Macdara Conroy talks literature, legacies and reunions with Grant Hart, who plays a four-date Irish tour this month.
Grant Hart shouldn’t need any introduction. As drummer, vocalist and co-songwriter with the legendary Hüsker Dü – alongside guitarist/singer/songwriter Bob Mould and bassist Greg Norton – he helped cement the legacy of Black Flag’s SST label while pioneering the genre that came to be known as alternative rock, though it didn’t really have a name till Nirvana broke the mainstream in 1991. Despite signing to a major for their last two albums, Hüsker Dü didn’t survive long enough to reap the spoils, the band imploding three years before amid much acrimony fuelled by that great scourge of the music business, drug abuse.
Less a creative partnership than a duality, the yin and yang of Hart and Mould divided even further in their post-Hüskers careers. Mould moved from angst angst-ridden solo work to the muscular power-pop of Sugar, came out of the closet and dived headfirst into the club scene. Meanwhile, Hart befriended Beat Generation writer William S Burroughs (among other unique literary figures) and returned to SST for his classic solo debut Intolerance, before leading his own overlooked alt-rock trio Nova Mob for much of the ’90s. A second solo effort, Good News for Modern Man, appeared in 1999, followed by stints in Patti Smith’s backing band and his own frequent low-key tours, writing poetry, making art and pursuing his interests in classic cars.
2009 saw him back on the musical radar with the critically lauded Hot Wax, made partly in collaboration with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and A Silver Mt Zion. And 2013 brings the delayed release of his new double album The Argument, based on Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Like its predecessor, it’s brimming with his trademark 1960s-inspired power pop and psychedelia, the same qualities that make even his earliest tunes sound timeless.
Ahead of his upcoming four-date Irish tour, Hart talks to MacDara Conroy about his new record, his distaste for band reunion mid-lifers, his squabbles with Bob Mould, and why he’s stopped playing one of his best known songs.
Your new album The Argument was expected earlier this year, but it’s finally due out in the new year. Why the hold-up?
Last year I was hoping to land a deal with the only label I wished to work with, Domino. I had the option of working with my own label, Con d’Or, but we did not have the oomph that the record deserved. At SXSW we actually distributed a thousand buttons with the words ‘Grant Hart-The Argument 2012’ on them. Hope was running high, but so were the stakes. A pharaoh must complete his pyramid in his lifetime if it is to be his for eternity. As an artist I am constantly erecting dolmens and obelisks and hot-dog stands to ensure my immortality and thus my godliness. After initiating a chain of e-mails I needed to come to a concrete understanding with Domino. They worked with me from that point on [and] the contract that was signed in September this year.
One of the things I tried to do with the album was to remove as much of the Christian content as possible. I did not want the obstacles of faith. I wanted to tell a human story or a story humans can relate to. I think Milton was ‘speaking’ to us with a tongue firmly planted in his cheek. It is a story about Milton’s times using the Old Testament as a cover. Science versus religion, commoner versus king, fact versus fiction. Milton took a great personal risk. Anyway, the fucking thing took longer than I thought it would.
Can you elaborate on the background behind the new record? What motivated you to take on that task?
A close friend of mine was William S Burroughs’s secretary and indispensable friend. I was paying him a visit. On the table was a stapled sheaf of papers. “What’s this?” I asked, recognising Bill’s longhand. It was a treatment of Paradise Lost that William had spent very little time with in the early ’90s. James, my friend, was going through some of William’s unpublished stuff hoping to find something that would work on stage a la The Black Rider. James then went on to mention people he thought might be able to do the music. Each name he mentioned made me cringe. Well-known people, gay, but not in anyway ‘Burroughsian’. I stopped reading William’s writing right then. I wanted to go forth free of any possibilities of influence. A couple years later, when I finally read Lost Paradise by WSB, I was pleased with how much they had in common.
What are you doing for the cover art?
The cover art is a from space photo of a von Kármán vortex.
You’re taking a full band with you on this tour ahead of the album release. Have you been playing with them for long? What change does it make for you from playing solo?
I have known Colm [O’Herlihy of Cork band Remma, who supported Hart on his previous Irish tour] for a few years and have wanted to get him involved with my live work. I love playing with a band but I hate the position of ‘leading’ a band. I don’t feel like myself doing some of the tasks involved. I am hoping that we find a symbiosis. I think I have put more in his hands for this tour just to see what he is capable of. I respect him. We will rehearse for a week when I reach your country. Colm and I get along well and I am looking forward to this. I really cannot see myself in a group with a few people my age with mortgages and kids and no inspiration or amazement left in them. The big difference is I can’t just go up there on stage and play what I feel like and shorten or add to songs as the whim suits me. Basically, unless a group has been together for a while they kind of have to stick to the set list and not deviate from the rehearsed arrangements. But you can deliver the songs with greater power and volume.
