Hüsker Dü was one of the greatest and most influential bands of the 1980s. But while singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bob Mould still gets much of the credit for creating an impossibly catchy fusion of hardcore punk, noise, and pop, it would be grossly unfair to minimize the influence of singer, songwriter, and drummer Grant Hart, who provided many of the Twin Cities trio's best moments. "Diane," "Pink Turns Into Blue," "Turn On The News," "The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill," "Books About UFOs," "Green Eyes," "Sorry Somehow," "She's A Woman (And Now She Is A Man)," "She Floated Away," and many more propel their respective albums to new heights, while Hart's first solo disc Intolerance proves that the winning streak was no fluke. In light of Hart's new and nearly perfect Good News For Modern Man—his first solo work in 11 years after a detour with his band Nova Mob—The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Hart about sex, drugs, death, and the tangled history of Hüsker Dü.
The Onion: Starting at the beginning, how did Hüsker Dü form?
Grant Hart: I was working at a record store, and it was probably 1978 or so when I met Bob [Mould]. He just breezed in as a customer one day. He had been acquainted with Greg [Norton, Hüsker Dü's bassist] for probably a year or two before that. He'd been working for the chain of record stores, as well, and that's how I came to meet him. I pretty much ran into both of them working at a string of record stores called Melody Lane. It's no longer in business.
O: When you started playing together, what were some of the musical tastes you all had in common?
GH: In common? All the classic punk stuff: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols. Pretty much the non-regional stuff. A lot of what brought us together was what we didn't have in common, like the records that, say, Mould could get on the East Coast that never made it to the middle of the country, and vice versa. It was kind of hipping each other to our respective local music. Of course, there was CBs and all that happening in New York, so it seemed like there was a lot of Heartbreakers and this band from Canada, The Diodes, that covered The Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball." That was an early common territory. Bob was a student of the guitar player from The Suicide Commandos, which was kind of like the first Minneapolis punk band. When they started, they would not have used the word "punk," but they were doing the same thing a lot of people were doing at the time. It was kind of a more shorthaired rock 'n' roll. They moved into that quite well, and they kind of brought their whole scene with them. In the early days, most of the punks were well into the second half of their 20s at least, because it wasn't the populist movement that it became later on. Or tried to become later on. It was a lot of spoiled art students and rich babies that had the opportunity to travel and be in the places where this stuff was taking place.
O: A lot of the hardcore bands at the time were all about, "How fast can we go?" or, "How aggressive can we be?" At what point did you know that Hüsker Dü was going to develop beyond that?
GH: Well, this is where it starts being a little bit divisive, because I didn't enjoy playing hardcore. At the time, while I was drummer for Hüsker Dü even though I played other instruments, it was just such a damn boring job for a drummer. [Mimics fast, repetitive drum beat.] I saw it as part of a whole set of possibilities for expression, but I found the hardcore thing very limiting and very… dumb. It was just, you know, "Let's be super politically paranoid on the surface, and let's jump into a more stringent set of rules than what we're supposed to be rebelling against." I've never really enjoyed that macho, "Here are the rules, here's how you conform" stuff. That kind of attitude seems to have found full bloom in the character of the work of, say, Henry Rollins. There's this hard-ass stuff that didn't do anything for me. The compositions I had that could be classified as hardcore were already moving away, occupying a different topical ground. The first song that really comes to mind is from an early EP that we did: The song is called "What Do I Want?" and it was simply that. The questions, "What do I want? What will make me happy?," repeated over and over, ad nauseam. That's all I could really express with that genre of music. Starting off in '82, late '81, before we really worked our way into Metal Circus, my hair got long again. All of a sudden, all these great, liberated people were "not digging it." These people who were supposed to be about throwing away all the rules were suddenly getting caught up in their own hypocrisy. They're singing about how people "don't like me because I've got short hair" or whatever, "because I stand out in the crowd." They ended up doing the same thing, so I was kind of delighted surfing on that iconoclasm. Originally, it became apparent to me that there was more rebellion in bringing the music back into… the first term that comes to mind is "a thing of beauty." Not that there's not a place for some of that ugliness, because a lot of it is a component of my work to this day. But a steady diet of nothing but that… [Mimics the drum beat again.] I don't know if you're familiar with the album Land Speed Record, but the next album we made after that was pretty much a studio version of the same damn thing. I just started interjecting more of my material into the balance of things. You'd have to ask Mould this, but I'd assume that writing hardcore was fairly easy for him. Maybe he hadn't written enough different kinds of things to really know where songwriting could challenge you. Around the time of Zen Arcade, he started really blooming as a songwriter, even though he'd been in the band for a while. Things like "Chartered Trips" and "Celebrated Summer," these songs are associated with him to this day as the finer points of his musical upbringing. I'm certainly not taking credit for anything he's written, but I really started the ball moving in the other direction, as far as within the band was concerned.
