INTERVIEW: GRANT HART
In 1981, Grant Hart, together with Bob Mould and Greg Norton, formed the formidable Hüsker Dü, a band that infused guitar rock with a new and punkish shot of adrenaline, and a fresh sense of loud musicality. Hart was their singing drummer. His songs were generally the more melodically pleasing and texturally adventurous in their repertoire. After the acrimonious demise of Hüsker Dü, Grant formed Nova Mob, a name that signalled his lasting admiration for the writer William S. Burroughs. Still based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he has been quieter of late, releasing the odd solo album. Now comes "The Argument", a magnificent double album (on vinyl) based on William S. Burroughs's adaption of the Milton poem "Paradise Lost".
I can’t tell you enough how much I like the album because it’s full of unusual ideas, unusual sounds and strange combinations of sounds.
Grant Hart: But do you think the end result is, erm, strange or alienating in any way? I think there’s a lot of harmonious use of diverse sources there.
Alienating would be completely the wrong words. I love my records when they take me by surprise,when I don’t expect the sounds that come at me. „The Argument“ is not a record that sounds like anything else, and I like that. I mean that as a compliment.
You mentioned the fire in your house whilst I was setting up the equipment. What happened?
A month to the day before my mother passed away I had – well,basically, I lost my home. The fire itself was confined to my bedroom and the adjacent bathroom, but the entire house was heavily damaged by smoke. It had been extremely cold for a week. I had been on tour, I came home, and a friend of mine who had been minding the house and watching the cats had seen that the thermostat was set differently than he would have expected, and for some reason he was compelled to monkey around with it and shorted out the electrical system for the furnace, which, eventually, when I came home – the house was totally cold and not only that, it was very cold and dry which made everything burn that much faster. But no life was lost.The two cats by their wits figured out how to escape.
You got them back?
Oh yes. One of the is a bit traumatised who ended up living in the wild for about four days afterwards. But the other one – they‘re brothers, I’m tempted to say „the younger one“ but they’re the same age - but the one that seems younger, the dopier one, Bozo, found refuge inside an upright bass. Crawled inside the f-hole and later on in the night we were downstairs with a flashlight, „here kitty, here kitty“, and we heard this miewing from inside this closet where the bass was, and we were looking around and all of a sudden these whiskpers were poking through the hole. We took the top of the bass and took him out. Once he was in he couldn’t figure out how to get out.
Ha! Do you know that kitty song by Lou Barlow? He had a song at thee nd of the „Emoh.“ album, it’s really funny („The Ballad of Daykitty“).
I probably heard it. But my listening habits had to adapt to my writing habits. I will go out and see music live. But consuming on record and consuming it in my household makes things stay in my head. It’s like the same thing as having a cluttered tool bench. You have to clear it up in order to work. There’s some things that stay in your head a very long time, and as a composer that means work stoppage. If I can’t concentrate on my own stuff because of something else – but if that’s the worst thing that happens on a day it’s still a good day.
You mentioned the fire because we were talking about your art. Was a lot of your works damaged?
Some got damaged. There were definitely some miracles that took place. Anything that had been hanging on the wall, if it was higher than about four-and-a-half feet, the super-heated air would scorch it pretty badly. And I had these things in these frames and such where the bottom half is totally immaculate but the top half is like melted and singed. It’s amazing the way fire and smoke and heat act inside a building. Something they don’t teach you in school. There’s a lot they don’t teach you in school. I mean –when the first response came to the house when I’d called the fire department, the guy basically told me – he asked me: „What’s in the house? Is there any people in the house, any animals?“ I told him there were two cats inside the house. And he said: „Well, they’re dead by now.“ And I thought: wow, that’s a rather bold pronouncement. Later on I realised that he didn’t want me to run into the building. They’ve dealt with this a thousand times where somebody is holding out hope for their little furry loved one. Of course, if it was a person they’d be making every effort to go in for it. But they can’t risk human life for an animal, and they can’t risk my life for an animal. Not on their watch. It made sense. Cruel to be kind.
