This article/interview is a follow-up of sorts to the
Camden Palace show review that appeared in the previous issue of NME.
THE THRASH AESTHETIC
By Andy Gill
|Old, ugly and unsaleable? Yes, it's Andy 'Big Daddy' Gill donning his leopardskin to wrestle with those hardcore cavemen of Hüsker Dü. Ringside shots by Derek Ridgers.|
In one of her more perceptive Time Out columns recently La Burchill took a hefty sideswipe at the video popsters' incessant flirtation with outsiderdom - all that "look at me, no one understands me" bullshit that still accompanies the high cheekbones and doe-eyed aquillinity - and came to the conclusion that to be truly revolutionary and original these days, a band would have to be old, ugly and visually unsaleable. An audio band rather than a video band. Hüsker Dü my well be the band of which she wrote.
Not that they're that old - no older than Madonna, I'd imagine - or that ugly, or even that unsaleable (in the current resurgence of American rock, all things are possible); it's simply that they don't seem to give a damn, and never have done. Almost as if they realised long ago they couldn't challenge the pin-up boys of the pop world, and so set about working in a different arena.
Bob Mould - guitarist, singer and songwriter - is soft-spoken, short-haired, paunchy, and wears an anorak over a sweashirt bearing the legend "American Wrestling Association". He looks like he might indulge himself - serious wrestling in America is a noble sport; but no, he likes to watch it on TV (Bob watches a lot of TV) and the real showbiz kind, at that. Bob says it's the modern day equivalent of Shakespeare, the only place the common man can get a full-blown morality play, with a bit of gymnastics thrown in for good measure. It's one of the few subjects on which Bob gets mildly animated. His greatest desire, while in Britain, is not to see St. Paul's, the Tower or Big Ben, but to see Big Daddy, a monument among men.
Grant Hart - drummer, singer and songwriter - is swarthy, paunchy, with shoulder-length hair that covers his face like a Hawkwind helmet when he's drumming, and he wears white Hüsker boots with half-size laces, no socks, a garage T-shirt and a rumpled paisley jacket. He's rather more rowdy than Bob, given to one-line interjections, sometimes accompanied by a cynical snort. Strangely enough, Grant's songs have a buoyancy, a wistful pop lyricism that provides many of the group's most memorable - hummable - moments.
Greg Norton - bassist - writes no songs, sings no songs, says few words, but is the snappiest dresser of the three. He also has a magnificent handlebar moustache, a veritable Salvador Dali of an upper lip. Apart from this, he seems quite sensible.
Onstage, he leaps higher than anyone since Pete Townshend in his heyday, which is just as well, since Bob's Couch Potato style and low-slung guitar (at the Camden Palace, there was some difficulty in finding a guitar strap long enough for Bob) militate against excessive gymnastic displays. Together, they look like the rock'n'roll equivalent of the Pontypool front row. Try selling that, XL!
With typical candour, Bob cites as reasons for their formation "boredom. And that we liked music, too. Time to kill." The usual punk apprenticeship, in other words. In those days - late '78, early '79 - Hüsker Dü were pretty much in the hardcore mainstream, such as it was.
"It was real fast, aggressive stuff at the beginning," says Bob. "We were 17, 18-years-old then, so I guess we were letting off some steam."
If I were to call Bob a master of understatment, I would be being niggardly in my description. Their earliest recorded document, 'Land Speed Record,' is not so much fast and aggressive as a blur of noise, a non-stop hardcore thrash in which songs seem to melt into each other to become one long scream of disaffection. A barrage, pure and simple: and to be honest, hardly worth listening to in the light of what was to follow.
"Those songs were two years old when they were recorded, and recording them live with a real limited budget - $350 - they couldn't have gone any further from where they were. The best thing to do was put 'em down and move on."
What did the hardcore audience thing of guys looking like you?
"They were into it. For a while. As long as it sounded like something that was within their rules. We get shunned by them now...
"To me, hardcore music, whether it was hardcore jazz, or hardcore industrial, or hardcore rock'n'roll, was no rules involved - you could do anything you wanted to, it was the intensity you put it across with that made it what it was. The hardcore punk thing got to have a lot of rules, and when we stopped being associated with those rules - or, as they would like to think, "following" those rules - we were immediately on the out.
"You grow up, you change your perspective. you're not always 18-years-old, drunk, with a mohawk, driving around screaming and hollering about anarchy - you don't do that all your life."
Eventually, after another simple thrash LP, 'Everything Falls Apart,' they found a home at SST Records. Their first record for the label was a seven-track 12" called 'Metal Circus' which opened with their definitive statement of disalignment with their former audience.
I say "former" audience, but doesn't SST, home of hardcore, typecast them, set them in the same mould? Bob disagrees.
"I think what Black Flag's doing is totally different from what The Minutemen are doing, which is completely different from... all the bands have a different style, I think the only thing that might be in commion is just the ideology, the approach to how to make music available, as far as how tours are set up and how promotion is done. That's pretty much the only common thread I can see.