O: Did you have to fight for that?
GH: Well, I had to take a lot of snide shit. Bob would be in camouflage fatigues from head to toe with a skinhead haircut, and I would walk in and he would ask me, "Oh, are you a surfer now?" I turned and thought, where did this question come from? From someone looking like an ersatz G.I. Joe? I thought, okay, let's not be throwing any sort of mandatory identity around. One of the biggest frustrations I ended up having as I continued with that band was the mandatory-identity part. It went from that to "the barefoot drummer." And from there, it was, "Oh, he's the longhaired drummer now." I'd have people coming up to me at concerts and saying, "I know how it is, man. My girlfriend doesn't want me to cut mine off, either." Sorry, guys, it's got nothing to do with no girlfriend. [Laughs.] Particularly with the way the media in general need to describe something, or classify it point-blank really quickly, I looked upon all these little categorizations as being real negative. Not so much frustrating, but it was certainly, "How shallow do people want to get?" But as time went on and it became easier for me to get my songs across within the context of my own band… Now, if you look at the way things worked, on the first couple of albums there's a song of mine here and there. That just kind of grows until the final album. Then there's a showdown with Bob telling me, "You're not going to have half an album, ever, in this band." That was the end. Apparently, I had growing to do. Of course, when the band broke up I had a whole new set of classifications thrown at me.
O: Toward the beginning, were you and/or Bob out of the closet? How did people treat you in hardcore punk circles?
GH: Well, I had toured with male companions. When you went to the Longhorn, the original punk palace in town, it was three doors away from a bar that for 50 years has been called "The Gay '90s." It became a gay bar conveniently. Especially in the early days of the pre-hardcore American punk thing, there was pretty consistent gayness coming through there. I'm the first one to use that word in the conversation, and it's not one that I really like the identity of, especially the way homosexual culture has moved in the post-AIDS days. I think it's more about making money and wearing the right clothes. But I had toured with male companions very early on, and my partner at the time was posed with the question, "What does it feel like being the boyfriend of this famous man, blah, blah, blah?" And my friend was pretty unsophisticated, and he told her something that was rather crude, but it never seemed to be… You know, when you're dealing with a very small orbit, it doesn't seem like such a big thing. Then, by the time it would be a big thing, the people you're dealing with have dealt with it. Take Joan Rivers: Here's a person who's no stranger to gay people, and by the time we were appearing with her [on her TV show in 1987], it wouldn't be the kind of question or topic that the big industry moves you to discuss. You know what I mean? They accept it, they're cool behind it, and they're doing it themselves, but we can't let the people down in Topeka think that's the case. And really, it didn't define much about the band. If anything, it would have been just another question mark, because we were so unlike the stereotype du jour. I don't think with us there was… With Bob, for instance, there was this apparent cross he was bearing about the thing for so long. He belabored making any kind of announcement about it, because other people were saying he was closeted and stuff, which was certainly not true if anybody from Minneapolis would have asked, "What side is Bob's butter on?" There was no question. But then he belabored this "coming out" thing, by which time the culture itself had become so unappreciative. I remember reading something in a Los Angeles gay paper, where it was like, "Big deal, Bob," you know? I think that kind of hurt him. I think he expected other gay people to be more supportive when in this day and age they're off doing their own thing. No real common ground, you know? I think maybe part of the hurt for him was that a little part of him wanted to be a spokesman. And, of course, I read some very cruel things that I didn't feel happy about when that happened for him. I've had a more strangely balanced relationship with the public and the media. I realized when the band broke up—and before then, for that matter—that a couple of vicious people shooting their mouth off can brand you with one topic. In my case, it was the break-up of the band and all the allegations that were thrown around then. It's just one part of the business that you have no control over. If somebody decides they're going to burn you, they're going to burn you.
O: Let the record show that I did not ask you about the break-up of Hüsker Dü.