On your previous visit to Ireland you played material from throughout your songbook, but it was refreshing to hear the older material interpreted in a different style. Was that just because it fit the mood of the moment, or something more deliberate on your part?
It could be like drinking a cup of coffee while you are on a long drive. You need to get some place but you want to be awake while you are behind the wheel. When you are on tour playing even your newest material gets old. I do not intend to make my live performances like the mint makes pennies. I want each one to be as engaging to me as to the audience. This is why so many people record them. I take risks and they often come crashing down as interesting failures. I like to try new combinations. If the day ever comes when the shows are predictable I will find a more stimulating thing to do with my artistry.
I discovered something that I think is pretty funny: whenever I have one of those ‘crashing failures’ or when I say something stupid on stage or screw something up, I directly start playing an old Hüsker Dü song. There is no contingency plan, it is simply my way of saying ‘Sorry about that. Here, let me make it up to you.’
Of all the songs that you’ve written, is there a favourite that you always go back to, whether to play or to listen to?
Many lovers claim ‘Green Eyes‘ [from Husker Du’s 1985 album Flip Your Wig] as their song. It would have to be that one.
Gorman Bechard is making a documentary on your life and career [the Kickstarter-funded Every Everything]. How is that coming along? What kind of input did you have into that?
I hear that the documentary is going fine. I have a hands-off philosophy about it. Documentaries and snapshots and bootlegs are things that should be out of the control of the subject. I do have final edit approval, so I can continue to hide in plain sight. I did not have questions beforehand. As you will eventually see it is pretty much monologue.
You’ve said before that working with the guys from Godspeed! You Black Emperor on your most recent album Hot Wax meant that you didn’t resort to “a bank of distorted guitars, layering of guitars and keyboards“. What’s behind the temptation to do that? Did working with Godspeed bring you out of your shell in some respect?
Working with Godspeed was an experiment that I wish I would have handled differently. I played my cards very close to my vest and now I wish I would have spent more time getting comfortable with them and the situation. I was too paranoid about the situation. If I had moved to Montreal and the relationship had grown more organically and then we made a record, the results would have been different. It is still a record that I am proud of. I also feel a bit guilty because while I was a thousand or so miles from home, my mother had a fall and fell into the hands of a corrupt nursing home. Three months after she died the manager of the nursing home was sentenced to federal prison as a result of investigations I made happen.
That nursing home incident sounds awful, it shouldn’t happen to anyone. I can imagine something like that can make you perhaps lose sight of what you were hoping to achieve with the making of Hot Wax?
It made it impossible for me to finish the record in Montreal. On the bright side, I started working with Mike Wisti, who engineered The Argument about half in Montreal, half in Minneapolis.
How much of yourself do you put into what you do? What I mean is, are you inseparable from the music you make or the art you create? Or is it a different you that we hear on record or see on stage?
Perhaps the best answer I can give to that question is… if an artist is honest and is not trying to come off as something they are not, then they are putting as much of their self into the songs they write as they can. I stopped playing the song ‘Diane’ [based on the real-life murder of waitress Diane Edwards, sung from the perspective of her killer] because I could no longer stand putting on the mask of a monster. A book came out about one of Diane Edwards’ murderer’s other victims and it made me physically sick. There was not as much info about the Edwards murder as this other girl’s. The cruelty that this psychopath confessed to made me bloody-minded myself.
Getting back to Ireland for a moment: do you feel any connection with Ireland’s literary history? I know Mike Watt is a big fan of James Joyce. Are those literary interests – his in Joyce, yours in the Beats – something you might have shared back in the SST days?
As mentioned before, I was friends with Bill Burroughs, and through him I met a couple of other writers like Charles Plymell. I read very little fiction and even less poetry. It is the friendship that leads others to think I am deeply into the genre. It was actually my unfamiliarity with WSB’s work that allowed our growth as friends. When we were first introduced I had read Junky and Naked Lunch and some of his magazine stuff. He once asked me “Why are you the only one around me that tries to make me laugh?” or something very close to that. I realised that most younger people he met were experts and came prepared and there was a missing element. It is one thing to be respectful but people treated him like he was this celebrity who changed the way people looked at the world. Even though he was.
Back in them old days Mike [Watt] and I talked about punk rock, about a lot of things, but I can’t remember any literary discussions. I must confess I have read little Joyce but coincidentally I just purchased a biography of him to see if he is worth reading. I expect he is. Please realise that my father was born on a farm in Wisconsin and the son of a sharecropper. He was too lazy to be a farmer and luckily the war put him through college. Most of the books in my home were drafting textbooks. No fiction. But thank God for the encyclopaedias. I consumed them like a termite consumes a dead tree.
Do you feel affinity with people like Mike Watt or other SST artists, Jack Brewer and the like, who kept on going? I mean the ones who didn’t break up after having their time in the ’80s, then reunite for the nostalgia circuit.