A fire like that must be such a radical invasion into everything you’ve done in your life. It’s my sort of worst nightmare. What sort of traces has this left behind?
Well, it left me philosophically prepared for the loss of my mother in a lot of ways, which took place one month to the day later. Now, she was already in hospital, so I never even bothered to tell her. She was living with me and I’d stolen her from a nursing home she was unhappy in but she became ill. – It really gave me nowhere to go but into the future. Nothing will make you so contemporary as the annihilation of your past. There were no master tapes lost or anything to do with the future. A couple of compact disks got warped with early recordings that were used in „The Argument“. But outside of some stuff I was able to grab before the people arrived – just a couple of 2-inch tapes, really, I was left with my current project intact, and I was able to rescue the notes that weren’t consumed. Fortunately, they were lower than four-and-a-half, five feet in the room. But there was a number of things I could have dwelled on and sorted out and gone to court over and been totally pre-occupied with. But I was on a friend’s couch, looking for an apartment. I had put all the clothes I wanted to keep in the middle of my bed and that’s one of the rooms the fire was centred on. So the only clothing that I had was stuff I’d put in cardboard boxes inside my truck to give to the goodwill. So it was like, I was dressed homeless, I had no home – I had a place to stay so I wasn’t homeless – but it created this vacuum that allowed me to get sucked into the project of „The Argument“.
How did „The Argument“ arise in the first place?
I was visiting my friend James Grauerholz who was the secretary forWilliam Burroughs, still looks over the literary estate. And he was in the middle of a selection process where Bob Wilson, the fellow who put on „TheBlack Rider“ with Tom Waits doing the music, well, Bob had asked James to see if there was anything that might be applicable to the stage and James was looking for some different manuscripts including one entitled „Lost Paradise“ and, you know, it was about four pages so it wasn’t a whole lot. But James mentioned that he was looking for different song writers to do the music for it and when I left that afternoon, a couple of hours later, I told him, well, you know, I’m gonna take a crack at this. Whether you and Bob Wilson want to move forward on this – I’m intrigued with this idea and I’ll keep you posted. And, erm, we’ve yet to see. I haven’t sent the record to Bob Wilson yet. The thing is taking on a life on its own as a set-piece presentation – opportunities are opening up to do it with ballet. And that is exactly where I want to go with it. It’s also one of those thematic projects, a year from now, ten years from now, six months from now, there’s no bad time to present it.
It’s beyond fashion.
It’s beyond fashion. And although I’m beholden to the record companyto do as much as I can to market and sell the record they are in agreement with me that touring and playing shows and bringing the record to peoples‘ attention is, you know, fair enough. Presenting it stripped down – erm, when we can take a little time and do it more theatrically in more arts centre-type culture-related venues. I certainly don’t want drunks yelling out the names of Hüsker Dü tunes in the middle of the presentation of „The Argument“. If that means waiting a little bit (shrugs: so be it). But I’ve been working with four Irish musicians – why Ireland: well, it’s because these fellows speak English and will be able to get to the Continent very easily and economically, and elsewhere – maybe not so much the case. But there’s something very solid-feeling about working with these four lads.
How did you find them?
The main guitarist, this fellow called Colm O’Herlihy, I met him in the States. He was on tour with his brothers in a band called Remma. West Corkand Macroom, that area. They had a terribly obnoxious booker who basically had reduced them to poverty on this tour. They’d had to pay an enormous amount of money for their work visas and such, and flying over with a guitar from Ireland is not cheap. They’d asked him to book them some shows. He did book them some shows. But they should have asked for paying shows. He had them performing something like six shows in a row in these open-stage events where anybody can walk off the street. It’s no work for the booker, either. Hopefully he’ll be driven out of the business before too much longer. I’ve made it a point to do what I can in that direction.
The recordings – did you do everything by yourself?