GH: It's been belabored. It was by no means… Well, I can safely say I was certainly not the biggest drug abuser in the band. But what's the point? The cow can't scratch off its brand, you know?
O: How early did the drugs start?
GH: Well, when Bob Mould first hit town, he was bringing a lot of concern to friends of mine that he was on a heroin hunt. And there was amphetamine use throughout the early days. Around the time of Metal Circus I had stopped taking speed, because I did not appreciate the tension: I liked the momentum, but I didn't like the tension. Then, alcohol for me was out the window throughout the making of that record and Zen Arcade. Greg and I, in our very early days, kind of experimented together in a kind of late-'70s LSD renaissance, where there was just some really, really good Owsely out there. It's certainly not anything I recommend, but that time of the decade was a crucial time for that. There was just tons and tons of superior LSD out there. There were all sorts of promoters who tried to pay bands off with whatever. As far as the breakup of Hüsker was concerned, without sounding like a paranoid freak, my contribution to the songwriting in numbers had grown so much, and, to be quite frank, Warners was making inroads to me personally, as it was expressed to me… Okay, Hüsker was this great do-it-yourself band, right? And I would have people coming up to me saying, "You guys' time would be much better spent concentrating on your art." Which was true. There was no reason that the band members themselves, at their peak, should be faxing their rider to people or making sure the cones are set up in the parking lot. Stupid minutiae shit like that. If anything, it just demonstrated our control-freakiness. By that time, a lot of time had gone on with the band, too. When we signed with Warners, we had been together for something like seven years, and by that time I had pretty much identified things I liked and didn't like. There was this control to deal with. Point blank, Mould told me when we were working on Warehouse, "We're not going to finish this song and this song because that would make the album equal: ten songs Bob, ten songs Grant. And that is never going to happen in this band." And then, two months later, I'm being told, "These side projects are not really impressing anybody. If you're going to put time into music, it's going to be put into this band." So, okay, I'm limited in what I can achieve inside this band, and I'm limited in what I can do outside this band. It's really no wonder that my personal results were what they were. But only one of three drug-abusing people was crucified about it. I read a review Friday, and this guy starts out, "If Grant Hart's drug addiction and contribution to the breakup of Hüsker Dü is true as alleged, then he probably has deserved the lack of success over the past 10 years." What the fuck does that have to do with music?
O: That's ridiculous. I think it takes until Warehouse for Bob to consistently catch up with your songwriting. Even now, I think your songs have best ensured that band's legacy.
GH: Of course, I can't wave that flag, modestly speaking. But I hear that from absolutely everybody. I mean, I probably don't hear from the ones who think otherwise. [Laughs.]
O: Greg has managed to avoid all the post-Hüsker politics. You don't hear a lot from him.
GH: No, but you hear a lot about Greg in different culinary magazines. Good for him, good for eaters.
O: Do you know why he decided to give up playing music?
GH: I haven't discussed this theory of mine with him. You have a guy who wasn't the biggest songwriting force in the band, who, in his first post-Hüsker outings, musically was kind of stung by people who wanted to use him for his name and reputation, but really didn't want to share the artistry and accolades. I think that hurt Greg, even in the last couple years of Hüsker Dü. Let me relate a story: Toward the end, when Warehouse came out and it was nine of my songs, eleven of Bob's songs, Greg had written one song which became the B-side of the very last single. Now, after however many years that I'm fighting to get my songs across, Greg writes one song and immediately Bob's party line is, "We all three compose equally." After having never acknowledged my writing, when Greg writes this one song, it turns into, "We all three write equally." Before that, we would get, "I write most of the songs, and Grant contributes now and then." He couldn't deny it. It would turn from "he did it" to "we did it" to "I did it" with two simple retellings of the story. I read something recently where he talks about a Nico performance where he was scoring drugs for her because she couldn't perform without them. That's an event that's completely fabricated. Bob often talks about the good old days, when he had to lug the PA up three flights of stairs to where we were playing. Now, the guy who did move that PA is kind of pissed! He's always looking backwards with his own Bob-colored glasses.
O: Do you think he tried to take advantage of you because you played drums? You weren't a traditional frontman.
GH: I think Bob definitely used it to his advantage: "the singing drummer." What about "the drumming singer"? What's particularly nasty about that whole bit was that it was a last-minute decision: We couldn't find a drummer, so we decided I would play that instrument. I owned a set of drums, but before then I was playing keyboards. I had been in bands before. Hüsker Dü was Bob's first band, and the official party line was, of course, that it was all of our first band. It's on the record.
