Grant Hart

Grant Hart : Q&AFulfilling a life-long dream, QRO talked to punk icon Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü.  In the conversation, the freewheeling Hart discussed his upcoming new record, Hot Wax (QRO review), working in Montreal, doing requests, recently playing with Hüsker Dü’s bassist Greg Norton & Minutemen/fIREHOSE’s Mike Watt, why he travels alone – without even a cell phone or e-mail, why industry fests suck, Dr. Brinkley from Del Rio, [OFF THE RECORD], and much more – and yes, we asked him about a Hüsker Dü reunion with guitarist Bob Mould (QRO live review)…

[note: two friends/fans of Hart’s, Michael Azerrad – author of the seminal Our Band Could Be Your Life about the eighties punk scene – and Laki Vazakas, were also present at the interview, and asked some key questions]

QRO: How were/are the recording sessions in Montreal?

Grant Hart: I worked in Montreal with Terry Hall, Howard Billerman – the hotel2tango people, and members of Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion.

I don’t think the results are anything that anybody planned on, but it worked out really good.  The difficulty that arose – if any difficulties – was the popularity of the studio.  When you have a large number of creative people involved in a studio, everybody has projects – they’re eating up the time.  Some guy 1,400 miles away doesn’t get there fast enough to say, “My turn!”

QRO: How did you come to work with Godspeed You! Black Emperor?

GH: We’ve been in contact for a few years now.  Got to the point where Howard Billerman said, “Why don’t you come here to do the record?”  I’m familiar with the Constellation Records people – although Constellation & I were unable to reach agreement on the record.  It was specifically designed to work with the Montreal people.

Half of the album is recorded in Minneapolis, at this place called Albatross that Mike Wisti operates.

QRO: How representative is the song that’s on your MySpace page, “Schoolbuses Are For Children”, of what you’ve been doing?

GH: That’s a good representation of the Montreal sessions.  There’s one more in that vein.

That’s kind of subdued compared to what their input accumulated to be.  Especially on the song “Barbara”.

QRO: Where are you on making the record, releasing the record, etc.?

GH: I’m signing tomorrow with Con D’or.  [note: Hart only just released that information]

QRO: Do you feel any extra pressure, considering all the time since the last time you released something?

GH: Well, I don’t think nine years is indicative of a lot of pressure being exerted…

Michael Azerrad: I pressure him…

Laki Vazakas: His fans pressure him…

GH: The priorities change, the things that you have to do, throughout your life – the things that you’re interested in doing.

Worked on a number of collaborations, especially this St. Paul artist, Chris Larsen, independent filmmaker.

Quite a bit of stuff right around Tommy Hazelmyer, Amphetamine Reptile Records.  We’ve released five singles under ‘Purge of Dissidence’.  Part of what’s been released, Tom and I worked on, also with a lot of other people.  A ‘Tom Project’, but…

QRO: Do you have a name for the new record?

GH: The cover depicts the melting of the wings of Icarus.  Nothing was like hitting me over the head, but I looked at the picture, and I said, “How about ‘Hot Wax’?”  Sounds like a record store advertisement…

LV: Did you make the cover yourself?

GH: Yeah, I was throwing around some Xerox transparencies, and the depiction of the red shift, how the starlight is bent by the sun.  And then I had this Lillienthal glider in flight, old photo – I think it might be Lillienthal himself.  Put them on a table together, juxtaposed themselves in a nice way.  I just refined that concept for the cover, added and subtracted some different elements, but ended up with just the two elements.  I’m very happy with the cover.

Good News [For the Modern Man] was fine – this is going to stand out, as far as the covers I’ve done before.  Very ‘woodcut-ish looking’.

Grant Hart playing Good News For the Modern Man‘s “Letter For Anne Marie” live at Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on June 1st, 2009:

QRO: How’s it been, being back on the road?

GH: I never left the road.  I’ve been traveling around on Amtrak ever since Good News, really.

Not touring new product, obviously, but touring nonetheless.  And so the only advertisement is going to be the club advertisement.  ‘Cause the papers – no new record, generally no new press.  But usually get in the ratings columns – ‘Please go see this guy’…

MA: There’s also forums – fans of Hüsker Dü.

