a boxed set of albums containing the entire Hüsker Dü repertoire of songs titled Barnyard Shitload of Songs.
Twelve songs were originally recorded for Metal Circus and five were "dumped." In fact, Hüsker Dü have been operating for the past five years with a constant backlog of material. With Zen Arcade, they may have finally caught up.
Each of the Hüskers writes music. When one comes to practice with an idea for a song, he knows fully well that once the other two get a hold of it, it will probably come out completely different. Several new ideas might evolve from the initial one. Mould explains that, at one point, they didn't practice for four or five months to avoid the frustration of having five or so albums' worth of material, while knowing that there would be no opportunity to record for a matter of months.
Mould can't explain what inspires him. "It's a good question because there's really no answer for it. It's not like 'Where do you get your clothes?' I don't know. You can read a good book and it will inspire you, you can see something you don't like and it will inspire you. Somebody can say three words and it will inspire me to write a whole song."
"It's weird," Hart muses. "Sometimes that light bulb will go on up on top
of your head. There's nothing you can do to plug that light in. It just
happensit's inspiration. If I knew where I got my inspiration, I'd
be inspired all the time."
Their song writing ability separates Hüsker Dü from other bands. Beyond that, Mould notes that their phrasing is very different, but in subtle, almost hidden waysa quick time change to make fans really listen right after the change.
THE HÜSKERS HAVE never looked like a hardcore band, either. Says Norton, "The sound is the most important thing. Of all the things involved, the 'look' is at the bottom of the list."
And working out of Minneapolis instead of one of the coasts, they say they're not as influenced by the next big thing. "Like, I don't know if scratch hardcore is going to be big next week or not because I don't live in New York," he says. "It's be nice to be somewhere where you could evolve your music totally independent of any Trouser Presses or whatever."
"That might be part of the fascination purists have with us," Mould continues. That we're from this sort of nowhere land, and it's not the hip thing, it's just what we're doing."
Norton points out that living in Minneapolis is not without its practical advantages, allowing them to reach either coast fairly easily.
The band members and Terry Katzman, their live sound engineer and business associate, run Reflex Records out of Minneapolis, "for better or worse." The current Reflex catalog includes two Minneapolis bands, Man-Sized Action and Rifle Sport, and Chicago's Articles of Faith. When looking for potential label mates, the Hüskers say they look for "bands that we like."
SO FAR TWO major American labels have expressed an interest in Hüsker Dü, but the interest isn't mutual. They detest the idea of being packaged, and don't consider guitar roadies and towel boys a necessity. The whole scam here is that there is no scam. They deliver the records, tour enough to keep things rolling, and SST in return takes care of advance promotion and makes sure the record is in the stores. They don't give SST any grief, and SST doesn't give them any grief.
They still get grief, however, from those who insist that Hüsker Dü is nothing but a hardcore band. Maybe because some haven't bothered to listen to anything beyond Land Speed Record. "People call us hardcore," moans Hart. "But they don't call us fifth graders, and that's something we once were." One of Mould's favorite phrases is "Let the music do the talking." He's confident that those who actually listen to Hüsker Dü, especially as they move on, will get the right idea.
"I've always wanted to put mandolin on something," Mould muses. "One's musical career is a long, long time. There'll be a lot of time in the future for mandolins and strings and all kinds of crap. This band's a rock 'n' roll band, I guess by definition, so we'll stick to that. I'm not looking for credibility as a progressive musician," Mould asserts. "That will come later. Right now this is 'fuck you I'm a kid' music."
And kids, they don't use noise reduction in the studio.
As Hart says, "You go to all that trouble to make noise, why reduce it?"
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