O: The first time you played organ with Hüsker Dü was on Candy Apple Grey, right?
GH: On New Day Rising, there's piano on "Books About UFOs." Not to drag up more nasty bits, but when we recorded that album, SST sent [label producer] Spot out as a watchdog. No pun intended. We were spending our own money, but we still couldn't produce our own record. We did co-produce it. And I recorded a piano part for "Books," and on "Heaven Hill" there was a slide-guitar part. And maybe it was because I had picked up the wrong instrument, touching on the guitar territory, but the next time all three of us are in the studio, Bob is telling me, "You have to choose between the piano on 'Books About UFOs' or the guitar on 'Heaven Hill.'" Well, what's the basis of this selection? "The album's not going to have both of those." Well, okay, I understand.
O: He wouldn't let you do it on your own song?
GH: Right. It's totally ridiculous.
O: Why is Good News For Modern Man your first solo record in 11 years?
GH: It's only really been since the breakup of Nova Mob that I've done much performing as a solo artist, and that's pretty much been a "while I'm making this album" method of staying out and playing. I always like the feeling of a band, especially when I'm liberated from the drums. I love playing drums, but if you're the composer you've got to sing, and your time is better spent up front. Wanting to put myself in front of a band… The breakup of Hüsker Dü gave me this fork in the road: "Is the next band going to be people who are all equally well-known?" I kind of conjured up a mental image of that and thought, "God, no." You know, the last thing I want is some kind of all-star monolith of the '80s kind, like The Honeydrippers. What I tried to do with Nova Mob was bring people to the forefront who might not have been heard otherwise. Where that proved to be a little less than ideal was when I ended up teaching different people the same lesson over and over again. People maybe needed three years of sleeping on people's floors before getting a hotel room. But my own unwillingness to go back to those floors myself cheated those people out of that heartening experience. So they were sleeping in hotel rooms, and before long I'm the least spoiled one in the band. Now, in these days of multi-track recording, I can come down to the studio with an instrument I've just acquainted myself with and make passable attempts. The time off I would spend woodshedding the parts on whichever instrument needed to be recorded, and then I'd come down to the studio and play them.
O: How did you wind up playing organ on the new Patti Smith record?
GH: It's pretty interesting, actually. The ceremony, memorial service, funeral, and burial of Mr. [William S.] Burroughs… What was it, '97? I had pocketed probably half a dozen of the funeral cards at the reception. Patti and Oliver Ray weren't there, but they made it to the burial. I approached Oliver, who was obviously there with Patti, but I'm not going to approach Patti Smith and hand her something at her near and dear friend's funeral. But I handed Oliver these two funeral cards and said, "I want you to have these; these are from the service last night." And it kind of got into the early stages of the joyous relief that a funeral is supposed to provide for the survivors. James Grauerholz, who was William's secretary, had thrown the first shovelfuls of dirt in the hole, and we're just handing the shovel around, burying William by hand. Some people took a couple of pebbles. One guy went back to his car and had a pot: He was going to plant a geranium in soil that William was buried in. People were at that stage of grief. Kind of, "We love William, about to depart joyfully." Oliver had scooped out some of the Earth with a spoon from the catering, and people were leaving things in the hole for William. And I said to Oliver, "Maybe you'd better leave that spoon in the hole. The old man might need it in the hereafter." He contemplated that and said, "Yeah, that's a good idea," and put the spoon in there. From the cemetery, it went to the reception at this fellow's house, and the three of us were the only people of a certain type there. See, the big thing people were talking about at William's funeral was Allen Ginsberg; you know, "God, Allen would know what to say." It wasn't that the right things weren't said; it's just that I'm sure William himself thought, "This service will be done eventually for me by Allen." And, of course, Allen went first. So it was kind of a homemade, several-person eulogy, real sweet and grassroots. We just started talking and, I don't blame her one bit, Patti was kind of slow to let her guard down. Oliver played her quite a bit of my stuff in the meantime, and Oliver and I kept in contact. Then, one day, she comes up to me and says, "What's your real name?" Well, Grant Hart. She said, "That's so incredible, because my father's name is Grant, and my mother's maiden name is Hart." She herself being such a magical person, she looked at that as meaning something, of course, though not in any kind of weird way. And then there was the fact that her band had been so crucial to my first compositions, and to my early listening as a late non-adult, and I know she was hearing her own influence back. Particularly the keyboards. And she's like, "Your playing reminds me of [Patti Smith Group keyboardist] Richard Sohl," and she was describing what different parts on different songs actually did to the song, geometrically and such. And, of course, I'm hearing this from someone I had… I can't say idolized, but someone I had such deep respect for, going way back. It's been a very gratifying friendship. Her having asked me to perform on the album was like coming full-circle.