QRO: What is the make up of a set list, between new material, older solo stuff, Hüsker Dü stuff, and Nova Mob stuff?

GH: I’m very conscious, while working on this record, because when Good News came out, I had been playing all the new stuff.

That was another – not as long as a process, but that one, I pretty much had unlimited studio time.  It allowed me to, if nothing else, experiment with a lot of different things.  And this one, I knew when Good News came out, not ‘rough around the edges’, but it’s going to be the shape, and the light, rather than the details – the shadow that it casts.  Definitely more danceable, in a good way.  It’s a boogie-ing rock ‘n’ roll record – ‘Hot Wax’… [laughs]

QRO: What’s the age spread in your crowd – are there people you know had to have been fans since the eighties?

GH: At the Cake Shop (QRO venue review), there was a couple close to the front who were obviously reliving an early love affair…

QRO: Are you looking to get a backing band of some sort?

GH: Not ‘looking’, but there’s people in the world that, I know they’re playing – but traveling with people is a whole ‘nother story.

And you’ve got to realize how, traveling very stripped-down – left hand [amp], right hand [guitar] – you don’t have to wait for anything but the train.

Metaphorically, I stopped waiting for people who are trying to walk beside me a long time ago. If they can keep up, fine.

I notice that when I’m teamed up with one or two other people, two days at a time, the amount of compromise that it takes.  I’m very destination-oriented when I do this.  When Brooklyn is done, Philadelphia starts.  Sometimes, the timing of other people’s needs and concerns slows things down.  I get frustrated walking down the sidewalk with people that can’t keep pace.

Metaphorically, I stopped waiting for people who are trying to walk beside me a long time ago.  If they can keep up, fine.

QRO: You still do any drumming?

GH: Yeah – I drummed with Mike Watt & Greg Norton two weeks ago.

I got called two o’clock in the morning, the day before, to play the next day with Watt.  I had been out and talked to Nate from First Avenue while I was out at a different show.  When I got home, the phone was ringing, “Hey, I just had an idea – why don’t you open for Watt?”

Greg Norton shows up about halfway through soundcheck.  I was stretched out the couch, getting a back rub, and all of a sudden, [mock impression of Norton] “Hey, hey Mike!  How ya doin’ Mike?”

And you could see the candlelight behind Greg’s eyes about the whole audience thing.  He’d performed not really consistently, starting the restaurant, as he does – especially this year, which has been so crucial.

LV: Are you still in touch with Greg?

GH: I hang with Greg, not, say, ‘frequently’, but we talk probably four times a month.

LV: So what was the band?

GH: With Johnny Jewel, little Johnny Jewel.  So Watt’s band didn’t have to learn anything.

See, what happened is, I had those guys come up for my last song.  We did a new one, “You’re the Reflection of the Moon on the Water”.  Watt completely fuckin’ butchered it, but… [laughs]

You could see the candle getting brighter behind Greg’s eyes.  Afterwards, I’m hearing, in the corner, him talking, [mock impression] “Wow… I, uh… I don’t have a bass here…”  The audience was quite enthused.

QRO: How was SXSW (QRO recap)?

GH: Those kind of things suck

QRO: You don’t like those ‘industry fests’?

GH: Well, there’s so much just plain fuckin’ drinking goes on in those places.

So many tags around people’s neck that say, ‘Volunteer’ – and the price that people have to pay for things aren’t volunteer prices.

Just a bunch of drunks.  It’s hard for me to take that many inebriated people that, for some reason, when you’re in a band, you have to tolerate – and you’re called a prick if you’re not nice to them.

[mock drunk slur] “Whaaa?  You won’t pause to take a picture wiff my whife?!?  Fuck you!…”

QRO: On Day One at Creekside Lounge, you mentioned your annoyance with your management, BMI – do you think they still spend too much money on glossy ads with the president?

GH: That was a statement directed at a specific expenditure of theirs, where they supplied people with cowboy hats that said ‘BMI’ on them.  Obviously, the purchase of them put food on somebody’s table.

But that’s the promotions industry – a lot of money is spent on stupid hats and shit like that.  Being a BMI ‘payee’, the thing that annoys me the most, they send you a fuckin’ quarterly magazine that’s just pictures of them – particularly this one woman, Frances [W. Preston], with, literally, a hundred different artists, from some convention.