I worked in a studio called Albatross which is run by a friend of mine called Michael Wisti, who is – I don’t like to use the word – artisan, but if there is such a thing as an artisan studio as there is artisan bakeries and artisan shoemakers and all this different stuff, which all it means is that the stuff is produced as it should be, you know. He runs this studio and I started working with him finishing off the album before this. It's a great working relationship where a number of times where I just speak very loosely about a concept and an idea, and next thing you know is he’s setting up the microphone, ready to make it happen. He’s one of these fellows who appreciates the destination but also appreciates the road to the destination.
The various instruments, is that all yourself?
Yeah. With multi-track recording and the work schedule – I’m a very poor lead guitarist, but keyboards, rhythm guitars, there’s no shortage of melodies, vocals, drums. Some of the bass, it was - about five songs we used this fellow, Davin Odegaard, who is actually the bass player in this band Mike plays in called the Rank Strangers. Really easy fellow to work with. But it was very hermetic.
I see your notebook lying on the table with its reptile skin cover.Which leads us nicely to that song that starts with the line “Well, I was born a simple reptile”. I love that song. It’s like – do you know the Bonzo Dog DooDah Band?
Oh, quite well. Vivian Stanshall.
Do you see something in common there?
Well, the playful Vaudevillian approach, definitely. Yeah.
The text itself – how does Burroughs’s “Lost Paradise” relate to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and how do your lyrics relate to the Burroughs version?
Well, I think – to answer the second part first – I think perhaps the methodology is closer than the actual end result. It’s from studying Burroughs– if I was to claim scholarship in either Burroughs or Milton it would definitely be Burroughs. But, you know, just his approach in the seeking out ofwords, and using words as magical spells as well as communicative tools. But in the search for words I incorporated bibliomancy – basically book magic – and spent a little time with the old dream machine, but listening to books on tape of people reading “Paradise Lost” while being influenced by the dream machine with the alpha waves stimulation. I would keep a – this was very much done by William – resorting to your dream journals, and after you’ve immersed yourself in one poem, it’s very common to dream about it. There are different ways of coaxing yourself into dreaming specific things. Auto-suggestion. Self-suggestion. I’ve always found great success in saying out loud to myself as I’m falling asleep, “I want (this) to happen”, whatever it may be. And that informs your sub-conscious and your unconscious, your will, the will of your conscious mind. Not all the time, but you can pretty much tell yourself what to dream about. And a situation that is crucial for dreaming is sleeping enough so that you will dream, haha. If there is any better excuse for staying in bed, sometimes, I’d like to hear it.
I couldn’t agree more with you there…
Especially with two kitties.
Do they sit on your chest, purring?
Oh, they’re quite close. And then when I’m away they’ll actually be cuddling each other. But they can’t let me know that. That would spoil the competition. Also, I put great value in not hitting the ground running when you first wake up. If there’s anything I hate is the alarm clock and, oop, gottago! I like easing into things.
What was it that fascinated you about the story of “ParadiseLost”/”Lost Paradise”?
Well - the humanness of it. I mean - these demi-gods imbued with very human reactions, very human jealousies and rivalries and after reading up on the man himself, cause I’ve always found that knowing the writer helps you to know the work – knowing that he built this certain place in the history of the times, knowing that he was a friend of Galileo, well, not so much a friend, an acquaintance. But there are parts of it where he is directly talking about the Pope/Galileo rivalry. And he is championing science over religion, which is veiled but pretty thinly veiled. The War in Heaven is basically the English Civil War, and God is the throne and the crown, and Lucifer is – Cromwell? I’m not 100% certain who his anti-hero really represented, but he was talking about current events every bit as much as he was talking about these marble Gods.
At a time when it was very dangerous to talk about these things openly.
Exactly. It is not documented as far as I know but afterwards, after the Restoration, after he had been one of the conspirators of the regicide,well – conspiracy is a bit strong a word, but let’s say: one in favour – he was more than likely pardoned by the new King, because he was right in league with a lot of people who lost their heads or were hung. And I think because of his age and his blindness he was a pretty sympathetic character. Plus, he was agreat man. He built the role of the wordsmith to the royals where if they had to speak to, say, a Dutch trade agent, they would run the message through to Milton to make sure it was phrased and articulated correctly.