"The Meat Puppets are out of Phoenix, we're out of Minneapolis, all the other bands ar out of LA, so it's completely different musical environments.
"LA is a very plastic music town, whereas Minneapolis is more of a grassroots bar scene. It's not like rock palaces or anything like that. In LA, Hollywood, there's all the heavy metal clubs and all that, and bands are killing each other o get signed to major labels.
"We don't do that in Minneapolis. We just play."
>From a past of hardcore bamalam, of simple, ultra-fast Ramoning, Hüsker Dü have somehow fashioned a future of seemingly limitless possibilities. There's been a host of tricks turned with the basic guitar, bass, drums format since Chuck and Bo laid down the groundwork some three decades ago. Most have relied on a series of set structural devices, and an internal homogeneity: one thinks of The Sex Pistols (whose importance was, admittedly, mainly gestural) and their distinctly unrevolutionary use of hard rock guitar with a rhythm section.
The thing which sets Hüsker Dü apart, the core of their uniqueness, is the way they mix those same structural devices in ways that shouldn't work, combining elements of several genres in one song.
The classic Hüsker Dü sound, as crystallised on 'Metal Circus,' is based on thunderbuck, hiccuping drums (a bit like Buzzcocks' John Maher, only more to the point) behind a bass which manages to be both solid and swallowtail-melodic at one, able to carry the tune if necessary, like REM's Mike Mills; over this are poured carillions of distorted guitar, with shouted vocals rasping hoarsely from deep in the mix.
As that description stands, it could fit a thousand bands since 1977; Hüsker Dü's innovation, on their best material, is to combine this fearsome punk-metal attack with honeyed vocal harmonies and the kind of pretty tunes that just don't fit the style. Or didn't. At times they can seem like Motorhead, only musical.
Don't underestimate the power of one man and his guitar, either. Bob Mould, like Wilko Johnson and Pete Townshend, can combine both lead and rhythm lines in one, or double up his rhythm lines, but unlike them he does it at a furious level of distortion. The result is a sound that splinters as it chimes, with ringing harminics and overtones showering over the layered chords, a slant on the guitar/bass/drums format which owes more to the likes of Wire's 'Pink Flag' than to The Clash.
At their only British gig so far - a one-off freebie at the Camden Palace, filmed for the Live in London TV series - the strange mix of head-on collision noise and oddly tuneful harmonies seemed more akin to The Jesus And Mary Chain than their co-compatriots in the New American Rock: no deferential, studied aping of an older genre here.
Hüsker Dü are hot-wired, straight off the street, so to speak.
The essence of the sound is bracing, scouring, a healthy mouthful of Domestos forced down the tender throat of pop. If, as seems to be the case, we're in the middle of a rock'n'roll fightback against the soothing pop placebo, then Hüsker Dü are something of a tactical first strike, a smart bomb which takes out the life force but leaves the structures intact and available for cannibalism.
'Zen Arcade,' the 23-track double album which came out last year, is like a diary of disaffection, often inchoate and inarticulate, but always heartfelt; much of the music, both here and on the more recent 'New Day Rising,' is like an atavistic shriek, an ancestral folk memory, primal yet bearing traces of form and order in its tunes. "Hüsker Dü" is Swedish for "do you remember?". Remember what?
Hüsker Dü may be rough-hewn and crude (though not as crude as they first appear) but at least they try to penetrate to the heart. Indeed, they have to be that tough and grating to break through the hardened arteries. They don't do many love songs, pure and simple, but when they do (e.g., 'The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill'), they're not exactly tender, but verge on the euphoric.
"It's not that I don't feel love or have love or make love or do love, it's just one of those things that has been over-used in popular music and has become trivialised," acknowledges Bob. "Ever since the word 'baby' was introduced into a love song - I mean, can you see this grown man making love to a two-year-old girl? Then you can tell when groups get mature, because it's 'girl' - Hey, girl! - then when you're Neil Diamond it's 'girl you'll be a woman soon,' then it's like, 'c'mon grandma, let's roll in the hay!'.
"It's not that love isn't a wonderful thing, it's just that there's enough people talking about it in songs that don't mean it."
Nor do they do overt political songs, the usual alternative to love songs (we'll ignore the sword-and sorcery crew, thank you very much). It's not that they don't have opinions or deeply-felt beliefs, it's just that they don't want to use the stage as a soapbox, preferring instead to make private donations to local environmental causes, like a group who're doing a study on the water table in Minnesota.
So do they believe rock'n'roll is inextricably linked with real life?
"Oh yeah, I think good rock'n'roll is. Rock music isn't. Rock music is completely based in fantasy. Good rock'n'roll like The Who or The Byrds, is based in down -to-earth business, in the dirty, lowdown, shit-in-your-pants stuff that happens every day. There's a difference, in my mind anyway.
So would you view each album as a diary?