So I clicked in: okay, this magazine is a trophy for some people, the songwriter, ‘Oh, here’s a picture of me with the president of BMI, blah-blah-blah…”  I don’t need to buy trophies for people.  At least it’s from their cut – they’re playing for it.

But where were they when downloading?  Why didn’t they take just a little bit of a stance about it?  They should have filed a lawsuit for every songwriter that they had.  That’s what we should be paying for.

Not suing the individual, of course, but the whole Napster line before Congress, “We can’t count the number of downloads…”  Bullshit!  It’s a computer program – you can wire it in any way.

QRO: Where did you hear about ‘Dr. Brinkley from Del Rio’?

GH: There’s a book that I stumbled upon.

This cat, from the post-WWI, until, roughly, the forties, the guy was this totally rich fuckin’ quack.  He’d take sheep’s testis, implant them any which way.  And anybody else had any other quack idea, he’d arrange for them.  They know of over four hundred deaths, for certain, from him helping people.

And then he started a pharmaceutical scheme where, instead of the drugs by name, the doctors would prescribe ‘Brinkley 78’.  And a lot of this stuff was total quack-a-roo.  One thing he sold, for like $100 a bottle, it was one drop of blue ink in a bottle of distilled water.

The editor of The Lancet, who was also prosecuting for years, finally beat him down about a year before he died, 1940, around there.

The book I read was called Charlatan.  I think it was published in the last couple years.

QRO: After you mentioned him at SXSW, I looked him up on Wikipedia – said he ran for governor of Kansas, because the state was trying to shut him down, and got like a third of the vote…

GH: He didn’t lose by much.

QRO: And he invented the border-blaster, radio along the Mexican border…

GH: Made stars of so many people.  So many other people listened to hillbilly music for the first time on his stations.  His unintended gift…

He had, at one time, fifty Cadillacs, and suits tailored.

Grant Hart playing “Please Don’t Ask” live at Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on June 1st, 2009:


QRO: At Creekside, you also asked for requests.  Do you do that regularly?

GH: Yeah.  If you don’t, you get the, ‘Why didn’t you play…?  That’s my wife favorite song, and you didn’t play it, fucker!…’

LV: Can you play just about anything that people call out?

GH: Yeah.  I mean, sometimes embarrassingly badly – I’ll be like Charlie Parker, substituting chords and things…

QRO: What are the most popular requests?

GH: Oh…  “Books About U.F.O.s”, definitely.  ‘Cause it’s one that I just don’t think about playing, because I don’t have a lot in the key of C.

You play what you feel, and I don’t often feel bouncy like that.

LV: So nothing from Land Speed [Record]

GH: I’ve thrown in “Data Control” a couple of times, within a couple years.

LV: Really?  I was kind of kidding…

GH: There was this book that came out about this family of Joe Ture, the man who killed Diane Edwards.  I was dumbstruck – could totally re-appreciate the song.

I loaded up on the bass.  It’s uninteresting– well, I don’t want to say that.  It’s not my favorite song to play, up until a point.  And then when people request it now, I make sure I remind them, “Hey, this was based on a real thing.  This isn’t ‘Flip Your Wig’…”

QRO: Are there songs you wish someone would request, but they don’t?

GH: Oh…

Wait – how could that happen?  Because I would play that [in the set list].  Trick question – ‘Stump the guy’…

QRO: Has anyone ever requested an Hüsker Dü song that you didn’t write?

GH: Not lately.

And the audience is usually far worse on the person…

I think that’s the charm of the open-ended set list, as it were.  I’ll go up there with half-intent, stuff that I know that I feel like playing.  I always know what I’m going to open with, I guess.

You’re liable to have different segues from thing to thing.  The dynamic of one song against another changes both of them.  For example, someone had requested “Little Miss Information”.  There was another song that ended in G, which I segued into, and it brought a different energy into “Little Miss”.

QRO: What do you think of all the reunions of eighties and even nineties punk bands going around, like Mission of Burma (QRO live review), Dinosaur Jr. (QRO live review), etc.?

GH: Putting their kids through college, basically – with the best means at their disposal.  Or they’re doing what else they want to do with it.