O: How well did you know William S. Burroughs?
GH: Oh, I'd probably met with him 10 or so times. I'd like to think, and I know, that I contributed to some happy moments in his life. He had made a comment to me during the third-to-last time we spent together. He said, "Why do you tell me jokes? You're the only person who ever comes around here with a joke." And I told him, "Well, I hear a good joke and I tell it." But people thought they had to have a thick skin when they came to visit William, or put their best foot forward, trying to be something that they might very well be, but not all the time, you know? I think a lot of people put on a show for William when they were in contact with him, and eventually he was deprived of that much humanity. I think he got a lot of it living in Lawrence, doing a lot of his own shopping, that sort of thing. Here's a man, a French legionnaire, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and nobody's telling him jokes! That's pretty sad. So, from that point on, whenever we'd talk, I'd keep my ears out for one that William would like. Back in the days before his bypass, before I had given up alcohol, we would share his four o'clock cocktail and go out shooting. He was pretty amazed at the fact that I had never done any firearms in my life, except with him. He was like, "Minnesota is gun country; what's the deal with that?" But it's not the '20s, William! People don't walk around strapped, unless they're criminals.
O: I'd heard some story about you and a gun in the TwinTone offices.
GH: Oh, mercy! That would be apocryphal. Well, let's hear it.
O: I just heard that you came into the TwinTone offices waving a gun around once.
GH: Tom Merkl from Nova Mob—who was also a lover of mine pretty much throughout the tenure of that band—would have people come up to him at family [functions] and say, "So, have you heard any good Grant stories lately?" And when you analyze it, the way my life has been puffed up, I offer everything to people in terms of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. There's this apparent outlaw lack of remorse on my part that further stimulates the speculation. I've never even owned a firearm, which leads me to an interesting sidebar here. A friend of mine at the time of the breakup was posed with this question from Bob, who asked him, "Does Grant own any guns?" And, without batting an eye, my friend responded, "You'd be the first to know." [Laughs.] But it's one of two things: Either I'm completely innocent of such things, or I've done a great job of hiding the bodies.
O: Considering all the stuff you've been asked before, what question do you think still needs to be asked?
GH: Hmm. To fit the response that I'm coming up with, I guess that question would be, "What has contributed to the mythos?" I would say that one of my standards instrumentally has been to not just fool an audience, but Hüsker… A big body of our fans were also players and people who were in bands. So, when that band broke up, other people kept carrying the sound. And, of course, we know what happened to that sound in the early '90s. I think that if Hüsker Dü had survived to last out our Warners contract, there would have been developments that might not have left such a favorable post-breakup atmosphere about the band. I think we were getting ready to make the worst album of our career. I was trying to think if that was one of the frustrations that led to my leaving, but whether they were consciously addressed or not, they had to contribute. But I think that between the fortunate timing of our breakup and the fact that we had appealed to so many musicians who carried the torch, that's why we're so favorably remembered. While we were together, we were unique and special, but I think people have a tendency to look back at us with that rose-colored rear-view mirror, you know? I think technically, the actual recording process—the tracking, the quality of the original tracks we were working on with Good News—without any doubt rules over the quality of Hüsker Dü. Of course, Hüsker Dü had the three-piece dynamic working, and we had the momentum of being Hüsker Dü, but it would have been interesting if we had really tried to make an album. But Hüsker Dü was so bogged down with this score-keeping bullshit. I suppose it takes two to tango, and there are two sides to the mirror, but if I didn't have to waste so much psychic effort trying to gain something that should have been mine automatically, and not wasted so much time sharpening pencils and counting paper clips, doing the DIY thing… Who knows? Maybe the tension of the band, the challenging of one from the other… You hear some live bootlegs, and Bob and I are working so hard to outshine each other that it just lifts the whole thing off the ground with peace and wonderfulness.