"Definitely. They're like a documentary of where we're at at that period. It's hard to explain what goes into an album: we have the songs written, but once we get into the studio, that's where it happens. We don't have concrete ideas of what should happen; things gel as we're in there, and at that point they become notes of where we were at story-wise that month.
"People always say, why don't you play the old songs? After a while a song may lose its meaning to you: it may have been a specific event that isn't relevant to your life anymore."
Hence the change from the dark introspection of 'Zen Arcade' to the more positive, outgoing 'New [Day] Rising.' The former's cover - a coloured- in xerox depicting the three grey-shaded Hüskers wandering through a junkyard of brightly-hued wrecked cars - serves notice of the sounds inside; the scraps of pessimism and disillusionment tricked out in all manner of musical finery, verging in places on the psychedelic.
'Zen Arcade' is one of the strangest, most comprehensive LPs of recent years; not the happiest, perhaps, but then who needs happiness? However, having stretched out over four sides and tried out other avenues, they returned to a more mainstream format with the triumphant 'New Day Rising.'
What happened in between?
"It was just a reaction to 'Zen Arcade,'" says Bob. "'Zen Arcade' was longer, darker, moodier, it went through a lot of different changes - there were the little segues on piano and guitars, etc. With 'New Day Rising' we just said to hell with that, let's strip it back down and do what we were doing. It was like starting over again.
"That's not to say there won't be another 'Zen Arcade' - there may well be. It's really easy to make that kind of record."
"It's really easy," adds Grant, "to get into a rut where you've got to one-up yourself all the time, too: oh, the last album had tympani, so this one has to have harp..."
But don't you find the guitar/bass/drums line-up limiting?
"Not for this band," says Bob. "The function of this band is to be guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Anything beyond that, in theory, is not really the band. We don't have synthesisers off to the side, or roll on the grand piano and stuff, which was what 'Zen Arcade' was leaning towards. Fortunately, we got a hold of ourselves and brought it back to reality, started realising the context in which we performed.
"If a song calls for something, then we'll get it. The record we're working on now,* there isn't even an acoustic guitar. The songs are strong enough that we didn't need to fuck around with the shit this time. It's sort of in the same vein as 'New Day Rising' - whichever direction - and it's more vocal-oriented, as opposed to a wall of sound. It's a cleaner production: we produced it ourselves, as opposed to having Spot from SST come in and do it, so it does sound a lot better."
The vocals on 'New Day Rising' were largely indecipherable...
"Thank you, Spot," Grant sneers sardonically.
"We like masking it a little bit," Bob explains. "I think sometimes just the order of consonants and sibilants is as important as the words themselves. Those songs are more atmospheric than anthemic. There's a difference: you can write the songs with the chorus everyone'll remember, and then you can write the ones nobody really knows the words to and can phase in and out of as they wish. Like 'Perfect Example,' the words are real cloudy, it's the feeling that comes across more."
That song's particularily dream-like. Do you have an interest in dreams?
"Oh yeah. Dreams are weird," says Bob. "If you sleep with the television on, you have more dreams, because you're getting aural suggestions. I put on the 24 hour News, and I have just the craziest dreams - you hear them talking, and it'll trigger something in your subconscious that'll get you dreaming you're in Africa, or whatever.
"I think dreams are just messages from your subconscious, telling you things you might not want to hear about, telling you realities that are coming in your life. It's your little guy on your shoulder, y'know, the voices in your head that you don't listen to because you're too busy."
Like musical repo Men, Hüsker Dü are in the process of reclaiming discontinued or disgraced threads of rock's rich tapestry and weaving strange new garments - unlike most of the other new American bands engaged in archaeological work, who seem instead to be operating some kind of invisible mending service.
It's this oddness which gives them their peculiar intensity. Individual elements of their sound are recognisable, but there's no single neat little compartment you could shoe-horn them into. like 'Country Rock' or 'Psychedelia.' Not for them the structures of a Paisley Underground...
"It's all a bunchahooey!" claims Grant, with customary frankness. "There's a lot of people that think they can slap on a paisley shirt and a pair of Roger McGuinn sunglasses and smoke pot and take acid and be psychedelic."
"There's a lot of that kind of stuff," agrees Bob. "A lot of talking in real abstract terms and being real surreal all the time... playing in a band and being fulla shit..."
By the same token, the resurgence of interest in older musics receives short shrift, too.
"People lacking the imagination to draw from the future, draw from the past," says Grant, a trifle harshly perhaps.
Bob is somewhat more reasonable. But the people who draw from the future are people who're completely into synthesisers: oh, I'm using the technology of today to create the sounds of tomorrow - a very unnatural thing.
"What we're doing and what most of the bands are doing is not that new. Especially what we're doing - there's nothing incredibly new about it. We're not, like, The New Age. We're just doing what we do the best we can. There's some elements of change in the way we approach the topics, or weave in and out of topics - but again, I don't think that's anything new. It's just a change from what's going on, to some degree."
Is what you do Art, with a capital A, or something less precious than that?
"It's Music, with a capital M. With all capital letters."
* Flip Your Wig.
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