What’s funny is when you see the reunions of the bands that nobody ever wanted to fuckin’ see in the first place!

In Minneapolis, this band came through – have you ever heard of the band called [REDACTED]?  It was not the ‘glorious reunion’ they’d hoped for…

MA: Festivals ever ask you to get back together and play there [like The Pixies at Coachella in 2004]?

GH: It’s funny, sometimes it’s the most ridiculously small, [mock dopey voice] “Hey, I’m doing a yard party.  Do you think you guys would be interested in getting back together?  We were all really into you when we were in college in Madison…”

The answer to that is, when we’re motivated to do it, it would happen.  I could see some issue, some something – something that would be a statement, as well as a bank statement.

That’s just the thing – you see any situation where anybody has done that, and the result is…  We’re wise enough to know that there’s the end.  There’s always the result.  It’s like – What do you follow a fuckin’ Hüsker Dü reunion with?!?  I’m gonna hop on a fuckin’ train again?  I mean, I don’t know…

[MORE OFF THE RECORD COMMENTARY]

I could see putting an album out, releasing that first…

QRO: Oh, wow!

GH: Not that I’m talking to anyone about possibility like that.

But something interesting, because the idea, as it sits, fuckin’ bores the hell out of me!  Not because of any disrespect to the people, but how many times would you be hearing, [mock drunk, overexcited voice] “Oh I love that you guys got back together!!!  We knew it would happen eventually…”

And then you have the same ol’ bullshit that Bob & I can’t fuckin’ convince the rest of the world of: is neither of us want this [mock dopey press voice] ‘Are you a Grant fan or are you a Bob fan?…’  Which is how the band went out.

QRO: Just say you’re a Greg fan…

GH: That’s a fucking thing right there too:  Greg Norton’s fuckin’ hopes & dreams don’t even enter the picture at this point in the conversation.  At this point, we’re friends, and I’m happy with where Greg’s at.

Grant Hart playing Hüsker Dü’s “She’s a Woman (And Now He Is a Man)” live at Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on June 1st, 2009:

QRO: How does making music today compare with ten, twenty, and/or even thirty years ago?

GH: Twenty years ago, the way I worked, people would go about as a natural way of recording their music.  I’m not paying any less or any more for what I’m doing, but nowadays, you have people going, “Wow – I really wish we could afford to record on two-inch analog tape…”  I’m a big proponent of analog anything.

QRO: How come you have neither a cell phone nor e-mail?

GH: Well, ‘cause I can do things without it…

[mock old man voice] ‘Vet me put it dis way: back, in a long, long time ago, people wrote letters…’

No, it’s not any conscious thing other than the ability to live without it.  If somebody else it taking care of some functions that use that, it doesn’t impact.

The fucking thing about having a cell phone: they ring…

Also, anybody who spent a significant amount of their adulthood in pre-cell phone days organizes themselves differently.  Nine out of ten times you see a cell phone being used in Manhattan, for instance, people aren’t making plans – they’re altering plans.

[mock loud cell phone voice] “Hey, I was on my way to so-and-so, and I ran into blah-blah-blah here, so, instead, let’s go blah-blah-blah…”  If you make one call from a landline, the other person goes, “Well, can’t all him, so we better go wherever he says we’re gonna go.”  I really think it has socially impacted us, where it makes people less responsible to uphold their commitments.

QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing at?

GH: I kind of liked the Cake Shop, the other night.  [Bell House – QRO venue review] is a big room…

Turf Club in St. Paul, that’s a good one.

Turner’s Hall in Milwaukee, an old German Athletics club – big Civil War memorial to the members that had died in the Civil War on the first floor landing.  Total cohesive execution of design work between murals, the oak wood work, and stone.  Then, on the third floor, there’s a ballroom that had been shut from, say, 1939, to about fifteen years ago.  It hasn’t been ‘over restored’, but they cleaned up.  They started re-gilding stuff.  It’s the kind of thing where they’re looking for corporate sponsors, ‘Sponsor your own pillar at Turner Hall!’

There’s a sloped floor, so the farther you get away from the stage, the higher the floor is, not abrupt.  And the stage, that works the other way, so when you’re playing up stage…

Grant Hart playing “2451” live at Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on June 1st, 2009:

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