How did you become friends with William Burroughs?
Basically, we were introduced at a photo shoot leading up to Giorno Poetry System’s „Diamonds in the Mouth of a Corpse“. I think what was refreshing to him, and what made me attractive to him, was the fact that I had never read any Burroughs, I didn’t come to him with an agenda, I wasn’t lookingfor his imprimatur, or his acknowledgment. At one time, after we’d known each other for a few years, he said: „How come you’re the only guy who ever comesand tells me a joke?“ I can only attribute that to – I was shameless. I didn’thave this reputation to preserve. I was willing to be a fool in his presence.You look into his – as bits of information filter out with the dying Beats, you find out so much of his stuff originated with a good laugh around a table. Most of his early writings were coming from routines – comedy routines! He wrote of himself autobiographically in “Junky”and in “Queer”, especially “Queer”, of his being a guy with routines. Comedy routines.
Dr. Benway and all those figures, they’re hugely enjoyable as satirical figures.
Exactly! It is so irritating – you hear people take “Naked Lunch” so fucking seriously! And if tell them, “hey, it’s satire, it’s comedy!” They go:“Ah, I thought William Burroughs was…” No! He’s not! He’s a human being. He’snot an alien! He tells you he’s an alien. We were having a conversation once, William and I were talking about Roy Scheider as Benway in Cronenberg’s film of “The Naked Lunch”. A big disappointment for William and everybody involved on that end of things. It seems to me I recall Cronenberg excusing so much of his bad job on the factthat he was heterosexual. No, funny is funny – and you’re not funny! But I was talking to William about Roy Scheider’s selection as Benway, and William said:“Well, of course the man who Benway was written for has been dead since 1977.” I was thinking: Hmm, it’s not Elvis. Groucho Marx? “Obviously we’ve had thisconversation before!” But that’s it, Benway is Groucho! Yeah. “The nurses snorted up all my cocaine!” “Quick, massage his heart with the plunger!” It makes total sense.
What I find really fascinating about William Burroughs…I liked hiswriting from early on, all that cut-up stuff and things. But towards the end of his life his books became better! “City of the Red Night”, what beautiful writing!
That trilogy - “Cities”, “Place of the Dead Roads”, “The WesternLands” – magnificent!
Did his attitude to heroin – was that in any way helpful in your own dealings with drugs?
We would share insight – you know he respected the appearance as well as the reality of sobriety. A great burden upon him – I’ve heard so many people say: “You know how many junkies there are in the world because of WilliamBurroughs?” And it’s sad to say but there probably are a few. A lot of people thought he was championing it when he was just relating his experiences. We sought a lot of similar remedies, let’s say.
You’ve been free of it for a long time, haven’t you.
Oh, a very long time. I hate to pile everything on Hüsker Dü’s shoulders, but getting out of that environment was a key stone to my survival
They’d kill me if I didn’t ask you one question about Hüsker Dü…
OK – Is There Any Chance Of a, haha!
No, that wasn’t what I was going to ask. But – is that how youremember Hüsker Dü, a totally intense pressure thing that waylaid you?
Really, the last two years, situations that were pretty much because of people – not necessarily working with Warner Brothers, but working along with Warner Brothers – the Judases in the world that came into their positions through really strange roads but have a certain amount of influence anyway –there’s some terrible people in the music industry. And there’s so many people who have the same deal with so many people that - they say they’re looking after you when they’re playing all these different people against you, and what is going to be the most profitable thing for them, that’s what they’re going to do. There are music attorneys that’d throw their own clients under the bus because they’re also the music attorneysfor someone who wants to screw them. I would have to say that the removal of integrity from the big picture made for a very insecure environment for me to be an artist in. And I know that the results were not as immediate, but the same for Bob. People he thought were working for his best interest, that he ended up having some major major complaints with. Thank God there’s the good old days to think about. But, you know, they have discovered that a great percentage of negative memories are because the way the situation you’re remembering ended was negative. You look back at the whole thing being a negative experience just because it ended in a negative way. But when I think specifically at certain times and things - WELLworth it!