I have a strong affinity for Watt, none for the ‘let’s get the band together’ mid-lifers.
In an interview some years ago you mentioned losing the master tapes to Good News for Modern Man, which is a real shame – it saddens me that so many people have never heard songs like ‘You Don’t Have To Tell Me Now’. Did you ever have any progress in finding those?
Another coincidence: just this week I discovered the half-inch master tapes, but no 24-track two-inch.
Are you afraid of losing your musical legacy? It’s disappointing that the SST records are hard to get these days if at all; maybe digitally, but it’s not the same as seeing the reissues and remasters of classic records that come out all the time.
The day of reckoning is fast approaching for SST. But apart from that part of your question I do not understand how I can lose my ‘musical legacy’. Any music that was ever broadcast is right now heading further into space at light speed. That old devil Henry Ford built the Model T and sold a bunch of them really cheap. From the beginning people made jokes about them and did not consider them to be ‘real’ cars. It has been 80 years since the last one was built. But if you needed a part for one, any part, you could have it tomorrow.
On the question of ‘musical legacy’, I think I mean it in terms of the listener rather than the artist. You know what you’ve done, you lived it and you made it, but others may not get the chance to hear it if the recordings become less available. Maybe it’s more annoying to fans that all these big ’80s indie reissues are happening, for REM or whoever, but there’s none for Zen Arcade?
I’m really not worried about the mass-nostalgia kind of remembrance. If they do not know my work all’s the better, really. I abhor embraces from them. My memorial is built.
I was very happy to learn that you rescued your cats from that terrible house fire last year [two rooms were gutted at the house in South St Paul, Minnesota that has been in the Hart family since 1919]. How are they doing?
The night of the fire, one of the firemen told me he had seen a black cat running away from him. No shit? You come into a burning house spraying cold water around and the cat doesn’t come up and rub against your leg? Anyway, Bozo, who is white-and-black, was found that evening hiding inside an upright bass fiddle. I saw his whiskers poking out of the f-holes. He got inside but could not get out. He was an easy catch. Sno-ball, who is 100% black, was a bit more tricky. I spread food out for him in a pattern on the floor so I could tell if he was eating it while I was away. He was, but the trauma was so bad that it took five days to get him to my new home.
They both got warm baths as soon as they got ‘home’. Bozo left the water pretty clear; Sno-ball dirtied up two tubfuls but he shined like onyx when dry. When he was born Sno-ball had a large sub-dermal infection that was as big as his head. I told my mother that I thought he needed to be euthanised. I had raw ether in the garage and it would have been okay for him. But it was not okay with mom. She asked to have a try and after hot compresses and some minor cutting I was able to deliver him to mother’s waiting hands. He misses her very much as do I. We concocted a salve with green tea oil and some antibiotics held in place with vaseline and he responded wonderfully. I have always been interested in medicine and the healing arts. I was chronically ill as a child and also experienced several broken bones and flesh wounds. I have been lucky since the Nova Mob accident of the early ’90s.
Did that accident change your mindset at all in terms of being on the road?
It takes a while to get that kind of horror out of your mind. I spent a long time trying to visualise it while I was awake. All the while I would see it in my dreams, then it would disappear from my mind. Fortunately the accident happened on a day off. You just have to be more aware. The fault for our accident was on the driver of the other vehicle. That makes it easier.
At this stage, is the thing between you and Bob Mould more a construction of the media narrative around Hüsker Dü than anything you ever think about on a given day? It seems to be something that the music press or fans keep bringing up (and I guess I’m being guilty of that too).
Bob Mould was, is, and will remain my business partner. We both think the implications of a reunion make it an impossibility, but if we were to work with each other again it would not be long before I started to hold him down and to attempt shady, shabby dealings behind his back. Eventually he would reach a point in his life where he would have to choose between his own happiness and satisfaction, and our musical partnership. I would then try everything in my power to cause him the most, the worst damage I possibly could. It’s my way, you see, or the highway.
I’ve read Mould’s autobiography, and your previous response is a pretty spot-on description of his portrayal of himself. One line that jumped out at me was where he says he ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’, which is always a red flag statement to me. Maybe it’s better to be one of the fools?
You must be a fool to do what I do. I have to make no explanations because I am simply a fool. Whereas Bob constantly has to prove he is not a fool. Good luck on that, Bob.
Bob has been pretty scathing of Greg Norton in his book, too, which is something you’ve been accused of being in recent interviews. How do you respond to that?
Greg is an old friend of mine. All of my old friends are assholes – no, I’m kidding. Greg took it pretty easy when it came to the things one has to do to be in a band. A lucky man; wants to be a deciding vote in most cases and I don’t like that kind of shit.
Grant Hart tours Ireland shortly, playing Bourke’s in Limerick (13th December), Whelan’s in Dublin (14th), Debarra’s in Clonakilty (16th) and Cyprus Avenue in Cork (17th).